Friday, 9 February 2018

Wootz steel, India's ancient wonder alloy that revolutionized modern material sciences

Wootz is the anglicized version of Ukku in Kannada Hukku in  Telegu. The Tamil and Malayalam word is Urrukku, meaning hardened steel.  It is a super strong steel and records point out that it was exported from southern states to countries like China, Europe the Arab world and the Middle East centuries ago. Over several centuries, Wootz steel dominated many regions across the world in the past. 
sword made of Wootz steel, madee in India. Tumblr

What is so special about this ancient metal alloy and its popularity? It is a super-high carbon steel exhibiting advanced process  known for such quality as high impact hardness and super plasticity, besides light-weight.  The current steel is no match for this ancient steel made in south India.  Wootz steel invited the attention of no less person than Michael Faraday, an  inventor of electricity and expert in magnetism  who visited  India and studied it for some years (1818-22). He was quite impressed about the high quality of steel made with considerable ease in South India. However, his experiments with various alloys did not give him the desired quality comparable to that of Wootz.

Several European travelers such as Francis Buchanan (1807), Benjamin Heyne (1818) and  H.W Voysey (1832) in the 19th century visited  many places in south India and got the first hand information on the crucible  process of steel. In 1912 Robert Hadfield based on his study of  crucible steel from Sri Lanka observed that Indian wootz steel is far superior to that of the European steel  produced then.

stainless steel tube
In the annals of advanced  modern metallurgy, India's Wootz steel produced in the 18th and 19th centuries occupied a per-eminent position as it was rated as some of the finest in the world with  1.5 to 2% carbon. No doubt it was sought in the Europe and middle eastern countries. It is believed to have been used  to fashion 

Damascus steel.
Above image:  Close-up of an 18th-century Persian-forged Damascus steel sword.  Damascus steel was a type of steel used for making sword blades in the Near East. It is made of  made with wootz steel imported from India. These swords have  distinctive patterns of banding and mottling reminiscent of flowing water. Such blades were reputed to be tough, resistant to shattering, and capable of being honed to a sharp, resilient edge. The steel is named after Damascus, the capital city of Syria. During the Middle ages, Damascus steel was produced in India and brought back to Europe. The similarities in the markings  made the Europeans to revive pattern welding in an attempt to duplicate Damascus steel. As the process used by Damascus smiths to produce their blades was lost, recent efforts by metallurgists and blade smiths like  Verhoeven and Pendray did not involve pattern welding...................

the Damascus blades with a watered steel pattern and was widely traded over ancient Europe, China, the Arab countries and the Middle East, cutting across many religions, cultures and landscapes.  Until 1821, a genuine Damascus sword made of wootz steel was not replicated the one with high carbon steel originating from etched crystalline texture.  However, the other type the welded one with iron and steel alloy was widely used by Vikings and Samurai. Studies on wootz indicate the special process that retains  the 1-2% carbon  enhances its usefulness, cutting power and high impact hardness. Some of these  rare special qualities  put Wootz steel, an eastern Technical product of ancient India, under a special category and gave an impetus to the development of  modern metallographic studies.
Wootz steel of India. SlidePlayer
Tipu Sultan of Mysore, Karnataka.
 Above image: The research study  was jointly done by the  scientists and conservationists from Italy and the UK on a single edged sword known as ''shamsheer'' made in India from the Wallace collection, London. Indian rulers,especially Tipu Sultan of Mysore used this kind of sword widely in wars.  A historical sword used by Tipu Sahib, a sworn enemy of  British Bobs  was given to Charles, 4th Duke of Richmond  along with  the Sword Belt  by Sir Arthur Wellesley Esq who defeated the brave Sultan in the decisive battle at Srirangapatna, Karnataka in 1799. Tipu died fighting with a sword in his hand and his famous heavy gold ring engraved with the Hindu God's name RAMA in Devanagari...........................

India's history of steel making goes way back to several centuries.  Cyril Stanley Smith was instrumental in getting world attention about the high quality ancient steel by this writings.  The new field of modern metallurgical  and material sciences relied heavily on the study of  steel in the past few centuries. The Eastern technological product, using the crucible process, gave inspiration to the Scientists in the West to go deep into the material sciences.  In the wake of their reporting of  crucible steel making in south India, many European metal experts took keen interest to study it in depth.   There  are many literary references about the high quality iron and steel from India. Mention may be made of sources from the Mediterranean region, Rome and Greek, etc. ASI finding from Tamil Nadu already found out the existence of crucible steel process long before the Christian Era.This particular type of steel was so popular among the Arabs in those days in the 12th century . The Arab Edrisi mentioned that  the Hindus  mastered the art of iron and steel manufacturing  and that it was impossible to find anything alternative to  Indian steel (Hinduwani).  It was in the Indian workshops, it is reported, where the most famous Sabers in the world were forged. As mentioned above, many European travelers and experts  visited the workshops in Mysore, Malabar, Telangana, etc to get to know the steel process. That in the late 1600s, steel export was a major foreign exchange earner and  Wootz ingots in several thousands were shipped from the Coromandel Coast of India to Persia points out an important fact that its production was on a huge scale for before the Industrial revolution in Europe. In  the 19th century Lahore (Pakistan), Amritsar, Agra, Jaipur, Gwalior, Tanjore, Mysore, Golconda etc., were the known  centers where daggers and swords were made of wootz steel. Unfortunately, none of them have the traces of old foundries today. Several studies, including the one undertaken by the Archaeological Survey of India conclude that crucible steel process has  an ancient history in the Indian subcontinent and the scientific studies also confirm the use of crucible process in ancient Tamil Nadu as 

3rd 4th century BC. Delhi Iron pillar.
Above image:  The iron pillar of Delhi is a 7 m (23 ft) kirti stambha (column of fame or victory column), originally erected and dedicated as dhvaja (banner) to Hindu deity lord Vishnu in 3rd to 4th century CE by king Chandra. It is well-known  for the rust-resistant composition of the metals used in its construction. The pillar has attracted the attention of archaeologists and materials scientists  The iron pillar stands within the courtyard of Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque..........................

revealed by it high carbon content.  The famous Iron pillar dating back to third or fourth century BC is an excellent example. Despite the time factor, one can not find  any  traces of rust on the Iron pillar.