Victorian Metallurgy

Everybody knows that gold-coloured metals, whether brass, or bronze or pure gold, are a staple of Victorian decoration and, therefore, steampunk aesthetics. But why? Is it simply an artistic choice, or is there a reason why we associate those metals with that particular era? Let’s take a look at what metals are in use today, and why copper and it’s alloys were more commonly used in the past.

History of Steel Manufacturing

Steel Manufacturing

As anyone knows, steel is the backbone of the modern industry. Look at anything in your immediate surroundings made of metal. Your toaster? Steel. Your tableware? Unless you have heirloom silver, probably steel. Your auto-mobile? Steel. Your kitchen sink? Either ceramic or steel. Your refrigerator? Steel. Your hot water heater? Steel. Steel is found as a necessary ingredient in the construction of most commercial buildings–Walmarts, offices, high-rises, and parking garages. Shopping carts are constructed of steel. Airplanes and helicopters are constructed of steel. Without steel we would have none of these things. Therefore it is safe to say that the discovery of steel led to the modern age in many ways. So how did this come about?

Steel is an alloy designed to be stronger and lighter than the heavy, brittle iron that was the world’s strongest metal in the past. By forging iron with another material high in carbon a new metal was developed that had much higher tensile strength. Steel is not exclusive to the modern era, but the ancient methods of smelting, such as the making of Damascus steel, were rare and varied, and most of them are now lost. Until the nineeenth century steel was very expensive and only used in making armour and weapons.

The first modern method of making steel was developed in 1740 by use of the Crucible method. This method required hours of firing, however, and was very expensive given the amount of fuel that had to be burned to render a fairly small amount of steel. Steel did not come into common production until after 1954 with the invention of the Bessemer method, which is used to today. Even then, as a fairly new process, steel would have been expensive and difficult to come by, and wouldn’t have been readily available to the average inventor.

Differences between brass, bronze, and copper

MetalsSo what other options were there to the Victorian metal-worker and inventor?

Copper has been around since ancient times, and was mined heavily by the Romans who used it for building, decoration, and plate armour. It remains in use today as a preferred conductor of electricity for a variety of reasons.

Bronze has been around nearly as long, judging from artifiacts found all over the world that lead archaeologists to dub 3000 BC-onwards “The Bronze Age.” Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, or other metals, that renders the soft, gold-colored metal much harder and therefore more practical. It was used to make weapons, armour, and decorative tiles that wouldn’t break or wear away as easily as the softer copper. Just like copper is resistant to rust, bronze stands up against salt-water corrosion quite well and was used extensively in ship building right up to the modern era until it was supplanted by stainless steel. To this day it also remains the preferred metal for bell making, as it produces a superior tone to any other metals used.

Copper Ship

Copper bottomed ship

Brass is also a copper alloy–this time a mixture of copper and zinc in varying proportions. It has been around since ancient times as well, but came into popular use in the middle ages where it was used to make musical instruments, such as trumpets and horns. Brass is preferred in decoration because of its bright gold color, and is used extensively in making items that require low friction such as locks, gears, and doorknobs. It comes with the added advantage of not striking a spark, so today it’s used for tools and fixtures surrounding explosive gas.

Aesthetics of gold-coloured metals

In addition to the practical considerations, gold coloured metals were almost certainly favored by artisans of the day for purely aesthetic reasons. If you wanted to decorate your clock or time machine or top hat and you wanted to work in metal you were going to choose something easy to mold; something that compliments that wood most of your device was probably made out of. Due to the low prices most decorative objects today are cut from plate steel and then simply plated with one of the more expensive but beautiful metals. In the 19th and early 20th centuries this option would be ludicrous, and so decorations and ornaments would have been pure. When the artisan could not afford pure gold, brass was a lovely but more affordable option. Bronze came with practical considerations as well. Copper conducts electricity better than any metal known today.

rod-taylor-time-machine.jpeg~original

The work desk of the Victorian inventor would have been full of copper and brass, zinc and tin. He would have used instruments made from bronze, iron, or perhaps a few precious ones made from steel. He would have eaten using silver tableware, and his wife’ jewellery would have been pure silver, or gold. The sink would have been made from ceramic, or wood, and the cook stove and the pans used on it cast from iron. Factory workers would not have the modern benefit of protective steel-toed shoes. Barrels were held together by brass bands, and wagon wheels, seat spring, and the nails and bolts that held the boards of the wagon together, made out of iron. Clocks would use delicate, precious steel springs, but the gears and the hands to tell the time would have been fashioned from brass. The first steam engines were constructed from iron and it was this, more than anything, that made them so dangerous. Train cars were built out of wood, and sped along their way on rails made from wrought iron.

Before the advent of steel, innovators, inventors and artisans made do with the material available to them, and this is what resulted in the whimsical, eccentric design we now copy when we make things “steampunk.” Just as necessity is the mother of invention, lack could be said to be the mother of imagination.

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