The Birth of Stainless Steel

There’s a reason why metal companies commemorate the 20th August, as this was the day 100 years ago (in 1913) when the first true stainless steel was produced in Europe.

The Inventor and the Invention

Although there were other claims regarding the invention of the first stainless steel, the one who was credited with this invention was an English metallurgist named Harry Brearley. In 1871, Brearley, a son of a steel melter, was born on Sheffield, England. His humble beginnings led him to the world of metallurgy. And after having private studies and night schools, he became a renowned and experienced metal analyst. This afforded him the opportunity to work as a lead researcher at Brown Firth Laboratories, which was funded by two of the big metal companies in Sheffield at that time.

In October 1912, Brearley was given a problem regarding the erosion of metal in a gun barrel. His solution: he had to look for a metal that was highly resistant to erosion. After experimenting by making steels with varying chromium content—from six to fifteen percent—he discovered that steels with low carbon and above twelve percent chromium were non-corrosive. He called this as “rustless steel”. He would go on to make the first arc furnace cast of stainless steel on August 20, 1913.

Since this kind of metal could resist chemical attack, he decided to use it in making a radical change in the cutlery industry of Sheffield at that time. He was unable to convince his employers at Firth and Brown Steels about the value of the metal; he took things into his own hands by having a local cutlery producer, RF Mosley, make knives using the metal. The cutlery manager of Mosley, by the name of Ernest Stuart, tested it by trying to stain it with vinegar. Since it was tested to be resistant of chemical attack, he called it “stainless steel”.

He had difficulty getting a patent for this stainless steel because of the intervention of Firth and Brown Steels regarding the ownership of the invention. Firth and Brown insisted that Brearley was their employee. The production and development of stainless steel continued, with Harry Brearley becoming a manager at Brown Bailey’s Steel Works in 1915. For his stainless steel invention, Brearley was awarded the Bessemer Gold Medal by Iron and Gold Institute in 1920, and became the director of Brown Bailey’s Steel Works in 1925. He was not successful in obtaining a patent for his invention, but his work became the basis for the various kinds of stainless and special steels being used to this day.

Developments of Stainless Steel

Despite the continuing studies and development of new grades of stainless steel, its main properties remain the same. It is strong, resistant to heat and corrosion, and has low maintenance. At present, stainless steels produced by Sheffield are considered to be highly resistant and can be mirror-polished. Research for the innovation and improvement of the said steel is still ongoing, however, done mainly by steel producers.