Welding History From Ancient Times
Welding history is long and varied. From ancient times to today, the practice of welding has flourished and changed as new innovations and processes are created. While welding may be more advanced today than it was in the beginning, the same general principles and basic processes still hold true today. As far back as the Bronze Age, people created circular metal boxes made of gold by pressure welding joints together. These boxes from over 2000 years ago still survive today showing the incredible strength and durability of metal and of welding.
The Egyptians also used welding to join pieces of iron together during the Iron Age. Archeologists have found a number of welding tools used by these ancient civilizations that were made as early as 1000 B.C. Now that’s an antique! Blacksmithing, an art and practice that continues today, originated in the Middle Ages. Blacksmiths weld iron items, in the past and still today, by heating the iron and then hammering it into shapes or joining it to other pieces of iron. However, the development of modern welding as we know it today did not begin until the 19th century.
Welding History in the Early 1800s and Arc Welding
The origins of arc welding begin in England in the early 1800s. Arc welding joins materials together using a power supply that creates an electric arc. This arc is between an electrode and whatever base material is being used. The metals then melt at the welding point. While the modern arc welding systems are much more advanced, the initial idea for the process started in England. Sir Humprey Davy, using just a battery, first produced an arc between two carbon electrodes in 1800. In 1836, Edmund Davy discovered acetylene, one of the hottest chemical flames.
By the middle of the 19th century, Michael Faraday built the first electromagnetic generator. Arc lighting also became more popular during the 1800s. In arc lights, light is produced by an electric or voltaic arc. Currently, we call this “Gas Tungsten Arc Welding” – also known as TiG welding. You learn more about it’s modern applications here. Towards the end of the century, gas welding and cutting were also invented continuing the advancement of modern welding.
Late 1800s and Carbon Arc Welding
During the 1880s welding history took huge leaps forward, a number of scientists around the world created new techniques and processes that contributed to the popularity and development of carbon arc welding. In France, Auguste De Meritens joined lead plates to make storage batteries using the heat of an arc. His Russian pupil Nikolai N. Benardos and another Russian Stanislaus Olszewski then applied for and received patents for welding in 1885 in America and 1887 in Britain. Both patents used an electrode holder and the process of carbon arc welding began. Using this technique Bernardos welded both iron and lead. Throughout the rest of the century and into the early 1900s, the process of carbon arc welding became more popular and widely used.
In 1890, two scientists simultaneously created methods of transferring metal across an arc. C.L. Coffin received the first U.S. patent for welding using a metal electrode in Detroit. While this is technically the first record melting metal this way, another scientist submitted the same process at about the same time. Coffin used the process to put filler metal in a joint in order to make a weld. The other scientist N.G. Slavianoff, a Russian, cast the metal into a mold. The process of arc welding continued to improve in the 1900s as multiple scientists created coated metal electrodes that provide a more stable arc to use for welding.
Early 1900s and Resistance Welding
The inventor of resistance welding was Elihu Thompson who received several patents for his methods from 1885 to 1900. Resistance welding became more advanced in the 1900s as new processes were developed including spot welding, seam welding, flash butt welding and projection welding. Another type of welding, thermite welding, was invented in 1903 by a man named Goldschmidt and first used for welding on railroad rails.
As methods of producing oxygen and liquefying air were created, welding and cutting continued to develop. People began using gas welding and cutting during this period. The invention of the blow pipe or blow torch in 1887 also helped spur new innovation in welding techniques. In the 1880s, oxygen with hydrogen and coal gas were used to weld in a blow pipe. Around 1990, a new torch was invented that could be used with low-pressure acetylene, revolutionizing the welding process. All of these new welding techniques were put into widespread practice with the advent of World War I. As production demands increased, more and more welders and welding tools were needed to support manufacturing. This led to a sharp increase in new manufacturing companies who specialized in welding machines and electrodes.
1920s and Automatic Welding
P.O. Nobel invented automatic welding, which uses bare electrode wire operating on direct current, in 1920. This method regulated the feed rate through the use of arc voltage. Manufactures used this new welding technique to repair and build up worn motor shafts and crane wheels, while automobile producers utilized it for making rear axle housings. Throughout the 1920s, a number of different types of covered electrodes were created and the benefits of more heavily coated ones compared to more lightly coated ones were debated. By the end of the decade, companies had started selling advanced versions of covered electrodes to the public and they became widely used as new regulations called for high quality welds.
Gas shielding techniques also advanced during the 1920s and a number of researchers worked with finding new gases to control the arc and weld area. They ultimately invented the process of atomic hydrogen welding which was used occasionally over the next twenty years but never became popular. However, during this period, two scientists H.M. Hobart and P.K. Devers used argon and helium and created a process that was the beginning of gas tungsten welding. While the procedures and techniques used today are more advanced and refined than what they created, the origins of the processes began in the 1920s. Gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW) or tungsten inert gas (TIG) welding is one of the more commonly used welding techniques today giving operators a high level of control over the weld and thus producing strong, quality welds.
1930s-1940s and Gas Shielded Metal Arc Welding
The 1930s saw the development of stud welding, which allowed shipbuilders and construction companies to attach wood decking over metal surfaces. Submerged arc welding also became popular allowing people to create longitudinal seams in pipes. The process went on to have a number of applications especially in the military defense buildup at the end of the 1930s. The process continues to be popular and effective today.
In fact, during the WWII era, welding technology had advanced to the point that it made it possible for the US war effort to rapidly build ships and armor to meet the growing threats of Germany and Japan.
Here’s a great, newly colorized video, of female welders at work in US shipyards during the war.
The modern process of gas tungsten arc welding was developed during the 1940s showing that welding history always preserves useful techniques. Although the origins of the technique went back as far as 1890 when C.L. Coffin welded in a nonoxidizing gas atmosphere, it was not perfected until 1941. Later the process was further improved with the creation of a water-cooled torch and over time it became one of the most used welding techniques. Another popular welding process today, gas shielded metal arc welding (GMAW) or metal inert gas (MIG) welding was developed at the end of the 1940s. Similar to gas tungsten arc welding, the technique used a gas shielded arc but instead of an electrode it relied on a electrode wire. Due to the high cost of inert gas, the process was not immediately widely used.
1950s and Welding Variations
At the beginning of the 1950s, two Russian scientists invented the idea of using CO2 gas for welding. This process used the same equipment as inert gas metal arc welding but did not require the expensive inert gas. As smaller electrode wires and better power sources were developed, CO2 arc welding became more and more popular. With the new advances, welders could efficiently and cost-effectively weld thin materials together.
Scientists continued to create variations on this popular process and in 1954, a new electrode wire called an inside-outside electrode became popular. Later in 1959, another inside-outside electrode that did need external gas shielding was introduced and became widely used for noncritical work.
A welding technique later used for joining thicker materials called electroslag welding was first introduced by the Soviets at the 1958 World Fair in Belgium. Over time it was perfected at a number of research centers and was ultimately used for producing welded diesel engine blocks in the United States. A similar process called Electrogas was invented in 1961, which used a flux-cored electrode wire and an external gas shield. The process worked in a similar way to electroslag welding but allowed for use on thinner materials.
Plasma arc welding was invented in 1957 by Robert F. Gage. The plasma arc is a higher temperature than a tungsten arc and the process relies on a constricted arc. Welders use the technique for cutting and metal spraying. Finally, at the end of the 1950s, electron beam welding was invented, which used a heat source created by a focused beam of electrons. Today the process is still widely used by the car and airplane manufacturing industries.
New innovative welding techniques continue to be developed and perfected today. Friction welding or inertia welding was used starting the 1950s. Heat is generated due to mechanical friction so the process is technically not welding since nothing is melted. However, the process is very similar to welding so it has been termed as such. Due to high setup costs, the process is rarely used unless there are a large number of similar items that need to be welded.
Welding Innovation Today
One of the newest welding innovations of today is laser welding. Due to the high amount of energy produced in such a small space, it is an extremely powerful heat source. The process is effective for use on both metals and nonmetals. The precision and high heat of the laser beam makes it easy to use in an automated, robotic machine. Laser welding machines can produce high quality welds at a fast rate and it is very popular for manufacturing processes that need a high volumes.
Welding has changed and advanced through a number of different processes and techniques. We hope this quick look at welding history has given you an appetite to explore more about this awesome skill and career field. New discoveries and methods continued to be invented even today. However, ancient techniques can still be used effectively to join metals and other materials. Welding is truly a versatile field with a focus on both innovation and history. For anyone interested in a constantly growing industry with an emphasis on experimentation, welding may be the career choice for you.