From knights to satellites

by Andy Bryenton

The history of metalworking is intrinsically entwined with the history of war and peace, as an arms race of better materials technology drove forward civilisation. It all started with the first blacksmiths in ancient times.

It’s now thought by historians that stories about ‘magical swords’ like King Arthur’s Excalibur referred to weapons made of better steel, using better techniques.

A primitive warrior with a sharp but brittle sword facing an opponent armed with better gear could find his weapon shattered to pieces, and in those credulous times, such feats looked like magic. However, the real magic was in metalworking itself, an art, which advanced as smiths learned new secrets in folding, tempering and strengthening their materials.

Medieval Europe was the centre of a metalworking arms race. Places such as Toledo are still famous for the quality of the swords they produced in those distant times.

Suits of armour, shields and weapons were the most valuable things a knight could own.

The great jousting champion William Marshal made his fortune from selling the captured arms and armour of his rivals in his younger days and earned the title of Earl. While smiths strove to make better steel for arms and arrows, their efforts also yielded improved ploughs, mills, ship’s chandlery and other advances. Significantly, they also learned to cast giant bells for cathedrals and churches.

Gunpowder took this bell founding skill and turned it to make cannons.

Europe’s forges vied for centuries to create better and better guns for tall ships and land warfare, leading to even greater peacetime applications of metalwork.

By the time Newcomen and then Watt developed the steam engine, metallurgic science was sufficiently advanced to create everything from naval guns to the clockwork inside a pocket watch. Earlier attempts at steam power had resulted in exploded boilers.

The rest, of course, is more recent history. Advances in materials technology are still made at the cutting edge for purposes of military defence and, increasingly, for the exploration of space.

Each step taken to improve our knowledge of metals, alloys and their uses has knock-on effects for areas like medicine, transport and communications. It’s all an unbroken chain back to the first smiths who armed their tribe with iron to defend against their bronze-wielding neighbours.