[b-hebrew] Iron and Steel

Harold R. Holmyard III hholmyard at ont.com
Thu May 27 08:19:01 EDT 2004

Dear David,

>Just a technical note, iron and steel are quite different. 
>King David may have had iron weapons but he almost
>certainly did not have steel.  Iron must be "steeled" with
>certain alloys by specific processes that were certainly
>not available in the early iron age.

HH: You are probably right, but the ancients did apparently make some 
steel. See the fourth and fifth paragraphs below:

The early iron smiths (probably being Hethites [Hittites] of some 
form) could "wring" the iron from this bloom by separating the iron 
from the rest mechanically and repeatedly hammering together what was 
left at high temperatures (about 800 oC; some of the slag then is 
liquid and gets squeezed out) with, no doubt, proper prayers to the 
respective gods and many (magical) tricks.

What they finally obtained was "wrought iron" ("Schmiedeeisen"), i.e. 
a lump of rather pure iron consisting of welded together small pieces 
with plenty of small inclusions (small, because of the hammering that 
breaks up large pieces of slag).

Extreme care was necessary - from the selection of the iron ore, the 
reduction process and the hammering business. If you were careless, 
the iron oxidized again (it really "burns" at temperatures in excess 
of about 800 oC), and if you kept your reduction process going too 
long, carbon diffuses in and you may end up with cast iron (C content 
about 3% - 4%; melting point as low as 1130 0C). Then you actually 
got it liquid - "casting" was possible - but cast iron is brittle and 
useless (for weapons, that is)
Somewhat later, with larger furnaces and increased experience, the 
bloom obtained may have contained some high-carbon melted parts on 
its top layer. It then consisted of a whole range of iron-carbon 
alloys - from rather pure wrought iron to cast iron with good steel - 
say 0,5 % - 1,5% carbon - in between. The art of the smith than 
included to pick the right pieces. This was a highly developed skill, 
we know about it especially from Japan; but that does not mean that 
the Kelts or others did not do it just as well.
But beware. The art of making iron and steel, developed over 2000 
years in many civilizations, cannot be contained in a few lines, not 
to mention that very little is known about that story - iron, after 
all, rusts (see the link showing an old sword), and not much has been 
found that gives detailed knowledge about how the old Romans, Indian, 
Chinese, etc., made their steel and iron products.

Nevertheless - the early smiths, starting with the Greek god 
Hephaistos (the roman Volcanos) and containing many fabulous figures 
like the Nordic "Wieland the smith" or "Mime" in Wagners "Ring des 
Nibelungen," could produce articles, especially swords, from the iron 
bloom that were much better than the customary bronze stuff (and than 
of course "Magical" swords). In other words, they sometimes succeeded 
in making good steel.

				Harold Holmyard

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