The Riddle of Steel
By 2500 [B.C.E.], iron, which the Sumerians called “a metal from heaven,” was already in use. (The word “iron” has close English connections to the word “ire” but is also related to “holiness,” “frenzy,” and “defecation”—all having the common denominator “fast-moving.”) Societies started to make swords from iron without realizing what the processes they employed did to the metals under hammer and forge—they simply judged by the results. Not until 1860 [C.E.], quite late in the first industrial revolution, did people start to understand carbon’s role in the steelmaking process. To make cast iron, one needs about 4 percent carbon (about as much as pure iron will hold); to make steel, one needs iron and 1 percent carbon or less.
That carbon would affect the behavior of iron is easy enough to understand, but these percentages seem so small. [Professor James E.] Gordon clarifies all this by explaining that the percentage is calculated by weight, not volume—and since carbon atoms are much lighter than iron atoms, the actual volume of carbon in steel is about 20 percent.
The difficulty facing the primitive metallurgist was to get a furnace hot enough to fuse metal and carbon. Bronze melts at between 900 and 1,000 degrees Celsius, just within reach of the ordinary wood fire. Pure iron melts at 1,535 degrees—for centuries beyond the range of technology, which is what makes the achievements of the Damascene swordsmiths so astonishing. However, even small amounts (by weight) of carbon will lower the melting point of iron considerably, and carbon fuel, usually in the form of charcoal, was often used to heat iron ore. If just over 4 percent of carbon seeped into the metal, it would lower the melting point by nearly 40 degrees, a temperature just about attainable with a blown charcoal fire. The Damascenes must have discovered this technique for themselves, after which it fell out of memory for several centuries.
Hammering iron has two effects: first, it squeezes out most impurities, including what is known as “slag,” a dirty brown or gray substance formed from mixing with lime or limestone; second, it reduces the carbon content of the iron, leaving only small amounts of silicon and slag, both of which protect the wrought iron from becoming too soft. When iron is heated and beaten into elongated billets, it develops a particular kind of oxide coating. A smith would then double the metal over like a piece of pastry, trapping the oxidized film between layers of hot metal. This folding process would be repeated about a dozen times, which is why top-grade swords when broken show a delicate wavy pattern, each line the sign of a beating operation. But the alloy will stand a maximum of only about fifteen such procedures; thereafter blades begin to weaken (our word “meager” is related to the French word “marcrosse,” meaning “endlessly thinned out”).
Next comes the crucial “quenching” phase. This hardens the steel as it progresses from its “austenite” to its “martensite” state—that is, iron once again deprived of carbon. The metal loses heat very rapidly, but a smith must still quench a blade, that is, plunge it quickly into a cool liquid, as fast as he can. If a blade is quenched too swiftly, cracks appear, especially if water rather than oil is used. So quenching hardens, tempering softens; the trick is to find the ideal balance. Preparing a steel blade entails a series of approximations, each process going too far in one direction and being offset by the next.
Quenching calls upon a further special skill, and at this point sword-making enters into mythology. Some of the myths are true, however: it is better to quench a blade in urine because it cools more quickly than water. Urine also contains urea and ammonia, both nitrogen compounds, which spread into the iron, forming hard needlelike crystals of iron nitride. These again contribute to the strength of a blade, but iron has to be very hot for the nitrogen compounds to enter it—dogs do not harden lampposts.