A BRIEF HISTORY OF INDUSTRIAL METAL FABRICATION
Updated: Mar 28
Humans have worked with metals for over an inconceivable, 10,000 years. The specific period that they were extracted and used for tools and to create useful or attractive objects is still a highly debated and a continually developing topic amongst archaeologists. The history of metal fabrication is one of the oldest skills known to man, and the progress covers and has taken thousands of years.
One of the earliest forms of tools used by humans would have been formed from the natural elements that were found around settlements such as bones, rock and wood. Over time, humans discovered that the rocks varied in strength, which enabled them to be used for different jobs. The softer and sharper fragments were used for arrowheads, whereas the tough and strong rocks were used for and shaped into axes. It is claimed that equally as early as the hunters and gatherers used stones and wood for tools, they were also discovering and using gold.
Gold, amongst other metals, it ‘native’ meaning it could be found and used without a difficult extraction process. Gold is one of the earliest metals with clear evidence of use. It is likely that humans from 6000 BC were finding deposits in streams and rivers that were flowing from mountainous areas around the Earth. Gold is found in higher quantities around the Earth’s fault lines and near geologically active sites. As the water erodes and flows through the deposits, the water carries the gold sediments further downstream.
Throughout the history of humans, gold has remained one of the most desirable metals; the colour, reflectiveness and general appearance make it highly valuable in its purest form. Due to its malleable, ductile and soft properties, it isn’t suitable for tools or building work and would have been used to create the earliest forms of jewellery.
The second earliest metal known to be mined and fabricated is copper, at around 4000BC. It was found ‘native’, yet it is also a rather soft metal, so the use of it for weapons and tools during this period was relatively rare.
It was during the Bronze Age and the consecutive years following that period, that harder metals were being discovered such as copper and lead. These could be combined with other materials and fabricated to create a stronger resource which could then be used for weapons of war such as armour and swords. During this period, sheet metal was being fabricated, but the process was much more strenuous and difficult than it is today, with consistent hammering and effort to reach the desired form.
At around 1750 BC, iron and tin were regularly being used. The metals were being smelted and melted in a furnace. Artefacts show that a range of tools, weapons, cauldrons, mirrors, instruments, weights and jewellery were being formed from various metals. There is also evidence of various combinations of metals. It wasn’t until much later, in the early 14th and 15th centuries, that the development and the use of metal really began to advance.
Copper, lead, iron and tin were fundamental to the construction industry, and the use of them contributed to the civilisation we know today. It wasn’t until much later that the pure extraction and optimum use of these materials were fully understood and utilised. One of the first major developments in the metal industry was during the late 16th century when the earliest roll mill was sketched. With no evidence of its creation, the advanced concept was envisioned by Leonardo da Vinci. The earliest evidence of a metal rolling mill date from the 17th century and was used to create thin, uniform sheets. Rather than using hammers and pure man power, the typical rolling mill had two heavy cylinders which would press the hot metal that was passed through to form sheets of a specific thickness. This was done by hand and later, with a hydraulic press.
During the 18th century, the metal industry reached another turning point. With Abraham Darby producing the hard-wearing and slim sheets of cast iron. This new technique was relatively cheap which made the process accessible to various countries around the world. It was a metal revolution which contributed to huge advancements in construction and manufacturing.
The use of steel, a combination metal, was also prolific during this period, it could be produced on mass and at a relatively cheap price. The metal was extensively used after the discovery of its cost, strength and life expectancy. It was paramount for the industrial revolution and was used for machinery, weaponry and most importantly, the railroads.
The fabrication of metal is the process of manipulating one element or combining and manipulating several different elements to form a different material to the original elements, whether that is to vary the strength, appearance, quality or texture. The manipulation also has varying techniques from forming, bending, riveting, joining and much more. Techniques have become more and more accurate and precise as the knowledge of each element, how they perform and how to manipulate the structure has been extensively studied.
The use of metal in the modern world has continued to develop, and the use of the material is so common that many haven’t comprehended the history of its use and how we have come to so successfully extract, form and utilise the material.
It is now used worldwide. It has altered the course of human history and is likely to continue to do so in the future. Its use is wide spread, from car parts to residential balconies.