Sunday 6 December 2009

The Riddle of Steel

"Fire and wind come from the sky, from the gods of the sky. But Crom is your god, Crom and he lives in the earth. Once, giants lived in the Earth, Conan. And in the darkness of chaos, they fooled Crom, and they took from him the enigma of steel. Crom was angered. And the Earth shook. Fire and wind struck down these giants, and they threw their bodies into the waters, but in their rage, the gods forgot the secret of steel and left it on the battlefield. We who found it are just men. Not gods. Not giants. Just men. The secret of steel has always carried with it a mystery. You must learn its riddle, Conan. You must learn its discipline. For no one - no one in this world can you trust. Not men, not women, not beasts... [Points to sword] ...this you can trust."

This is one of my favourite scenes from the film Conan the Barbarian (1982). But the truth about the discovery of steel is maybe a little more mundane.

About the 11th century BC it was discovered that iron can be much improved if it is reheated in a furnace using charcoal. The charcoal raises the carbon content of the worked iron and it is the carbon content that is vital to the creation of steel. Iron typically has about 0.5% carbon whereas steel needs about 1.5% carbon. The metal then needs to be reheated and quenched several times to harden the material with a final reheating to a specific temperature to establish the steels eventual strength. Steel can be wrought just like the softer iron but can be worked into a sharper edge and will retain that edge much longer than softer metal weapons. Its not hard therefore to see why steel makes a much superior weapon to those made from bronze or iron.

The exact process for making steel was none the less vague long after the 11th century BC and in ancient Rome the practice of quenching the metal in the "urine of a redheaded boy" continued for many centuries. Indeed the Romans even went so far as to attribute mystical properties to the urine required for steel production, rather then realising it was the quenching process itself that was needed.

So now I'm thinking that maybe it should be called the Jimmy Riddle of Steel?

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