Material developments and society

Developments in materials go hand in hand with developments in society, and that has always been the case. For good reason, the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age had these names. The control of fire was always important.

Since time immemorial, we have used materials to protect ourselves from the weather and to develop ourselves. In the beginning, this was most easily achieved with materials from our immediate surroundings, with natural materials such as wood, animal skins and stone.

In the Stone Age, we found out that (fire) stone – worked or otherwise – was good to use as tools and for weapons, and we could bake ceramic pots to store food. Around 5000 years before Christ, the first farmers came to the Netherlands. Farming on the fertile loess soil in South Limburg proved to be so much more efficient than the hunting/gathering that took place before that time. Farming provided stability for these ‘Bandkeramiekers’ – named after the linear band ware decorations they applied to their ceramic, earthenware pots used to store food. Materials science meets culture! With fire, we could make food more digestible and longer-lasting by cooking or baking it. And the beauty of it is that fire could also be used to make cooking utensils such as pots and pans. Fire and ceramics were an ideal combination!

With better control of the fire, we mastered the process of making bronze by adding tin to copper to make strong tools and weapons, and we could make bronze ornaments. And when we learned to work iron, this material took over the role of bronze for tools and weapons with raw materials from the local area. Iron ore was readily available ‘everywhere’, and with better knowledge and experience of furnace technology, it was possible to extract iron from the ore, using charcoal as a fuel and as a reducing agent. It is an art in itself to convert natural metal oxides into practical, versatile materials that we know as metals. With the great influence that iron still has as a (construction) material, today we can still speak of an ‘Iron Age’!

Coincidence probably played a major role in the discovery of glass. About 5500 years ago, people in Asia Minor melted a mixture of soda blocks and sand in a fire. They saw a slightly transparent substance appear when they allowed the molten mass to cool rather quickly. Other legends speak of the first ‘glassy’ glaze on ceramic pots – due to a fusion of the ashes of sea plants with fired clay.

In the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution began in England. It was inspired by inventions and improvements in agriculture, the textile industry and mining. The essence: replace small-scale muscle power of humans and animals and power of water/windmills by machines in order to produce on a large scale. The steam engine appeals most to the imagination: burn coal, use the heat to evaporate water into steam, the pressure of which provides mechanical work via pistons. What started with iron and steam power continued subsequently with steel and electricity.

In the last 100 years, many new materials have emerged. Plastics took off in the 20th century. These are not natural products, but chemically synthesised industrial products, usually with oil as a raw material. And in line with the Bronze and Iron Ages, the era we are living in now is often called the ‘Silicon Age’ – referring to the material from which computer chips are made.

As humans, we have always been innovative with materials. Materials are timeless – and even in modern society the influence of materials is still very strong.

The former copper mine near Falun in Sweden was productive during more than 1000 years, and is now a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site.