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History of Engineering: Iron

  • by: Conor McKeon
  • On: 21, Feb 2019
2 min read

Iron was one of the most important and revolutionary materials in human history, leading to the iron age, and technological expansion and modernisation. The transition from bronze to iron was one of the biggest changes in technology, allowing for more complicated engineering projects, and stronger weapons.

Why is Iron Important To Engineering:

Artefacts made from iron have been found dating from around 3000 BC in Egypt and Mesopotamia, at that time iron was too rare and expensive to be used in everyday life. Due to its difficulty to refine, it was believed to be incredibly rare, and was at one time worth roughly eight times more than gold.

It’s believed that some of the first iron used by humans came from meteors, some of which are made up almost entirely of iron. Almost one third of the earth’s mass is made up of iron, much of which came from space. Iron can be found in the hearts of supergiant stars, which are so hot they’re able to fuse iron from silicon. This takes more energy than it gives off, meaning the star is in the final stage of its life before going supernova, which sends iron and other elements off into space. Over time iron will form into a larger body, such as an asteroid or a meteor.

The circulation of liquid iron beneath the earth’s surface is what gives the planet its magnetic field. Iron was the first magnetic metal discovered, and was a fascinating property for early scientists to experiment with. Lodestones were used by navigators as early as 600 BC, as they could be used as crude compasses.

Despite knowledge existing across different societies of how to use and refine iron, the iron age didn’t begin until around 1200 BC. Iron is much harder to forge into metal than copper or bronze because it requires a much hotter fire. However once this was understood, it meant that iron became more widespread as it was discovered to be more plentiful. It suddenly became easier to get than bronze, and made stronger, sharper tools and weapons. By around 1000 AD, temples in India were already being constructed using iron beams.

The origin of the chemical symbol Fe is from the Latin word ‘ferrum’ meaning iron. The word iron itself comes from ‘iren’ in Anglo-Saxon. The element is crucial to life on earth, in plants it can be found in chlorophyll, in animals it can be found in haemoglobin which carries oxygen around the body. In fact, our blood is red because of the interaction between iron and oxygen in our blood.

Nowadays iron is still perhaps the most important metal in the world, accounting for about 90% of all metal production on the planet. Used to alloy steel, the metal is still used in manufacturing and construction projects every day. Twenty times more iron is used than all other metals put together.

Read more about the history of engineering, or learn about materials that will change engineering

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