If you’ve ever heard a story that started with “Back in my day…” it’s usually about how difficult life was, how modern conveniences are blessings to be counted, how kids these days have it so easy.
This is one of those stories, too.
The Iron Age and the Birth of Metalworking
It’s time for a trip in the way (way) back machine, to 1500 B.C., when a group of early Europeans called the Hittites conquered what is now Syria and started forging and tempering iron ore, likely by using rocks and primitive stone anvils to shape the metal after it was heated over a campfire.
It was the beginning of humankind’s fascination with iron, due to not only its malleability but its mysterious origin in meteorites. At the same time, the Hittites spread out to places like Greece and the Balkans, taking their trade secrets with them. By around 1200 B.C., the Bronze Age had collapsed to make room for the Iron Age.
From Simple to Scientific
It took a long time for blacksmithing to evolve beyond just a crude art for making tools. Three thousand years, to be exact, until blacksmiths mastered the science of metallurgy, and hundreds of years until they fully understood the magnetic properties of iron.
But even then, they weren’t necessarily masters of the craft.Thanks to the basic lack of knowledge about the properties or iron, early tools turned out too soft, too hard, or maybe a little bit of both. But sometimes? They accidentally forged something made of good steel. And those weapons were so hard and tough that some people thought them to have magical powers. So much so that during the Medieval Period (5th-15th century A.D.) blacksmiths were either revered like superheroes or considered practitioners of witchcraft.
Methods for heating metal began to slowly evolve as well. From campfires to charcoal to converting that coal to coke (fuel). And as the technology began to evolve, so did the prominence of the craft. During the Middle Ages and into the Industrial Revolution, a blacksmith was only one kind of smith — experts also included chainsmiths, nailsmiths, arrowsmith, whitesmith and others.
(It’s the reason Smith is such a popular last name, along with Miller and Cooper)
Fast Forward: Colonial America
In pre-revolution America, the blacksmith was one of the most important people in the village, making everything from tools to weapons to door hinges, repairing log chains, even serving as the town dentist (sometimes they were the only one with pliers.)
As the craft evolved, blacksmiths started to experiment with different processes for hardening and tempering the iron, modifying its carbon content, and other ways for making a more durable metal. The successful production of coke was a huge leap forward thanks to its ability to melt heavier metals and allow blacksmiths to control the melt locations.
Innovation also led to easier ways of working and more finely tuned products. And blacksmithing prospered.
At least until the Industrial Revolution.
The Rise of Modern Welding
By the late 1800s, trains, automobiles and the mastery of steel production changed everything, including the most important aspect of creating these new vehicles — welding pieces of metal together.
Until then, blacksmiths could do the job using a process called forge welding, in which they heated two pieces of steel to 2,000º F or above, layered them on the anvil and smashed them together with a hammer. (As fun as that sounds, it isn’t very fast-moving.)
Then, in the late 1800s, scientists figured out how to create an electric arc using heat.
Over time, the blacksmith’s hammer, anvil, and chisel started to be replaced by welding guns, electric grinders, and other inventions designed to meet the growing need for mass production. Today, welding is the cheapest and most efficient way to permanently join two pieces of metal together.
21st-Century Welders and Smiths
More than 400,000 welders work in the United States today on everything from submarines to skyscrapers to Hollywood. The numerous processes, techniques and technology are making the job smarter, more precise — and more important — every day.
And as for blacksmiths? They’re not gone.
In fact, the anvil is making a bit of a resurgence as people yearn for the craftsmanship and artistry of hand-made products. Master blacksmiths give demonstrations and forge custom pieces, and classes are turning out new blacksmiths around the country.
You can find a class near you. Just listen for the hammering.