Iron as an Achievement of Science, and a Warrior’s Tool

Iron can be found in many places, but not in the form that it was once used to influence the wars of the world. To be more precise, the iron that can be discovered in various places is not strong enough to be utilized as an effective tool. Only after it goes through a specific smelting process will it be in a form that people can actually use for practical purposes. It is with this in mind that we take a look at the unbelievable rigour blacksmiths thousands of years ago must have had to come up with just the right solution, and what that has to do with science.

I suppose this would have been a good for my article on being wrong – and the first video there (on trial and error) is certainly worth watching. The content that follows was taken from Cyril Aydon’s book “A Brief History of Mankind“:

The invention of bronze had a dramatic effect on the scale and style of warfare, and initated a thousand-year period of upheaval, as state fought state and empire succeeded empire. Around 1200 [BCE], anther matal – iron – appeared upon the scene, and the business of war was transformed yet again.

Iron is one of the commonest materials in the earth’s crust, and though rare in its pure form iron ores are widely distributed around the world, with substantial deposits accesible at surface level. The problem with iron is not its availability, but its usability. Even if you can achieve the high temperature needed to extract the metal from its ore, you will be left with a mass of cinders containing a few lumps of a metal too brittle to make tools, weapons or anything else of the slightest use.

The metal content of iron ore was probably discovered by accident, when lumps of ore found their way into very hot fires. The metal-workers who produced bronze would have recognized the similarity between copper ores and iron ores long before they were able to do anything about it. A summary of what they ultimately learned to do will show what a remarkable achievement theirs was. To produce weapons-quality iron they had to:

  1. heat the ore to at least 1450°C (compared with only 1000°C in the case of copper),
  2. repeatedly reheat the resulting ingot on a bed of burning charcoal (to introduce carbon into the mix),
  3. hammer it after each heating (to get rid of the cinders and form it into the desired shape)
  4. give it a final heating, before quenching it in a bath of cold water

When one considers that this solution could have been arrived at only by trial and error, one has to marvel at the determination of the mechanical geniuses who solved the problem.

Iron ore seems to have been successfully smelted for the first time in the copper-prouing region stretching from Anatolia (Turkey) to Persia (modern Iran) soon after 2000 [BCE].

It took many centuries to master this, but from around 1200 [BCE], nomadic blacksmiths had begun spreading out, crafting sickles and ploughshares for farmers, as well as swords and spears for warriors. So what exactly happened to the ones who used these? Well, since they were cheap to buy, they became very popular, and foot soldiers using iron spears or swords and shields were rapidly becoming the advantaged warrior over the previously powerful charioteers and other fighters who did not yet have this technology.

The way these blacksmiths had managed to make these metals would at some level have had to involve the scientific method. That doesn’t mean that they wrote up proposals, got research grants, or presented research to scientific forums – it means that they experimented. They said “what would happen, if all else was equal, if we repeated this process instead of doing it just once?” Or “what if we put it in cold water at the end instead of letting it cool in the air?” In other words, they isolated specific variables to determine what effects they would have, if any.

The scientific method was gradually written more in texts around this time, but such scientific reasoning was of course happening well before people recorded it in books.

Now – after flashing forward to the modern era – we have become spoiled by technology, and have lost touch with the many items we take for granted. American Comedian Joe Rogan talked about this very issue in one of his stand-up acts:

It’s therefore refreshing to see someone – in this case, Thomas Thwaites – to go out of his way to go through every single step to create something as mundane as a toaster. He gave a 18-minute talk on PopTech, but you could watch his 11-minute version on the TED stage here:

Though Thwaites went through tons of failures, and had to overcome many different obstacles, he eventually finished his toaster. It’s not a beautiful toaster… and he never got to make toast of it (the element melted shortly after turning it on). But he did what basically no one today ever does; he made it from scratch. Obviously, he gained a deep appreciation for the amazingly difficult task it is to do such a thing. We have machines which have been designed to implement the knowledge we have accumulated, but he did it the hard way.

So this random look at the history of iron and weapon-making may serve as an apt historical example to remember. An example, that is, of how people used trial and error to manipulate the right variables in order to come up with a solution. Or, to put it another way: science.

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