The History of Stainless Steel

Early Stainless Steel Development:

The development of stainless steel occurred over about a 100 year time period, and was based on the accomplishments of numerous individuals. In 1821, Pierre Berthier, a French Metallurgist, discovered that iron-chromium alloys were resistant to some acids. He had the foresight to suggest their use for cutlery, but the resulting samples were too brittle to be of practical use. Berthier’s samples did not include the proper combination of carbon and chromium needed to create the favorable properties of today’s stainless steel alloys. Then, in 1875, a Frenchman named Brustlein recognized the importance of very low carbon levels, but the expertise to achieve this chemical composition did not exist at the time. This hurdle was overcome in the late 1890’s by German, Hans Goldschmidt, who developed a process for producing carbon-free chromium.

During the next two decades, multiple independent researchers furthered stainless steel development in laboratory settings. Frenchman Leon Guillet published early research on alloys with compositions that today would be known as 410, 420, 446 and 440 C. Also, he published a detailed study of the basic metallurgical structure for austenitic stainless steels. In England and France, Portevin published studies on an alloy that today would be considered 430 stainless steeli. Concurrently, in the United States, Christian Dantsizen and Frederick Becket also worked towards developing ferritic stainless steels.ii In 1911, Philip Monnartz from Germany, documented the relationship between chromium content and corrosion resistance. In addition, there were many other contributors to the field that are not included here.

Invention of Stainless Steel:

While this extensive research was leading towards the invention of stainless steel, the metallurgist that is generally given credit for the development discovered the alloy somewhat inadvertently. In 1912, while working for the Brown-Firth Laboratories in England, Harry Brearly experimented with steels containing chromium in an attempt to find a way to protect the internal diameter of rifle barrels from eroding too quickly. During the course of his evaluation, he noticed that his samples were very resistant to corrosion when exposed to nitric acid. He then tested the samples with lemon juice, vinegars and other food acids and achieved the similar results. He quickly recognized the commercial importance of the resulting material. By 1913, under his own initiative, he produced the first stainless steel knives at local cutlery, R.F. Mosley.
This first stainless steel product was not ideal. The stainless steel in Brearly’s knives was in the hardened and tempered condition. In 1914, workers at Krupp Iron Works in Germany discovered the benefits of adding nickel to stainless steel. This lead to a stainless steel that was more ductile, and more resistant to acid iii.

Stainless Steel in Production:

Stainless steel quickly made its way into countless applications and products across a multitude of industries. Between 1913 and 1920, stainless steel was first used in cutlery, scalpels, and the engines of numerous aircraft models. By the 1920’s, stainless steel was used in cars, chemical tanks, milk tankers, the Chrysler Building in New York, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and moreii.
Most of the standard austenitic, martensitic and ferritic grades of stainless steel that are still in use today were introduced between 1913 and 1935. After the Second World War, new grades with a better weight to strength ratio were needed, which led to the development of the precipitation hardening grades, such 17:4 PHiii. In the 1970’s, duplex stainless steel first came to market. Many duplex stainless steel grades have been invented over the past three decades, and new ones continue to be introduced on a regular basis.
Stainless Steel Usage Today:
Today, there are over 150 grades of stainless steel, fifteen of which are commonly usediv. In 2010, stainless steel worldwide crude production achieved a record high of 30.7 million tons. Ferritic and austenitic stainless steels account for more than 95% of this. Martensitic and precipitation hardening stainless steels account for about 4%. Duplex stainless steels currently account for less than 1% of stainless steel production, but they are expected to account for significant amounts of future growth. Over the past decade, duplex stainless steel production has increased by 100%v.
Stainless steel has only been in existence for about 100 years, but the growth in stainless steel has been the highest of any material in the world. For the past three decades, stainless steel has averaged a 6% annual growth ratevi. Much of this growth can be attributed to the fact that stainless steel usage can be very cost effective. In 2001, the US Federal Highway Administration released a study which estimates the total direct cost of corrosion in the United States at $276 billion per yearvii. The potential to save significant amounts of money by utilizing stainless steel is enormous. This is especially true today as new stainless steel grades are introduced that better target specific corrosion, and as our knowledge base continues to increase regarding choosing the right stainless steel for an application.


  1. “SSINA: Stainless Steel: History.” SSINA: Specialty Steel Industry of North America. Web. 06 Nov. 2011. http://www.ssina.com/overview/history.html
  2. “The Discovery of Stainless Steel.” British Stainless Steel Association. Web. 06 Nov. 2011. http://www.bssa.org.uk/about_stainless_steel.php?id=31
  3. “Basic Facts About Stainless Steel.” www.worldstainless.org ISSF. Web. 3 Nov. 2011
  4. Wikipedia
  5. “Stainless Steel Production in 2010.” www.worldstainless.org ISSF. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  6. Charles, Jay. “Past, Present and Future of Duplex Stainless Steels.” Worldstainless.org. 2007. Web. 1 Nov. 2011.
  7. “Corrosion Costs and Prevention Strategies in the United States.” www.nace.org NACE International, 2002. Web. 03 Nov. 2011

Comments are closed.

The History of Stainless Steel