The nanotechnological wonders of Damascene steel

A tale of "wootz" and Diocletian; Tamerlane, Tipu Sultan, and the Industrial Revolution.

Published January 9, 2008 6:44PM (EST)

Cherished by caliphs and sultans, swords made from "Damascus steel" have long been renowned for their razor-sharp edges, extraordinary durability -- and great beauty. Writing in 1960, Herbert Maryon, a specialist in ancient metalwork at the British Museum, summarized some of history's more infatuated rhetoric: "the undulations of the steel resemble a net across running water ... [the pattern] waved like watered silk... it was mottled like the grains of yellow sand."

Last week, in the Andhra Pradesh city of Visakhapatnam, Robert Curl Jr., winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry, enthralled an audience at the 95th Indian Science Congress when he told them that the incorporation of ancient nanotechnology in the Indian steel from which Damascus swords were manufactured may partially explain their amazing properties. (Thanks to Varnam's History, Archaeology and Books blog for the link.) Scientists using electron microscopes have discovered carbon nanotubes in samples cut from the swords. (Curl won his Nobel Prize for his role in discovering fullerenes, carbon molecules of fantastic strength and rigidity.)

Carbon nanotubes are now being fabricated for industrial purposes in high-tech laboratories scattered across the globe, but the Indians may have gotten there first, whether or not they knew what they were doing. Curl titillated his audience by reminding them that Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore who fought a series of wars against the British invaders in the late 18th century, wielded his own sword made from Damascus steel. I, too, was amused by this, because a year and a half ago How the World Works featured a post titled "In Karnataka, the Sword of Tipu Sultan Still Cuts Deep." I thought I was being clever in my reference to the ongoing political struggle between Muslims and Hindus in modern India to control interpretations of history, but the words ring even truer now that I know that the sword in question was forged from nano-steel.

The theory that carbon nanotubes are specific to Damascene steel is based mostly on the research of Peter Paufler, a German crystallographer, and it has been disputed by other metallurgists who have studied the swords. But there appears to be little dispute that the magnificence of the swords must be attributed at least in part to the steel itself, which, despite its name, was mined and smelted in India via a multi-step, highly complex process that included the incorporation of carbon from burning plant matter into the iron ore. As far back as 300 B.C., writes Maryon, Indians presented the invading armies of Alexander the Great with tribute ingots of Indian steel, also referred to as "wootz" -- a sign, says Maryon, that the steel was already widely recognized as "exceptional."

Damascus entered the picture centuries later. According to Maryon, patterns of ancient trade and empire tell the tale:

The Indian steel ingots were carried form the Nirmal district of Hyderabad to Cutch, a maritime region on the north-west coast of India, and exported to Persia, Syria, and the East African ports, whence they found their way into Europe. Diocletian (A.D 245-313) founded his armament factories at Damascus, and Syria became famous for the fine weapons it produced, though the steel which it used for them was not of Syrian but of Indian origin.

So Diocletian, an Illyrian commoner native to what is now Croatia, rises to absolute power over the Roman Empire and builds armament factories in Syria that employ steel from Hyderabad as the raw material for state-of-the-art weapons of individual destruction. That's globalization, old school.

Much later, Tamerlane, the great 14th century conqueror who founded India's Mughal dynasty, invaded Syria and promptly relocated its skilled swordsmiths to Persia. But by the 18th century, the secret of how to forge Damascus swords had been lost.

But even as one technology vanished, the Age of Technology was beginning.

On June 11, 1795, a man named George Pearson gave an address to the Royal Society of London titled "Experiments and Observations to Investigate the Nature of a Kind of Steel, Manufactured at Bombay, and There Called Wootz: With Remarks on the Properties and Composition of the Different States of Iron."

His lengthy treatise begins thus:

Doctor Scott, of Bombay, in a letter to the President, acquaints him that he has sent over specimens of a substance known by the name of wootz; which is considered to be a kind of steel, and is in high esteem among the Indians. Dr. Scott mentions several of its properties, and requests that an inquiry may be instituted to obtain further knowledge of its nature. This gentleman informs the President, that wootz "admits of harder temper than any thing known in that part of India..."

...Notwithstanding the difficulty and labour in forging, Mr. Stodart from this trail was of the opinion, that wootz is superior for many purposes to any steel used in this country. He thought it would carry a finer, stronger, and more durable edge, and point. Hence it might be particularly valuable for lancets and other chirurgical instruments.

The remainder of the presentation reports, in excruciating detail, the results of numerous experiments conducted on this mysterious substance by Pearson. He hammered the wootz, hacked it with "chizzels," melted it, poured acid on it, and compared it to every other form of iron or steel he had available. The report doesn't make for the most entertaining reading, except when seen as an example of the scientific method, as a clue to the underpinnings of the industrial revolution and the explosion of technology birthed in the United Kingdom. Such is the stuff that the Age of Enlightenment was built upon, not to mention Western mastery of the world.

I do not know whether Tipu Sultan was wielding his Damascus sword when killed in battle by the British in 1799, just four years after Pearson's report to the Royal Society into the nature of "wootz." I do know that in the obsessive, single-minded, immensely curious experiments of Pearson and his colleagues we can see the roots of a global transformation far more earth-shattering than anything unleashed by Tamerlane or Diocletian or Alexander. But in the span of human history, a mere 200 years isn't all that long a stretch. Who knows what wonders wait to be fabricated by Indian scientists inspired by Robert Curl's reminders of their ancient prowess? The glories of Damascene steel may be nothing compared to the nanotechnological Taj Mahals of the future.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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