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Iron vs. Bronze: History of Metallurgy

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  • 0:06 Bronze Age Ends
  • 0:39 Differences
  • 1:44 Invention of Steel
  • 2:34 Steel vs. Bronze
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lecture explores the transition from the bronze age to the iron age. The difficulties of working with iron are enumerated. The properties of iron and steel are compared to those of bronze. Finally the implications for this transition on civilization are considered.

End of the Bronze Age

Bronze, as you may recall, is made of copper and tin. These two metals are rarely found anywhere near one another. And, though copper is easy to find, tin is a relatively rare metal.

At the end of the Bronze Age, the tin needed to make bronze could no longer be acquired
Bronze Age collapse

With the collapse of the Bronze Age around 1200 B.C.E., trade networks fell apart. This had many consequences for Bronze Age civilizations. One of the most catastrophic was that they could no longer acquire the tin they needed to make bronze.

Differences Between Iron and Bronze

Deprived of their choice metal, ancient metallurgists cast about to find a new material to work with. What they came up with was iron.

Iron was hardly a new discovery. It is the most common element on Earth. The Hittites had been smelting iron since at least 2000 B.C.E. Yet for 800 years, ancient metallurgists preferred to work with bronze.

The reasons are simple:

  • Ancient metallurgists did not understand the properties of iron as they did bronze.
  • Iron is not much harder than bronze.
  • Bronze and tin are relatively easy to extract from ore, whereas iron ore requires a much more energy intensive and complicated process to smelt.
  • Bronze can be easily melted in a pot over a fire while working iron requires a specialized furnace.

These factors were enough to dissuade most ancient metallurgists from using iron while they had the makings of bronze at their disposal. Deprived of tin by the collapse of trade, those metallurgists began learning how to work with iron. It was then that they made an important discovery.

Invention of Steel

It was found that a small amount of carbon added to iron made steel
Invention of steel

While wrought iron was not much stronger than bronze, a small addition of carbon (about 2%) could turn iron into steel. This discovery was probably accidental. Fires generate a great deal of carbon. Each time they put the iron back into the fire to work, they added a bit more carbon to the metal.

Steel is one of the hardest substances on the planet. It is certainly much stronger than bronze. This added strength meant that less steel had to be used to make effective tools, weapons or armor, making steel a lighter alternative. This strength also allows steel to hold an edge better than bronze.

By 1100 B.C.E., iron had replaced bronze as the metal of choice in the Near East. Another three centuries would see it spread across Europe.

Steel vs. Bronze

Even once trade had resumed, and tin was once more readily available, the superiority of steel had come to be recognized. Steel was cheaper, stronger and lighter than bronze.

Although it had lost its position of primacy, the special properties of bronze would guarantee its continued use in a variety of applications. Where iron rusts quickly and completely, bronze only rusts on the surface, making it the metal of choice for outdoor applications, from doors to fountains to statues, as well as horse bits, buckles and anything else that might be exposed to moisture.

Bronze does not rust through as does iron, making it is the metal of choice for outdoor uses
Uses for bronze

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