British author and retired engineer Ray Smith AKA the "Poet Knight" writes historical fiction. While researching the origins of his surname and early metalworking techniques he has collected numerous pieces of information relating to the history of metalworking and blacksmithing. That information will be presented here with a new addition each month.
Fire and air, earth and water were once considered the four elemental substances of our world. Among the ancients, only the blacksmith worked all four. His forge held the fire and his bellows controlled the air to his purpose. His material, iron, the black metal, was part of the earth, and water was essential to cool his heated iron and give temper to his red-hot steel.
Through developing techniques and experience, the early methods of smelting iron lasted well into the historical period. In time ironmasters learned to transform useless cast iron into wrought iron by resmelting it in a deep fire, burning out excess carbon and beating out the impurities. Somewhere along the way carbon steel was produced, and together with wrought iron comprised the only materials worked by the blacksmith. They comprised the black metal which the ironworker would smite with his hammer, as opposed to shiny silver, copper, gold, brass and lead. So he became known as the blacksmith.
Before the blacksmith there were bronzesmiths who worked in copper and bronze, shaping these more malleable materials with heat and hammer into tools and weapons. Iron, however, was the key to civilisation. Once ironworking had developed, the tribes armed with iron swords and iron spearheads conquered those armed only with bronze weapons. The people with iron axes and knives built more quickly and lived more comfortably than those who had not yet learned to make iron and steel from the ferrous ore so abundant in most parts of the world.
Nobody has yet been able to establish an exact time and place that man first learned to make and shape iron to his wishes. Historians feel that ironworking probably started some six thousand years ago in the Caucasus, from where it quickly spread eastward and westward, and finally replaced bronze in a technologically backward Britain before the Romans came.
Iron and steel were as essential to the progress of man in ancient times as they are today in the space age. This very need spread the art of forging iron all over the civilised world and as one region developed a new technique, it was disseminated to other lands through the twin activities of war and trade. The knowledge of working and dominating the black metal became homogeneous with the developing civilisation of the ancients. It is most difficult nowadays to discover exactly how and where and when any particular technique was developed.
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