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Throwback Thursday: Manufacturing Edition: Mass-Producing Stainless Steel

Today’s Throwback Thursday throws back to the origins of something we all probably take for granted today: Stainless Steel! For this, the world has metallurgist Harry Brearley to thank. Not bad for a boy from Sheffield, England, who left school at 12 years old! Let’s find out more…

Corrosion-resistant Iron-Chromium alloys were first recognised in 1821 by French metallurgist Pierre Berthier, but it wasn’t until 1913 that Harry Brearley discovered a way of mass-producing martensitic Stainless Steel. Brearley came from very humble beginnings, born into a poor family who lived in one room at the back of Spital Street in Sheffield. There were 11 members of the family in total, all under one roof.

Harry Brearley took ‘working your way up the career ladder’ to a whole new level! After leaving school at age 12, he started his career working as a ‘cellar lad’. A couple of years later, he began a job as a bottle washer in the chemical lab at Thomas Firth & Sons, where his father worked as a steel worker. It was here that he studied metallurgy – and learnt very quickly! At 37, Brearley was appointed lead researcher at Firth Laboratories.

Brearley was aware of the battle the metal manufacturing world faced, which was rust and corrosion. In the unstable years leading up to World War I, arms manufacturing in the UK increased, and so Brearley was asked to find a way to make gun barrels more durable. He knew that the new steel would need to be resistant to corrosion by high temperatures, and so he tried adding Chromium to Steel in order to raise the melting point of the material. His research mainly centered around quantifying varying levels of Carbon and Chromium.

On 13th August 1913, Harry Brearley discovered a Steel which would remain rust free! The Steel he had created contained 12.8% Chromium and 0.24% Carbon. When testing the Steels, many acids and stresses were thrown at them, including a dilute solution of nitric acid in alcohol, to measure whether they were resistant to chemical attack and corrosion. Many failed the tests, yet the Steel made on 13th August 1913 remained rust free. Brearley saw another opportunity and more potential for his new Steel, aside from the weapons industry. Cutlery, if not polished, was known to rust; only expensive Sterling Silver or EPNS cutlery remained free from rust.

Together with friend Ernest Stuart, Cutlery Manager at Mosley’s Portland Works, Harry Brearley was able to bring his Rustless Steel to the cutlery market. It was Ernest Stuart who persuaded him to call the material “Stainless Steel”, due to it simply sounding better (which we agree with, do you?). Harry’s invention gave a whole new life to the Steel industry in Sheffield, otherwise known as “The Steel City”, and in 1920 he was awarded the Iron and Steel Institute’s “Bessemer Gold Medal”.