Metallurgy is the study and science of the properties and behaviours of metals. It also includes how metals are extracted from ores. Modern metallurgy comes from a desire to fully understand how metals behave. In ancient times, those who worked with metals were considered mysterious and talked about in folklore. Early metalworking methods were crude, using heat to work the metal. Most early discoveries were being made by trial and error. Nothing was recorded. Unless the methods were handed down through the generations, techniques were lost.
Progress in metallurgy and metalworking began during the Industrial Revolution when we moved from using open forges to production furnaces in order to work the metals. Nowadays, most of the items we take for granted to get through our day depend upon metals. Our civilization used vast amounts of steel, titanium, aluminium, nickel and copper. Alloys from these metals are used to manufacture cars, aircraft, ships, spacecraft, buildings and bridges. Even the machines used to produce these are made of metal.
Almost all of today’s electricity uses depend upon aluminium and copper. We see new applications for metal every day. Oftentimes, we see them through the successful combination of metals with fibre-reinforced composites and plastics. Metals such as zirconium and titanium were impossible to extract from ores or to smelt until recently. Now, these metals are used in many industries, especially aviation and space travel.
Metal is one of the most important substances used by man to control our environment. Modern advances in warfare, agriculture, transportation and even cooking would not be possible without metals. The history of metallurgy is a story of how human uses metal to define our civilization. Beginning with gold, man has used metals to improve their quality of life. The most precious and attractive of metals, gold was also the easiest for our ancestors to acquire. Found in stream beds, gold was the first of the metals to entice man. It is soft, malleable and easy to shape. Gold remains one of the world’s most luxurious metals.
Copper was the next to be discovered. This metal could also be smelted and shaped. Unlike gold which is too soft for practical applications, copper is strong and durable and could be formed into tools. Neolithic civilizations began working with copper as early as 7000 BC. They formed it into sickles and knives, as well as cooking utensils. The discovery of fire resulted in significant progress in metallurgy. Metal could now be cast and poured into moulds. Mineral ores could also be smelted and the metals extracted. There is evidence of smelted copper from as early as 3800 BC.
The first mining appears around 4000 BC, when deep shafts were cut into hillsides within the Balkans. Miners here extracted copper ore. Copper mines were also worked around 3800 BC in the Sinai Peninsula. It appears that smelting was also part of the metallurgy process in this area. Today, metals and metal alloys are used to produce everything from tools to machines to medical equipment. Metallurgy impacts almost every element of society, including industry, medicine, transportation and aviation. Metallurgy is indeed a critical part of modern civilization, turning metals into very important items we essentially use today.