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Once humans learned how to refine it, iron became the preferred metal for making both tools and arms. Cheap and strong, iron played key roles in the development of society in both Asia and Europe. Iron is the key component of steel, which remains an important manufacturing material for both civilian and military products.
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Iron is Earth’s most common element. The planet’s core is made of molten iron, and about 4 percent of the Earth’s crust is made of iron combined with oxygen to form other chemical compounds. When humans learned how to refine it, iron quickly became the cheapest material for making weapons, armor, and tools. Together with steel—a mix of iron with small amounts of carbon and other elements—iron remains the most common metal, used in innumerable ways in heavy construction and the manufacture of machines, weapons, everyday tools, and household equipment.
In their solid state, iron atoms can form several different crystal structures, each with its own characteristics. Small impurities, especially of carbon, also affect iron’s hardness, flexibility, melting point, magnetism, and propensity to rust. For centuries, chemists did not know why iron was so diverse. Nevertheless, foundries, where different iron ores were converted into useful forms of the metal, developed rules of thumb for obtaining desired results. Iron smiths and smelters liked to keep trade secrets to themselves.
A New Metal
High temperatures (1540°C, or 2800°F) are required to separate iron from its ores. By learning how to build furnaces that created natural drafts of air, often assisted by bellows, and by using charcoal as fuel, smelters created high enough temperatures to approach the melting point of iron in Cyprus and eastern Anatolia by about 1400 BCE. Two hundred years later, iron smelting had spread to neighboring regions, and the scale of production had increased sufficiently that historians habitually speak of an Iron Age succeeding the Bronze Age when that more expensive metal had supplied ruling classes in western Asia and distant China with arms and armor. Iron smelting reached China by about 700 BCE, and itinerant blacksmiths and smelters soon carried their skills across all of Eurasia and much of Africa, but native Australians and Amerindians did not know the use of iron until European explorers introduced it after 1500.
In western Asia and adjacent regions where the use of iron first became common, the new metal had two principal effects. First of all, iron was far cheaper than bronze, so greater numbers of infantrymen could be outfitted with swords, spearheads, helmets, and shields to protect them more effectively from the arrows of charioteers. As iron-clad infantry became decisive in battle, chariot-led armies were overthrown everywhere. In Greece, and subsequently in Italy, a more egalitarian society emerged; ordinary farmers equipped themselves with iron armor and weapons and then learned how to keep in close formation behind an unbroken shield front and charge against less well-organized foes, thus sweeping them from the field. Classical Greece and republican Rome achieved a distinctive military form, in which armed citizens used spears and swords to defend city-states. In western Asia, by contrast, far larger empires persisted, relying on professional armies of cavalry and infantry who continued to use bows for attacking from a distance.
The other effect of cheap iron was that iron hoes and plowshares became available to more and more cultivators. That made plowing and weeding easier, quicker, and more efficient, increasing the harvest. This allowed a majority of people to participate in the market for the first time, selling part of their harvest to buy iron tools that could last a lifetime. As farmers came to rely on iron tools they became marginally dependent on the specialists who dug iron ore, smelted it, and then cast or hammered the iron into shape. Also important were those who transported the ore, iron, and tools from place to place and from specialist to specialist during the complex process of production and distribution. Everyone benefitted when that process went smoothly, and wealth increased.
Subsequently, supplies of iron enlarged from time to time, and new tools, armaments, and conveniences for ordinary consumers became available in more and more places. Civilized forms of society spread within Eurasia accordingly and interdependence tended to increase. To be sure, iron supply was only one element in forwarding that course of events but was always important both for civilian and military affairs.
Iron in Asia
The first major documented surge in the scale of iron production took place in China, where tax records show that new, far bigger furnaces using coke (a coal derivative) for fuel raised output from 32,500 tons per year in 998 to 125,000 tons in 1078. This almost four-fold increase in eighty years centered in the provinces of Henan and Hubei in northern China, where beds of iron ore and coking coal lay close together. Who mined the ore and coal, made the coke, and managed the furnaces remains unknown. The imperial government played a dominating part, setting out to monopolize the distribution of iron tools to farmers and deriving significant income from keeping prices high. The government also commandeered vast quantities of iron for manufacturing weapons, constructing bridges, and making coins. Scattered records mention a single order for 19,000 tons of iron to make into coins and refer to arsenals that turned out 32,000 suits of armor in a single year.
This attests to the scale of government consumption and supervision. Disaster soon followed, but no record survives to tell what actually happened. Officials may have throttled the iron industry unintentionally by setting prices too low to cover the costs of production. Furnaces may have ceased production in 1125 when Jurchen steppe tribesmen living in northeastern China and southern Siberia conquered northern China, but they needed iron as much as Chinese rulers did, so may have kept the furnaces alight. Crippling, short-term disaster most certainly did arrive in 1194 when the Huang (Yellow) River rose, broke its dikes, flooded vast areas, and erased the canals that had linked the iron furnaces to the imperial capital. Without canals to supply raw materials and deliver iron to users, production must have ceased, at least for a while. The canals were never wholly restored, so it is not surprising that when official figures for iron production in Henan and Hubei become available again, after the Mongol successors of Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan) had conquered China (as the Yuan dynasty, 1279–1368), only 8,000 tons of iron per annum came from surviving furnaces, and all of it went to equip the Mongol army. Subsequently, iron smelting in Henan and Hubei ceased entirely in 1736 for reasons unknown and resumed only in the twentieth century.
At some undetermined time, Japanese sword makers developed secret skills for manufacturing blades superior to all others. Heating, reheating, and prolonged hammering created laminated steel swords, sharper and more durable than those other peoples knew how to make. The samurai warriors who used them became a privileged class. Such weapons took a long time to make and each was precious and unique, so Japanese swords did not do much to benefit the nation as a whole.
Iron in Europe
If the astounding expansion of iron production in China between 998 and 1078 had been sustained that country would have enjoyed a far more abundant supply of iron than anywhere else, and it is tempting to suppose that something like the Industrial Revolution of eighteenth-century Britain might have ensued. As things were, China remained more populous and more skilled at making silk, porcelain, and many other items than the rest of the world, but allowed Europeans— especially the British—to take the lead in expanding the scale of iron production, beginning about 1300 when larger furnaces of improved design began to attain higher temperatures in Western Europe.
Brass and bronze were the preferred metals for heavy guns when they were new, because iron was liable to split under the pressure of exploding gunpowder. This was due to various trace chemicals found in most iron ores. But, by chance, iron ore from Sussex, England, lacked contaminating chemicals and in 1543, gun makers imported from mainland Europe discovered they could cast reliable iron cannon from Sussex iron. This allowed English ironmasters to produce much cheaper big guns and expand the scale of production beyond earlier limits. English ships armed with iron guns defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, and the Royal Navy, needing heavy iron anchors as well as hundreds of cannon, became the principal market for English iron for the next two centuries.
Deforestation of the more densely settled regions of Western Europe limited the supply of charcoal more and more severely after 1300. That set a ceiling on ironworking and drove Dutch and other entrepreneurs in the seventeenth century to build furnaces in Sweden and even in the Ural mountains of Russia, where there was iron ore and forests were abundant. In 1709, however, Abraham Darby, an English ironmaster, discovered how to smelt iron by using coke (made by heating coal to drive off noxious chemicals). Since English coalfields were extensive and coal mining had already become an important industry, it then became possible to expand iron production far beyond earlier limits.
The Industrial Revolution
Possibilities widened after 1712 when Thomas Newcomen built the first steam engine, which was made of iron. It was designed to pump water from coalmines, thus enabling more coal to be mined from greater depths. James Watt’s improved and more versatile steam engine (1776), iron bridges, and the first iron locomotive (built in 1802), presaged a far more massive upsurge in demand for iron to construct steamships (beginning in 1807), railroads (after 1825), and ironclad vessels (from the 1840s).
The consequent rapid expansion of iron manufacturing played a central role in what is commonly called the British Industrial Revolution. As before, civilian inventions were matched and at other times provoked by naval and army officers who sought new and more powerful weaponry to assure military security or crushing superiority over rivals.
Wars regularly stimulated iron and steel production by expanding demand for cannon, armored ships, and other big-ticket items, and when peace cancelled wartime demands, ironmasters desperately sought new civilian markets to absorb their surplus. England’s wars with France (1756–1763, 1778–1783, and 1793–1815) therefore had much to do with hurrying the Industrial Revolution along. The expansion of British iron production, in turn, facilitated Great Britain’s military and economic successes.
Civilian-military linkages remained influential throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, not just in Great Britain but in France, Germany, and every other country where new mines, factories, and foundries arose to match those of Britain—and whenever new wars created sudden surges in governmental purchases of armaments. Everywhere, supplies of coal and iron were essential for industrial modernization. In Germany (united after 1870) and the United States, coal- and iron-based industries expanded more rapidly than elsewhere; both surpassed Great Britain in total output well before 1900.
Technical advances came thick and fast. During the nineteenth century, chemists developed ways to detect, and either remove or increase, trace elements that affected the qualities of iron and steel. In 1856, Henry Bessemer devised a furnace that sent a blast of hot air through molten iron, turning it into steel. That harder and stronger material became far cheaper to produce in much larger quantities than before. Thereafter, steel and specialized steel alloys displaced iron for many purposes. After lengthy experimentation, Alfred Krupp in Germany manufactured the first steel cannon, and the Prussian army showed its superiority in the field when invading France (1870–1871). That made steel preeminent for the manufacture of big guns and armored warships. World Wars I and II added steel tanks for use on land. Steel shells remain standard today.
In the twentieth century, coal, iron, and steel lost some of their former preeminence. Oil displaced coal for many purposes; aluminum and plastics displaced iron and steel less generally—but significantly, for example, in manufacturing airplanes. In the foreseeable future, steel, with its many different alloys, and iron, in its various forms, seem sure to remain the most common material humans employ for making the innumerable metallic objects we use in everyday living, as well as for building the industrial and military machinery we rely on.
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