These days, we use many different metals and alloys that weren't available in the ancient world (stainless steel, titanium, nickel, etc.).

If a vast collection of modern metal objects were somehow transported back to the ancient world (think ancient Rome), what would metalworkers of the day be able to do with them? Are there any metals today that they wouldn't be able to rework at all?


closed as too broad by James, Green, The Anathema, DaaaahWhoosh, Murphy Mar 29 '16 at 14:34

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    $\begingroup$ It's a shame I can't ask this on timetravelingblacksmith.stackexchange.com. $\endgroup$ – Joe Mar 28 '16 at 22:50
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    $\begingroup$ It's a pretty sure bet that magnesium won't do well in a forge. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Mar 29 '16 at 0:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Joe Don't worry, that's what Area 51 is for. $\endgroup$ – PyRulez Mar 29 '16 at 1:09
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    $\begingroup$ Bactrians (circa 200 BC) made cupronickel (copper-nickel alloy) coins, with metal proportions almost precisely those of modern cupronickel coins (such as US 5 cent coins, aka "nickels"). Nobody knows where or how they got the cupronickel, or indeed what gave them the idea of making coins from it; some have actually suggested (though probably in jest) that a cache of US nickels was left by a time-traveller. $\endgroup$ – January First-of-May Mar 29 '16 at 2:08
  • $\begingroup$ Joe can you narrow this down? Are you asking from a metallurgy perspective or weapons manufacture or how does the metal traveling through time impact some facet xxxx of the past? $\endgroup$ – James Mar 29 '16 at 13:57

Of the metals you mention, all have a melting point lower than iron except for titanium. Even titanium is not much higher than iron (1538 °C vs. 1668 °C), so I would expect that with a little trial and error, a Roman smith could melt titanium too.

You don't mention chromium directly (though it is used in stainless steel). It has a melting point of 1907 °C, this may put it out of reach as this is near the maximum possible temperature of a traditional forge (coal burns at 1927 °C under perfect conditions). Tungsten - not a chance at 3422 °C.

Romans smiths would probably take quite a while to work out proper techniques for steel, but it would certainly be within their raw capabilities. And steel would be the perfect addition to Roman metallurgy with its toughness and suitability to their existing techniques.

Working with titanium is considerably different than the other metals that the Romans used. As you try to form it mechanically, it becomes brittle quickly and must be re-annealed repeatedly as you continue to work it. Welding requires special methods (not that Romans would much care as rivets still work). Eventually Roman smiths might discover how to make some useful things from titanium. The big advantage of titanium is its low weight, but since Romans don't make a lot of airplanes etc. they might not find it worth the trouble.

Romans could not heat iron to the point that it would flow as a liquid (this is considerably higher than the melting point), but many bulk rearrangement techniques of iron working are greatly facilitated by heating to temperatures that are at least somewhat close to melting - as well as annealing and heat treating. Converting stainless bar stock into a shield by hammering at room temperature would be a monumental effort (if it could ever be achieved), but heating and hammering (including hammer welding) allows it to be feasible, and Romans were used to doing it for bronze. Unless the metal is quite ductile, a near melting temperature (near being a relative term) is required to form into arbitrary shapes.

I emphasized melting temperatures are these are a reasonable proxy for the ancient metallurgical techniques required. I.e., if the melting temperatures are approximately those of iron or less, they could soften and work the materials all other things being equal - titanium being an example of where other things are not equal.

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    $\begingroup$ Is melting point the real issue? I was under the impression Roman blacksmiths didn't have the technology to melt and cast iron. $\endgroup$ – Joe Mar 28 '16 at 23:49
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    $\begingroup$ Titanium does need frequent annealing - but it needs a vacuum tor the annealing process. Not exactly Roman-era tech. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Mar 29 '16 at 0:10
  • $\begingroup$ @WhatRoughBeast - you can anneal titanium in non-vacuum, non-inert atmosphere, but it rapidly degrades the material. Thanks for the catch. $\endgroup$ – Gary Walker Mar 29 '16 at 0:35
  • $\begingroup$ If you are looking for a society that would have significant difficulty working modern metals, consider this. The bronze age preceded the iron age, not because copper is more common than iron, but because it is easier to work and melts at a lower temperature. A bronze age society may not be able to work with modern metals. $\endgroup$ – Tony Ruth Mar 29 '16 at 4:11
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    $\begingroup$ My point was, that the whole melting point thing is not really important. Important is what kind of technologies for metalworking were available at the time, and which of these technologies would work for which of the modern metals OP mentioned. $\endgroup$ – fgysin Mar 30 '16 at 11:06

Giving a Roman a supply of modern steel would be a HUGE fortune. Our steel, even your average frying pan, would be a huge improvement over most of the iron they had to work with.

One of the biggest reasons for all that 'folding' to make swords is because of the quality of the iron used. It had many impurities in it and the folding over and over, was really like kneading bread dough. It spread things out and made it more even. Today's steel doesn't need that and if the smiths knew about it they could save huge amounts of time in weapons production.

Also Gary Walker was talking about the use of coal in blacksmithing, coal did not take over as a heat source until the 1700's when the forests were running out in England and the eastern US.

Stainless steel, (I just recently learned from my blacksmithing teacher) has no steel in it. It also has inverse properties of steel, the faster you cool it down the 'softer' it is. Steel cooled in water can make it very hard and brittle stainless is the opposite. This might through them for a loop. I need to verify which alloy I was told about.

I suspect most of our alloys would be kept as strange 'magical' items unless someone also showed up and showed them some tricks to use and explained some of their properties.

Found it. Coal and charcoal actually have about the same max burning temp. ~1950C

  • $\begingroup$ The biggest point here I think is that while this stuff would be useful, it would be even better if a modern metalworker/blacksmith was asleep on top of the pile of metal when it was transported. Having the stuff is great, having someone to explain it is exponentially better. $\endgroup$ – James Mar 29 '16 at 13:55
  • $\begingroup$ @James exactly. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Mar 29 '16 at 14:02
  • $\begingroup$ Of course the Romans did not have coal, I mentioned coal only as reference for the temperature of a carbon fire. Charcoal would burn at a different temperature, but I could not find a reference for it and did not care to do the math, though it would be a little cooler. Stainless contains the same elements as steel (iron and carbon), plus chromium, nickel and molybdenum. Not sure what point your teacher was making. $\endgroup$ – Gary Walker Mar 29 '16 at 21:10
  • $\begingroup$ @GaryWalker I expect it was my misunderstanding of what material he was talking about. The stainless steel might have been earlier in our conversation than when he talked about the springs that got soft when cooled fast, but hard when annealed. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Mar 29 '16 at 21:15
  • $\begingroup$ I was looking around and found that 2nd century did actually have small amounts of Roman coal from surface mines in Britain. Small scale, used for space heating - not in iron working. Have to admit this was a surprise to me. I took a couple of history of technology classes back in college, I certainly thought coal use was relatively modern in the west, though the Chinese used a little surface mined coal about 5500 years ago. $\endgroup$ – Gary Walker Mar 30 '16 at 9:44

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