As early as 1821, scientists in Europe were experimenting with various iron-chromium alloys in an effort to forge a more durable form of steel, but it wasn’t until 1875 that Henri Aimé Brustlein identified the link between carbon and rust. That spurred decades of research and numerous combinations of chromium, iron, and nickel. By 1911, it was understood that a minimum of 10.5 percent chromium was required to assist in corrosion resistance.

Thus the idea of stainless steel was in the air at the beginning of the 20th century, which is why numerous claims to its origin between 1908 and 1913 have been made. The individual who gets the most credit, though, is Harry Brearley, the head researcher at Brown Firth Laboratories in Sheffield, England. Sheffield had long been a center of arms manufacturing, so it’s not surprising that Brearley stumbled upon stainless steel in an effort to improve the erosion resistance of gun barrels. In the course of testing a piece of steel made of 12.8 percent chromium and 0.24 percent carbon, Brearley realized he’d created what he called “rustless steel,” although Ernest Stuart, an old friend of Brearley’s and the cutlery manager at Mosley's Portland Works in Sheffield, who helped him perfect the ratio, thought “stainless steel” would have more appeal.

Today, most stainless steel is what’s known as austenitic, which describes its crystalline structure. Austenitic steel is not magnetic (in contrast, ferritic and martensitic stainless are) and is usually made of 18 percent chromium and between 8 and 10 percent nickel, which is why cutlery and flatware is sometimes labeled as 18/8 (this formula was patented in 1924 by W.H. Hatfield of Sheffield) or 18/10. In the century since its discovery, stainless steel has been embraced by a number of flatware manufacturers, including those known for their sterling and silverplate, from Oneida to Reed & Barton.


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