I remember reading this information many years ago but just ran across a reference to it today and thought it was worth posting as reminder to all of us just how easy it is to actually “lose” technology.
For several centuries the Western World tried to solve the mystery of “Damascus” steel, that hard, tough steel used to manufacture swords first encountered in the Middle East that were far superior to swords made in the West. Even well up into the 1900s Damascus steel remained a mystery that frustrated metallurgists worldwide.
Lo and behold the mystery was solved late in the 1900s when it was finally figured out that Damascus steel was actually what was known as Wootz steel that had been made India since well back in the first Millennium around 400 AD and was still being produced into the mid 1800s. However significant export of it to the Middle East had ended well before then and the connection between the Middle Eastern Damascus steel and the Indian source of the metal was lost.
The “secret” if you want to call it that was simply making a high carbon crucible steel (an early method of smelting) by fabricating it at extremely high temperatures and then cooling it slowly. The steel was then sold to Middle Eastern smiths who made weapons out of it since it held such a sharp edge and most importantly could be forged at low temperatures.
So the technique of making a steel that was produced for myriad centuries in India using what today would be considered primitive almost crude methods going back almost 2000 years was lost in history.
Eventually the connection between the Indian source of the steel and it’s Middle Eastern users was rediscovered and the entire story pieced together. As a result a 1600 year old techynology has been “re-discovered” after being lost for centuries.
You can go on youtube today, enter the term “Damascus Steel” and find dozens of videos demonstrating how to make it yourself from scrap steel.
While Damascus steel has been eclipsed by some of the more modern steels it still retains a place among custom knife makers and hobbyists. It is an interesting and surprising simple metal to fabricate using non-sophisticated methods.
When you glance through some of the books in the Library on other subject you have to wonder how much other technology we’re losing .