samurai steel -- 3/24/21

Today's selection -- from Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik. Innovation in steelmaking and the samurai blade:

"The mystique that surrounded steelmaking engendered various myths, and the unification and restoration of order to Britain in the wake of the Roman retreat was symbolized by one of the most enduring of these: Excalibur, the legendary sword of King Arthur, sometimes attributed with magical powers and associated with the rightful sovereignty of Britain. At a time when swords regularly snapped in battle, leaving a knight defenseless, it is easy to see why a high-quality steel sword wielded by a strong warrior came to rep­resent the rule of civilization over chaos. The fact that the process of making steel was, necessarily, highly ritualized also helps to ex­plain why this material came to be associated with magic.

"This was nowhere more true than in Japan, where the forging of a samurai blade took weeks and was part of a religious ceremony. The  Ama-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi ('Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven') is a legendary Japanese sword which allowed the great warrior Yamato Takeru to control the wind and defeat all his enemies. Despite the fantastic stories and rituals, the idea that some swords could be made ten times stronger and sharper than other swords was not just a myth, but a reality. By the fifteenth century AD the sword steel made by the samurai of Japan was the best the world had ever seen and remained preeminent for five hundred years until the advent of metallurgy as a science in the twentieth century.

"These samurai swords were made from a special type of steel called tamahagane, which translates as 'jewel steel', made from the volcanic black sand of the Pacific (this consists mostly of an iron ore called magnetite, the original material for the needle of compasses). This steel is made in a huge clay vessel four feet tall, four feet wide, and twelve feet long called a tatara. The vessel is 'fired' -- hardened from molded clay into a ceramic -- by lighting a fire inside it. Once fired, it is packed meticulously with layers of black sand and black charcoal, which are consumed in the ceramic furnace. The process takes about a week and requires constant at­tention from a team of four or five people, who make sure that the temperature of the fire is kept high enough by pumping air into the tatara using a manual bellows. At the end the tatara is broken open and the tamahagane steel is dug out of the ash and remnants of sand and charcoal. These lumps of discolored steel are very unprepossessing, but they have a whole range of carbon content, some of it very low and some of it high.

"The samurai innovation was to be able to distinguish high-car­bon steel, which is hard but brittle, from low-carbon steel, which is tough but relatively soft. They did this purely by how it looked, how it felt in their hands, and how it sounded when struck. By separating the different types of steel, they could make sure that the low-carbon steel was used to make the center of the sword. This gave the sword an enormous toughness, almost a chewiness, meaning that the blades were unlikely to snap in combat. On the edge of the blades they welded the high-carbon steel, which was brittle but extremely hard and could therefore be made very sharp. 

"By using the sharp high-carbon steel as a wrapper on top of the tough low-carbon steel they achieved what many thought impossible: a sword that could survive impact with other swords and ar­mor while remaining sharp enough to slice a man's head off. The best of both worlds. No one could create stronger and harder steel than the samu­rai until the Industrial Revolution."



Mark Miodownik


Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Copyright 2013 by Mark Miodownik


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