The Discovery of Stainless Steel - A Lesson for Innovators Today
In the pantheon of materials that have revolutionised the modern world, stainless steel stands tall. From knives, forks, and kitchen appliances to towering skyscrapers, this wonder material is everywhere. The story of how it was discovered and commercialised offers lessons for innovators and corporations today.
The discovery of stainless steel by Harry Brearley is an iconic tale in the history of metallurgy and innovation. It begins in 1912 in Sheffield, England. Brearley was a metallurgist working at the Brown-Firth research laboratory, tasked to develop a gun barrel that would resist erosion. The continuous firing of shells tended to wear out the inner lining of gun barrels, and Brearley's goal was to tackle this problem.
In his experiments, Brearley blended various amounts of chromium with steel, trying to create an erosion-resistant material. After evaluation of his experimental alloys, all of them were discarded as failures. They didn’t exhibit the traits he sought.
However, a few weeks later, Brearley revisited these discarded samples and observed something remarkable. While most of the samples had, predictably, rusted over, the ones containing around 13% chromium remained pristine. These 'failed' samples had inadvertently given birth to a new form of steel that resisted the rusting that plagued traditional steel. While the samples were terrible when it came to ‘erosion’, they were extraordinary when it came to ‘corrosion’. Brearley filed a patent for his new alloy, which he called "rustless steel." This material would later be known as "stainless steel." Brearley's discovery was a breakthrough in the field of metallurgy and had far-reaching implications for industry and technology.
Discovered by multiple people
The story of stainless steel is not a straightforward one. Although commonly credited to Brearley, at around the same time, there were multiple others that also ‘discovered’ it and about whom we don’t tend to hear.
Robert Hadfield, a Sheffield metallurgist, made similar findings in 1892 but ignored them and put them away in a sample box (not realising they would not rust until he examined them 30 years later!). Camel Laird in Sheffield also had an early version in 1903 but kept it secret. Leon Gullet in France, Germans Beno and Strauss, and American Elwood Haynes all had discoveries linked to stainless steel in around the same period. Yet, it was Brearley who became synonymous with its commercialisation.
Why Harry Brearley?
What was it about Harry Brearley that set him apart from the others? Initially, Brearley’s discovery was not seen as particularly valuable in the context for which it was developed - improving gun barrels. However, there was something in his approach that made him different to the others. Let’s explore a few of the conditions and characteristics that made him special.
A key quality that set him apart, was his curious mindset. Though he was working for a company focused on armaments, he was deeply interested in a very wide range of things and was well networked with the cluster of other small businesses and activities within the Sheffield region.
At the time, Sheffield was the centre of the global steel industry. It is estimated that at the turn of the 20th century 50%of the steel in Europe was made in Sheffield. Most of this was for a wide range of applications including armaments and since the 13th century, a specialist cutlery and silversmithing industry.
Although he was working in armaments, Brearley knew the entire tapestry of Sheffield industry. He saw crucibles being made by feet treading the clay to make the pots for specialist steel. He was familiar with the nuance and thinking of the local Sheffield craft and silversmithing guilds, the polishers, and the engravers. He understood and was connected to knife, fork and surgical blade makers. He knew and was interested in the entire Sheffield ecosystem. In today’s language we would say that he demonstrated a high degree of cognitive diversity in the way that he looked at the world.
Connecting the dots
Brearley was also an avid golfer and credited his success in metallurgy to his ability to visualise the structure of metals in three dimensions, which he felt was like the visualisation required for a successful golf swing.
Upon recognising the unique corrosion-resistant quality of his steel, whilst others ignored it, Harry envisioned, expanded, and saw its utility and commercial potential in the cutlery industry. His expansive range of interests meant that he was aware that the big pain point in the cutlery industry was ‘staining’ and ‘rusting.' He understood that while his steel alloy did not solve the problem he initially set out to address, it could solve a multitude of other problems.
Brearley was instrumental not just in the discovery but also in the initial commercial applications of stainless steel. Like his golf swing, he was keen to follow through. He collaborated with and helped local Sheffield cutlery manufacturers to produce knives made from this new material. His hands-on approach in taking his discovery from the lab to the market played a significant role in the widespread adoption of stainless steel. A key to his success in this domain was not just that Harry knew of these manufacturers, but that due to his genuine interest in their work, he had good relationships with, and was trusted by them.
Brearley is credited with naming the alloy "stainless steel," which was a marketing stroke of genius. The name effectively encapsulated the material's primary advantage and differentiator and made it more accessible, appealing, and marketable to both industry and the public(consumers). This simplicity of the message aligned well to the emergence of mass marketing and the print media revolution that was taking place at the time.
Lessons for corporations today
What can corporations and innovators of today learn from Harry Brearley and the discovery, piloting, pivoting, commercialisation, and wide spread adoption of stainless steel?
Foster deep cognitive diversity
Many corporations today recognise the importance of cognitive diversity and the new insights it may provide as a fuel for innovation. It’s a given that exposure to different viewpoints and experiences helps to stimulate creativity. However, in a corporate environment one of the key pitfalls is that efforts can seem shallow and superficial. This could range from the euphoria of a pitch day with start-ups to an inspirational speech from a futurist. One of Brearley’s key traits was not only that his range of interests were diverse but were also deep and immersed.
Daniel Coyle, the author of books such as The Talent Code and The Culture Code, has delved into the science of ‘depth’. One of the concepts he touches upon in his exploration of talent development is "deep practice”, which involves fully immersing oneself in a skill or task and breaking it down into smaller chunks. When looking at adjacent market opportunities, don’t just read the PowerPoint deck – ensure that you talk to people and are curious about how people in the market (particularly if it is adjacent) see the world. Pick and area of it and go deep.
Evaluate ideas through multiple lenses
Brearley was trying to improve gun barrels but ended up revolutionising the cutlery industry. Breakthroughs often occur at the intersection of disparate fields. Though innovation process and metrics are important, don’t ignore the ideas that can’t perfectly fit your framework. Give them time and space. Encourage your teams not to discard ideas opportunities in the portfolio too early. Look at them through multiple lenses, encourage different parts of the business to provide a perspective - for they may be connected in markets and ecosystems you’re not aware of.
Relationships do matter
A good idea, regardless of the business case or market potential, remains just that unless people and stakeholders get behind it. Brearley’s partnership and relationships with cutlery manufacturers in Sheffield is a prime example of effective communication, trust, and open collaborative innovation. Many large corporations today run start-up competitions, reference their ecosystem of partners and supply chains – but their relationships and the power dynamics can be fraught at best, especially when they want to get something new off the ground.
Brearley's unique vision lay in his ability to connect the dots between different fields. He realised that his "failure" in the context of arms manufacturing could be a massive success in other industries that had struggled for years with corrosion problems. He envisioned its use in cutlery, surgical instruments, infrastructure, and more. This ability to see potential across diverse domains is as crucial for your business today as it was in 1912.