Would you lookat Wootz!

The wonder steel

Blade patterns on Wootz steel is due to the presence of carbide molecules.

When Alexander the Great left India in 326 BC, it is reported that he took 100 talents of Indian steel ingots with him. Indian steel was highly valued for its strength and hardness the world over during the millennia that followed Alexander.

Sir Walter Scott, in his book The Talisman, describes Saladin’s fearful scimitar as made of Damascus steel, with “a curved and narrow blade, which glittered not like the swords of the Franks, but was, on the contrary, of a dull blue colour, marked with ten millions of meandering lines.”

The renowned Damascus steel swords of the middle ages were forged from the Indian Wootz steel brought from India by Arab businessmen.

The Arab scholar Edrissi, who lived in the 12th century, has written: “The Hindus excel in the manufacture of iron, and it is impossible to find anything to surpass the Hindustani steel.”

Southern roots

The legendary sword of Tipu Sultan of Mysuru forged from Wootz steel by the blacksmiths of the state, had a bubri (tiger stripe) patterned watered blade. A popular version says Wootz steel gets its name from the Kannada word ‘Ukku’. This steel was manufactured by a crucible process in Mysuru, Malabar, Tanjore and Golkonda.

The British botanist Dr Francis Buchanan, who toured the lands held by Tipu Sultan after his fall in 1800, writes, “Conical crucibles containing iron and stems and leaves were packed in rows of around 15 inside a sunken pit filled with ash to constitute the furnace. It was operated by bellows of buffalo hide fixed to a perforated wall to minimise fire hazard.”

According to him, temperatures of over 1,400 degrees Celsius were reached inside the crucibles to melt the wrought iron and carburize it.

For making the sword, the blacksmith had to forge the steel and quench it rapidly by plunging the red hot blade into a banana stem. The quenching made the steel extremely hard, so that it could cut through any other blade.

The blades made of Wootz steel have a watered pattern in the material due to the presence of carbide molecules produced during the cooling. The bladesmiths made the pattern more prominent by polishing the blades.

Tipu Sultan’s swords had grey tiger-stripe patterns on a black background. As Times science writer Walter Sullivan wrote, “Swords of this metal could split a feather in midair, yet retain their edge through many a battle.”

After the Indian Rebellion (Sepoy Mutiny) of 1857 against the British East India Company, the British government frowned upon weapon-making by Indians. Iron and steel had to be imported from Britain.

This led to the stoppage of the production of Wootz steel and the iron-smelting furnaces were abandoned. The secret of making that super steel was thus lost forever. Although Wootz steel excited the metallurgists of the 18th and the 19th centuries, none could produce it.

Great scientists like Michael Faraday were fascinated by this wonder steel. In his book The History of Metallography, the American metallurgist and science historian Cyril Stanley Smith of MIT says, “Single- minded pursuit of an Eastern technological product by Western scientists for over a century created the foundations of modern Material Science.”
Padma Rao

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