Industries & Professions /
The first crude metal objects, knives for hunting and tools for
farming, evolved during the Stone Age. Forged metal (heated, then
hammered into shape) was used to make simple blades and hoes.
Historical records indicate that metal casting (melting, and then
pouring into a shaped mold) was being done around 4000
B.C. Forged copper weapons preceded castings and led
directly to the discovery of the casting art.
Liquid metal was discovered accidentally during the forging of
hot metal. While metal was being heated for shaping, some of the
copper would melt. It followed naturally that the melted metal
could be cast into a shape. The casting process grew during the
Bronze Age and developed rapidly in the Orient, where casting art
first matured industrially. Development in Europe progressed with
the casting of guns, bells, stoves, and ornamental iron.
With the advent of the industrial revolution, the production of
machines and engines increased dramatically. Mining became an
extremely important industry, supplying the world with the
materials required to build the machines that transformed society.
Manufacturing the metals that would be used to create strong,
durable engine pieces led to the development of industrial
complexes and mining towns centered on either the production or
manufacture of metal products.
Steel, which is stronger than plain iron, is made from iron with
other minerals added. Modern, large-scale production of steel in
the United States generally is considered to have begun in the
mid-1800s when the first commercial batch of steel made by the
Bessemer process was produced in Wyandotte, Michigan. This
pneumatic process, developed independently by an American named
William Kelly and an Englishman named Henry Bessemer, made it
possible for the first time to produce steel by the ton instead of
by the pound.
As competition from abroad increased, steel production in the
United States began to decline in the 1970s. In the early 1980s,
steel producers in particular suffered many economic losses and
more than 200,000 workers were laid off. Top steel producers lost
almost $6 billion. The steel industry began an extensive
restructuring. Companies closed plants, rebuilt others, and
modernized the rest. In addition to new equipment, such as
oxygen-fired furnaces, they changed many of their processes to be
more time and cost efficient. These changes helped to make the
steel industry stronger, but generally did not result in increased
employment. Automation and improved processes allowed for greater
production with fewer workers.
Despite a slight recovery during the late 1980s, the steel
industry continued to be affected by changes in the economy. The
industry was faced with anemic market growth, an expensive labor
pool, increased production costs caused in part by new
environmental legislation, and stagnant market prices. In addition,
foreign competition continued to be a major threat, and steel was
slowly being replaced in its largest market, the automotive
industry, by substitute materials such as plastics and
As a result, the steel industry again restructured itself in the
early 1990s. Companies streamlined their operations, looking for
ways to cut costs and improve productivity. During this period,
minimills came into their own. These smaller mills compete with
larger integrated steel mills by producing low-cost metals that use
smaller, electric arch furnaces, and high-tech methods.
Producers of other metals such as copper, aluminum, zinc, and
lead have faced similar cycles. In order to remain viable, they
have had to develop new markets, streamline production, and reduce
costs. Since the 1980s, a strong secondary market for recycled
(scrap) metals has developed for copper and aluminum in