Harry Brearley (pictured above in a mural by Sarah Yates) is credited as the father of stainless steel. Stainless steel is without a doubt one of the most important materials in existence, you can see what’s available here. But what is the story behind stainless steel and Harry Brearley?
This is part 1 of our story of Harry Brearley, the father of stainless steel.
A curious Wanderer
Let’s take a journey back to 1882, the 11-year-old Harry first stepped foot into a steelworks. As a shy but curious boy, Harry was born in Sheffield, England. The Victorian city as the very heart of the metal industry, not just in England but in the world. The city was famous for manufacturing in general but was the heart of the steel industry.
The young Harry loved nothing more than wandering around the city, observing the road builders, the bricklayers, the coal delivery teams, even the butchers. But he was drawn in particular to the metal workshops. If he couldn’t look in through the windows or open doors he would offer to run errands for the workshop, either delivering or even pretending to deliver lunch to the workers.
This allowed him access into the dirty, smoky workshops. It’s said and Harry even admitted that he would sit in a corner of the workshop or on a pile of coal, covered in soot and in silence for hours on end, watching fuel being shoveled into furnaces and the pouring of white-hot iron and the hammering that followed.
Harry used this activity to become familiar with the entire process of steelmaking, long before his formal education in the industry. This was to be the start of a life dedicated to steel and the industry which would change the world to come.
A Man of steel is born in the city of steelmaking
Harry Brearley was born on February 18th, 1871. He was born into a poor family and his early years were spent in poverty. His house was in Ramsden’s Yard, a small hill overlooking the city of Sheffield. The city was undoubtedly the world capital of steelmaking to such an extent that by 1850 half of all the steel produced in Europe and 90% of the steel production of England came from this small city and within a decade it’s population had risen fivefold.
This increase in the population also meant an increase in poverty and filth and grime. In order to understand the ambition of Harry Brearley, it is important to understand the sheer poverty he came from. The living room of this small house was 10 feet square and there were just 2 bedrooms, one for the parents and the other for all of the eight brothers and sisters. Each child had to stand when eating as there were no chairs to sit on, and even if there were, there was no room for the chairs.
The children wore clothes made from their parent’s clothes, Harry recalled his jacket was made from his father’s old trousers.
In fact other than beds there was no other furniture to speak of, no desks, no pictures, no toys. But Harry’s parents both worked so there was food on their bellies.
Starting work at 12
Such was Harry’s ambition and love for knowledge that he would take a book from the Library and re-write it all on pieces of paper by hand. He even delivered coal in a broken old wheelbarrow so that he could buy sweets for himself and his siblings. By 1882 the family had moved down the hill to Carlisle Street, right next to the railroad tracks and a place described as being separated from hell by a sheet of paper.
But for Harry this was heaven, it was in the middle of the industrial area, surrounded by workshops, and by the age of 12, he was legally able to work, which he did.
He spent three days in Marsland’s Clog Shop, blacking boots and carrying things from 8 in the morning until 11 o’clock at night, and hated it. Harry spent a week in Moorwood’s Iron Foundry, painting a black varnish onto kitchen stoves, before being discharged on account of labor regulations. He spent six weeks helping a doctor but was disheartened by the subservience the man required.
Finally, his father took him to work in the Thomas Firth & Sons steelmaking factory, where he worked as a nipper, or cellar boy, moving clay stands and covers wherever needed in the dark, hot ashes of the cellar, and skimming the slag from the steel. Everybody, including his father, thought he was too small and weak for the job, but he spent three months at Firth’s, working long, sweaty days before he was once again discharged on account of violating labor regulations.
Meeting his future mentor
He was then hired to be a bottle washer by one James Taylor. Taylor was the chief chemist in a laboratory of the same steelmakers. Harry, being 12 and not educated, hadn’t ever heard the word laboratory before and, when he first showed up, was so overwhelmed by the amount of glassware that he figured it was a place people came to drink.
He found the work tedious, but his mother encouraged him to stay there, as it was undoubtedly better than the melting furnaces in the steelworks. Harry was only 12 but he would go on to become Taylor’s protégé.
The protégé learns his trade
Taylor started Harry’s training with arithmetic and then, a couple of years later, algebra Taylor bought Harry a set of drawing instruments too. Taylor was not social, not a drinker, not a smoker, not a swearer. He didn’t even speak in the Sheffield dialect. Taylor even bought Harry books, something the young boy would never forget.
Harry learned to join wood, paint, solder, plumb, blow glass, bind books, and most importantly; work with metal. While his friends were out playing, Harry was learning new skills. This knowledge later inspired Harry to make his own furniture, stitch his own sandals, and try writing. His first attempt, an article for Windsor magazine, described the nature of various inks in creating inkblots, of which he made a few hundred; the next was titled “Bubble-Blowing as a Physical Exercise.” Some hobbies.
The young Harry also attended night school, on Taylor’s urging, studying math and physics a few nights a week. By the time he was 20, he was proficient in most crafts, even though, technically, he was a bottle washer. Taylor regularly discussed food, economics, education, politics, and social welfare. In this context, Harry grew comfortable in the presence of educated people.
Harry’s mother found his deference for Taylor to border on idolatry and encouraged him to find a job in a factory, one with a better salary, and more of a future.
A change of stock, from glass to steel
Harry’s mother passed away just a year later and he moved in with his older brother Arthur. That same year his mentor Taylor left for work in Australia, and Harry was promoted to lab assistant. Contemplating life ahead, he had a sudden conversion and decided more schooling was not for him. Harry recognized that he had no tolerance for things he didn’t want to do. He was hardening, like steel.
Harry fell in love and began courting his future wife, Helen. At age 24, they married; he’d been promoted to an analytical chemist at the lab and was earning two pounds a week. Together they had a total savings of five pounds (around $900 today). They lived on bread, onions, and apple pie, in a simple cottage south of Sheffield, but he never mentions it, or his wife, in his autobiography.
He barely mentions his only son, Leo Taylor Brearley (named after James Taylor), who was born two years later. But he mentions love: “I was in love with my work, and could think of a few better things than the privilege of living to continue it.” He enjoyed it so much that he said it made him feel drunk.
Devotion and love of metals
He spent the next six years of his life reading everything he could about metallurgy, starting with periodicals and journals about chemistry, barely stopping for a lunch of bread and dates. Next, he read about Manganese and every process by which it could be detected in steel. Then he read about every other steelmaking element; all the while he kept index cards detailing what he had learned from each book. He developed his knowledge carefully, procedurally, accumulating as much as he could.
Lab protocol stipulated that anyone who figured out how to save time could enjoy his savings as he wanted. Harry got his day’s work done in a couple of hours and spent the rest of the day reading and experimenting.
By his late 20s, Harry Brearley started writing technical papers on the analytical chemistry of metals for publications such as Chemical News. Taylor wrote from Australia, offering him a job assaying gold and silver. He turned down his former mentor, something his family believed he would never do. He was developing a reputation as a steel problem solver and enjoying it.
Becoming the father of stainless steel
Every single Sunday, Harry would spend time at the lab with his brother Arthur and together they analyzed enough steel to get proficient at it. This was the beginning of a lifelong working relationship with his brother. Twenty years later, the two co-wrote Ingots and Ingot Moulds; Harry felt that it was his best work.
Two years after that, when he won the Bessemer Gold Medal, the highest award conferred by the Iron and Steel Institute, for outstanding contributions to the steel industry, he credited his brother generously. He credited his next book to his brother, writing that his brother was “a better workman, a better observer, and a more resourceful experimentalist than I.”
In 1901, aged just 30, he was hired at Kayser, Ellison & Co. as a chemist to work on high-speed tool steels, which had been discovered three years earlier by a consultant for Bethlehem Steel named Frederick Winslow Taylor. Sidetracked from production problems, Taylor had begun looking at steels used to plane and bore ship plates and cannons.
Making more discoveries in steel manufacture
Ideal forging temperatures were still measured by color, and he found that steel, heated to just below dull cherry, came out strong, but the same steel, heated above that point, became weak. To his surprise, he found that if he heated it further — to salmon and yellow — the steel got super hard; so hard that machinists could run their cutting tools two or three times as fast as before, until the blades glowed red, at 1,000 degrees Celsius.
It was so dramatic that at the Paris Exhibition of 1900, Taylor set up a giant lathe in the dark, so that the glowing-red cutting edge, as well as the stream of blue chips, was visible.
Yet more books followed; The Analysis of Steel-Works Materials, The Analytical Chemistry of Uranium. Harry was now well on his way to global fame. Business was also good; he teamed up with his old operatic lab mate, Colin Moorwood, and started a company, the Amalgams Co. He’d developed a unique claylike material, and they profited selling it to a local business. He and Moorwood spent every evening and weekend toying with new materials,
In the next part, we’ll look at how Harry achieved the title of the father of stainless steel.