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The rapid growth of civilization in the 20th century was faster and more impressive than at any other time in the history of the world. In only a few hundred years, we learned how to split the atom and send a man to the moon. We made rapid advances in social progress, science, and technology.

Now in the 21st century, we are contemplating the feasibility of going to Mars, attempting to break the code of the human genome, and dreaming about building an Internet of Things where our interconnected computing devices can talk directly to each other.

Yet many of these astonishing breakthroughs in human progress would never have been possible without the innovative use of bronze, iron, and steel in a variety of things throughout history. In fact, we are now at a point where we are fine-tuning our use of metals to work even better than before. For one thing, forward thinking manufacturers are using wear plate technology to protect machines and equipment and reduce the high cost of wear and tear. For another, we are now actively seeking alternative energy sources for our dependence on polluting fossil fuels.

A Brief History of Bronze, Iron, and Steel

Let’s take a brief look at history to appreciate the vital role certain key metals have played in the development of civilization.

Humans began to produce iron around 2000 BCE in the Caucasus region in Asia. Iron, when alloyed with carbon, was far superior to the bronze which had been traditionally used for weapons and tools. It was harder. It lasted longer. And it made it possible to create a much sharper edge. The Iron Age lasted for more than 3,000 years.

However, around CE 1870, iron, the metal that had played such a significant role in building the civilizations of Europe and Asia and Africa, was supplanted by steel.

Steel is harder than iron because it has a carbon content that ranges from 0.5% to 1.5%. However, while stronger than wrought iron it’s not brittle like cast iron. In other words, it’s hard but also somewhat flexible. This property of tensile strength made steel much useful than iron.

By comparison to wrought iron, steel was harder, more durable, and produced an even sharper edge; and by comparison to cast iron, steel could withstand shock and resist tension much better.

The Evolution of Cheaper, Better Steel

Although steel was superior to iron, it was not until the invention of the Bessemer converter in the middle of the 19th century that steel was produced more abundantly. Until then manufacturing steel was not cost effective. The primary difficulty in making steel was that it was not easy to get the right carbon levels in iron to convert it into steel. Consequently, the production and use of steel was limited.

However, once a way had been found to make cheap, high-quality steel, the rapid growth of railroads became possible. Prior to this time, railroads used wrought iron rails. But since this was a softer metal it wasn’t durable. On long, busy railroad stretches, they had to be replaced every month or two.

In America, Andrew Carnegie was one of the first pioneering industrialists to realize the enormous benefits of making rails out of steel. He understood that the best way to make steel was to combine the uses of chemistry, the Bessemer converter, and the open-hearth process.

The Everyday Marvels of the Industrial Age

Cheap steel made the industrial age possible. It served to make the trains, ships, cars, and planes of the transportation industry. It contributed to developing the tractors and plows of agriculture. It supplied the construction industry with cranes and bulldozers, as well as with screws, nails, drill bits, nuts and bolts. And it made it possible for the mass production of household appliances like washing machines, clothes dryers, refrigerators, and dishwashers.

It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to live in a world without steel knives, forks, and scissors; to shave without steel razors; or to go for surgery to a hospital that didn’t use the sharpest steel surgical instruments.

The Story of Civilization

Many advances in human progress can be traced back to the use of three primary metals: bronze, iron, and steel. Civilization experienced a growth spurt when iron replaced bronze, when steel replaced iron, and when cheaper, high quality steel replaced more expensive, lower quality steel. We take for granted that we owe much of everything we value around us to the slow development of metal forming and machining.