Iron and Steel Industry in Ancient India

Iron and Steel Industry in Ancient India

Making of iron by smelting of iron ore by smelting of iron ore was practiced in ancient India. The iron and steel produced in early days was also shaped into useful articles.  The primacy of iron technology in the Indian subcontinent is well established and there are several published books on the state of ancient Indian iron technology. Shshruta who was an authority on medical science in ancient India had described many surgical instruments in his book (3rd or 4th Century BC). One can find many descriptions of swords, daggers, spears, and other steel weapons in a number of ancient Indian literatures. Iron technology has grown steadily in ancient India and Indian iron and steel products were in great demand. The testimony of the craftsmanship and antiquity of Indian iron and steel industry is visible from the iron objects belonging to pre Christian era found from the burial sites at Adichinallur in Tinnevelly district in Tamil Nadu. Ancient Tinnevally district comprised present Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi districts and parts of Virudhunagar and Ramanathapuram districts.

Some of other evidences of use of iron and steel products in ancient India are given below.

  • Presentation of 30 pound piece of steel by king Porus to the conqueror king Alexander of Macedon.
  • Iron pillar weighing around 6 tons was built between 350 and 380 AD in New Delhi.(Fig 1)
  • Iron beams of Konark temple in Orissa (9 th century AD)
  • Iron pillar weighing around 7 tons at Dhar distict in Madhya pradesh (12 th century AD)
  • The Iron pillar at Kodachadri hill (12 th century AD) is of about 40 feet length is planted erect in front of Moola Mookambika Temple near peak of Kodachadri and it is compared with massive similar historic iron pillars located at Dhar, Mount Abu etc.
  • The Tanginath temple of lord Shiva (12 th century AD) in Jharkhand has a centuries old trident (‘trishool’) of rustproof iron.
  • A large numbers of guns (16 th and 17 th centuries). Some of these guns weigh over 35 tons.

Delhi iron pillar

Fig 1 Iron pillar in New Delhi

The superior corrosion resistance of the Indian iron produced during these periods is quite evident although the chemical composition is not much different than the iron samples from Japan and Iran etc. All the above clearly suggest that India was in the forefront of making iron and steel objects and the iron steel industry in India was remarkable in quality as well as forging and welding of heavy objects.

Iron technology reached significant heights during the Gupta period. Wootz, a very special kind of crucible steel, generally known as Damascus steel was originally produced in India sometimes around the opening of the Christian era or may be even earlier. India has mastered the production of wootz steel from which world famous tough swords were manufactured (Fig 2). Iron in ancient India was extracted by the direct process. The iron-rich ores were reduced by means of charcoal and the end product was almost pure iron (with entrapped slag particles). These wrought iron lumps were generally utilized for making several useful objects. The iron lumps were carbonized by the crucible process in order to produce wootz steel. The property of carbon steels was strictly controlled by decarburizing and tempering treatments. Wootz steel was exported from India in enormous quantities to the Middle East and Europe during the medieval period because the technology for the production of such steels was considered to be the best in India.

wootz steel sword

Fig 2 Sword made from wootz steel

Start of modern Iron and steel industry

In the year 1830 Mr. Joshua Marshall Heath had set up a small iron plant at Porto Novo on Madras coast. Heath produced in his plant pig iron at the rate of forty tons a week. His method of iron making needed around four tons of charcoal to produce one ton of low quality pig iron which proved to be too expensive for Heath to carry on in the face of stiff competition from the British steel industry.

The first notable attempt to revive steel industry in India was made in 1874 when the Bengal Iron Works (BIW) came into being at Kulti, near Asansol in West Bengal. The BIW made considerable improvement in the process of iron and steel making. It used coke as the fuel instead of charcoal. But the plant fell sick as the source of funds dried up. It was taken over by the Bengal Government and was renamed as Barakar Iron Works. In 1889 the Bengal Iron and Steel Company acquired the plant and by the turn of the century the Kulti plant became a success story. It produced 40,000 tons of pig iron in 1900 and continued to produce the metal until it was taken over by Indian Iron and Steel Company (IISCO) in 1936. In 1918, soon after the war, Indian Iron and Steel Company (IISCO) was formed. IISCO started producing pig iron at Burnpur in 1922. The Bengal Iron Works went into liquidation and merged with IISCO. The Steel Corporation of Bengal (SCOB) formed in 1937, started making steel in its Asansol plant. Later in 1953, SCOB merged with IISCO. Two photographs of IISCO plant are at Fig 3.

Iisco plant

Fig 3  At left India’s first blast furnace (open top) with coke oven battery in the foreground at Kulti and at right Sir Biren Mookerjee lighting coke oven battery at Burnpur.

The modern iron and steel industry in India owes its origin to the grand vision and perseverance of Jamshetji Nusserwanji Tata. The Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO) was formed as a Swadeshi venture and was registered in Bombay on 26 th August 1907. Construction of the TISCO plant at Sakchi (renamed Jamshedpur) in Bihar started in 1908 with American help. The first blast furnace was blown in on 2nd December 2011 and the first ingot was rolled on 16 th February 1912. The plant was originally constructed for a capacity of 160,000 tons of pig iron, 100,000 tons of ingot steel, 70,000 tons of rails beams and shapes, and 20,000 tons of bars, hoops and rods. The plant consisted of 180 non recovery coke ovens, 30 by product ovens with a sulphuric acid plant, 2 numbers blast furnaces each with a capacity of 350 tons per day, a 300 tons hot metal mixer, 4 numbers 40 tons capacity open hearth furnaces, one steam engine driven 40 inch reversing blooming mill, one 28 inch reversing rail and structural mill and one 16 inch and 2 numbers 10 inch rolling mills. The plant has a power house, a well equipped laboratory and auxiliary facilities. The cost of the plant as erected was around Rupees 23 millions. The production of first ingot at TISCO plant is shown in Fig 4

Tisco plant

Fig 4 Production of first Ingot at TISCO

Visvesvaraya Iron and Steel Limited (VISL) started as the Mysore Iron Works on 18th January 1923. The Iron works was started by Nalvadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar, the king of Mysore, under the guidance of his Diwan, Sir M Visvesvaraya. A preliminary investigation of setting up an iron and steel factory at Bhadravathi was done in 1915-1916. This investigation was done by a New York based firm who explored the possibility of manufacturing pig iron with the use of charcoal fuel. The years 1918-1922 were spent in setting up the factory. To start with, a wood distillation plant for manufacturing charcoal and blast furnace for smelting iron were set up in the factory. In 1952, two electric pig-iron surfaces were installed in the company, thereby making VISL the first iron and steel company in India to use electricity in the smelting of iron ore.

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