Jonathan Waldman writes: Sometime in 1882, a skinny, dark-haired, 11-year-old boy named Harry Brearley entered a steelworks for the first time. A shy kid — he was scared of the dark, and a picky eater — he was also curious, and the industrial revolution in Sheffield, England, offered much in the way of amusements. He enjoyed wandering around town — he later called himself a Sheffield Street Arab — watching road builders, bricklayers, painters, coal deliverers, butchers, and grinders. He was drawn especially to workshops; if he couldn’t see in a shop window, he would knock on the door and offer to run an errand for the privilege of watching whatever work was going on inside. Factories were even more appealing, and he had learned to gain access by delivering, or pretending to deliver, lunch or dinner to an employee. Once inside, he must have reveled, for not until the day’s end did he emerge, all grimy and gray but for his blue eyes. Inside the steelworks, the action compelled him so much that he spent hours sitting inconspicuously on great piles of coal, breathing through his mouth, watching brawny men shoveling fuel into furnaces, hammering white-hot ingots of iron.
There was one operation in particular that young Harry liked: a toughness test performed by the blacksmith. After melting and pouring a molten mixture from a crucible, the blacksmith would cast a bar or two of that alloy, and after it cooled, he would cut notches in the ends of those bars. Then he’d put the bars in a vise, and hammer away at them.
The effort required to break the metal bars, as interpreted through the blacksmith’s muscles, could vary by an order of magnitude, but the result of the test was expressed qualitatively. The metal was pronounced on the spot either rotten or darned good stuff. The latter was simply called D.G.S. The aim of the men at that steelworks, and every other, was to produce D.G.S., and Harry took that to heart.
In this way, young Harry became familiar with steelmaking long before he formally taught himself as much as there was to know about the practice. It was the beginning of a life devoted to steel, without the distractions of hobbies, vacations, or church. It was the origin of a career in which Brearley wrote eight books on metals, five of which contain the word steel in the title; in which he could argue about steelmaking — but not politics — all night; and in which the love and devotion he bestowed upon inanimate metals exceeded that which he bestowed upon his parents or wife or son. Steel was Harry’s true love. It would lead, eventually, to the discovery of stainless steel.
Harry Brearley was born on Feb. 18, 1871, and grew up poor, in a small, cramped house on Marcus Street, in Ramsden’s Yard, on a hill in Sheffield. The city was the world capital of steelmaking; by 1850 Sheffield steelmakers produced half of all the steel in Europe, and 90 percent of the steel in England. By 1860, no fewer than 178 edge tool and saw makers were registered in Sheffield. In the first half of the 19th century, as Sheffield rose to prominence, the population of the city grew fivefold, and its filth grew proportionally. A saying at the time, that “where there’s muck there’s money,” legitimized the grime, reek, and dust of industrial Sheffield, but Harry recognized later that it was a misfortune to be from there, for nobody had much ambition. [Continue reading…]