We all know that Steel is great, but it wouldn’t exist if Iron wasn’t discovered first. Iron is one of the main ingredients in steel and by itself it may not seem very special, it’s brittle and corrosive and is largely impractical for most modern uses, however, in ancient times it was rare and actually considered mystical.
Today, iron is commonplace as an ingredient in steel, however, its history is hard to trace, as iron corrodes easily and iron artefacts are much more scarce than those created from other materials. Still, evidence shows us that it has been used for millennia.
When Was Iron First Discovered?
The first discovery of iron is unknown to science, however, the earliest known artefact of iron is a bead fashioned from meteoric iron, which was found inside an Egyptian tomb and is dated at roughly 5,200 years old in 3,200 BC.
Evidence has shown that in ancient Mesopotamia, which is now modern day Iraq, people were smelting iron around 7000 years ago in 5,000 BC.
In ancient times, people were not always aware that iron ore was abundant on earth, So where did they get it? Meteorites. Iron is a common material in a lot of meteorites, with some yielding up to 90% iron.
Meteoric iron, however, was rare and in ancient times iron was worth more than silver or gold. In fact, Assyrian writings have depicted iron as eight times more valuable than gold, how things change!
It was likely only used by the very wealthy for ceremonial purposes, as it was too expensive for every day use and its cosmic origin probably had a lot to do with its novelty. Ancient Egyptians believed iron to be a gift from the gods, and called it ‘ba-ne-pe’, which translates to ‘metal of heaven’.
Progression of Iron Technology
When meteoric iron was first discovered, the ancients did not smelt it, it was simply heated and shaped with hammers. However, as technology progressed, and other forms of iron were discovered, such as telluric iron and later bog iron, smelting technology became more and more common.
It is not exactly known when the smelting of iron began, however, there is evidence that in 2000 BC its use was becoming more and more widespread across Sub-Saharan Africa to China. By 1000 BC the introduction of wrought iron brought human history through to the Iron Age.
The Iron Age
The Iron Age began at different times in different cultures roughly between 1300-1200 BC. The transition from the bronze age is marked by the point in which iron became cheap and practical enough to replace bronze as a usable metal.
The addition of adding carbon to iron to make wrought iron happened around this time. It was likely an accident at first with residual charcoal coming together with molten iron to form the alloy. Wrought iron happened to be more practical, as it was less brittle and corrosive, and it would be eventually preferred to bronze.
Ancient cultures went on to experiment with different alloy mixes and smelting techniques, which would eventually lead to the invention of steel.
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