Blacksmith History 3; Ages of Technology


Appalachian Blacksmiths Association



Blacksmith History, Part 1
Blacksmith History--Part 2
Blacksmith History--Part 3
Blacksmith in the Oil Patch
Blacksmiths in  Africa
Antebellum Iron Works
Lewis & Clark's Blacksmiths
James Rumsey--Inventor
Advice for Beginners
Blacksmith Schools
Farrier Schools
Boy Scout Program
Village Blacksmith
Techniques / Projects
Iron and Steel
Forging Non-Ferrous Metals
Copper Repousse
All About Nails
Genealogy Tips
1982 ABANA Conference


David G. Allen for the Appalachian Blacksmiths Association


Nothing herein may be reproduced unless permission of the submitter and/or the Appalachian Blacksmiths Association is given.





If you study the civilizations of history, you will read that a particular society lived in one of three technological ages--the Stone Age, Bronze Age, or Iron Age.  And you will notice that certain dates are often attached to the these ages.  You may fall into the trap of believing that all of the world's peoples threw down their stone tools in 6,500 BC and ordered new, bronze tools.  In truth, societies progressed at different rates and throughout much of the last few millennia, the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age were all in place at the same time.  This was evident when European sailors landed in the Americas.

Even as astronauts blasted off for the first moon landing, some tribes of rain forest Indians in the Amazon and elsewhere were still living as people did in the Stone Age.  They hunted and fished with sharpened sticks, ground food roots to a pulp with a round rock, and, in some locales, did not know how to build a fire with human-made tools or implements.  

stone age tools

Stone Age tools made from rocks

Strange as this may seem that they did not know how to "make" fire, one does have to ask the burning question: What need did they have of fire?  After all, the tropical rain forest is balmy the year round.  And fresh fruits and berries are always in season.  Even if these tribes wanted to cook a meal over a campfire, then they would have a hard time finding enough dry wood to build the fire.  

Without need of fire (primarily for warmth), these tribes were almost guaranteed to live in the Stone Age.  Why?  Because it was the heat of a campfire that led humans to discover that metals were contained in rocks and that the intense heat of a fire could smelt the metal from the ore rock.

If you were a Stone Age person, you would be acutely aware of your surroundings.  Living off the land, you would know every square inch of the many square miles of your range.  You would have discovered that a tree limb with a knot made for a durable mallet.  Of the rocks you saw in the gravel bed of a stream, you would have quickly learned not to step on a flint rock because of its sharp edges.  You'd also see that animal bones could be dried and splintered.   With just these three discoveries, you would be on your way to building a shelter, making tools, and cutting and sewing animal hides for clothes or shoes.

Even though your life would be better than before you discovered how to make tools, you would still want to make improvements to your situation.  One day, you would poke through the ashes of your campfire and discover a shiny object, probably copper.  Your instinct would be to hammer it with a rock.  The lump of copper would flatten with each blow and then begin to polish.   The shiny medallion would so inspire your curiosity that you would gather more rocks and build more fires and search the ashes for more shiny lumps of copper.   

native copper

Native copper

Thus, the Bronze Age begins.  

At some point, probably after centuries of working copper into implements and jewelry, people discovered the miracle of alloys.  We will never know if alloys came about by design or by accident.  We do know that mixing molten copper and molten tin produces bronze, a remarkable alloy that even today has many uses in our industrialized world.  This discovery of making alloys in turn led to a belief in alchemy--the notion that you could turn one metal into another.  People believed that a cheap, plentiful metal such as lead could be turned into gold if only the right procedure was discovered.  Imagine what those people thought when they alloyed copper and lead and produced brass.  For a brief time, they probably thought they had made a bar of gold!

Bronze Age technology remarkably changed the ways in which societies lived.  Precious metals, acting as a medium of exchange, allowed for commerce between villages, between regions, and between nations.  No longer did traders have to barter one staple for another.  This new form of commerce created wealth.  And where there is wealth, there is art.  As soon as a new metal or alloy was discovered, it was incorporated into some form of art.


bronze cauldron

Riveted panels in this bronze cauldron indicate advanced engineering and design skills that developed in the Bronze Age 

Bronze Age technology also brought forth advancements in engineering & architectural science, as well as durable tools for manufacturing and agriculture.  In the Stone Age, a bridge was a tree that happened to fall across a stream.  Bronze tools allowed man to build bridges, a skill that required measurement and mathematics.  Bronze tools also allowed man to build temples and other large buildings, which led to the creation of mankind's first nation states and empires.  The Pyramids of Egypt, actually tombs for the Pharaohs filled with gold treasures, highlight the 3,000 years of Bronze Age technology in Egypt.

But the Bronze Age did have one shortcoming.  Copper, tin, lead, gold, and silver were never found in great quantities nor were they often found in the same places.  Bronze Age people were limited in their technology to processing metals found in their native state or from very rich ores.  Unlike today, when a mining company can process one ton of ore to retrieve one ounce of gold, Bronze Age people had to find nuggets to process.

Iron came into use because the scarcity of copper, etc. pushed up the prices of metals and alloys.  It takes much more energy to melt iron than it does copper.  But as copper went up in price, iron smelting became feasible.  Iron is well-distributed throughout the world--a red rock is an indication of iron.  But the first iron source that people used were meteorites that they found laying on the ground.  Iron nodules are also found in bogs and clay banks.

Copper melts at 1,981F.  Iron melts at 2,802F.  To achieve this temperature, wood had to be converted to charcoal (nearly pure carbon) and then burned with an air blast, which was supplied by a bellows (a simple air pump.)  While iron is harder and more durable than the Bronze Age metals and alloys, it is not so simple as to say the difference in Ages is the difference in the properties of the metals.  Making iron required a new way of thinking.  Making iron was an industrial process. 

The first civilization credited with making 'wrought iron' from blooms is the Hittite Empire which controlled present-day Syria and Iraq from 1700-1200 BC.  While it took over 3,000 years from that first bloom of smelted iron to the building of the first iron bridge at Ironbridge, England, the thought process changed little.  Iron making showed man that he could make everything bigger, better, stronger, and faster.  The Industrial Revolution, the capstone of the Iron Age, could not have happened without wrought iron and the blacksmith.

In today's world, the cruise ship is built from tens of thousands of tons of steel.  The jet airliner has nary and ounce of steel.  Though dissimilar in the metals that they are built from, they both represent the thinking process of Iron Age technology.

Some futurists say that we have entered a new age of technology based on computers.  Call it the Silicon Age if you will.  If that is true, then our computer age began in 1801 when Joseph Jacquard invented a loom that operated by punch cards.  However basic, it was a computer-controlled device.  Whether we are starting this new age is debatable.  What is probably true is that it will not take 3,000 years to develop the next age of technology. 

In the 21st Century, man will develop a way to supply 90% of the world's energy power from the sun and the cost will be minimal.  And it would not surprise me at all to see man-made rainstorms in the Sahara Desert.  But when this century ends--and I predict this with certainty--mankind will still not have found a cure for the common cold.  

The Stone Age lives on! 



Spanning the Severn River in Shropshire, England--Ironbridge, built in 1779.  It is made with cast iron segments, the largest of which weighs over 5 tons.



For the Appalachian Blacksmith Association, by David G. Allen



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