Who Invented Stainless Steel?
The most common answer to the question of who invented stainless steel is usually “Harry Brearley” however, in reality the answer to this question regarding stainless steel may not be so clear cut.
There has always been an on-going race between people in order to uncover and announce brand new, innovative technologies. These people want their names stamped on a discovery and the competition can get very competitive; it is this passion and pride which can result in some claiming others discoveries and passing them off as their own.
Unless you can categorically prove that you were the pioneer behind an amazing invention or an incredible finding then others can still dispute the fact and this is what brings us to the not so clear cut answer of the question, who invented stainless steel?
Firstly when we discuss this it is important to note that the term “inventor” is very loose, what is it we define as an “inventor”? Is it the person who first thought of the idea, the person who first documented the idea, the person who got the patent for the idea or even the person who produced the idea?
Secondly the actual name “stainless steel” wasn’t actually defined until 1911 and prior to this there was chromium-iron alloys which didn’t meet the minimum requirement of 10.5% chromium but they still held some level of corrosion resistance and so this is hard to just simply push to one side.
There have been a number of people from a number of countries who have tried to be labelled the inventor of stainless steel however; the argument was set into motion when Stoddard and Farraday who were two Englishmen and then Pierre Berthier noticed in 1821 that iron-chromium alloys were more resistant to attack.
Tests were then carried out on low chromium alloys and then higher chromium alloys were attempted to be produced but at this initial stage the importance of low carbon content wasn’t understand and thus production failed.
Then it was in 1872 when Woods and Clark filed for a patent of an acid and weather resistant allow which contained 30-35% chromium and 2% tungsten. This would be the first ever patent on what is now considered stainless steel.
In 1875 Frenchman, Brustlein detailed the importance of low carbon content being a key factor in the successful creation of stainless steel. He said that in order to create an alloy with a high percentage of chromium the carbon content needs to remain below 0.15%.
Two decades went by in which scientists attempted to develop stainless steel and they tried creating low carbon stainless steel but no attempts were successful. But it was in 1895 when Hans Goldschmidt of Germany then developed the aluminothermic reduction process which would produce carbon-free chromium and it was at this point when stainless steel became a reality.
In 1904 Leon Guillet carried out extensive research on iron-chromium allows and thus he came up with compositions of what is now known as 410, 420, 442, 446 and 440-c. following this in 1906 he then analysed iron-nickel-chrome alloys which provided the basis for the 300 series which we have today. He never documented the potential corrosion of the above materials.
In 1911, the importance of minimum chromium content was discovered by Monnartz and Borchers. They noted the correlation and relationship between chromium content and corrosion resistance and thus produced detailed works on this.
In 1871 this was where Harry Brearley was introduced and in 1912 he was given the task of prolonging the life of gun barrels which were eroding too quickly. He was on a mission to find erosion resistant steel and not a corrosion resistant one; he experimented with steel alloys containing chromium.
On the 13th August 1913 Harry created a steel with 12.8% chromium and 0.24% carbon it is this which has been argued to be the first ever stainless steel. There are a number of myths which have since arisen concerning Harry’s tests against corrosion however in reality he had to etch his steels with nitric acid and then examine them using a microscope.
Their resistance to corrosion was noted as were the resistance to attacks from acid and he recognised the potential for this steel; he noted that it would be ideal within the cutlery industry. His current employer at this stage wouldn’t support him and thus he went to produce his new steel at a local cutler.
Within three weeks he perfected a hardening process for knifes and named the invention “rustless steel” however his friend Stuart named it “stainless steel” and since the name has stuck. It isn’t all that simple though because during the five year period between 1908 and the discovery in 1913 other scientists had potential claims to his title.
It was a combined effort by all scientists and metallurgists which has created such a rich and versatile metal right at our fingertips and it is safe to say we will never solve the speculation behind who discovered stainless steel.