A Brief History of Metal Fabrication: the Early Days

November 7, 2017 6:25 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Gather around, one and all, because it’s time for a history lesson.

You may be asking yourself, “What is this? School? I graduated years ago. I don’t need a history lesson.” And to that, I ask in return: Where’s your natural curiosity, dear reader? The desire to learn for learning’s sake? Expand those horizons!

What is Metal Fabrication or Metallurgy anyway?

The topic this week is metallurgy: a fun word that encompasses a few different things. It refers to the school of materials science and engineering that studies the behavior of metals, as well as the technology of producing and manipulating them: a process of extracting usable materials from ores, then mixing these metals to create alloys. Metallurgy comes in two different flavors: ferrous and non-ferrous. The first deals with the use of iron exclusively, while the second encompasses all other metals.

Given its near-omnipotence across the globe as a cornerstone of social and cultural development, the evolution of metallurgy is a very long and wide-spanning one. So as not to keep you too long, let’s just cover the basics: in this case, its origins in the Stone Age and earliest advancements.

Metals from Outer Space – like gold, silver, copper, tin & iron, oh my!

The metals known to be the earliest utilized by man included gold, silver, copper, tin, and the iron found in meteorites: for a long time the only usable source of iron. Since these minerals can be found in a “natural” state that doesn’t require extraction, no real technique was needed to make use of them, and this primitive mining dates back to the late Paleolithic period and 40,000 BC.

The simplest metallurgic processes that could extract ore from raw material have been traced to archaeological sites throughout Serbia and are estimated to originate from some time between 4000 to 6000 BC. This initial process was what we now know as smelting, which allows certain metals (most commonly tin, lead, and copper at more extreme temperatures) to be drawn from their ore through the basic heating rocks in a furnace. The earliest evidence of the more advanced procedure of copper smelting — a copper ax produced around 5500 BC — comes from the Vinča culture of Southeastern Europe.

Signs of these base metals and their use in smelting during the same general period are found in numerous locations across Europe, making the ultimate beginnings of the craft difficult to pinpoint. The earliest manipulations of lead (which possibly predated copper smelting) has been attributed to the Yarim Tepe settlement in Iraq, while sites from the third millennium BC like Palmela (in Portugal), Los Millares (Spain), and Stonehenge (the United Kingdom) have uncovered additional traces of the method.

When did people start combining metals?

It wasn’t until around 3500 BC that it was discovered that metals could be combined to form new, superior materials: in this case, bronze from copper and tin. This led to the dawning of the Bronze Age, which took the eastern world out of the Stone Age and gave rise to the earliest features of urban civilization. This was followed by the Iron Age around 1200 BC when the Hittites discovered the process of extracting and manipulating iron. Meteoric iron had been used by man since as early as 3200 BC but was understandably rare. Widespread production did not occur until the ability to smelt iron ores and remove its impurities was developed.

We’re running long here, so let’s wrap up. In the years since this period, developments in both ferrous and non-ferrous metallurgy have been discovered by numerous cultures and civilizations across the globe, including those of Iran, Egypt, China, India, Japan, and the Greek and Roman empires. China proved particularly key in this evolution, being the source of innovations such as the blast furnace, cast iron, the hydraulic trip hammer, and the piston bellows: inventions that have evolved and continue to be used today.

There you have it, then: a (very) general look at how metallurgy came to be. We’ve come a long way since then, haven’t we? I hope that you took notes, as there will be a test on Thursday. Yes, the “learning for learning’s sake” bit at the beginning there was a lie. Sorry.

Have more questions? Need some metal fabricated? Know a cool fact about metallurgy? Drop us comment below or contact us today.

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