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The story of Harry Brearley

According to one mindset, Harry Brearley was a poor boy exploited by capitalism and forced to work in "dark satanic mills". If he had lived in PM Brown's world, he would never have left school at twelve but would have been immured in a state comprehensive until he was twenty. According to an entirely different point of view he escaped from school, found a profession he loved, became an expert in it, earned a living and invented stainless steel.

Born in Sheffield, where knives had been made at least as far back as the 13th century, Harry Brearley did leave school at the age of twelve to work in one of Sheffield's steelworks. He learned on the job while going to night school and after a few years began working in a lab specializing in chemical analysis and steel production. There he came face to face with a major industry problem, or as he saw it, a brilliant opportunity - steel corroded.

In 1908, when he was in his late 30s, Brearley was made the head of the Brown Firth Laboratories, the joint concern of two companies. His research led him to experiment with adding other alloys to steel - in addition to carbon - to prevent corrosion.

The process of studying the microstructure of these alloys was demanding, but five years later, in August 1913, Brearley cast the first stainless steel, an alloy of iron, carbon and chromium.


Chrysler Building, New York

Today stainless steel is used in cookware, cutlery, cars, hardware, surgical instruments, appliances, industrial equipment, food storage tankers and aerospace and construction material. (It was used in the iconic pinnacle of the Chrysler Building.)

Harry left Brown Firth in 1915, due to a patent dispute. Unfairly, it seems to me, he did not make money from his invention, but he did rise to the pinnacle of his profession, and was awarded the Iron and Steel Institute's Bessemer Gold Medal in 1920.

Sheffield, the town where Benjamin Huntsman discovered the crucible technique and Henry Bessemer mass produced steel with his Bessemer converter, is the most wooded city in Britain with over 100,000 trees in parks and open spaces and eighty ancient woodlands.

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