Jump to content

  • Sign Up to reply and join the friendliest Watch Forum on the web. Stick around, get to 50 posts and gain access to your full profile and additional features such as a personal messaging system, chat room and the sales forum PLUS the chance to enter our regular giveaways.
Sign in to follow this  

Stainless Steel: Born Modern but Long Arriving

Recommended Posts

The history of stainless steel, especially as a material for small consumer goods, is of such significance to the history of wristwatches that this topic could almost be placed in the Watch Discussion section of the Forum. Stainless steel arrived on the scene as a viable and durable alternative material to other metals/alloys for watch cases, backs and bracelets just at the time when wristwatches were still novel but about to gain popularity and find their first professional uses. And for the whole run of production wristwatches, right up until the present time, stainless steel has been a choice of metal in watch manufacture, chosen because of its strength and corrosion resistance. Over that lengthy time period, developments in stainless steel itself have been transferred to watches and the basic material has become increasingly less exclusive, eventually appearing on even inexpensive quartz watches. In recent years, the science of new materials has become a major theme in the design and manufacture of consumer products, and in the case of watches, one can envisage a decline in the use of stainless steel, with lighter, stronger, and yet more durable materials taking its place. However, as things stand today, quality stainless steel is still up there as a fine material for the non-ebauche components of watches and it has therefore fallen upon me to celebrate this extraordinary material by taking a look at its invention and early development.



A rather lovely all stainless steel Smiths wristwatch with a three-part Dennison case , made about 1947 (pic from cdn.shopify.com):





One name is most frequently associated with the invention of stainless steel – Harry Brearley – and there can be no denying how important his work was in perfecting and shaping what had already been in the minds of others before him. It would have been so easy for me in writing this topic had Harry Brearley been the inventor of stainless steel, period. But as is so often the case with inventions, the story is more complicated than that and I first need to discuss precursor developments prior to Brearley's work.

The origins of stainless steel go back to the 1820s when scientists in France and the UK noticed that iron-chromium alloys were more resistant to certain alloys; at this time, however, it was not possible to produce a high chromium content steel, and therefore further developments were halted for a period of fifty odd years. Eventually, Woods & Clark in England filed a patent for an acid and weather resistant iron alloy in 1872, containing 30-35% chromium plus a small proportion of tungsten, which could be argued represents the first “stainless steel.” However, the real starting point for this material is better seen as 1875 and the realisation by the Frenchman, Brustlein that in order to produce steels high in chromium, the carbon content had to be kept below about 0.15%

Once again, there was a period of stagnation while attempts were made to produce low carbon/high chromium steel, and the breakthrough came in 1895 when the German, Hans Goldschmidt, developed the aluminothermic reduction process, enabling carbon-free chromium to be created and used in iron alloys. Goldschmidt's work was subsequently expanded by research into various iron-chromium alloys by French scientist Leon Guillet in 1904 (which in today's classification would be numbered, 410, 420, 442, 446, and 440-C steels). Guillet even advanced his work to include iron-nickel-chrome alloys (now placed into the basic 300 series), and yet, through all this important work, Guillet failed to acknowledge, let alone promote, the potential corrosion resistant properties of these materials. Portevin also advanced the scientific background to corrosion resistant iron alloys, discovering 430 stainless steel in 1909, yet he too did not bring attention to the potential corrosion resistance of these materials.

In Germany, Friedrich Krupp Germaniawerft built the 366-ton yacht, Germania, in 1908, featuring a hull constructed from chrome-nickel steel, and in fact, the story of the Germania and the Nova Germania are a mini-topic in themselves (see APPENDIX below). Then, in 1911, two Germans, P Monnartz and W Borchers, discovered the correlation between corrosion resistance and chromium content, stating that a boost in corrosion resistance occurred in steel when the chromium content exceeded 10.5%. Monnartz & Borchers also did detailed work on the effect of molybdenum on corrosion resistance, obtaining a German patent for an alloy of 10% chromium and 2-5% molybdenum. In the following year, just when Harry Brearley was coming to his own discovery through his crucial investigations on the rusting of rifles, Krupp engineers, Benno Strauss and Eduard Maurer, patented austenitic stainless steel under the name, Nirosta. And this was not the only variety of stainless steel being introduced in 1912. In the United States, Christian Dantsizen and Frederick Becket were industrializing a ferritic stainless steel, while Elwood Haynes, also in North America, applied for a US patent for a martensitic stainless steel, and was stimulated in his work after his wife has asked him to make some rustless cutlery. Ironically, Haynes was turned down for a patent on the grounds that, “these chromium-iron alloys are not new.” He did manage to obtain a patent after World War One, in 1919, which was apparently for a “wrought-iron article,” and Haynes also took part in Brearley's efforts in the United States as we shall see.



An early stainless steel fire fender probably made in the period immediately after World War One and stamped, "I.C.STAINLESS STEEL" (pic from Online Galleries at cdn.og-cdn):




Thus, at this point in the long gestation of stainless steel, it is finally appropriate to introduce our own British “hero” of the material, Harry Brearley, not because he invented stainless steel – which he evidently did not – but because his work and the placing of his patent came at just the right time and in the right location, rendering stainless steel as being a modern material for a modern world. With Brearley's input, stainless steel could be seen as - and further developed into - an important breakthrough material for a multitude of fields and applications, from kitchen utensils and medical instruments to larger items, elements of machinery and large-scale construction.

Harry Brearley was born in Sheffield, Yorkshire, in 1871, where his father worked as a furnaceman for the important steel works company, Firth's. He began work, aged 12, as a cellar lad, subsequently being apprenticed to the laboratories. Brearley studied at night school, and in 1907 he was appointed manager of the research laboratory that was run jointly by Firth's and another leading Sheffield steel firm, Brown Bayley.

In 1912, Harry Brearley was investigating problems with wear to rifle barrels for a small arms manufacturer. Ironically, and not well known, he was not looking into corrosion as such but at the erosion of the internal diameter of rifle barrels caused by the action of heating and discharge of gases. Nevertheless, his researches led to him casting an iron-chromium alloy containing 12.8% chromium in an electric furnace, and after a heat treatment, it was found that this martensitic alloy effectively resisted corrosion. Incredible as it may seem, Brearley received no government interest in the new alloy, and even Firth's did not want to patent it, resisting Brearley's desire to apply for this protection. Brearley had sensibly refocused his attention away corrosion inside gun barrels towards using his “rustless steel” for domestic items, independently having the local firm of R. F. Mosley manufacture some knives in 1913. It was in this phase that the name, stainless steel, appears, when the cutlery manager at Mosley, Ernest Stuart, termed it thus after seeing that it didn't stain when vinegar was dropped on it. Brearley's failure to obtain a British patent for stainless steel caused him to leave Firth's and he now became works manager for Firth's rival, Brown Bayley.



A simple fruit knife made by Butler of Sheffield in about 1915, the blade in the then new and modern material of stainless steel. The handle, which appears to be in shagreen, has clearly suffered while the "Non-Stain" stainless steel blade is almost like new (pic from static1.squarespace.com):





The story of Harry Brearley and stainless steel could have ended at this point but it continued, on the other side of the Atlantic and in association with Elwood Haynes, who like Brearley, had tried but failed to obtain a patent for stainless steel in his own country. When Brearley attempted to file a US patent for his new alloy, he discovered that Haynes had already registered a similar patent for his own very similar iron-chromium alloys. As already mentioned here above, Haynes' patent application was rejected, and Brearley now pooled his resources with Haynes, carrying through a US patent in 1916 and, with a group of investors, forming the American Stainless Steel Corporation, with headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Brearley is designated the sole patentee on the US patent document and the date of granting was 5 September 1916. Interestingly, the patent is for “cutlery,” probably because a patent for a rustless steel would have been rejected.

Stainless steel quickly made its way into countless applications and products across a multitude of industries, and by the mid-1930s, most of the standard austenitic, martensitic and ferritic grades of stainless steel that are still in use today, had been introduced. Perhaps the most widely used grade of stainless steel from soon after its introduction, is austenitic 18-8 stainless (18% chromium and 8% nickel), developed by Brearley's successor at Firth's, W.H. Hatfield, in 1924. After the Second World War, primarily as a result of the development of jet engines and aircraft, it was found necessary to develop new grades with better strength to weight ratio, leading to precipitation hardening grades and the introduction of duplex stainless steel in the 1970s – the latter being further diversified into many new grades of duplex steel.



An extraordinary stainless steel 1936 Ford Model 68 Deluxe Tudor Touring Sedan, one of six made by Allegheny Steel using Ford's dies and built to promote the material - each car went originally to a top regional US Ford sales executive (pic from assets.hemmings.com):





I have so far avoided too much technical and metallurgical detail in this brief survey of early stainless steel. However, something should be said at this juncture about its basic ability to withstand corrosion. When unprotected carbon steel meets a wet or damp atmosphere, rust is formed – a porous, flaky layer of iron oxide with a greater volume than the original metal, leading to it falling away to reveal newly unprotected metal beneath. Stainless steels containing sufficient chromium behave differently, however, undergoing passivation whereby a thin layer of inert chromium oxide forms spontaneously on the surface of the metal, protecting it from corrosion. When scratched, the bare metal revealed heals itself by virtue of this chromium oxide being relaid.

Although stainless steel has its own generalised "built-in"anti-corrosion action when exposed to air and water, it is susceptible to local corrosion under certain conditions and it is not always easy to predict when this will occur. Another problem can occur when stainless steel is in constant contact with other metals/alloys. In this situation – relevant to watches – the stainless steel remains intact but produces corrosion in the adjoining metal.

For those members who are interested in the different families and grades of stainless steel, and who relish the scientific approach, there are obviously sources of information available and Wikipedia is a good place to start.

As a final parting shot to this brief look at stainless steel history, I shall throw a spanner in the works. There can be no doubt that stainless steel has proved to be a material probably essential for the rise of modern technology, industry and medicine. And it has also been a frequent material of choice for watches, especially those made for professional or rugged use, including diving. Nevertheless, it is a strange fact that stainless steel has never “taken over” so to speak. Indeed, my Ladybird book from 1973 entitled, “Learnabout Metalwork,” ignores stainless steel almost completely, with just the term, “Special Alloy Steels” appearing in a diagram in the inside back of the book, as being for tools.

There are some obvious reasons why stainless steel never came to dominate the world of materials. No doubt its relative expense compared to mild/carbon steel has played an important part, in conjunction with stainless steel probably being a more difficult metal to work than ordinary steel and other, softer, metals. Also, not all applications for metals suit the use of stainless steel, such as those where weight saving is paramount. Then there is the dramatic rise of alternative materials to stainless steel during the same period in which stainless steel was being developed, including aluminium and plastics. Indeed, as I indicated at the beginning of this topic, stainless steel may already be on the wane, with newer materials such as titanium, carbon fibre and modern ceramics being found more suitable for many applications. And finally, there are the aesthetics of stainless steel to consider, which are not always to everybody's taste. Mind you, effective ways have been found to differently finish, coat and plate stainless steel, so the cold look of a stainless steel watch, for example, can be modified. These last remarks are just personal notes, and like many of us watch lovers, a good inox or stainless steel wristwatch where the material is unadorned can be a thing of beauty.



APPENDIX: The Germania Racing Schooner; featuring a hull made of the then pioneering material, now designated stainless steel, in the form of an iron-chromium-nickel alloy.

This most beautiful racing sailboat was built in 1908 by Krupp-Germania-Werft at Kiel, Germany, with Count Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach as its original owner, until 1917. In 1914, the boat was seized by the British as a war prize while attending Cowes, then from 1917 it passed through a number of hands and a name change in 1921 to the Half Moon, leaving for New York and ending up as a floating restaurant and dance hall off Miami in the States, having been badly damaged in a storm off Virgina. The final blow came in 1930 when the Germania sank near Key Biscaine. Ironically, the boat did not die in vain because in 2000 it became the seventh Florida Underwater Archeological Preserve, then also was added to US National register of Historic Places, in May 2001. Even more incredible is the fact that the Germania was recreated in 2011 when a near-exact replica of the boat, named the Germania Nova, was built by Factoria Naval de Marin in Spain, following the original Max Oertz design. If you are interested in purchasing the 196 foot long Germania Nova, with its 5 staterooms and five cabins for10 guests (plus room for a crew of 12 plus the captain), then you will find it being advertised online for the price of 5,900,000 Euros.


The original Germania racing schooner, built in 1908 (pic from i.pinimg.com/originals):



Another shot of the Germania (pic from museumsinthesea.com):




The Germania Nova in all its glory (pic from cdn.yachtco.com)




Another shot of the Germania Nova (pic from jacktarsuperyachtcharter.com)












  • Like 4
  • Thanks 2

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Outstanding ! Many thanks, and that schooner is a thing of ethereal beauty. 

  • Thanks 1

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Yes, stdape, a good question and if I had been able to find the answer then I would certainly have included it in my topic. To be honest, there are many questions concerning various "firsts" for almost anything that mankind has invented or discovered which just don't have simple or conclusive answers. Indeed, as I tried to show in my topic, even the question of who actually first invented/discovered stainless steel itself is a complex and interesting story.:)

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Maybe some Watch Owners can add dates of their Stainless Steel Watches try and get more idea of Approx date. As not all can be dated not going to be easy but any out there with Dates ?

  • Like 1

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Interesting, stdape. In past research subjects I have been engaged in, the use of firmly datable items can be extremely useful in discovering timelines for different styles, materials,etc.. In the case of watches, the logging of examples that are, for example, inscribed and dated for a particular person or event, could be most helpful to those of us doing our best to unfold and tell the history of watches.:)

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

From the first to the last line, outstanding article and extraordinary material. Thanks for your precious work!

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.