Have you ever looked at the frame of your car, a shipping container, or even something as simple as a fire extinguisher?
Have you ever seen the rippling metal between the joints on these everyday items and wondered: How did they do that? Who first thought about trying to weld bits of metal together?
Welding is actually one of the oldest and most basic industrial arts in the world. Humans have been bonding metal for over 5000 years, beginning with soldering bronze and iron and carrying on through different methods and carrying on to advanced techniques with the latest technologies and alloys.
Basically, welding is the use of electrical charges to either melt or spark a chemical reaction to join metal together, using a wide range of techniques and materials.
So how far have we come?
Let’s look at some of the types of welding that we’ve used in the past, and see how they lead us up to the present day.
The Invention of Welding
The earliest type of welding was called forge welding, and it was rather simple, even crude. This practice involved metalworkers hammering together pieces of red-hot iron and bronze until they bonded. There are some obvious drawbacks to this, especially if you’re doing detailed work and don’t want the metal to lose its shape by being smashed with a smith’s hammer.
The Greek sculptor Glaucus of Chios supposedly discovered a method for the soldering of iron in the 7th century BCE, but true welding wouldn’t exist until someone discovered a way to heat and fuse metals together so that they were permanently joined.
So how did we learn to do that?
To answer that, we need to fast forward to the earliest dawn of the Industrial Revolution, at a time when scientific giants were laying the foundations for technologies we use to this day.
In 1800, Sir Humphrey Davy, famed discoverer of no less than seven elements and the man who coined the term ‘laughing gas’ for nitrous oxide, discovered the short-pulse electric arc.
An arc is what’s created when a gas is broken down to produce an electrical discharge, giving off heat and energy. Both Davy and the scientist Vasily Petrov discovered, independently of each other, how to turn this arc into a continuous, stable electric arc, and the foundation for welding was laid.
But every new idea needs time to grow and catch on.
It wasn’t until 1881 that the first practical arc welding method was developed. Carbon arc welding, invented by the Polish engineer Stanisław Olszewski and his Russian counterpart Nikolai Benardos, used a carbon rod called an electrode to heat and fuse the edges of pieces of metal. This technique is rarely used today, but it was revolutionary at the time.
Here’s the thing...
Never before had it been possible to fuse such sturdy and versatile materials. This was the birth of basic welding, in which an electric torch is used to melt or fuse metals together.
And that was all it took:
Just a couple of simple discoveries broke the dam.
In the following years, new discoveries and ideas helped welding to flourish.
Davy’s cousin, Edmund Davy, discovered acetylene in 1836, which would eventually be used to create acetylene torches, followed by electric resistance techniques such as spot welding; thermite welding, using a pyrotechnic powder, was developed in 1893; and oxy-fuel welding in 1903, which uses flammable gases like acetylene.
As each of these methods was developed and applied, their different uses came to be better understood, so that, even as many of them were given up for newer and more efficient welding methods, they each still have at least some niche applications today.
But the real inventors of welding as we now know it would probably have to be C. L. Coffin and Nikolai G. Slavyanov, both of whom developed ways to use coated metal electrodes in welding torches to produce stable, controlled arcs capable of melting thin rods of consumable metals to join anything from iron and steel to aluminum.
This became shielded metal arc welding, otherwise known as ‘stick welding.’
It’s become the most common method for its ease, low cost, and simplicity, so much so that it’s probably what comes to mind when you hear the word ‘welding.’
The Method and the Impact
Here’s why all this matters.
From its inception, the value of welding was obvious. The ability to create singular structures of metal offered limitless possibilities. Unfortunately, some of these early efforts were hardly satisfactory, with welds oxidizing and weakening the structures they were used to build.
Early domestic water boilers, for example, were particularly prone to oxidation and infirmity, resulting annually in thousands of explosions of scalding water and searing metal in people’s homes.
But even mishaps like this weren’t enough to put machinists and engineers off of the enormous potential.
World War I marked the beginning of a new era for welding, as the various combatants experimented with different methods for the production of ships, heavy weapons, field equipment like water tanks and portable light railways, and, eventually, tanks. Five years of output and innovation ushered in an era of explosive productivity.
All of a sudden, things that had seemed like fantasy at the turn of the century became reality.
The expertise gained in aircraft fuselage welding by engineers during the war proved that modern technology would require welding to make it possible. The repair of sabotaged boilers on German merchant ships in New York, which were later used to transport US troops home in 1919, brought fame and attention to the importance of the craft for repairs and manufacturing.
In that same year, the merchant ship M/V Fullagar was constructed at the Cammell Laird & Co. shipyard in Birkenhead, UK, the first all-welded hull in history, taking advantage of British expertise in industrial welding.
The interwar years, despite the hardships of the Great Depression, were a fruitful time for welding.
During that time, a process for manufacturing cheaper stick welding electrodes, with different coatings for different tasks, was developed. This process incorporated iron powder in the coating applied to electrodes, which allowed for faster welding.
In 1927, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis was constructed with a welded steel alloy tube frame, taking advantage of the lightness gained from welds rather than rivets, further cementing welding’s reputation.
Between 1919 and 1939, five separate welding techniques were developed and used to create novel ship designs, the first welded skyscrapers, and to fasten wood to metal without the use of specialized hardware.
But it was World War II that saw welding finally come to full bloom.
A World at War and the Future of Welding
By 1939, it was clear that the age of the welder had arrived.
Every home and business made use of welded goods. The use of natural materials such as leather and canvas had been almost totally superseded by the use of steels, which could be easily turned out of mills in record quantities.
With massively expanded and stunningly diversified industries including munitions production, the US Liberty Ship program, submarine construction, and of course aircraft, among many others, new methods of hand and automatic welding flew thick and fast through the industrial world, with demand for the skill skyrocketing.
The windfall of technical expertise and experience gained in wartime, combined with the rush of capital first in the US, then Western Europe and East Asia, saw several new techniques invented, including electrogas welding, a process in which a gas, such as helium or argon, was used to shield the welding surface from impurities in the air.
Furthermore, this period saw the invention of plasma arc welding, laser welding, magnetic pulse welding, and friction stir welding. The latter was particularly useful in shipbuilding, trains, and aerospace because it didn’t need an electrode, thus saving on weight while resulting in an extraordinarily strong joint.
From its inception to the present day, the applications of welding technology have been found to be nearly endless, with each new technique building on the successes of its predecessors.
While stick welding is likely to remain the most common form for amateurs and basic projects, the development of new and advanced methods carries on apace. From cast-iron gas compressors to titanium satellite frames, from mass-produced office furniture to advanced underwater exploration equipment, welding will continue to be used to build the structures that will carry us into the future.