Little Bits of History


Posted in History by patriciahysell on August 13, 2015
Harry Brearley

Harry Brearley*

August 13, 1913: Stainless steel is first produced. Harry Brearley was born in 1871 in Sheffield, England. His father was a steelworker. Harry left school at age 12 to go to work with his father as a laborer. He moved up in the company and eventually became general assistant in the chemical laboratory at the steelworks. He studied at home in the evenings and was eventually able to take some evening classes in steel production techniques and in chemical analysis methods. By his early thirties, he was known as an accomplished professional. He was noted as a problem solver in practical, industrial, and metallurgic issues concerning steel.

In 1908, two of the main steelworks plants in Sheffield decided to join forces and created a research laboratory, the Brown Firth Laboratories, and Brearley was chosen to lead the project. In the years leading up to World War I, with trouble brewing on the continent, arms manufacturing increased. There were some practical problems with the weapons produced. The erosion of the steel, especially the internal surfaces of the gun barrels caused by high heat, was of great concern. Brearley began studying the effects of adding chromium to the steel since it raised the steel’s melting point when measured against standard carbon steel. The work mandated the study of the microstructure of the experimental alloys making it necessary to polish the metal with a solution of nitric acid and alcohol to produce etching. Instead, Brearley noted the new steel was very resistant to chemicals.

Since Brearley was from an area known for making cutlery, he recognized the various potential uses outside of arms manufacturing. The new steel could be used for flatware, saucepans, and other food-related appliances. They did not have the unhealthy rusting associated with other steels and they were less expensive than silver which also needed frequent polishing. Because of this, Brearley also tested his new metals with food acids such as vinegar and lemon juice and was pleasantly surprised. He originally called his new alloy “rustless steel” but the better sounding “stainless steel” was suggested by Ernest Stuart who worked at a local cutlery manufacturer. The first true stainless steel was produced on this day in an electric furnace. When given honors in 1920, the date was listed for one week later with a different chemical composition.

World War I interrupted work on further developments but work resumed afterwards. Brearley left Brown Firth Laboratories in 1915 after some patent disputes. Those labs continued study under WH Hatfield who is credited with the most widely used alloy, the 18/8 which not only adds chromium (18%) but also nickel (8%). Brearley went on to become the director of Brown Bayley’s Steel Works in 1925 and created a charitable trust in 1941, making funds available to other like himself who were born into modest circumstances so they might be able to gain wider experiences in the arts and music, to travel, and to gain a greater education. Brearley died in 1948 at the age of 77.

I thought and dreamed of nothing else but the steel works. – Charles M. Schwab

A skyscraper is a boast in glass and steel. – Mason Cooley

Steel can be any shape you want if you are skilled enough, and any shape but the one you want if you are not. – Robert M. Pirsig

The most civilized people are as near to barbarism as the most polished steel is to rust. Nations, like metals, have only a superficial brilliancy. – Antoine de Rivarol (lived before the invention of stainless steel)

Also on this day: Just Another Brick in the Wall – In 1961, the first steps toward the building of the Berlin Wall were taken.
Bootiful – In 1934, L’il Abner premiered.
The World is Created – In 3114 BC, the world began, according to the Mayan Long Count calendar.
167 for 1 – In 1906, a bartender in Brownville, Texas was killed.
Pay Up – In 1889, the pay telephone was patented.

* “Harry Brearley” by David Morris. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –


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