The History of Stainless Steel

Stainless steel is such an ubiquitous material today that it is hard to imagine a world in which it did not exist. In this edition of the BS Stainless blog, we trace the origins and history of stainless steel from their very beginnings right up to the present day.

Almost 230 years ago in 1794, chromium (the crucial alloying element in stainless steel) was isolated by the French chemist Louis Vauquelin, who revealed his discovery to the French Academy four years later in 1798. A series of scientific developments swiftly followed.

Early in the 19th century, a team of British scientists led by Robert Mallet, James Stoddart and Michael Faraday carried out a series of experiments that revealed the strong resistance of iron-chromium alloys to the damaging effects of oxidisation. Soon after, Robert Bunsen (of Bunsen burner fame) further discovered that chromium was also resistant to attack by strong acid solutions. In 1821, French mining engineer and geologist Pierre Berthier was the first to suggest that stainless steel would be ideal for producing cutlery. 

By the 1840s, steelmakers in Sheffield were producing chromium steel as was the German company Krupp, who utilised the material to create cannons. The first patent for chromium steel was registered in Britain in 1861 by metallurgist and entrepreneur Robert Forester Mushet. The early 20th century saw numerous researchers, most notably France's Leon Guillet, creating alloys which today would be considered stainless steel. The first US patent for a martensitic stainless steel alloy was registered in 1912 by inventor Elwood Haynes, though this patent was not granted until seven years later in 1919.

In the same year that Haynes registered his patent, Harry Brearley of Sheffield's Brown-Firth Research Laboratory discovered a martensitic stainless steel alloy (today known as grade 420) while experimenting with alloys with which to produce gun barrels that would resist corrosion. After discovering that Haynes had already registered a patent, the two pooled their resources to form the American Stainless Steel Corporation.

Brearley named the new alloy 'rustless steel' and it was sold under numerous brand names including Staybrite, Allegheny metal and Nirosota steel. In the 1950s and 60s, technological advances including hot strip rolling, continuous casting, cold rolling and the argon-oxygen decarburisation process further improved the many qualities of stainless steel.

Today, stainless steel comes in a wide array of grades and formats and is used for an equally wide scope of applications. Please browse the BS Stainless website to find out more about stainless steel products and their many uses across industry. 

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