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TECHNOLOGY 4: SPECIAL STEELS

All steels are ‘special’ in some way, since even ‘ordinary’ steel is a mixture of carbon
and iron and the result of careful heat-treatment and forging. However, the term
‘special’ (or in the US, ‘specialty’) steel usually defines those steels that contain
elements other than carbon in sufficient amount to modify substantially some of their
useful properties. Usually special steels contain alloying elements, thus the terms
special and alloy steels are often used interchangeably. Naturally, such steels have
been used for specialist applications (such as in armaments or sophisticated
engineering applications); and have also traditionally been manufactured by special
steelmakers, leaving the bulk steel trade in the hands of Bessemer and open-hearth
manufacturers.

The commercial development of special steels was an outgrowth of the


crucible process, perfected by Benjamin Huntsman (1704-1776) in England in about
1740. A Quaker clockmaker, Huntsman was trying to find a method of preventing his
clock springs from failing due to the lack of purity in the bar iron he was using. His
inspired idea was to melt carburised (combined with carbon) bar iron in a clay pot, so
dispersing the carbon throughout the metal, which was then poured into an ingot
mould. The ingot could then be forged and rolled into bar, rod or wire. This launched
the steel industry in Sheffield (for discussions of other industrial districts, see Boyce
& Ville, pp. 47, 60, and 186) and later in Europe, and also gave the world the first
commercially available special steel. Crucible steel was ideal for cutlery and edge
tools and for small, specialist engineering products, such as die stamps and cutting
tools.

Crucible steel had two drawbacks: it could only be produced in small


quantities from 60-pound clay pots and was highly dependent on the craft skills of its
operators – something which hindered its diffusion to other countries such as France,
Germany and America. Thus, after the 1860s, crucible steel technology was soon
overtaken in output by the Bessemer and open-hearth processes, which were simpler
to operate and provided mass-produced mild steel that was suitable for most
engineering uses. By the end of the 1870s, Bessemer production in the UK was
almost a million tons, compared with 100,000 tons or less for the crucible. Bessemer
steel cost less than £5 a ton, while crucible steel sold for over £50 a ton. Yet crucible
steel was not entirely eclipsed: it still held its own for the production of high-grade
tool steel. Paradoxically, greater quantities of bulk steel simply meant a greater
demand for crucible steel in the drills, chisels, and turning tools needed to shape and
machine softer metal. Moreover, the crucible – though it was not appreciated
immediately – allowed the addition of various ‘physics’, which encouraged early
metallurgists to experiment with ways of improving the characteristics of steel. This
pointed the way after the 1850s to even more sophisticated special and alloy steels. In
1868, Robert F. Mushet (1811-1891), the son of a Scottish ironmaster, discovered that
the addition of finely-powdered tungsten to the melt produced a much harder tool
steel for turning tools. Commercial production of Mushet tungsten tool steel began in
Sheffield after 1870. It was a true special steel: sold by the pound (rather than ton) at a
premium price, melted according to a secret recipe, and vital for machining the
toughest steels. It was air- or self-hardening, which made redundant the older method
of heating and quenching a tool before use (which risked cracking it).
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The modern era of special or alloy steels is generally regarded as having been
launched by the Sheffield metallurgist and steelmaker Sir Robert Hadfield (1858-
1940), who discovered manganese steel in 1882. This steel became harder the more
it was worked (due to the addition of 12 percent manganese), which made it ideal for
railway trackwork and digging equipment. In the 1880s, Hadfield also developed
silicon steel, which had excellent electrical properties that proved useful in the
construction of transformers. European and American engineers and steelmakers were
now alerted to the potential of adding alloying elements to steel. The period between
about 1890 and 1914 was one of intense activity, as major advances were made in a
variety of special steels. A major influence on special steels technology was the
armaments industry, which demanded better armour plate, guns and shells for
battleships and armoured vehicles. This encouraged the science of metallurgy and, in
turn, triggered the establishment of research laboratories within the leading steel
firms. Leading producers (such as Bethlehem in the USA [Boyce & Ville, Box 6.2,
pp. 166-7], Vickers in the UK and Krupps in Germany each sought its own
breakthrough in the field of special steels.

In the 1890s, at the Bethlehem Steel Works, Frederick W. Taylor (1865-1915,


Boyce & Ville, Document 6.1, pp. 171-2) and Maunsel White (1856-1912)
experimented with Mushet-type tool steel. They discovered that certain varieties of
this steel, containing higher than usual proportions of chromium and tungsten, could
be heat-treated to cut through metal at even greater rates. Their subsequent
development of these cutting alloys led to the introduction of so-called high-speed
steel, which revolutionised engineering practice in the early twentieth century by
enabling machine tools to work three times faster. Even more widely used were
corrosion-resistant or ‘rustless’ steels, which were developed almost simultaneously
in the UK, Germany and USA on the eve of the First World War. These steels
depended on the addition of chromium, which formed an oxide film on the steel’s
surface and so prevented corrosion – a unique and revolutionary characteristic in an
era when even special steels inevitably corroded and rusted. In Sheffield, metallurgist
Harry Brearley (1871-1948) developed a low-carbon stainless steel (with about 12
percent chromium) for cutlery – a formula also discovered in America. In Germany,
Krupps led the way in developing a variety of stainless steel containing nickel that
could be rolled into sheets, ensuring that it became the most widely used type of
stainless steel in the 20th century. Nickel also found its way into alloy steels that
were used in bicycle parts in the 1890s and such steels would later be used in the
automobile and armament industries (Boyce & Ville, Box 9.1, pp. 279-80). In 1904,
European manufacturers began adding vanadium to steel, an idea which was later to
be utilised by automobile manufacturers such as Henry Ford (Boyce & Ville, pp. 151-
3).

Production of these alloys was bound up with the development of new


steelmaking techniques. In the nineteenth century, Bessemer and open-hearth
technology supplied tonnage steels, where high-quality was not usually the foremost
consideration; for the more specialist grades (such as tool steel), the crucible process
and the old empirical skills initially retained their place. But after 1900 the crucible
was increasingly superseded by electric steelmaking. Sir William Siemens had
constructed an arc furnace in 1878, in which steel was melted between two
conducting rods, and by 1900 French and Swedish engineers had succeeded in
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adapting this design for the production of special steels. By the end of the First World
War, electric steelmaking had begun to supersede the traditional crucible; later in the
20th century it would also supersede the Bessemer and open-hearth techniques.
Slowly but surely, the old craft skills were made obsolete, as the old-style crucible
steel melter with his almost mystical skills of hand and eye was replaced by the white-
coated laboratory technician with his textbook knowledge and pyrometers.

The major discoveries in special steels had mostly been made by the First
World War, but thereafter many new alloying elements were discovered and
incorporated into standard products. Intensive research in tool steels produced the so-
called 18-4-1 (18 percent tungsten, 4 percent chromium, 1 percent vanadium, with
carbon under 1 percent) variety of high-speed steel, which further increased machine
cutting speeds. Molybdenum was later added to tool steel as a cheaper and superior
alternative to tungsten, particularly in the USA. Other discoveries have included the
benefits of small additions of boron to increase the hardenability of steel of low alloy
content. The inter-war period, though it did not deal kindly with tonnage steels, did
not hinder the spread of special steels. Mass produced stainless steel (containing
chromium and nickel) became widely available in Europe and America. It was
utilised in the production of railway cars and the fascia of the Chrysler and Empire
State skyscrapers in New York. By the 1920s, special steels were used in hollow-
drum forgings in the oil industry, high-pressure boilers for locomotives and
generating plant, exhaust turbine rotors in jet aircraft, besides more mundane uses in
garden tools and DIY products. In the inter-war period, special steels became vital in
the high growth industries of western economies – namely, automobiles, aircraft, oil,
chemicals and electrical engineering. In 1923, for example, the American automobile
industry consumed more than 90 percent of alloy steel output in that country, with the
average passenger car using 700 pounds of alloy steel.

The pace of special steels development accelerated through the Second World
War and after 1945. Jet engine design, for example, required the continuous
development of superalloys based on nickel. Research and development within the
steel industry have also produced low-cost ferritic stainless steel, precipitation-
hardening alloys, low-expansion, high-temperature steels for gas turbines, and
superferritic alloys. New techniques have also been introduced for melting and
producing special steels: the electric arc furnace has been the mainstay of special steel
production, but computerised control has made an impact alongside better secondary
refining techniques (involving the use of argon and oxygen at low pressure to
facilitate the removal of carbon). Continuous casting, which was developed after the
Second World War and bypasses many of the traditional (and costly) stages of heating
and cooling ingots, has also been applied to special steels technology. These processes
greatly boosted the production of special steels, so that by the 1960s the old
distinction between special and bulk steels had become blurred. Today (when special
steels have to compete against composite materials) the wheel has come full circle:
most tonnage steels are special in some way; while most special steels are produced in
large quantities.

GEOFFREY TWEEDALE

Sources:
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Barraclough, K.C. (1984), Steelmaking before Bessemer, (London: Metals Society).

Seeley, B. (1994), Encyclopedia of American Business History and Biography: The


Iron and Steel Industry in the Twentieth Century, (New York: Brucoli Clark Layman).

Further reading:

Sanderson, M. (1978), “The Professor as Industrial Consultant: Oliver Arnold and the
British Steel Industry, 100-14,” Economic History Review, 2nd ser., vol. XXXI, no. 4.

Tweedale, G. (1995), Steel City: Entrepreneurship, Strategy, and Technology in


Sheffield, 1743-1993, (Oxford: Clarendon Press).