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02/2/2009 - Science and Civilization in China, Volume V: Part 11—Ferrous Metallurgy (2008)
by Donald B. Wagner


ISBN: 978-0-521-87566-0. Cambridge University Press, New York. Hardcover. 477+ pages. $220.00.

REVIEWED BY: Merton Flemings, Massachusetts Institute of Technology



This remarkable book comprises one volume of the series building on the comprehensive work of Joseph Needham on science and civilization in China. It traces the development of the iron and steel industry in China from earliest times to the mid-20th century. It covers the technical aspects and their economic and geographic context.

Iron produced from its ore appears to have been known in the West as early as 3000 BC, but became an important metal only much later, as artisans learned about its properties and how to control them. Among the early exploiters of iron were the Hittites, who emerged from the Caucasus and moved west toward the Mediterranean, establishing a capital in what is now eastern Turkey, and working iron there as early as the 18th century BC. About 1200 BC the use of iron began to spread widely east and west and by at least the 8th century BC had established itself in northwest China.

Ironmaking at this point, in both East and West, was by the “direct method,” in which solid sponge iron was produced directly from its ore and subsequently worked to extrude impurities and make wrought iron of useful shapes. This direct method remained the starting point for iron production in the West until the 14th century.

The development of iron technology in China took a very different route from that in the West. By the 5th century BC, technologists in southern China had learned to melt and pour cast iron into useful shapes …almost two millennia before the first rudimentary cannon balls and firebacks were cast in Europe. Malleable cast iron was in use in China by the 3rd century BC, not to be re-invented in the West until the 17th century. During this period, cast iron implements became widely available in China, contrasting with Europe where the choice for farm implements, for example, was between wood and the scarce and expensive wrought iron.

By the 1st century BC, the Chinese learned to produce wrought iron from molten cast iron by one or another process to remove carbon from the iron. This latter step was by no means simple, since furnaces were not available to reach the melting point of pure iron.

Important chapters of the book deal with developments in iron making technology in later periods. For example, based on a technical compendium written by Song Yingxing in 1637, a description is given of two steelmaking process of the time. “co-fusion” and “puddling.” In the former, carbon from molten cast iron is caused to diffuse into wrought iron. In the latter, carbon is removed from molten cast iron by oxidation causing the iron, at the temperatures involved, to become semi-solid. This latter process was the process of choice for making steel in the west from the time of its invention there by Cort in 1784 and radical improvement by Hall in 1830, until eventually superceded by the Bessemer and Siemens processes.

A final chapter in this book, of particular interest to Western metallurgists, summarizes Chinese contributions to global siderurgical metallurgy, and raises intriguing questions including how even the Bessemer process might have its inventive roots in Eastern technology.

Donald Wagner’s “Ferrous Metallurgy” is a comprehensive, scholarly treatise, including the latest archaeological findings on Chinese metallurgy. Readability is enhanced by numerous figures, diagrams and sidebars. The casual reader may find choose to skim over the more detailed summaries of archaeological research findings, but will find the book overall enlightening and a most worthwhile bookshelf addition.


For more on Science and Civilization in China, Volume V: Part 11—Ferrous Metallurgy, visit the Cambridge University Press web site.


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