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STAINLESS STEEL: The Alloy of Endless Possibilities

Jeffrey Syken

It’s something all around us, yet we hardly recognize its impact on our daily lives: Stainless Steel. However, for the engineers, architects and housewives of the early 20th Century, it was an unprecedented revolution. With the addition of Chromium (11% by weight, min.), steel was rendered not only tremendously stronger but also “Stainless.” With the addition of other elements (i.e. Nickel, Tungsten, Molybdenum etc.), it took on certain characteristics that made it even more desirable for specific applications/processes (i.e. machining, welding, high temperature/pressure etc.). From our 21st Century perspective, it’s hard to see the impact corrosion-resistant steel made; from consumer products to industrial processes to the top of the Chrysler Building, and beyond. The beneficial effects of adding chromium to steel were not unknown in the 19th Century, but it would not be until the early 20th Century that the technology for perfecting the alloy would come together. In fact, it seems to be a case of synchronicity. An English metallurgist named Harry Brearley was given the assignment by his employers to find a way to eliminate the corrosion that occurred in large caliber gun barrels. Born and raised in Sheffield, England – world-famous for its cutlery industry, Brearley immediately recognized the benefits not only for gun barrels, but also for knives, forks, spoons, etc. which were prone to corrosion – a very unhygienic situation. So it was that table knives became the first Stainless Steel product. At the same time, on the other side of the pond, Elwood Haynes was figuring out a way to get spark plug points not to corrode. In Germany, two Krupp scientists were also perfecting the stainless alloy. In the end, the outbreak of WWI delayed the introduction of stainless steel on a large scale (it was used during the war for military applications such as aircraft engine components) but after the war, many steel companies in the U.S. began producing stainless steel products in earnest (under license from the patent holder/s). Even at the height of the Great Depression, though more costly than standard steel, production of stainless steel never wavered. Indeed, by the early 1930s Stainless Steel had become “The Alloy of Endless Possibilities.”

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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