History of materials science

Materials science has shaped the development of civilizations since the dawn of mankind. Better materials for tools and weapons has allowed mankind to spread and conquer, and advancements in material processing like steel and aluminum production continue to impact society today. Historians have regarded materials as such an important aspect of civilizations such that entire periods of time have defined by the predominant material used (Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, etc.). For most of recorded history, control of materials had been through alchemy or empirical means at best. The study and development of chemistry and physics assisted the study of materials, and eventually the interdisciplinary study of materials science emerged from the fusion of these studies.[1] The history of materials science is the study of how different materials were used and developed through the history of Earth and how those materials affected the culture of the peoples of the Earth. The term "Silicon Age" is sometimes used to refer to the modern period of history during the late 20th to early 21st centuries.


In many cases different cultures leave their materials as the only records which anthropologists can use to define the existence of such cultures. The progressive use of more sophisticated materials allows archeologists to characterize and distinguish between peoples. This is partially due to the major material of use in a culture and to its associated benefits and drawbacks. Stone-Age cultures were limited by which rocks they could find locally and by which they could acquire by trading. The use of flint around 300,000 BCE is sometimes considered the beginning of the use of ceramics. The use of polished stone axes marks a significant advance because a much wider variety of rocks could serve as tools.

The innovation of smelting and casting metals in the Bronze Age started to change the way that cultures developed and interacted with each other. Starting around 5500 BCE, early smiths began to re-shape native metals of copper and gold - without the use of fire - for tools and weapons. The heating of copper and its shaping with hammers began around 5000 BCE. Melting and casting started around 4000 BCE. Metallurgy had its dawn with the reduction of copper from its ore around 3500 BCE. The first alloy, bronze came into use around 3000 BCE.

Stone Age

The use of materials begins in the stone age. Typically materials such as bone, fibers, feathers, shells, animal skin, and clay were used for weapons, tools, jewelry, and shelter. The earliest tools were in the paleolithic age, called Oldowan. These were tools created from chipped rocks that would be used for scavenging purpose. As history carried on into the Mesolithic age, tools became more complex and symmetrical in design with sharper edges. Moving into the Neolithic age, agriculture began to develop as new was to form tools for farming were discovered.[2] Nearing the end of the stone age, humans began using copper, gold, and silver as a material. Due to these metals softness, the general use was for ceremonial purposes and to create ornaments or decorations and did not replace other materials for use in tools. The simplicity of the tools used reflected on the simple understanding of the human species of the time.[3]

Bronze Age

The use of copper had become very apparent to civilizations, such as its properties of elasticity and plasticity that allow it to be hammered into useful shapes, along with its ability to be melted and pored into intricate shapes. Although the advantages of copper were many, the materials was to soft to find large scale usefulness. Through experimentation or by chance, additions to copper lead to increased hardness of a new metal alloy, called bronze.[4] Bronze was originally composed of copper and arsenic, forming arsenic bronze. [5]

Iron Age

Iron-working came into prominence from about 1200 BCE.

In the 10th century BCE glass production began in ancient Near East. In the 3rd century BCE people in ancient India developed wootz steel, the first crucible steel. In the 1st century BCE glassblowing techniques flourished in Phoenicia. In the 2nd century CE steel-making became widespread in Han Dynasty China. The 4th century CE saw the production of the Iron pillar of Delhi, the oldest surviving example of corrosion-resistant steel.


Wood, bone, stone, and earth are some of the materials which formed the structures of the Roman Empire. Certain structures were made possible by the character of the land upon which these structures are built; a volcanic peninsula with stone aggregates and conglomerates containing crystalline material will produce material which weathers differently from soft, sedimentary rock and silt. That is one of the reasons that the concrete Pantheon of Rome could last for 1850 years, and why the thatched farmhouses of Holland sketched by Rembrandt have long since decayed.

After the thighbone daggers of the early hunter-gatherers were superseded by wood and stone axes, and then by copper, bronze and iron implements of the Roman civilization, more precious materials could then be sought, and gathered together. Thus the medieval goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini could seek and defend the gold which he had to turn into objects of desire for dukes and popes. The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini contains one of the first descriptions of a metallurgical process.

Middle Ages

Proto-porcelain material has been discovered dating back to the Neolithic period, with shards of material found in archaeological sites from the Eastern Han period in China. These wares are estimated to have been fired from 1260 to 1300 °C.[6] In the 8th century, porcelain was invented in Tang Dynasty China. Porcelain in china resulted in a methodical development of widely used kilns that increased the quality and quantity that procelain could be produced.[7] Tin-glazing of ceramics is invented by Arabic chemists and potters in Basra, Iraq.[8]

In the 9th century, stonepaste ceramics were invented in Iraq,[8] and lustreware appeared in Mesopotamia.[9]

In the 11th century, Damascus steel is developed in the Middle East. In the 15th century, Johann Gutenberg develops type metal alloy and Angelo Barovier invents cristallo, a clear soda-based glass.

Early modern period

In the 16th century, Vannoccio Biringuccio publishes his Pirotechnia, the first systematic book on metallurgy, Georg Agricola writes De Re Metallica, an influential book on metallurgy and mining, and glass lens are developed in the Netherlands and used for the first time in microscopes and telescopes.

In the 17th century, Galileo's Two New Sciences (strength of materials and kinematics) includes the first quantitative statements in the science of materials. In the 18th century, William Champion patents a process for the production of metallic zinc by distillation from calamine and charcoal, Bryan Higgins was issued a patent for hydraulic cement (stucco) for use as an exterior plaster, and Alessandro Volta makes a copper/zinc acid battery.

In the 19th century, Thomas Johann Seebeck invents the thermocouple, Joseph Aspin invents Portland cement, Charles Goodyear invents vulcanized rubber, Louis Daguerre and William Fox Talbot invent silver-based photographic processes, James Clerk Maxwell demonstrates color photography, and Charles Fritts makes the first solar cells using selenium waffles.

Before the early 1800s, aluminum had not been produced as an isolated metal. It wasn't until 1825 that Hans Christian Ørsted discovered how to create elemental aluminum via the reduction of aluminum chloride. Since aluminum is a light element with good mechanical properties, it was widely sought to replace heavier less functional metals like silver and gold. Napoleon III used aluminum plates and utensils for his honored guests, while the rest were given silver.[10] However, this process was still expensive and was still not able to produce the metal in large quantities.[11] In 1886, American Charles Martin Hall and Frenchman Paul Héroult invented a process completely independent of each other to produce aluminum from aluminum oxide via electrolysis.[12] This process would allow aluminum to be manufactured cheaper than ever before, and laid the groundwork for turning the element from a precious metal into an easily obtainable commodity. Around the same time in 1888, Carl Josef Bayer was working in St Petersburg, Russia to develop a method to make pure alumina for the textile industry. This process involved dissolving the aluminum oxide out of the bauxite mineral to produce gibbsite, which can then be purified back into raw alumina. The Bayer process and the Hall-Héroult process are still used today to produce a majority of the world's alumina and aluminum.[13]

Material science as a field of study

Most fields of studies have a founding father, such as Newton in physics and Lavoisier in chemistry. Materials science on the other hand has no central figure that set in motion materials studies.[14] In the 1940s, wartime collaborations of multiple fields of study to produce technological advances became a structure to the future field of study that would become known as material science and engineering.[15] During the Cold War in the 1950s, US President Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) made materials a priority when it realized that materials were the limiting factor for advances in space and military technology. The Department of defense signed a contract with 5 universities (Harvard, MIT, Brown, Stanford, and Chicago) providing over $13 million for material research. Several institutions departments changed titles from "metallurgy" to "metallurgy and materials science" in 1960's.[14]

Modern materials science

In the early part of the 20th century, most engineering schools had a department of metallurgy and perhaps of ceramics as well. Much effort was expended on consideration of the austenite-martensite-cementite phases found in the iron-carbon phase diagram that underlies steel production. The fundamental understanding of other materials was not sufficiently advanced for them to be considered as academic subjects. In the post-WWII era, the systematic study of polymers advanced particularly rapidly. Rather than create new polymer science departments in engineering schools, administrators and scientists began to conceive of materials science as a new interdisciplinary field in its own right, one that considered all substances of engineering importance from a unified point of view. Northwestern University instituted the first materials science department in 1955.[16]

Richard E. Tressler was an international leader in the development of high temperature materials. He pioneered high temperature fiber testing and use, advanced instrumentation and test methodologies for thermostructural materials, and design and performance verification of ceramics and composites in high temperature aerospace, industrial and energy applications. He was founding director of the Center for Advanced Materials (CAM) which supported many faculty and students from the College of Earth and Mineral Science, the Eberly College of Science, the College of Engineering, the Materials Research Laboratory and the Applied Research Laboratories at Penn State on high temperature materials. His vision for interdisciplinary research played a key role in the creation of the Materials Research Institute. Tressler's contribution to materials science is celebrated with a Penn State lecture named in his honor.[17]

The Materials Research Society (MRS)[18] has been instrumental in creating an identity and cohesion for this young field. MRS was the brainchild of researchers at Penn State University and grew out of discussions initiated by Prof. Rustum Roy in 1970. The first meeting of MRS was held in 1973. As of 2006, MRS has grown into an international society that sponsors a large number of annual meetings and has over 13,000 members. MRS sponsors meetings that are subdivided into symposia on a large variety of topics as opposed to the more focused meetings typically sponsored by organizations like the American Physical Society or the IEEE. The fundamentally interdisciplinary nature of MRS meetings has had a strong influence on the direction of science, particularly in the popularity of the study of soft materials, which are in the nexus of biology, chemistry, physics and mechanical and electrical engineering. Because of the existence of integrative textbooks, materials research societies and university chairs in all parts of the world, BA, MA and PhD programs and other indicators of discipline formation, it is fair to call materials science (and engineering) a discipline.[19]

In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA),[20] referred to as the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) since 1996. In 1960, ARPA encouraged the establishment of interdisciplinary laboratories (IDL's) on university campuses, which would be dedicated to the research of materials, as well as to the education of students on how to conduct materials science research.[21] ARPA offered 4-year IDL contracts to universities, originally to Cornell University, University of Pennsylvania, and Northwestern University, eventually granting 9 more contracts.[22] Although ARPA is no longer in control of the IDL program (the National Science Foundation took over the program in 1972[22]), the original establishment of IDL's marked a significant milestone in the United States' research and development of materials science.

Silicon Age

The field of crystallography, where X-rays are shone through crystals of a solid material, was founded by William Henry Bragg and his son William Lawrence Bragg at the Institute of Physics during and after World War II. Materials science became a major established discipline following the onset of the Silicon Age and Information Age, which began with the invention of the metal–oxide–silicon field-effect transistor (MOSFET) by Mohamed M. Atalla at Bell Labs in 1959. This led to the development of modern computers and then mobile phones, with the need to make them smaller, faster and more powerful leading to materials science developing smaller and lighter materials capable of dealing with more complex calculations. This in turn enabled computers to be used to solve complex crystallographic calculations and automate crystallography experiments, allowing researchers to design more accurate and powerful techniques. Along with computers and crystallography, the development of laser technology from 1960 onwards led to the development of light-emitting diodes (used in DVD players and smartphones), fibre-optic communication (used in global telecommunications), and confocal microscopy, a key tool in materials science.[23]

Mohamed Atalla, at the Hewlett-Packard (HP) Semiconductor Lab in the 1960s, launched a material science investigation program that provided a base technology for gallium arsenide (GaAs), gallium arsenide phosphide (GaAsP) and indium arsenide (InAs) devices. These devices became the core technology used by HP's Microwave Division to develop sweepers and network analyzers that pushed 2040 GHz frequency, giving HP more than 90% of the military communications market.[24]

See also


  1. Hummel, Rolf E. (2005). Understanding Materials Science History, Properties, Applications (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Springer-Verlag New York, LLC. ISBN 978-0-387-26691-6.
  2. Violatti, Christian. "Stone Age". Ancient History Encyclopedia. Missing or empty |url= (help)
  3. Hummel, Rolf (2005). Understanding Materials Science History, Properties, Applications. pp. 1–2.
  4. Hummel, Rolf. Understanding Materials Science: History, Properties, Application. p. 66.
  5. Tylecote, R.F. History of Metallurgy, Second Edition. London: Manley Publishing, for the institute of metals.
  6. Li, He (1996). Chinese ceramics : the new standard guide. London: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 978-0-500-23727-4.
  7. "Porcelain in the Tang (618–906) and Song (960–1279) Dynasties".
  8. Mason, Robert B. (1995). New Looks at Old Pots: Results of Recent Multidisciplinary Studies of Glazed Ceramics from the Islamic World. Muqarnas: Annual on Islamic Art and Architecture. XII. p. 5. ISBN 978-9004103146.
  9. pp. 86–87, Ten thousand years of pottery, Emmanuel Cooper, University of Pennsylvania Press, 4th ed., 2000, ISBN 0-8122-3554-1.
  10. Geller, Tom (2 June 2016). "Aluminum: Common Metal, Uncommon Past". Science History Institute. Retrieved 4 May 2018.
  11. "Production of Aluminum: The Hall-Héroult Process". American Chemical Society. American Chemical Society. Retrieved 4 May 2018.
  12. Totten, George E. (2003). Handbook of aluminum (10. print. ed.). New York [u.a.]: Dekker. ISBN 978-0-8247-0896-2.
  13. "Bayer's Process for Alumina Production: A Historical Production" (PDF). scs.illinois.edu. Fathi Habashi, Laval University. Retrieved 6 April 2018.
  14. Vincent, Bernedetta. "Materials science and engineering: an artificial discipline about to explode". History of Recent Materials Science. Missing or empty |url= (help)
  15. Olson, Gregory. "A Materials Science Timeline". Materials World Modules. Missing or empty |url= (help)
  16. Richard E. Tressler lecture in Materials Science from Penn State
  17. Materials Research Society
  18. See Cahn (2001) and Hentschel (2011) for further references and detailed analysis.
  19. "DoD Directive Establishes the Advanced Research Projects Agency". www.darpa.mil. Retrieved 23 February 2018.
  20. Psaras, Peter A. (1987). Advancing Materials Research. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. pp. 35–40.
  21. "A Selected History of DARPA Innovation". DARPA. Retrieved February 23, 2018.
  22. "100 incredible years of physics – materials science". Institute of Physics. December 2019. Retrieved 10 December 2019.
  23. House, Charles H.; Price, Raymond L. (2009). The HP Phenomenon: Innovation and Business Transformation. Stanford University Press. pp. 110–1. ISBN 9780804772617.

Further reading

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