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04/23/2019

Beyond The Iron Age (Like, Way Beyond)

If you read my last blog, From Bronze to The Iron Age, you may still be recovering from our wild ride. Over the course of some 700 or so words, we sailed through Mediterranean jetties and beyond, where the introduction of iron left us with revolutionary innovations alongside smoldering empires and a catastrophic (if impermanent) imprint on ancient trade. If memory serves me right, we nodded off somewhere around the Mediterranean, or North Africa, or possibly even the Middle East or Eurasia; which brings us to the only logical question: what happened next?

Employing the kind of broad strokes that only a non-academic is capable of getting away with (and hopefully forgiven for), I’m going to sail right through Ancient History and the Middle Ages to arrive at a destination closer to all of us: the Modern Era.

They’re Some Mad Men

Roughly covering the years from 1500 to 1800 (and change), the Modern Era brought with it an extraordinary number of discoveries – including most of the metals known to us today.

Consider this: There are 84 metals and 7 metalloids on the periodic table. That’s 91 in total. Before the Modern Era however, we only had around 10 metals in total. We went for ages (no pun intended) with sporadic discoveries of new metals, then years with nothing when, whammo! The Age of Enlightenment dawned. After being cooped up for years in clandestine laboratories and held back by religious restrictions, mad scientists everywhere rejoiced as they were free to reduce, isolate and extract their hearts out; changing our worldview even more dramatically than when we met Don Draper in the first episode of Mad Men.

In fact, the whole of the 1700s is one big heavy metal concert. Platinum was found in South America in 1735, while cobalt was first discovered by a Swedish chemist named Georg Brandt in 1739. Magnesium burst onto the scene in 1755 by way of Scottish chemist Joseph Black, manganese in 1774, chromium in 1794, and nickel in 1751. And that’s just for starters. Meanwhile, as our knowledge of metals was expanding exponentially, those who had been working with old faithful (AKA: iron) continued to perfect their techniques, causing a great deal of economic stress for whoever was lacking the technology.

Badly Named Papers Providing Good Information

Central Europe was the heart of early modern mining and smelting. But, by the early 1700s Britain had emerged as a major player. Metals and those who had the ability to work with them became a crucial component of its overall economy, which continued to grow more robust. Northerners like the Swedes lagged behind, both because of the increasingly superior British products, but also due to wartime blockades. As a result, they often made long sojourns to the island in an attempt to glean information on British metalworking.

In a wonderfully interesting paper bearing the unfortunate name, The Enlightenment, Industrial Development and the Industrial Enlightenment – Questions about a Useful Knowledge in Iron Making, authors Chris Evans and Göran Rydén bring an interesting perspective to the subject. “Henry Cort’s puddling and rolling technique, brought to perfection in South Wales in the early 1790s, swept across Britain, allowing for an epochal expansion in the production of malleable bar iron… The Swedish visitors who continued to tour Britain in these years could hardly ignore the coal technology revolution. Nor did they. The hugely successful application of mineral energy in British forges was a phenomenon that charcoal-dependent Swedes had to confront and understand.”

More Unfortunately Named Papers

It’s interesting to think of the ways that metals have changed our world. But metals alone are not responsible — it was the discovery of technologies that allowed us to produce metals in vast quantities and with increasingly excellent quality that revolutionized our world.

In an exploration of the subject, the John Hopkins University Press published a paper titled, An Enlightenment in Steel? Innovation in the Steel Trades of Eighteenth-Century Britain. The article provides humbling insights into more than metals. It is, in many a way, a record of our shared human history.

In answering their own questions such as, “…in what way did ‘Venice or German steel’ set the benchmark for hardness?” authors Chris Evans and Alun Withey realize they must delve deeply into the past. “It is a world that is easily overlooked, because before the advent of bulk-production technologies in the mid-nineteenth century…steel was produced in small quantities and at some cost. After 1850 steel became an inexpensive, generic industrial input, the very fabric of modernity.”

Sailing On

We will soon return from this Modern Era to the familiar skyscrapers, airplanes, high-speed trains and electric cars of our present. But not quite yet. We have one more quick stop to make along the way, in an era known as the Industrial Revolution; because without knowing where we’ve been, we can’t see where we’re going.

Cesar Lopez

Cesar Lopez
President & CEO