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What is stainless steel? The average person has no inkling, but it is all around us, and readers will be surprised to learn some of the stories of this remarkable material that one prominent metallurgist called “the miracle metal.”

Every day, most of us use stainless steel tableware and wear a wrist- watch with a stainless steel case and band. There are stainless steel racks in refrigerators and ovens, and there are stainless steel toasters, tea kettles, and even kitchen sinks. Cars have stainless steel exhaust systems that last for ten years instead of three when they were made of ordinary steel.

The amazing story is told of Harry Brearley, who rose from poverty, became a self-taught metallurgist, was one of the early discoverers of stainless steel, and received the Bessemer Gold Medal.

In the early days of stainless steel, the metal was often used when the goal was to produce the finest, the most durable, and the most beautiful product that money could buy. The Rolls-Royce Motor Car Company, for example, was one of the first to use stainless steel on an automobile. Their 1929 car displayed the most striking radiator grille imaginable in silvery stainless steel.

In America in 1930, the office building of automaker Walter P. Chrysler opened in New York City. The Chrysler Building was the tallest and most ornate skyscraper in the world. The top 100 feet of the tower was clad in Nirosta stainless steel, making it the most beautiful and most visible building on the New York City skyline.

In 1934, a Philadelphia autobody company tried their hand at building a stainless steel train for the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy Rail-road. It was a streamlined, lightweight, luxurious, silvery train that became the world’s fastest. It traveled 3.2 million miles in 25 years and is now on display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

Eero Saarinen designed the St. Louis Gateway Arch, which was completed in 1965. The 630 foot, stainless-clad arch is the tallest monument. Saarinen wanted the arch to last for a thousand years.

Stainless steel was an expensive material, costing as much as 15 times that of ordinary steel. The story is told of how one young metallurgist in 1970 discovered, in the laboratory, a process that would cut the cost of stainless steel in half and produce better steel. The other part of the story was that it took 12 years to discover how to develop the process for large-scale production.

How it was possible for things like these to happen and the story of how stainless steels were discovered are explained in this first history of stainless steel. Stainless steels have become the third most widely used metals, following aluminum and steel.

Harold M. Cobb
Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
March 2009

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