Innovation often means greatly improving on something that already exists. This is best described by the famous quote (often) attributed to Newton, "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of giants."
So who and what are the giants in materials science?
Well, for your learning pleasure we've dug up the top ten greatest moments in material science's history, according to the voting members of The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society. We'll count down backwards, Letterman-style, starting with numbers ten through six.
10.) The Bessemer process. A process for melting iron marks the beginning of that thing called industrialization. In 1856, inventor Henry Bessemer patented what he referred to as, "The Manufacture of Iron Without Fuel." The process essentially involves oxygen blown through pig iron to get rid of impurities, and in the end you wind up with steel. At the time, bridges and rail tracks relied on iron, and were at high risk of collapsing. Steel was much stronger and far more reliable.
9.) X-ray crystallography. A fundamental technique that allowed us to see what stuff was made of. Discovered in 1912, it determined the size of atoms and their chemical bonds. As one example, it allowed us to understand the function and structure of DNA. And on a lighter (but no less amazing) note: X-ray crystallography allows us to see the hexagonal symmetry of a snowflake. It is still the number one way we study the atomic structure of new materials today.
8.) Extractive metallurgy. This is more of the meat and potatoes of material science. In 5000 BC, people living the areas of modern-day Turkey found a way to get liquid copper out of malachite and azurite, and discovered that molten metal can be cast in shapes. Basically, this is where it all starts, with this process for how we might separate raw materials, usually for more processing and refinement. There are three outputs from the process: Feed (the original raw ore), concentrate (the valuable metal), and the tailings (which are waste.)
7.) Wootz steel. In 300 BC, metal workers in India and Sri Lanka developed what is also known as crucible steel. Essentially they heated porous iron until very hot, then hammered it to release slag (i.e., by-product) and packing it with wood chips in a clay crucible and heating that mixture until the iron absorbs the carbon from the wood.
Steel is born from this process, and is then able to be heated again and formed into bars or other objects. Wootz steel, aka crucible steel, is the material for the famous Dasmascus swords with their unusual wood-grain pattern. For centuries, this sword remained the main inspiration for metallurgists and blacksmiths.
6.) Hydraulic cement. Here's another one that lasted through the centuries. In 1755, John Smeaton invented modern-day concrete, pretty much the number one construction material ever. He created this material to build the third Eddystone Lighthouse on the English Channel (the first, made of wood, got smashed by waves, and the second also of wood and iron burnt down). Smeaton needed something strong enough to endure the waves, and he needed the material to set quickly, making the 12-hour window between tides.
What makes his mortar "hydraulic" is the addition of water to cement powder. Hydraulic cements can harden even underwater. But his critical observation is that the best hydraulic cements are made from a certain proportion of limestone mixed some brick powder and fine pebbles. This, many argue, is the starting point for the modern use of cement and concrete. About 60 years later, another English inventor Joseph Aspdin created Portland Cement, which is the one we all know and love. Aspdin developed this very strong cement by burning powdered limestone and clay together.
Stay tuned for the remaining five next week!