Harry & Stainless Steel | Bailey of Sheffield

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One of eight siblings born into poverty near the Wicker, Sheffield, Harry Brearley (1871-1948) could be considered an unlikely individual to make a revolutionary metallurgic discovery. By his early thirties Harry had earned an independent reputation as an experienced professional, astute in the resolution of practical and industrial metallurgical problems. In 1901 he briefly left Thomas Firth & Sons to start a new laboratory at Kayser Ellison & Co. steel works, which was also based in Sheffield, but in 1903 he returned to the firm spending three years experimenting with different ideas for steel composition as the works manager of its steel plant in Riga, Russia.

In 1907 Harry returned to Sheffield to take charge of the newly established Firth & Brown Research Laboratories. In 1912 the Firth & Brown Research Laboratories were commissioned to study rifle barrel metal erosion by a small arms manufacturer who wished to prolong the life of its guns, which were eroding too quickly due to the action of heating and discharge gasses. In response Harry set out to discover an erosion resistant steel, not a corrosion resistant one, and began experimenting with steel alloys containing chromium, because these were known to have a higher melting point than ordinary steels. He experimented with several variations of steel alloy, ranging from 6 per cent to 15 per cent chromium with different measures of carbon. In order to gauge the wear resistance of the alloy samples, he etched each with acid and examined the effect on the grain structure of the steel under microscope.

On the 13th August 1913 Harry created a steel alloy with 12.8% chromium and 0.24% carbon, which is argued to be the first ever batch of what became known as 'stainless steel'. The etching re-agents he used were based on nitric acid and he discovered that this new steel strongly resisted acid attack. However, his employers, Firth Brown Steels, were not interested in the armament potential of this new alloy, which Harry called 'rustless steel'. Therefore, he suggested alternative uses, in particular the utility of such an alloy to Sheffield's Cutlery Industry.

Harry had exposed samples of his rustless steel to vinegar and other food acids such as lemon juice, and found that it resisted attack from all such substances. At that time the majority of cutlery was either constructed of carbon steel, which had to be thoroughly washed and dried after use, and even then rust stains would have to be rubbed off regularly using carborundum stones. Or, it was plated with nickel or silver, which would eventually wear through to the base alloy. However, his suggestion that rustless steel would be an excellent material for cutlery production was publicly ignored, although privately Firth's are known to have sent two samples to Sheffield cutlers for their opinions. They reported back that the alloy was useless due to difficulties in forging, grinding and hardening. However, these cutlers took no instruction from Harry regarding the correct temperatures or specifications to produce rustless steel wares and declared both batches a failure. The talk of the town was that Harry Brearley was "the man who invented knives that won't cut"

However, being a man of considerable conviction Harry was unperturbed by this setback. Through an intermediary he purchased one hundred weight of chromium steel from his employer and arranged for it to be made under his own careful supervision into rustless steel cutlery by a local cutlery firm: R.F. Mosley & Co. of Portland Works, Randall Street. Working closely with the cutlery manager of R.F. Mosley & Co., Ernest Stuart, who recognised that rustless cutlery could be of considerable merit, Harry supervised the production of a number of batches of cutlery, which he gave to his friends, asking them to return them "if fruit, condiment or food marks them". None were returned. In the process of testing the corrosion resistance of Harry's new steel alloy with vinegar for himself, Ernest Stuart commented that stainless steel would be a more marketable name than rustless steel.

Thus, 'stainless steel' was born in Portland Works.....

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