The Tragedy of Steel

Sorry if this is a bit long and off-topic, but it’s incredibly important to anyone who makes computer use a significant part of their lifestyle. Please, read this and pass it on. Link people to this post, or copy it and repost it yourself.*  Translate it into other languages if you have to. Everyone on the Internet needs to read and understand this.

I don’t think that anyone can deny that the technological ability to create mass-produced steel as a commodity material is essential to our way of life. We use it in almost everything these days: automobiles, computers, household appliances, children’s toys, buildings, street signs, you name it. The food you eat was most likely grown on a farm that uses steel machinery to increase its productivity, then processed and packaged at a factory using more steel machinery, and millions of ordinary people eat their food with stainless steel cutlery. The clothes you wear were made with even more machinery, again made of steel. Even if you make your own clothes by hand, it’s hard to avoid the use of steel; what are needles and scissors made of?

There are few other things that have had such a fundamental impact on our development as a technological society. The only other technology I can think of that’s as basic to modern civilization as steel is electricity.

We’ve been using machinery to raise our standard of living ever since the Industrial Revolution, which began back in the late 18th century. Industrial steelmaking dates back to the same time. Benjamin Huntsman’s crucible steel technique, developed in the 1740s, pioneered the industrial manufacture of steel, making high-quality steel available (at a premium price) to the general public. About a hundred years later, Henry Bessmer developed a special forge, known as the Bessmer Converter, which was able to produce good steel much more quickly, requiring much less fuel, than Huntsman’s crucible process. The Bessmer Converter reduced the cost of steel to less than 1/7 what it had cost from the crucible process, turning it from a premium good to a commodity. The price of Bessmer’s steel was competitive with wrought iron, but it was much stronger and more suitable as a structural material, and the rest, as they say, was history.

However, in contrast to the complete triumph that the history of steel since Huntsman and Bessmer has been, the other side of the story has been a true tragedy for human civilization. It’s well-known that steel ha been around since before Huntsman’s crucible. The image of the medieval knight, clad in shining steel armor and carrying a big steel sword, is an iconic piece of Western cultural imagery. But steel has been around for a lot longer even than the Dark Ages. A crucible-style process was known in India dating back at least to 300 BC, producing an alloy known as wootz steel (or Damascus steel) that was highly valued in Europe for making swords. The secret to making wootz was held carefully, even as the process gradually spread over the course of almost 2,000 years. By the 18th century, it was being manufactured in at least 1,000 sites throughout the Far East and Middle East, but never in any great amounts, and the techniques declined, then died out completely at right about the same time as Huntsman independently developed his own version of crucible steel. Even today, the historical process for the production of wootz steel remains a mystery lost to the ravages of time.

From our modern Information Age perspective, it’s difficult to imagine such an important piece of knowledge being lost entirely. They had the printing press by then; it had been around for centuries. Why was the technique never documented, recorded and preserved?
A better question would be to ask why wootz steel had to be developed in India around 300 BC in the first place. As ancient as that is, the history of steel goes back much further. Some of the earliest known samples have been discovered in Africa of all places, dating back to 1400 BC. Steel was known to the ancient Chinese, and also to the Roman Empire, primarily as a military material, centuries before the time of Christ. Why did steel have to keep getting reinvented? And why did the technologies pioneered by Huntsman and Bessmer succeed in establishing industrial steel production when so many previous techniques had not? This is a very important issue, as the answer touches on one of the most important issues of modern society.

Compared to other metals known to ancient cultures, iron is very difficult to work with. It melts at a high temperature, requiring hotter flames than many primitive fuels were able to create. It oxidizes easily, and its ore is difficult to extract iron metal from. Steel is an alloy made of iron and carbon, but carbon tends to burn up at high temperatures. To make it worse, steel is only actually produced if the iron is mixed with a very small amount of carbon, in a very narrow percentage range. Not enough, and you get slightly harder-than-usual iron. Too much, and you get a heavy, brittle metal known as pig iron, which is basically worthless in industrial applications, except as an intermediate phase in certain steelmaking processes.

Getting it right is a difficult trick, especially without an existing industrial base, and the handful of times that ancient metallurgists managed to stumble upon the secret and realize what they’d ended up producing, they kept it to themselves as a carefully-controlled trade secret. Steel was a very valuable metal for military applications, and it was an incredible source of wealth to whoever controlled its supply. Sometimes the secret got passed on from master to apprentice or father to son. Sometimes it didn’t, and the secret was lost again until the next smith came along and discovered it.

This being historically true, an even better question to ask would be why Huntsman and Bessmer’s steelmaking techniques didn’t get the same treatment. The reason? Because they were living in England in a time when the British government, in an attempt to stimulate the progress of science and technology, had implemented a system of patents, allowing an inventor the exclusive right to produce their invention and profit therefrom for a limited time, under the explicit condition that the details of the technology be recorded and published. Interestingly, Bessmer’s industrial steelmaking process came out of patent production, and the technique was released to the public domain, in the 1870s. Karl Benz (as in Mercedes-Benz) created the Motorwagen, the first modern automobile, in 1885, built around an engine he developed in 1878.

Why is this relevant to modern times? Because techniques for manufacturing steel, one of the most fundamental pillars of an advanced civilization, have been known at least as far back as 1400 BC. If the technical knowledge to create it had been widely disseminated immediately, the Industrial Revolution would have followed soon after. Who knows how much further along we would be today? But due to repeated attempts to keep the technology secret, steel remained a valuable luxury material instead of the inexpensive commodity that eventually fueled the greatest, most fundamental technological and economic boom in human history.

In other words, valueless steel is far more valuable than valuable steel! This is the way patent (and copyright) law was designed, for exactly this reason: to enrich the public domain. Had the ancient smiths understood the potential of steel, their hoarding of the technology could be considered one of the greatest crimes ever perpetrated against humanity. But of course that was not what happened. It was just a standard case of short-sighted businessmen sacrificing more important considerations for immediate-term profits, a tragedy that ended up setting back the progress of human civilization by three thousand years!

Intellectual property laws were written for the ultimate purpose of enriching the public domain and raising the standard of living for the entire nation. The monopoly-on-production provision that people these days speak of as being synonymous with copyrights and patents was never intended to be more than a means to an end: a financial incentive to create new things that will enrich all of society.

There’s currently a treaty under discussion by several nations, including the USA, to significantly strengthen intellectual property protection and turn the worst excesses of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act into international law. It’s known as the Anti-Counterfeitting Trade Agreement, and it’s being drafted in secret. Only a few leaks have provided us with any clue as to what this proposed treaty states, and it’s worrisome. Modern short-sighted businessmen, spiritual descendants of the ancient steelsmiths, are lobbying their legislative bodies yet again for stronger protections on the exclusive production of creations they hold the rights to. They warn of dire economic consequences if the desired protections are not granted and enforced. But a historical perspective tells us a very different story. The tragedy of steel shows us that the consequences of proprietary technology being successfully protected are far, far worse.

Proprietary steel set mankind’s progress back three thousand years, without the benefit of strong encryption that could theoretically not be broken for millions of years. If this treaty passes, backed by modern technology to restrict the dissemination of information, it’s impossible to estimate how much damage it will do to technological progress and innovation. If you live in a country that is considering participating in this treaty, and you have any way to influence the development of laws, even something as simple as writing an email to a representative, please do so. The modern steelsmiths have gone too far, and this treaty needs to be stopped.

*As the author, I grant unrestricted permission to copy and redistribute this article, so long as the content remains unchanged, or to translate it into other languages to facilitate distribution, so long as the original intent of the article is preserved intact.


  1. Xepol says:

    absurd oversimplifcations of complex situations do not help your side of the argument – it just paints the entire group as facile and not worth considering seriously at best.

  2. Hmm? What part of what I wrote is “absurdly oversimplified?” I could have gone into a much more detailed explanation of pretty much any point I covered, but the post was more than long enough already. Making vague disparaging comments with no details or actual substance doesn’t help anything either.

  3. delphigeist says:

    Hi Mason,
    I have to agree with Xepol.
    (off topic, maybe?)If you look back in the past 30 or 60 years you can see a acceleration in our modern technology and I believe more than 90% of the ideas where patented if not more, furthermore patenting intellectual most likely that will help the mankind, i.e. if I where to invent a quantum computer that will change everything that we know about binary PC today and patent the technology, I believe others will try hard to replicate it, so hard that they might come up with a way better technology or solution(s) to other problems.
    Bottom line, encourage others to do what you patented or even better(most likely), I believe the best example can be: Windows, Mac OS and Linux…

  4. Delphigeist:

    How is that in agreement with Xepol? It sounds like you’re arguing my side. Patents and copyrights, as originally conceived, are good because they encourage people to come up with new, useful ideas that can end up benefiting everyone. I agree wholeheartedly with that.

    What’s bad and needs to be stopped is the abuse of patent and copyright laws to suppress innovation, competition, and people’s rights, and also the slow scope creep of these laws’ protection periods, which was originally expired after only a few years and is now moving slowly towards perpetual coverage so that nothing ends up in the public domain. That doesn’t benefit society, and it turns the copyright and patent holders from benefactors to parasites.

  5. delphigeist says:

    Now this makes some sense to me, yes I fully agree with this comment!


  6. Jim McKeeth says:

    Mason, your example argues against your point: Steel was kept a trade secret and didn’t help mankind until patents provided a protection so that it became publicly available. That is the whole point of your story “patents are good.” Per the link you provided, ACTA is designed to create international standards on intellectual property – in other words providing the wonderful benefits of patents you outlined to other countries.

    A better post would have been to outline some of the damage the DMCA has done, and point out how ACTA extends them. For example take a look at this article about the “12 Dangerous and unintended consequences of the DMCA”

  7. Ken Knopfli says:

    If you are producing steel, you are not farming or hunting for your proportion of food.

    It needed a time where societies became large enough and could afford to sacrifice enough people to specialize in science, industry and non-food production in general.

    As an aside, it will be interesting to see how the world copes with maintaining the entire infrastructure we now take for granted once population numbers begin to fall again.

  8. Mason Wheeler says:

    Ken: So in other words, you need an established civilization that knows about specialization, division of labor, and city-building. All of this was well-established in plenty of different places by the 14th century BC. A quick glance a Wikipedia’s entry for that century mentions Greeks, Egyptians, Assyrians, Hittites, Chinese and a reference to Hindu culture in India.

    Jim: The main point of my example is that “valueless steel is far more valuable than valuable steel.” As you say, patents provided a protection so that the knowledge became publicly available. But the concepts of “protection” and “publicly available” are somewhat at odds with each other. What matters to society is the publicly available knowledge. That was the genius of the British patent system: patents produce the incentive to innovate, then expire after a few years so the knowledge passes into the public domain to benefit everyone. The same was true of copyright.

    WAS true. Over the last few decades, publishers, (the very people Parliament established the first copyright law explicitly to protect people against,) have been lobbying successfully for a steady increase in the scope and protective duration of copyright law, twisting it into an Orwellian parody of the original concept. The ACTA is a continuation of this trend, and it will make the needed reforms, which mostly consist of reversals of existing laws such as the DMCA, that much more difficult to accomplish.

  9. Paul Rice says:

    Take a look at Against Intellectual Property or listen to it at It is a patent lawyer’s argument that any IP interferes with the progress that free societies would make in the absence of IP law.

    Ideas and methods aren’t scarce. IP law artificially makes them scarce to the detriment of us all.

    And it isn’t businessmen who make patent and copyright law.

  10. Ken Knopfli says:

    @Mason Wheeler: Knowing about the division of labour does not help if there are not enough people. Ancient cities had populations of around 10000 people. You would need to sacrifice a large portion of that population just to mine and transport the ore, let alone producing large amounts of steel.

    It is also a question of demand. What would they have done with a pile of metal? They needed swords, shears, knives and plows. That’s about it. And alternative metals existed.

    Many family names such as Miller, Cooper and Schumacher testify to the fact that until very recently, trades tended to stay in families. This was because it took long to pass on the skills needed to do the job. For normal people dying on average at age of 35 and wives being lost in childbirth, an education took too much economically active time from their lives. Reading and writing was for priests who dedicated their lives to that. Passing skills down from father to son was quicker, convenient, and more importantly, guaranteed income.

    And even if they did write steelmaking skills down. In what language would it be done, on what would they write them and how permanent would those records be? And having done that, how would this knowledge be distributed?

    I think you have a simplistic view of the ancient world. Life back then was about survival.

  11. […] written before about the history of steel, how it’s been around for millennia, but was of limited use to civilization as a whole until […]