Metal mastery through the ages

by Andy Bryenton

Metal makes all the difference when it comes to civilisation. Where would we be without it? In the literal Stone Age, of course!

Working metal has taken us from the simplest of iron arrowheads to the moon, and welding is one of the crucial skills involved in the metalsmith’s art. The very earliest welds were made by heating metal white-hot in a charcoal furnace then hammering them until they fused together. Today there are several advanced welding techniques that enable us to manufacture and repair everything from skyscrapers to cars and aeroplanes.

The ‘father of welding’ is a contentious title. It may have been Humphry Davy, who first made an arc between carbon electrodes back in 1800. Then again, it might be said that another Davy, Edmund, who discovered acetylene gas, and the fact that it could combine with oxygen to create the hottest flame then known to science. Things progressed swiftly during the Victorian age, as the demand for iron ships and locomotives grew with the rise of steam. Auguste De Meritens used an electric arc to weld plates of lead together in a famous experiment. His student, the Russian Nikolai Benardos, patented a method of arc welding with carbon rods. Countryman Nikolai Slavynov devised a technique using metal electrodes. Not to be outdone, American inventor CL Coffin developed shielded metal arc welding, a process still used today.

The final leap, which has allowed us to maintain gigantic ships and oil rigs at sea, came in the 1930s, when another Russian, the metallurgist and scientist Konstantin Khrenov invented underwater hyperbaric welding in 1932. In the century between Edmund Davy and Khrenov, nearly every aspect of technology had gone from wood and leather to welded metal. Cars replaced the horse and cart; aeroplanes took to the skies and ships went from sail and rope to propellers and metal hulls. It was, and is, all thanks to the masters of metal, both the inventors of these important tools and those who work with them in engineering, manufacturing and maintenance today.