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The Entire History of Steel (popularmechanics.com)
104 points by Reedx 73 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 34 comments



For anyone in Europe I can recommend a visit to Völklingen Hütte (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V%C3%B6lklingen_Ironworks). I went there last year on holiday in Germany.

It's an old iron factory built into a museum. Most parts are open to public and are left in a 'frozen' state since it was closed in '86 (although maintained and sometimes still fully functional). It's a really nice travel in time and insight into an industry of this scale. I remember how parts of the complex seen organised and architected and other parts are just a big mess of pipes and parts that have been added and shoved in over the decades that this factory ran (24/7, all season, without a roof, I might add).


I raise you a Russian city of Cherepovets, the photos don't do it justice, where you see green, yellow, violet snow wherever it isn't just black and the pipes, columns and other stuff of the steel and associated chemical plants go for kilometers along the road and you feel like you're descending to hell. Those moving trains of railroad cars filled with tens of tons of actively burning coals which awash everything around with that red glow...

https://gizmodo.com/5680577/the-chimneys-of-hell-are-in-russ...


Wow. That looks worse than the Ruhr area before they started scrubbing.


Mommy why are the clouds orange?


I think those particular clouds are orange because the sun is setting behind them. It seems unlikely that grey smoke rises up from the chimneys and then suddenly turns orange a bit below the cloud layer.


Being 63 years old and a resident of new england, I have amnesiac longing for the old manufacturing of my youth. It really was a much dirtier environment. I can remember my Dad parking the new Chevy near a factory for a few hours and it was covered with some type of soot. There are still remnents of the old days. Mill comlplexes largley empty and river bottoms with "heavy metal" that is best left undisturbed. 20 years ago, I couldn't conceive the area surviving as a service economy. We have survived and I hope we continue without dirty manufacturing.


It's really pretty nuts - 25 years ago, New England still was studded with shoe shops and textiles and other consumer manufacturing that has since all been outsourced to Bangalesh or Vietnam or wherever. Likewise, there used to be so many paper mills on the major rivers, like the Androscoggin in Maine, that you wouldn't be surprised if you pulled out fish looking like the one on The Simpsons... Or on the Merrimac river, where they are still pulling old cars off the bottom with mafiosos in the trunk.

Now most of those old 19th century mill buildings are transitioning into dorm-like hipster studio apartments.


For those interested in entrepreneurship I highly recommend the autobiography of Henry Bessemer [0], the inventor of the bessemer steel process. He is one of the few inventors who actually got rich from his inventions.

0. https://archive.org/details/sirhenrybessemer00bessuoft


It's interesting how difficult it is to actually make large quantities of quality steel.

On the surface it seems like an easy process to make steel, but it required hundreds of years of gradual technological progress to get to the point where large quantities of consistently decent steel could be manufactured. So many independent inventions and scientific discoveries where required before we could make steel. It's really a material that's taken for granted.

It would be interesting to make a sort of real life tech tree of the inventions required to get to modern steel.


This is true for even very, very simple technology. My favorite example is gunpowder (the smokey kind we don't even use anymore), which requires potassium nitrate, which without modern (c. 19th century) processes you have to a) get lucky and find a cave you can mine/scrape from; or 2) collect manure, pour urine on it for a year, and then scrape off the top and process. It's actually freaking amazing anyone figured out how to do this, even though with hindsight we understand each reaction.


Aluminum as a metal has an interesting history as well[1]. It was flirted with during Pliny the Elder's time, apparently and aluminum salt was known, but an industrial process was not achieved till Napoleon's time --at which time, due to the difficulty in manufacture, was a precious metal.

[1]https://aluminiumleader.com/history/industry_history/


Conversely, it's amazing just how many possibilities opened up once it became cheap and scalable.

Ditto with aluminum, perhaps even more so.


Anyone who liked this submission will enjoy a new engineering blog called Knife Steel Nerds (should be the top result in a search).

It's run by a professional metallurgist and the quality of the articles is outta sight.

They take Patreon funding to get cool samples and stuff to do testing and analysis. It's the real deal. Recommended.


https://knifesteelnerds.com/

Sounds cool, I'll check it out. Thanks.


I watched an amazing documentary, Bethlehem Steel, The People Who Built America [1], that went over the history and the processes involved in making steel as well as the sad decline (and preventable) of the American steel industry. And "The History of the American Steel Industry documentary" [2]

If you have a chance, tour a steel plant, they are amazing places. Nearly all of these location should offer tours

http://www.nucoraccount.com/locations.aspx

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2QTGiHOZZFU

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HcOzvl6KMRM


> as well as the sad decline (and preventable) of the American steel industry

I'm not sure where you get both "sad" and "preventable" from that documentary. The tragic decline of employment in the US steel industry was completely unavoidable.

The decline of American steel company's dominance between 1960 and 1980 might've been preventable, but the human carnage wrought by automation would've happened in any case.

Watching the documentary, you can see the coming storm. Every video of people working is a prelude to an industrial automation project. And it's no mistake that the documentary ends with an acknowledgment that today's steel workers operate a keyboard and mouse.

The most important lesson from steel is that competitive pressures + new ways of automating things = huge disruptions in the labor market (read: lots of poverty where once there was wealth).


Nucor still exists, Bethlehem does not. They sat on their market leadership, had a rudderless and massive management staff. I am talking about the companies, not the workers. Steel is so critical to civilization, it is crazy we lost it as core competency.


Take a look at the steel statistics on pages 5-7 of this report: https://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/historical-statistic...

US apparent steel consumption was 97.8 million tons in 2012, the latest date available. That's a bit lower than the 106 million tons in 1968. American steel consumption has declined about 40% per capita. The US steel industry would have had to ramp up exports very aggressively to remain as large a portion of the US economy as it was in the 1960s.


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interstate_Highway_System

The interstate highway system got passed in 1956. It is now comprised of almost 50,000 miles of highway, and cost almost $500 Billion in todays dollars.

There would have been a whole lot of rebar used in the construction of all the concrete - bridges, overpasses, the concrete sections in Los Angeles and other high volume areas


> American steel consumption has declined about 40% per capita.

I wonder how much of that is from import auto sales? Or an overall drop in civic projects?


It's measuring consumption, so I think that imported goods are included.

My top guesses as to causes would be a reduced pace of building/infrastructure construction, reduced steel content in cars, and cars lasting longer.


For those interested in historical steel production, I'd recommend watching this beautiful documentary from 1945, made by the British Council in postwar Britain.

It shows massive industrial steel plants operated entirely by hand - highly trained teams of men spending their days doing what we'd do with computers, pulling levers and operating wheels to control individual parameters of steel-making machines, and turning out steel made with incredible precision.

The narrator, John Laurie, later became famous for playing Private James Frazer in the UK sitcom Dad's Army.

http://film.britishcouncil.org/steel


I would really like to learn more about manufacturing. Does anyone know how to do this?

There are books out there on hardware startups, but that’s the only thing I’ve seen. Are there any museums, courses, and or paid experiences people recommend in the US?


I work as an engineer in manufacturing, coincidentally to this article I work at an integrated Steelworks. I know our plant has a visitor's center and there is a company that takes tour groups through the site on certain days (mostly school children). I have heard some other sites such as mines and power stations also do tours. Depending on where you live there may be a site nearby that you could visit, nothing like experiencing it first hand.

For books I'd recommend the "Chemical Engineers' Handbook" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perry's_Chemical_Engineers'_Ha...

That's a pretty good general textbook that should give you a lot of fundamentals. We keep a copy in our office and it's well thumbed through.

Anything else I could recommend would be much less general more specialized topic (i.e thermodynamics, fluid dynamics, solid mechanics etc).

Sorry I can't really offer more than that Manufacturing is a hugely broad discipline. To start with maybe consider if you are more interested in primary processing (mining, refining, smelting etc) or secondary processing (turning raw materials into products).


Various museums of science and industry. A library.

There are numerous areas ofmanufacturing. Pick one to begin study.

https://www.worldcat.org/search?q=kw+industrial+engineering&...


You can come intern at my factory in Arizona, no charge :)

I will teach you about laser cutting, robot welding, keeping the supply chain going, and how to make a profit when competing directly with China and India.


Work in manufacturing.



I rarely watch videos all the way through, but this documentary on the making of the premier Viking sword was fascinating. The speculation on how the technology got to Europe and the actual building of an ancient smelter etc. really interested me.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=lspB3QhrW_Q


I enjoyed this long presentation of people who smelt iron in a primitive traditional fashion. https://youtu.be/RuCnZClWwpQ


I have to say this is a superbly well written article. My dad owns a steel mill but I was never quite interested in it. This article has definitely sparked up a curiousity.


This is totally off. Everyone knows steel comes from giants who stole it from stole it from Crom: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKMG-FdCGtM

[downvoters: relax, it's a joke. Get out and watch a movie once in a while]


Sometimes being told which god you belong to makes life easier...

Thanks for posting the clip. It was interesting to see how bad SFX were in a big budget movie from 1982.

I'm a big fan of mythology and how we use it to explain things about our world.


You would probably really enjoy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Power_of_Myth

It is on Netflix. Absolutely wonderfully insightful journey through the different myths of our ancestors.




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