The Father of Stainless Steel Part 2

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The Father of Stainless Steel Part 2

In part one of this series, we looked at the early life of Harry Brearley, the Father of Stainless Steel.

In part 2 we’ll look at how he would go on to achieve success in his chosen field. We’re in the first decade of the 20th century and the steel business was good. In September 1903, Harry’s old employer, Thomas Firth & Sons, bought a steelmaking plant in Riga — Russia’s second-largest port, on the Baltic Sea. The goal was to produce steel for the massive Russian market without having to pay export tariffs.

On the recommendation of his partner in Amalgams Co, Colin Moorwood Harry Brearley was hired to be the chemist. Arthur Brearley would join them too, probably on his brother’s recommendation. Moorwood would be the general manager. Together Brearley and Moorwood traveled to Riga in January 1904, in the dead of winter.

A move to a Russian Steel mill

It was noted that there was no organizational hierarchy. No mechanical precision. No engineering plan was drawn up on paper. Harry’s way of working was casual. Men swapped roles, worked as a team, and were free to divulge their own ideas.

Moorwood was fine with this new arrangement and agreed not to interfere. Under such management, Harry found that he preferred novice steelmakers. They weren’t biased by previous experience or hamstrung by any preconceived notions. In time, he credited the Latvian peasants with skills rivaling those of his Sheffield pals.

In less than a year Harry had been promoted to the role of technical director. He was charged with the design and build of a new steel crucible furnace. The plans, it turned out, were wrong and not to the right specifications but the furnace worked better than expected.

Harry also happened to be tasked with the role of salesman, he was asked to sell high-speed tool steel. He had not forgotten his upbringing and after-sales meetings he would strip off his suit, donning a set of overalls and working in the furnace.

The Russian Revolution cometh

The Sheffield man was deliberate and devoted; confident but not dictatorial, and definitely not greedy. He was earning plenty of money, but he remained thrifty, never once thinking about the need for a big house or fancy cars or fine food. Harry was certainly no public speaker and had no stomach for politics. He wasn’t much of a salesman, primarily due to the fact that had no ornamental graces, and few cultural graces. But he was good at his work.

The Russian Revolution came in 1905. The political and cultural revolt didn’t bother Brearley as much as it did his colleagues; in fact, he wasn’t especially repelled by socialism. But the strikes which came with the revolution made it impossible for the mill to produce steel, and this bothered him. The furnaces had to run constantly, or not at all. He couldn’t start and stop them as the vagaries of politics demanded. For Harry, the steel was more important even than his own well-being.

Blood and Steel

A hastily held public meeting was held on a vacant floor of the factory with over two thousand men showing up. Before the meeting started, revolver cartridges were distributed. Not long after, the foreman blacksmith was murdered outside his apartment. A half dozen factory workers were arrested and imprisoned.

The state of affairs terrified many; three engineers fled the country. So did Harry’s partner, Colin Moorwood. Harry fearlessly took his spot as general manager and kept it for three years. He sat in Moorwood’s chair, at Moorwood’s big horseshoe-shaped desk, in Moorwood’s clothes, smoking Moorwood’s cigars. It was the most extravagant thing he ever did.

Harry’s thoughts turned to equip his beloved mill with new equipment. He bought himself a galvanometer and a thermocouple. The thermocouple became his favorite new toy and he locked himself away in the cellar experimenting.

The cellar would become the center of a new revolution where people would talk of steel, rather than the social revolution happening around their ears. Other than the ‘fun’ experiments they would take pieces of steel hardened at different temperatures, broke them apart and compared the structure. It was as if they were alchemists looking for the philosopher’s stone.

Cut off from England and its supplies during the long winters, they were forced to adapt, innovate, or use substitute materials. In this way, they gained experience, and what remained in Brearley of any old steelmaking dogma faded away.

Returning home to England

On Harry’s return to his beloved England in 1907, he was offered a position running the Brown-Firth Research Laboratories, a new joint operation run by John Brown & Company, which built battleships, and Firth’s, which was working on armor plates.

As the research director, Harry was given great freedom; he and his employer agreed, before he took the job, that he could turn down any project that didn’t interest him. More importantly, on account of Brearley’s interest in Amalgams Co., they also agreed to split ownership of rights to any discoveries.

But, as kind of free-agent analyst at Firth’s, his knowledge surpassed that of many other analysts. Other steelmakers described good steel as having “body,” attributing it to the type of clay in the crucible, or the source of the water, or the mine from which the ore came. Good steel was therefore mysterious, requiring interpretation.

An extraordinary example of this dated thinking was the story of one Henry Seebohm, he dated to suggest introducing colored labels to denote the carbon content of steels, Sheffield steelmakers objected. It was too scientific; it eliminated them as translators of intrigue.

As the future father of stainless steel, Harry knew qualitative descriptions were bogus misapprehensions, leftover ignorance from an age when science offered little insight.

A steel manufacturing rebel

He decided to rely on skill and science — but not to the exclusion of experience. He ordered two of the earliest Izod notched-bar impact testing machines, each of which, with a calibrated pendulum, quantified the blacksmith’s biceps. (The machines are still used today in the steelmaking industry.) He didn’t talk about the body. He talked about Krupp-Kanheit, the result of cooling a nickel-chromium alloy too slowly, leaving it liable to fracture with a brittle, crystalline face.

It’s difficult to say if this is true, but it is said that Harry Brearley, the man who would come to be known as the father of stainless steel, saw himself as steel’s savior, its priest, perhaps even as it’s messiah. He valued depth over breadth. He examined details, concerning himself with quality. But he missed the big picture, and at Firth, had the wrong priorities. Firth cared about volume. Scale. Margin. Market.

Brearley knew that, as far as physical properties of steel go, there’s no difference between an axle with 0.035 percent sulfur and one with 0.05 percent sulfur. But Harry the ‘scientist’ was missing the entire point: the difference, a manager told him, was £2 a ton (around $320 in today’s money). This was a lesson in politics as much as commerce; it didn’t matter if the steel was no better. It only mattered that people thought it was better, and were willing to pay more for it.

descendents of the father of staineless steel
Harry Brearley’s descendants Anne Brearley and Hannah Brearley at Portland Works, which is described as the birthplace of stainless steel manufacturing (pic: Steve Ellis)

A short journey south

Harry still didn’t understand the ‘business’ of steelmaking, at least according to his colleagues. Perhaps he did understand but he simply ignored it. In May of 1912 he traveled 130 miles south, to the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield, then a small town north of London.

Mr. Brearley wished to study the erosion of rifle barrels. He examined the problem, then wrote, on June 4, “It might be advisable to start a few erosion trials with varying low-carbon high-chromium steels at once …” He spent most of the next year making crucible steels with chromium from 6 percent to 15 percent, but they didn’t stack up. Then, on Aug. 13, 1913, he tried the electric furnace, probably grudgingly. The first cast was no good, as is the case with.

The second cast (number 1008), on August 20, turned out better. It was 12.8 percent chromium, 0.24 percent carbon, 0.44 percent manganese, and 0.2 percent silicon. He made a 3-inch square ingot and then rolled it into a one-and-a-half-inch-diameter bar. It rolled easily and machined well. From that, he made 12 gun barrels, which he sent to the factory. Unfortunately, the factory didn’t like the barrels.

When Harry heard back from the factory it started him thinking, as an analytical mind he didn’t get angry. Harry noticed that cut samples of the metal he’d sent had funny properties. He later recalled that suddenly remembering a date to the theater with his wife, he left some samples in water overnight and found them unstained the next morning.

Harry studied the metal by polishing it, then etching it with a solution of nitric acid dissolved in alcohol, and looking at it under a microscope. It wouldn’t etch, or, rather, it etched very, very slowly. He compared a polished sample of carbon steel to a polished sample of the chromium steel and was amazed to find after 12 days that while the former had rusted, the latter remained shiny and bright.

The inventor of knives that won’t cut

Harry wrote his report and handed it into his boss at the company. Surprisingly, the new metal didn’t excite anybody, at least as far as ordnance was concerned. Of course, Harry couldn’t let it go. He wrote another report for Brown’s, highlighting the non-corrosive nature of the metal. Ditto for Firths.

He suggested that the metal might be advantageously used in cutlery, which, at the time, was made of carbon steel or sterling silver. (The former rusted, as he well knew; the latter was expensive and still tarnished, which really means that the copper, constituting 8 percent of the alloy, corroded.) The response was not even lukewarm.

By the end of 1913, he couldn’t stop talking about the utility of the new metal for cutlery. That he thought of cutlery first isn’t surprising. He’d spent much of his time as a kid helping his mother with domestic chores that he knew the toil associated with cleaning and drying forks, knives, and spoons.

Sheffield had also been the center of the cutlery industry since the 16th century. He sent samples off to two Sheffield cutlers, George Ibberson and James Dixon. A few months later, a report came back: The steel wouldn’t forge, grind, harden, or polish and wouldn’t stay sharp. It was useless for cutlery. Ibberson wrote back: “In our opinion, this steel is unsuited for Cutlery steel.” The cutlers called him “the inventor of knives that won’t cut.”

Success, or not?

Harry was not going to let this lie. In June 1914 Brearley met a cutlery manager named Ernest Stuart, of the cutlers Robert F. Mosley, whose persistence rivaled his own. Brearley and Stuart had gone to school under the same headmaster. Stuart doubted that rustless steel existed but recognized that such a thing would be worth bothering about.

He bothered by testing a piece in vinegar, after which he reportedly said, “This steel stains less.” Stuart was the one who first called it stainless. He took a small sample. A week later, he returned with some cheese knives. He declared them rustless and stainless. But the steel was too hard and had dulled all of his sharpening tools.

He swore. He tried again, and the knives came back very hard, but very brittle. On the third try, Brearley was invited along to watch, even though he knew nothing about knife making. But he knew the temperature at which the steel hardened, and he helped make a dozen knives.

In a report to his bosses on Oct. 2nd, 1914, this time he pushed the use of the new alloy for engines; pistons, spindles, plungers, and valves. This time his bosses listened and agreed. They began marketing the metal as F.A.S, or Firth’s Aeroplane Steel. Over the next two years, the company produced over 1,000 tons of the stuff.

Harry even purchased a few bars of the steel and made cutlery from it for friends and family. He told them to return the knives to him if they ever rusted, they never did.

Resigning from Firths

All this success did not bring happiness, because Harry had one vision, and Firth’s had another. Firth’s even omitted Brearley’s name from any marketing. Firth advertised itself as the discoverer, inventor, and originator of stainless steel, in ads, posters, and labels on bars of steel.

He complained and got a bitter letter in response. Yet he insisted. He told his boss, Ethelbert Wolstenholme, that he’d given Firth’s a commercial opportunity, and that it had agreed to share any discoveries. But he’d also proven the company wrong and was to suffer for it. He was ignored, cast aside, told to deal with underlings.

Annoyed and suspicious, he wrote a tactless letter to his boss. This led to a conference with Firth’s three directors, who told him plainly that he had no rights in the matter. A few days later, on Dec. 27, 1914, feeling wronged, more sad than angry — convinced that “workmen are often much wiser than their masters” — he resigned.

In his absence, the First World War had intensified and research was put on the back burner. Once the war was over Harry’s successor at Firths, Dr. W. H. Hatfield carried on Brearley’s work, often using his notes. It is Hatfield who is credited with the development, in 1924, of stainless steel which even today is probably the widest-used alloy of this type, the so-called “18/8”

Discovering that others had made the discovery

Harry Brearley didn’t know it then, but the new steel he cast from the electric furnace at Firth’s on Aug. 20, 1913, was nothing new. At least 10 others had created it, or something like it, before; at least half a dozen had described it, and one guy even explained it and explained it well. Others had patented it and commercialized it.

Before Brearley got around to it, at least two dozen scientists in England, France, Germany, Poland, Sweden, and the United States were studying alloys of steel by varying the amounts of chromium, nickel, and carbon in it. Faraday had tried as much nearly a century earlier.

A month after Brearley resigned, news of his stainless steel reached America. On Jan. 31, 1915, The New York Times announced the discovery:

A NON-RUSTING STEEL; SHEFFIELD INVENTION ESPECIALLY GOOD FOR TABLE CUTLERY.

According to Consul John M. Savage, who is stationed at Sheffield, England, a firm in that city has introduced stainless steel, which is claimed to be non-rusting, unstainable, and untarnishable. This steel is said to be especially adaptable for table cutlery, as the original polish is maintained after use, even when brought in contact with the most acid foods, and it requires only ordinary washing to cleanse.

Another reason why Harry Brearley is credited as the discoverer of stainless steel: Reporters at The New York Times weren’t reading the metallurgical trade magazines. They didn’t know about the others who had worked on stainless steel. The first American ingot of Brearley’s stainless steel was cast 31 days later and sent directly to a knife maker.

Stainless Steel Patent

Brearley finally set his mind to it and filed for a U.S. patent on March 29, 1915, and for a Canadian patent on April 21. The American application was denied because, with no British patent, the steel was being made by John Brown & Co., Hadfield’s, Sanderson, Vicker’s, and other Sheffield firms in addition to Firths and Brown Bayley’s. Brearley immediately solicited the help of Sir Robert Hadfield, Dr. Stead, and R.A. Harbord, all of whom provided written statements of their support of Brearley’s new application, which was filed on March 6, 1916, and granted on September 5, 1916.

Brearley’s Canadian patent, which was filed on April 21, 1915, was slightly different from the American patent. Instead of “Cutlery,” the title of the patent was “Malleable Steel.” The average mechanical properties of the “typical steel,” which is actually the composition of the steel of Brearley’s discovery in both patents, are for material oil-hardened from 900 °C and tempered at 700 °C. The Canadian patent was granted on August 31, 1915.

It is especially interesting to note that Brearley did not try to patent an alloy per se but rather cutlery. This apparently was to overcome the objection of the patent office, which was that patents for chromium steels had already been applied for.

Shocks for Firths

When word of this patent reached the directors of Thomas Firth & Sons, they were astonished and immediately foresaw problems in America for their subsidiary, Firth-Sterling Steel Company at McKeesport, Pennsylvania. Brearley’s American patent could interfere with the production of stainless steel, which had already been underway at Firth-Sterling for over a year. After considerable debate, Firth’s directors agreed that they should offer to purchase a half-share in the American patent.

They were only now agreeing to act in accordance with the terms under which Brearley had accepted the position – “Any new facts relative to the Company’s manufactures which shall be discovered by Harry Brearley during the period of engagement and any patents based thereon, shall be the property jointly of the Company and Harry Brearley in equal proportion.”

Success at last

Harry agreed to accept the company’s offer to purchase a halfshare in his patent only if they agreed to his plan to establish a FirthBrearley Stainless Steel Syndicate, which would be formed “to foster the world-wide production of stainless steel cutlery.” This involved Brearley’s renewed association with the directors of Firth’s, the people he felt had behaved irresponsibly to him, but it seemed quite obvious that Brearley planned to manage the syndicate.

The agreement on the syndicate was reached in July 1917, and it stipulated that henceforth “all knife blades made of Brearley’s stainless steel alloy shall be stamped with the following logo:”

FIRTH-BREARLEY STAINLESS

harry brearley metallurgist sheffield

In the meantime, Harry had started his job as Works Manager of Brown Bayley’s Steel Works in Sheffield on July 15, 1915. Brearley was then 44 years of age. He threw himself into the work of the new job as if trying to forget the recent unpleasantness. Brearley was kept busy supervising the modification of manufacturing processes.

Because of the war, the company was being pressed to undertake the manufacture of special steels, aero-engine crankshafts, and rifle barrels, none of which had been in Brown Bayley’s line of work. Brearley also served on several committees associated with the Ministry of Munitions until the end of the war. He worked at Brown Bayley’s Steel Works until 1925.

An unexpected problem

An unexpected problem came up in America when Elwood Haynes opposed Harry Brearley’s patent. Haynes was the president of the Haynes-Stellite Company in Kokomo, Indiana. Haynes had been experimenting with high-chromium, low-carbon steels as early as 1911, primarily to determine if those alloys might make a less expensive cutting tool material than the cobalt-base Stellite alloys of his company. Haynes had filed for a U.S. patent a little earlier than Brearley’s first application of March 29, 1915.

When Haynes’ application was denied, he appealed and requested an interference order, while agreeing that the discoveries were similar and made independently. In the middle of 1917, the Patent Office granted an interference order to Haynes’ patent, which he appealed, and finally granted him Patent 1,299,404 on April 1, 1919

Brearley’s Later Years

From 1918 on, after the settlement of the Brearley and Haynes patent dispute, the Firth-Brearley Syndicate continued to play an active role. There was the patent infringement suit of the American Stainless Steel Company against the Ludlum Steel Company, in which the Brearley and Haynes patents were involved. Harry Brearley gave some of the most important testimony, but the court decision, at first, was against the American Stainless Steel company. After an appeal, the decision was reversed.

Because Brearley was in America for the trial, he spent some time on syndicate work. He visited a number of cutlery manufacturers and the Firth-Sterling Steel Company at McKeesport, where he had a good discussion with Gerald Firth, the president. Brearley also reported that he assisted them in making a melt of stainless iron. He concluded his visit to America at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was invited to give a lecture on stainless steel to the students and some interested men from the area.

Receiving the highest recognition

In 1920, the Council of the Iron and Steel Institute presented Harry Brearley with the Bessemer Gold Medal, which is awarded for outstanding services to the steel industry. He was the fourth recipient of the medal. In his autobiography, Brearley wrote, “This is the only distinction I had ever audibly coveted. I valued this presentation all the more because it was made by Dr. Stead, that dear old man whose simple character and manner and life were as admirable as his metallurgical investigations were excellent.”

Retirement and death

In 1925, although only 54 years of age, Brearley decided to retire. Since returning from Russia in 1907, he had almost always earned more than enough to supply his wants. He had lived simply and never had a fine house, motor cars, or luxurious food. In addition to savings, he still had income from the American Stainless Steel Company in which he held a 40% interest, and he still had income from the Amalgams Company.

He wanted to live more out of doors, play games, and, in general, do things he had never been able to do in his younger days because of lack of time or money. Harry Brearley retired from Brown Bayley’s on the best of terms, so it seems. His salary stopped, but he still came to work and tended to certain company business.

Another award of recognition came to Brearley in June 1939 when he was 68 years of age. It was the Freedom of Sheffield Scroll and a Freedom of Sheffield Casket, which was a small, ornate metal box that was adorned with six figures engaged in various metals trades. In 1941, Brearley wrote another autobiography entitled Knotted String and published a record of the old Sheffield steel trade called Steelmakers. Brearley continued on as a director on Brown Bayley’s Board, a position he held until his death in 1948 at age 76.

Harry Brearley is not really recognized as the sole inventor of stainless steel, other scientists associated with it included Leon Guillet, Hans Goldschmidt, Albert Portevin, P. Monnartz, and W. Borchers. But one thing is certain, without the persistence, the tenacity of Harry Brearley stainless steel would not be as popular as it is and he would not be credited as the father of stainless steel.

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