Arguably the best sword makers in world history were medieval Islamic blacksmiths, makers of the fearsome Damascus steel blades.
Damascus Steel: Sabre #10, Berne Historical Museum, Switzerland, made by Assad Ullah in the 17th Century. Peter Paufler ©2006
Working with raw iron "wootz" steel imported from India and Sri Lanka, the smiths created a miracle of a weapon, strong and sharp and marked with watery blue tracing, which together scared the daylights out of European crusaders. By the mid-18th century, however, the wootz sources dried up, and the sword-making technology was lost to the ages.
In 2006, an article appeared in Nature, describing the mechanical processes which were hypothesized to create the stunning Damascene steel workmanship: crystallographers Peter Paufler and colleagues argued that carbon nanotubes were part of the matrix of the steel, created by the inclusion of minute quantities of various minerals which were either present in wootz or added by the blacksmiths. I wrote an article about Paufler's research that year and it has remained a popular topic.
Late last winter, I received an email from Madeleine Durand-Charre, a metallurgist who expressed some doubt concerning Paufler's description of the process of nanotube formation. Dr. Paufler responded, and I'm happy to say, the entire debate is hosted here. The resulting discussion is a fascinating one for those of us who think of modern science as part alchemy!
Read more of this discussion of nanotechnology in Damascene steel swords.
- Damascus Steel, the original article
- Nanoscale Precipitation in Genuine Wootz Steel Blades, comment by Madeleine Durand-Charre
- Identifying Mechanical Structures in Damascus Sabers, comment by Peter Paufler
- Wootz steel