History of Metalworking

Any time that one form of metal is manipulated or changed into another form, it is called “fabrication”, whereas metalworking also includes merely changing the shape of a metal.Birth of the Universe by Renaissance Man

This article will begin exploring something many of us will remember touching on in middle school, but may have forgotten and would enjoy a refresher: The History of Metalworking.

We’ll take the point of view that humankind are responsible for the development, but we’re open to the idea that it was aliens, who are using the Earth as a storage area for specimens or slaves from around the galaxy.

Of course the first thing that needed to happen was the discovery of metal, and there is controversy as to whether the first metal to be discovered was an iron ore from a meteorite, or gold, as suggested by the famous writer Isaac Asimov, which due to the unique chemical characteristics is found in nature as pure nuggets, meaning that no technology is need to separate the ore from surrounding rock. Gold is soft and malleable enough to be workable with tools of stone, bone, wood or sinew, which is also the property which prevents its use as a tool and the first objects fabricated from gold were decorative.

Gold has been a valuable precious metal for coinage, jewelry, and other arts since long before the beginning of recorded history, and although the Egyptians are thought to have been one of the earliest civilizations to work gold, the earliest “well-dated” treasures were found in Bulgaria and date back to 5,000 BC, and the earliest substantiated and dated evidence of metalworking were found in Serbia, dating from between 5500 BC and 5000, and in Wisconsin, near Lake Michigan, dated to about 4000-5000 BC. Copper was hammered until brittle then heated so it could be further shaped.

Smelting – the process through which a metal is extracted from it’s ore by heating – is likely to have preceded the working of lead and copper by 1500 years in 6500 BC, the time at which lead beads found in Turkey have been dated. Since this would have been several thousand years before the written word, there is no record of the process and it may well have happened by accident; the heat generated by a wood fire would be enough to smelt lead or tin.

So how does this all tie in with stainless steel staircases? Give us a few thousand years.

The Bronze Age

Bronze Mask by Renaissance Man
Bronze Mask by Renaissance Man

Lead and tin were too soft to be useful as tools or weapons or to cast as structural elements – although the ancient Greeks and Romans did have the unfortunate inspiration to cast lead for use in the storage and piping of water – and it wasn’t until 4200 BC (remember we’re coating down to 1BC) in Asia Minor that by combining copper with tin (and/or arsenic), Bronze, the first alloy was created. Still undocumented, it’s likely that this was also an accidental discovery due to naturally occurring arsenic or tin contamination within copper ore, but the temperature at which copper smelts is about 200 °C higher than that of an open wood fire, so it is conjectured that this would have been in a pottery kiln. It is documented that by the year 2000 BC arsenic-bearing minerals and tin were being mined for the purpose of creating bronze.

Bronze was hard enough to be used in the creation of weapons like swords, spear heads and knives as well as armor and shields and soon began replacing wood and stone in tools and household items like forks, knives, jugs, chisels, sewing needles and cooking pots.

The Iron Age

While tin, copper and even bronze can be hammered into shape cold or using simple ovens, iron smelting requires very hot, specialized ovens heated by coal and later it’s derivative coke, and the iron itself can only be worked or cast at extremely high temperatures. It was thousands of years into bronze metallurgy before techniques of working Iron were developed. It is still a mystery where and when iron smelting was developed, but archeological finds point to the Middle East in the 3rd millennium BC.

Although there are iron artifacts made from meteoritic iron-nickel that date back to the 5th millennium BC in Iran, it was by the end of the 2nd millennium – about three thousand year ago – that iron was being produced from South Saharan Africa to China. And though the use of wrought iron was known in the 1st millennium BC, it was between 900 and 500 BC that bronze instruments were replaced by iron ones and we were into the Iron Age.

After being smelted, iron was either wrought in a forge or cast into utilitarian objects ranging from structural material to weapons and household items. Development of the technique is attributed to the Hittites of Anatolia, in the area currently occupied by Syria and Lebanon.

Iron technology advanced through Europe, India, Asia, Africa and the Medieval Islamic world through to 1500 AD with the development of the Powered Bloomery, Blast Furnace, Osmond Process and Finery Process until the early sixteen hundreds when the process was developed by which iron was diffused with carbon, creating steel.


This process, with a few developments, remained in use until 1855 when Henry Bessemer introduced a process which would, by reducing carbon content, refine the iron even further creating a product which was harder and restart to rust, which lead to the second Industrial Revolution. This process, followed by it’s successor, the basic oxygen process (developed in 1952) made steel processing inexpensive, and ultimately alloy steels and (by the 1920’s) carbon steel replaced wrought iron in the marketplace.

Much of the information in the above article was derived from memory and using search engine and wikipedia research so please feel free to comment or offer suggestions, additional information or corrections.

2 responses to “History of Metalworking

  1. Very interesting. I would love to read further in more detail.
    Do you know the origins or dating as to when the metal working process of “metal spinning” was developed and how it evolved? Any suggestions?


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