Yesterday, my friend Jorge and I had a discussion about cars we would like to own. Jorge expressed his admiration for the Mercedes Gullwing and the Datsun 240Z, I mentioned that the Ferrari Testarossa and the original Tesla roadster are pretty cool cars.
Both of us agreed that it would be fun to own a DeLorean DMC-12. We both like the sleek styling, and futuristic features. Aside from the beautiful coachwork is that the body was constructed of unpainted brushed stainless steel.
I remember getting up close to a DMC-12 a few years ago at a summer car show here in Norfolk, Nebraska. The car’s owner was lovingly buffing his sports car with stainless steel kitchen sink polish.
Stainless steel is one of the miracle materials from the 20th century. It’s not only used for DeLoreans and kitchen sinks, but for the cutlery we use at mealtimes; delivery and storage of food in the food service industry; medical instruments in hospitals and clinics; and various other applications in industry. Stainless steel is the material of choice for fine wristwatch cases and bracelets. There is much to like about stainless steel.
Harry Brearley of Sheffield, England is given the credit for inventing stainless steel. Brearley, whose father was a steel worker, attended night school to become an expert in analysis of steel and production. He was hired by a contractor for the two main steel mills of Sheffield, Brown-Firth Laboratories.
In 1912, the problem of erosion by bullets passing through rifle barrels became the focus of the areas small arms manufacturers. The steel used in guns eroded quickly due to combustion gases and repeated heating. Firearms manufacturers asked Brearley to investigate various types of steel. As a result, he discovered that steel made with chromium had a higher melting point than conventional steel.
After much experimentation and varying ratios of chromium and carbon, Brearly hit upon the best combination. His new type of steel was first cast in August of 1913. Brearly experimented with harsh chemicals to test for wear and corrosion. The steel surpassed his expectations. In the process of marketing his new material he named it “rustless steel”.
Aside from steel milling, Sheffield, England is famous for its cutlery makers. Brearley pitched his new “rustless steel” to the companies, but the conservative firms were reluctant to try it. It wasn’t until manufacturer Ernest Stuart tested a “rustless steel” knife in vinegar. Stuart came up with a name that rolls off the tongue better than “rustless”. He suggested it should be called “stainless steel” instead.
Two years later, Brown-Firth stainless steel was put into production by George Ibberson and Company for stainless steel knives. A bitter ownership dispute between Brown-Firth and Brearley led to his resignation from the company. His replacement, W. H. Hatfield continued research and development of stainless steel and soon invented the most widely used variety of stainless steel, “18-8”. This is steel that contains 18-percent chromium and eight-percent nickel.
There is some historical debate as to whether or not the credit for inventing stainless steel should go to Harry Brearley. In 1904, the French researcher, Leon Gillet published a paper on the composition and properties of a similar steel alloy mix. Gillet never followed up on his research nor did he recognize the metal’s resistance to corrosion.
In 1911, German scientist Philip Monnartz published a descriptive analysis on the corrosion resistance properties of the alloy. A year later Eduard Maurer and Benno Strauss, working for Krupp Iron Works, patented their process of 21-percent chromium and seven-percent nickle. The Krupp alloy is now called “austentic” stainless steel. This is the most prolific form of stainless steel, the sort used to manufacture jet engines and architectural features.
Meantime Brearley is most often credited with inventing “martensitic” stainless steel. This is the more sturdy, brittle type of material used in medical equipment, razors, and cutlery. Here again, we find a dispute over Brearley’s invention. The term “martensitic” is derived from the name of Adolf Martens, a German microsopist who discovered the structural properties of the alloy around 1890.
So, when you pick up your dinner fork today, think about all the scientists who developed the stainless steel alloy we take for granted.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes the late Danish architect and designer, Arne Jacobsen. “In a way, the sense of quality has improved. The status symbol of the small things is gone, and it is acceptable to use stainless steel, even if the neighbour uses silver.”