Stainless Steel: A Short History and Common Applications

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In most situations, if one were to ask who invented stainless steel, the answer would probably be Harry Brearley, and although many would dispute this answer they would be hard-pressed to come up with a more definite claim.

Stainless steel is one of those things whose history is marked with colorful tales and differing claims, depending largely on whom you ask. It is even unclear as to how Harry Brearley’s name became the go-to answer to the question.

Inventing Stainless Steel: A History

The Englishman was not the only person to claim or receive the honor. The Americans, the French, the Germans, the Polish, and even the Swedes wanted to be considered the pioneers too. As early as 1820, Stoddard and Farraday—both English scientists—already noted the resistance of iron-chromium alloys to certain acid attacks. Frenchman Pierre Berthier noted as much in 1821. But none of them were able to produce alloys with higher chromium because they did not know the role of low carbon content.Shortly thereafter, Woods and Clark, both English, patented a kind of alloy with 30-35% chromium and 2% tungsten. If patents are to be followed, Woods and Clark beat everyone else to it. The Frenchman Brustlein, however, was the first to stress the importance of lower carbon and higher chromium to make stainless steel. Scientists could not make this kind of steel for a long time.

That was, until German scientist Hans Goldschmidt developed the process in 1895. Goldschmidt is the true pioneer if the process of reducing carbon to make real stainless steel would be considered the standard.

Leon Guillet of France, in 1904, came up with studies that led to the development of different grade stainless steel, although he failed to note how these creations resisted corrosion.

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More scientists joined the fray, publishing in-depth findings from their own experimentation with the formulation and manufacture of stainless steel. Giesen, another Englishman; Albert Portevin, a Frenchman; P. Monnartz and W. Borchers, Germans, all contributed to the growing body of work involving this alloy that was gaining significant attention for its remarkable properties.

In 1912, while working at Brown Firth Laboratories, the English researcher and scientist Brearley started work on manufacturing steel to be used for gun barrels. The small arms maker who wanted the product was complaining about their current gun barrels, which eroded quickly. The following year, instead of making an erosion-resistant steel, Brearley came up with a corrosion-resistant kind with 12.8% chromium and 0.24% carbon. Many in the industry believe this was the first true stainless steel.

Eventually, Brearley and his friend Ernest Stuart started making cutlery from the steel the former had “invented”. Krupp Iron Works in Germany also made their own version of the steel but for marine purposes.

The U.S. got in on the action through the efforts of Elwood Haynes, who was said to have succeeded in creating a corrosion resistant steel in 1911. Becket and Dantsizen also worked on their own version in the States. In 1912, Polish Max Mauermann supposedly presented his stainless steel in a Vienna exhibit. But the Swedes claim the title of first producing stainless steel based on a recently discovered 1913 fishing and hunting magazine, discussing the steel as material for manufacturing gun barrels.

Common Uses of Stainless Steel

Whoever invented the first true version of the modern stainless steel we know today, its uses and versatility cannot be denied. The good news is, it’s easy to find a stainless steel supplier for various applications. Here are some of its more common uses.

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Domestic use – e.g. kitchen sinks, cutlery, washing machine drums, razor blades

Engineering & architecture – e.g. handrails, structural sections, reinforcement bars, masonry supports

Chemical & pharmaceutical – e.g. piping and pressure vessels

Medical – e.g. surgical implants and instruments

Water supply – e.g. tubes and pipes, water tanks, water and sewage treatment

Oil & Gas – e.g. subsea pipelines, cable trays