Metallurgy Research Paper

This sample Metallurgy Research Paper is published for educational and informational purposes only. Free research papers are not written by our writers, they are contributed by users, so we are not responsible for the content of this free sample paper. If you want to buy a high quality research paper on history topics at affordable price please use custom research paper writing services.

Although metallurgy as a science is relatively recent, the knowledge of metals, their uses and properties, and the methods for obtaining and working with them date back to the origins of civilization. In the twenty-first century the complexity and speed of technological change, and the most recent progress in science and engineering, fosters the constant development of new materials and processes.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the first metals known to man were those presented more frequently in nature in their native or metallic state, that is to say gold, copper, silver, and meteoric iron. It was probably in Anatolia that metals were used for the first time, around 7000 to 6500 BCE. It is possible, nevertheless, that metals were first employed independently in diverse areas, at dates even earlier than those conventionally accepted.

Metallurgy in Prehistory

In its early stages, interest in native metals would likely have been linked more to their aesthetic characteristics (brightness, color, weight) than to their practical possibilities. Their external appearance made them attractive and easily recognizable, and they were used for artistic, ornamental, or magical/ religious purposes. During this period, when humanity was still in its prehistoric phase, native metals were worked making use of mechanical methods, in accordance with techniques and abilities similar to those used by primitive humans to work stone, bone, or wood. Unlike these conventional materials, however, the malleability that characterizes metals made it possible to fashion much more diverse, precise, and effective objects, including tools and weapons. In a more advanced era (c. 4000 BCE), the use of fire would allow the forging, casting, and molding of some of the metals already known (copper and gold), representing a new step in the development of metallurgy and the productive use of the metals.

The decisive advance, however, would take place once it was possible to obtain metals, initially copper, by reducing their corresponding mineral content by means of pyrometallurgical methods, around 3500 BCE, in the region of the Near East. Starting from that point, metallurgy combined its original mechanical procedures with the complex chemical processes that take place in a reduction furnace, which are much more difficult to observe and to control. This method laid the technical foundations of modern metallurgy, and its productive possibilities, until then limited by the shortage of native metals deposits, were increased.

It is difficult to determine in what way and at what moment early metallurgy spread through different cultures and geographical areas. Nevertheless, it is known that by 3000–2500 BCE copper metallurgy extended over an extensive area that stretched from the Iberian Peninsula in Western Europe to China on the Asian continent. Later it penetrated to the British Isles and Scandinavia (c. 2000 BCE) and Japan (c. 800 BCE). On the American continent there exists archaeological evidence of the use of native copper by the North American Indians toward 3000 BCE. However, pre-Columbian civilizations didn’t come to control metallurgic techniques properly until a very late date, around the eighth century CE.

The new metallurgical procedures, almost always developed in a fortuitous and experimental way and involving the use of fire, not only allowed an increase in the production and consumption of metals, but also opened new possibilities for improvement of their quality, adapted in each case to their application or final use. For example, objects made from pure copper were too soft; however, in combination with other metals their resistance and hardness could increase. By mixing copper and tin one could obtain an alloy, bronze, that was much more appropriate for the production of tools and weapons. The spread of this alloy, which was substituted for stone, ceramics, and other materials, in what is known as the Bronze Age (c. 3000 BCE to c. 1000 BCE), was a decisive element in the development of the first civilizations and empires to arise in Asia Minor and in the eastern Mediterranean. This was followed by the discovery of other types of alloys whose exact composition was known only in an intuitive and approximate way.

Following the discovery of bronze, another metal had even more impact on the development of civilization— iron. Though it is one of the most abundant elements in nature (the fourth most abundant element in the world), it rarely exists in a pure state. Except for very small quantities of iron coming from meteorites—which in fact are natural alloys of iron and nickel—iron metallurgy had to be developed once the techniques for reduction and treatment of minerals were already known. It was probably discovered for the first time within the Hittite Empire, south of the Black Sea, around 1500 BCE, although we cannot disregard independent discoveries in different areas and times.

Contrary to the metals known until then, iron could not be melted and cast in furnaces whose maximum temperature was only about 1,000°C. Due to this factor, its production was not possible by means of the techniques known in the Bronze Age. Instead of liquid metal, the blacksmith obtained a spongy mass whose metal particles appeared dispersed and blended with the impurities of the mineral and the remains of the charcoal employed in combustion. To finally obtain the iron, it was necessary to develop a new process of hammering this spongy mass by means of which the slag was eliminated and the metallic particles compacted. The product obtained this way, which was practically pure iron, remained too soft and didn’t offer significant advantages over bronze. It was necessary to heat it again and to forge it until it absorbed a certain percentage of carbon in its surface, a process known as carburation or cementation. The steel obtained in this way could be tempered by being introduced into cold water so that it became even harder. These new techniques constituted complex and laborious processes whose development and diffusion took place very slowly. In Europe their spread occurred throughout the Mediterranean region starting in 1000 BCE and arriving in England toward the year 300 BCE. In the East we know that iron metallurgy was introduced in India around 800 BCE and in China around 600 BCE. In China, however, the technical evolution was more rapid thanks to the discovery of the blast furnace and cast-iron production around 200 BCE; these techniques were not used in Europe until the fifteenth century CE.

Important economic and social repercussions were associated with the advance of primitive metallurgy and the use of metals. With time, the extraction and initial treatment of the minerals would become an independent activity. Forging was probably one of the first specialized occupations. The mythology and legends of ancient peoples frequently reflect the vision that primitive communities always had of it as a mysterious and magic occupation, capable of transforming stones into metals and useful instruments. On the other hand, the use of metals, particularly iron, contributed in a decisive way to the progress of agriculture, the development of activities associated with sedentary cultures, the growth of the first urban nucleus (by its use in construction, transport, and so forth), and, of course, war.

Metallurgy in Antiquity and the Middle Ages

Once they had control of the techniques for producing iron, the forgers of antiquity had a much cheaper and more abundant metal than bronze, a “democratic metal” that could be used in numerous applications of all types. The classical Greek and Roman civilizations (600 BCE–400 CE) didn’t contribute significant advances in metallurgical techniques. They extended the use of iron, as much for weapons as for tools used by artisans and farmers. The expansion of iron metallurgy and its dominance as a useful metal did not, however, pose an obstacle to the development of the nonferrous metals. Gold, silver, and bronze, besides being used for ornamental and household equipment purposes, were linked to the production of currency, whose growing use was related to the expansion of trade. Brass, an alloy of copper and zinc known prior to the classic period, began to be widely used for coinage by the Roman Empire. Lead, initially a byproduct of silver production, was extracted and removed from silver by cupellation, and was used extensively by the Romans for water pipes and cisterns. Mercury, obtained by means of distillation of cinnabar and used in Greek and Roman times for gilding, was linked to the recovery and refining of a variety of metals, especially gold and silver, through various techniques of amalgamation.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the territories of western Europe entered a long period of economic decline and probable technological stagnation, including stagnation in metallurgical production. Starting from the ninth century CE, however, manufactured metals were again incorporated into daily life in European societies. Nonferrous metallurgy was concentrated around the rich mines of central and Eastern Europe, with a heavy concentration, in particular, of German miners and metallurgists. Complex systems were introduced for the extraction of minerals in deeper and deeper exploitation, especially minerals with silver content. However, the foundry techniques continued to be very similar to those used in antiquity.

It was in iron metallurgy where progress was more significant. The introduction of hydraulic power to move bellows and hammers (in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries), together with the gradual increase in the size of furnaces, allowed a notable increase in the scale of production, higher yields, and a reduction in costs. The fifteenth century saw the spread of the indirect process based on the new technology of the blast furnace and the production of cast iron. Thanks to the achievement of higher temperatures, the new furnaces allowed one to obtain liquid metal, which made possible the use of molds for the production of very diverse items, but especially for the foundry of cannons and other smaller artillery pieces, which would have definitive social and political consequences. Nevertheless, most of the cast iron coming from blast furnaces was still destined for conversion into wrought iron.

Advances in Metallurgy During the Renaissance

In spite of progress in the iron and steel industry in Europe, during the Middle Ages the East remained far ahead in this field technologically. The steel coming from India and Japan allowed the manufacture of sword blades that were highly superior to those used in Europe. In China the production of cast iron, known from c. 200 BCE, grew at an extraordinary rate. By the thirteenth century a large industrial complex linked to the state and to military demand had incorporated the foundry, using coal and the hydraulic wheel to work piston bellows, which were much more efficient than the systems used in Europe. Starting from the fifteenth century, however, Chinese metallurgy (like other important technological areas where China had been ahead of the West) was clearly stagnating, while Europe entered a new stage of technological progress and world hegemony.

In the Europe of the Renaissance, metal articles became more and more common in daily life. Demographic growth, the expansion of productive activity and trade, urban development, oceanic travel, and overseas discoveries and colonial expansion required a growing consumption of metals. Iron continued to be the metal used most frequently and extensively. The dimensions and productive capacity of blast furnaces increased gradually, and it was possible to mechanize the manufacture of iron by means of slitting mills that worked hydraulically.

After iron, the most widely used metal continued to be copper, along with its main alloys (bronze and brass). Currency necessities and the demand for bronze artillery required a growing consumption of this metal. Japan was the main producer of copper in Asia and, from about the middle of the seventeenth century, it exported significant quantities to Europe. In Europe, the copper industry was developed initially in Hungary and central Europe, in Sweden toward the end of the sixteenth century, and in England toward the end of the seventeenth. The demand for precious metals remained linked mainly to the currency demand of a more and more commercialized world economy. Production expanded due to the discovery and exploitation of the mines of Spain’s colonies in the New World (Mexico, Peru), the main source of the world supply of silver from the sixteenth century onwards.

Although production techniques for nonferrous metals evolved more slowly, during the Renaissance new procedures were introduced, improving on some that were already well known. Among these innovations, reverberatory furnaces came into widespread use, coal was introduced as a fuel in certain cases, and welding techniques were improved. Most silver was extracted from lead and copper ores by means of new cupellation and amalgamation procedures. In Saxony a new and complex method was introduced for obtaining silver by means of liquation of copper ores. In the New World, the Spanish conquest allowed the acquisition of large quantities of gold and silver that had been accumulated by the indigenous populations, primarily from native metals. From about the middle of the sixteenth century, when the potential for sacking and spoliation had been exhausted, active metallurgical production was implemented, based on an amalgamation system known as the “patio process,” which allowed extraordinary growth in the production and trade of silver.

At this point, migration and the growing mobility of a specialized labor force were the main vehicles of diffusion for the new techniques, as had happened earlier with miners and metallurgists of German origin, who formed the most active nucleus of European metallurgy. On the other hand, the publication of various treatises that described with great detail and practicality the well-known techniques of the moment introduced a new element into progress in metallurgy. The works, published by V. Biringuccio (1549), G. Bauer (1556), and L. Ercker (1574), synthesized the main metallurgical procedures, creating an easily transferable, and therefore cumulative, body of knowledge.

The first Industrial Revolution (1760–1830) precipitated a new technological leap in iron production and, to a lesser degree, in the other branches of metallurgy. By the end of the eighteenth century, thanks to the gradual adoption of coal as a fuel, to the steam engine as a mechanism of propulsion, and to the puddling furnace in combination with the rolling mill, the English iron and steel industry had been able to eliminate the main technological obstacles that had slowed the growth of the sector. Iron, produced in large quantities and at lower costs, could be used in a massive way in the key sectors of the new industrial economy (such as railroad, shipbuilding, and mechanical industry) substituting for wood and other traditional materials. Production of nonferrous-metals grew more slowly and without significant technical changes, other than some exceptions like the distillation systems applied to the production of zinc after 1738. However the growing importance of scientific investigation and applied chemistry allowed for the discovery and isolation of new metals, such as cobalt, nickel, manganese, and tungsten, among others.

Contemporary Metallurgy from 1850

The technical advances of the second Industrial Revolution would make the hegemony of iron metallurgy even greater. Where the British discoveries of the eighteenth century had allowed for the industrialization of cast and wrought iron production, in the second half of the nineteenth century decisive technical changes would be achieved in steel industry. By means of the Bessemer (1856), Siemens-Martin (1857–1864), and Thomas-Gilchrist (1878) converters, it was possible to produce steel in large quantities at prices far below the previous ones. Thus steel could be used, in place of wrought iron and other materials, in a much more extensive way in all types of applications. Thanks to its hardness and elasticity it could be incorporated into the building, railroad, shipbuilding, and mechanical industries, among other sectors, contributing in a decisive way to the advancement of industrial societies.

The consumption of nonferrous metals was also affected by advances in the industry. New products and new demand sectors—such as those linked to the modern armaments industry, electrification, the beginnings of the automotive and the aeronautics sectors, and certain goods produced for domestic consumption—increased the general demand for metals and alloys with more and more precise technical requirements. The new colonialism, the internationalization of the economy, and the development of modern means of transport led to the discovery of new ore deposits and the extension of mining throughout the world. In certain cases, the procedures used in the iron and steel industry could be applied with success to other metals. But limitations imposed by traditional metallurgy were overcome with the development of new methods of electrometallurgy. These consisted of applying the potential of electric power as a thermal agent and incorporating electrolytic methods in the extraction and refined processes. The new procedures made it possible to improve the purity of the metals obtained and to produce new metals and alloys industrially.

Although there had already been advances in industrial chemistry at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was not possible to develop the full potential of electrometallurgy until the availability of abundant and cheap electricity. In fact, copper, whose purity was a decisive characteristic for use as an electrical conductor, was the first industrially refined metal obtained by means of electrolysis (1865), which contributed in a decisive way to the growth of the electric industry. Aluminum, magnesium, special steels, and other very diverse alloys could be developed commercially thanks to the technical and economical possibilities of electrometallurgy. In addition, electric furnaces have provided the industry with greater flexibility of location and have reduced pollution emissions considerably.

The development of contemporary metallurgy has been associated with important advances in the administration and the organization of the industry. The necessity of integrating different production processes in a single factory, the high cost of equipment, and the concentration of production and markets have transformed the structure of the industry and paved the way for the great modern firms and for mass production, especially in the iron and steel industry. Although in some cases experimentation and practice continue to be important, technological development in contemporary metallurgy depends more and more on advances in science and investigation.

During the twentieth century the extraction and treatment of metals continued to evolve without interruption, and at an increasingly rapid pace. The progress of contemporary metallurgy has been based on new industries and demand sectors, such as atomic engineering, electronics, telecommunications, and the aerospace and military industries. Improvement in the quality of the final products, reductions in cost, the search for new alloys, and industrial production of new metals like titanium, beryllium, zirconium, and silicon have required the introduction of constant technical changes, as much in the production and finishing processes as in methods of analysis and control of the production process. Some of the technological alternatives developed in the new metallurgy of the twentieth century are: continuous casting and the Basic Oxygen Steel process in the steelmaking industry, hydrometallurgy (aqueous processing of metals) for the treatment of precious metals and minerals of high value (uranium, nickel, cobalt), the use of powder metallurgy to obtain certain structural parts for industrial use, and special alloys of mixed constitution (with metallic and not metallic elements).

The complexity and speed of technological change in advanced societies make it impossible to foresee future tendencies in metallurgy. The most recent progress in the science and engineering of materials is allowing the constant development of new materials and processes. Although in some cases new plastics, ceramics, and hybrid materials may compete with and displace metals in certain applications, the development of metallurgical engineering in the current technological environment of cross-disciplinary investigation will continue to constitute a decisive element in the technological progress and industrial systems of the future.


  1. Darling, A. S. (1990). Non-ferrous metals. In I. McNeil (Ed.), An encyclopaedia of the history of technology (pp. 47–145). London: Routledge.
  2. Day, J., & Tylecote, R.F. (Eds.). (1991). The industrial revolution in metals. London: Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining.
  3. Evans, C., and Ryden, G. (Eds.). (2004). The industrial revolution in iron: The impact of British coal technology in nineteenthcentury Europe. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate.
  4. Forbes, R. J. (1956). Metallurgy. In C. Singer, E. J. Holmyard, A. R. Hall, and T. I. Williams. (Vol. Eds.), The Mediterranean civilizations and the Middle Ages, 700 b.c. to a.d. 1500:Vol. 2. A history of technology (pp. 41–80). New York: Oxford University Press.
  5. Gale, W. K. V. (1967). The British iron and steel industry: A technical history. Newton Abbot, U.K.: David & Charles.
  6. Gale, W. K. V. (1990). Ferrous metals. In I. McNeil (Ed.), An encyclopaedia of the history of technology (pp.146–185). London: Routledge.
  7. Gibbs, F. W. (1958). Extraction and production of metals. In C. Singer, E. J. Holmyard, A. R. Hall, and T. I. Williams (Vol. Eds.), The Mediterranean civilizations and the Middle Ages, 700 b.c. to a.d. 1500:Vol. 4. The Industrial Revolution, 1750– 1850 (pp.118–147). New York: Oxford University Press.
  8. Gille, B. (1966). Histoire de la metallurgie [History of metallurgy]. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
  9. Gille, B. (1979). The evolution of metallurgy. In M. Daumas (Ed.), A history of technology and invention: Vol. 3. The expansion of mechanization, 1725–1860 (pp. 527–553). New York: Crown.
  10. Healy, J. F. (1978). Mining and metallurgy in the Greek and Roman world. London: Thames and Hudson.
  11. Lombard, M. (1974). Les metaux dans l’Ancien Monde du V au XI siecle [Metals in the old world in the fifth to eleventh centuries]. Paris: Mouton.
  12. Mohen, J. P. (1990). Metallurgie prehistorique: Introduction a la paleometallurgie [Prehistoric metallurgy: Introduction to paleometallurgy]. Paris: Masson.
  13. Pounds, N. J. G., & Parker, W. N. (1957). Coal and steel in Western Europe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  14. Schubert, H. R. (1957). History of the British iron and steel industry from c. 450 b.c. to a.d. 1775. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  15. Smith, C. S. (1967). Metallurgy: Science and practice before 1900. In M. Kranzberg and C. W. Pursell (Eds), Technology in Western Civilization (Vol. 1, pp. 592–602). New York: Oxford University Press.
  16. Smith, C. S., & Forbes, R. J. (1957). Metallurgy and assaying. In C. Singer, E. J. Holmyard, A. R. Hall, and T. I. Williams. (Vol. Eds.), The Mediterranean civilizations and the Middle Ages, 700 b.c. to a.d. 1500:Vol. 3.From the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution, 1500–1750 (pp. 27–71). New York: Oxford University Press.
  17. Temin, P. (1964). Iron and steel in nineteenth-century America. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  18. Tylecote, R. F. (1987). The early history of metallurgy in Europe. London: Longman.
  19. Tylecote, R. F. (1988). A history of metallurgy. London: The Metals Society.
  20. Wertime, T. A., & Muhly, J. D. (Eds.). (1980). The coming of the age of iron, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

See also:

Free research papers are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to order a custom research paper on political science and get your high quality paper at affordable price.


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality
Special offer! Get discount 10% for the first order. Promo code: cd1a428655