in China and Europe
This article is a revised version of
a talk I gave at the one-day Symposium on Cast Iron in Ancient China, in Beijing, 20 July 2009.
Many thanks to the organizers and to several participants who made useful
Click on any illustration to see it
Participants in the Symposium were
all familiar with the Iron–Carbon Equilibrium Diagram,
which gives the atomic state of iron–carbon
alloys in relation to temperature. But it seemed worthwhile to remind
them of the implications of the Liquidus Line, emphasized here. This
can also be called, somewhat imprecisely, the “melting
point” of an alloy. Practical casting
temperatures lie 50–100°C higher than this.
We can see that casting steel, with up to about 1.5% carbon, requires
temperatures well over 1500°C. Such
temperatures were often reached in early times in various parts of the
world, but the refractory materials necessary to manipulate molten
steel and cast it into useful artefacts were not developed until the
late 19th century, in Britain.
With a higher carbon content, 3–4%, practical
casting is much easier, requiring temperatures around 1300°C. Iron with this carbon content is called “cast iron” because it is easy to
form by casting. It lends itself well to large-scale production, which
has always been important in ancient China. It was undoubtedly
the use of cast iron in ancient China that made it possible for every
peasant to have iron implements.
Etched with Nital, scale bar 100 µm.
The use of cast iron makes it
possible to mass-produce implements cheaply, but for most implement
types it has inferior mechanical properties. All pre-modern Chinese
cast iron has a very low silicon content, usually under 0.5% Si, and
therefore solidifies as “white cast iron”, in which the carbon is present as cementite, Fe3C,
which is extremely hard, harder than quartz, and this makes the iron
An example is this mattock-head. The micrograph shows that it is white
cast iron. Its hardness may be an advantage with such an implement, for
it would be very abrasion-resistant. But the worker would have had to be
careful, for if it hit a rock it might shatter.
Coins were usually made of copper alloys,
but sometimes shortages of copper made it necessary to cast them of
iron. Here are three iron coins, from the Western Han, Song, and Qing
Mike Wayman and Helen Wang studied 37 iron coins of the Song period in
the British Museum, London.
They are all of white cast iron, and their article has a great deal of
detail on the types of white cast iron found here.
An interesting aspect is revealed by X-rays of some of the coins: these
show that there are sometimes quite large casting bubbles in the coins,
making them feel distinctly light in the hand. It seems possible that
the coin-founders intended these bubbles, in order to save material.
Etched with Nital, scale bar 50 µm
(Mike Wayman & Helen Wang, Historical Metallurgy, 2003, 37.1, pp.
This is a cast-iron mirror – probably Han-dynasty (206 BC – AD 220),
probably white cast iron.
An interesting characteristic of traditional
Chinese metallurgy is that cast iron is often combined with other
materials. The legs of this vessel are cast iron, while the body is
bronze. I have not seen a metallurgical investigation of a vessel of
this type, but the legs are most probably of white cast iron.
The vessel is a ding 鼎 from a grave excavated at Yutaishan in Jiangling, Hubei,
dated to the 4th century BC.
These crossbow-bolts have bronze
tips and iron shafts – presumably because bronze
has better casting properties than iron, while iron is cheaper than
Lian Haiping 廉海萍 in Shanghai has studied some examples of this type of
artefact and found that the shafts are of cast iron which has been
decarburized in the solid state – this type
of iron is called “whiteheart malleable cast
iron”. She reported this at the BUMA
conference in Beijing in 2006.
Hoes and spades of wood with iron caps were common in ancient times and
continued in use well into modern times, as can be seen here:
2nd century BC
3rd century BC
William Alexander, 1793
a grave in Changsha, Hunan, 3rd–4th century BC
Etched, scale bar 250 µm
This implement-cap is “blackheart malleable cast iron” – it
was first cast, then annealed at a high temperature, probably around
950°C, for a period of days. This treatment
caused the carbon in the iron to precipitate as graphite, making a
material which has much better mechanical properties than ordinary cast
iron (white or grey).
These gads from a copper-mine site
show how tough the ancient Chinese cast iron could be. They are
obviously subject to very hard punishment, being hammered into cracks
in the rock.
But they are of cast iron – again annealed at a
high temperature for a period of days, this time decarburizing the iron
at the surface and precipitating graphite farther in.
site, 4th–3rd century BC
scale bar 50 µm
(Hua Jueming 华觉明, 自然科学史研究, 1982, 1.1,
1st–2nd century AD
Etched, scale bar 40 µm (Hua Jueming 华觉明, 自然科学史研究, 1982, 1.1,
These scissors are also of cast
They were cast, then annealed in an oxidizing atmosphere to decarburize
to a uniform carbon content around 1%, with a
few very small grapite nodules, then bent into shape by a smith.
This sword from Gansu
appears to be made by casting it and then decarburizing to a uniform
Cast Iron Sword, 2nd–1st century BC
picral etch (David A. Scott & Qinglin Ma, Historical Metallurgy,
2006, 40.2, p. 109)
Cast iron mould for casting an iron mattock-head, 3rd century BC
Etched with Nital, scale bar 200µm
(文物, 1976.8, p. 54)
Here is a cast-iron mould for casting
an iron implement.
That in itself is surprising enough, but note
that the iron is very low in both carbon and silicon, and nevertheless
the structure is grey cast iron.
Normally such an alloy would solidify as white cast iron – only very slow cooling would allow it to solidify as grey
This must have been cast in a massive heated ceramic mould and allowed to
cool very slowly, over a period of days.
The only ancient artefacts I know of which are grey-cast are moulds, and
I believe the reason is that the moulds must be very tough, to tolerate
the thermal shock when molten iron is poured in, but they could not be
made of malleable cast iron, because the annealing process tends to warp
castings slightly, so that it would be difficult to fit the parts of the
(满城汉墓, 1980, vol.
1, pp. 216, 218, 220; vol. 2, pl. 154, 155.1)
Finally here is another amazing use
of cast iron in ancient China.
This is the entrance to a tomb cut into rock in Mancheng, Hebei,
dated shortly before 104 BC.
Two brick walls were constructed, after which molten iron was cast in
between them to seal up the tomb.
The cupola furnace was the
usual furnace for casting iron from ancient times to the middle of the
Here is a small iron foundry in Denmark in 1890. The cupola
is a shaft furnace. Iron and fuel (in this case coke) are charged in
the top, and air is blown in near the bottom. There is a steam engine
inside the building at the left.
The fuel burns in contact with the iron, the iron melts, and molten
iron is tapped out at the bottom.
Notice the workers. The one whose job is to open and close the taphole
is protected by a screen from the high radiant heat from the molten
(Torben Witt, Aalborg og Fabrikkerne, 1980, p. 21)
Technische Mitteilungen Krupp, 1938, 6.4: 110–111)
Left: Cupola furnace in Shanghai in the
Below: Cupola furnaces from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Courtesy of Martyn Gregory Gallery, London
Courtesy of British Museum, Oriental and India Office Collections (see here)
Hommel, China at work,
1937, p. 27
Click to see a 50-second film-clip
by Yang Ruidong 杨瑞栋 of the casting of iron in Huize 会泽, Yunnan.
This is a reconstruction of a large
cupola furnace at a Han-dynasty ironworks site at Wafangzhuang in Nanyang,
Henan 南陽瓦房莊. Height 3–4 m.
Note that the blast goes through a pipe over the top of the furnace, so
that the air is somewhat heated before it enters the furnace.
(考古学报, 1978.1: 12)
(Li Jinghua 李京华, 中原古代冶金技术研究, 1992, p.
This is a reconstruction of a
cupola furnace for melting bronze, from the Chunqiu period (777–476 BC).
The furnace is composed of three sections. It is charged copper, tin,
and fuel, air is blown in through the top (or sometimes through a hole
in the side), and the bronze melts and settles in the bottom. The two
upper parts are then removed, and the bronze is poured from the bottom part.
This type of furnace has had a long history . . .
(René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur, [雷歐姆], L’Art de Convertir
le Fer . . ., 1722)
. . . Here is the same sort
of furnace, used by Gypsy ironfounders in Europe.
The illustration is from the 18th century.
The Gypsies are a minority people in Europe
who traditionally have no fixed domicile, but travel around. They are
also called Romanies, Travellers, Zigeuner, Tsiganes, and many other
names. They seem to have come to Europe from India
in the 13th century, but they certainly had this type of furnace from China.
It has sometimes been suggested that they were the first ironfounders
Here again we see a cupola furnace in three parts. When the iron has
melted, the upper sections are removed and the iron is poured from the
A description of a slightly different Gypsy cupola furnace can be seen here
(quotation in English in a Danish article).
Huangkiao we witnessed the operations of a Chinese foundry.
. . .
The blast was stopped, the bellows disconnected, and the upper and middle
sections of the furnace taken off and laid aside. The surface of the
molten iron being skimmed of its slag, it was well covered with rice
husk ashes. This protected the face of the man who next had to handle
it from the intense heat that would otherwise have radiated from the
molten iron. This man’s duty was to clasp the crucible in his arms,
literally hugging it to himself, and to fill the molds arranged around.
. . .
1899, 64: 125)
I do not have an illustration of
this type of furnace in China,
but one very interesting description, from 1899. Here is a brief
extract; the whole description can be seen here.
It is amazing to imagine the worker clasping the crucible in his
arms, literally hugging it to himself.
Diameter 65 cm, thickness 3.5 mm
Here is a wok – that is the usual English word, which comes from the
Cantonese pronunciation of 镬, which in Mandarin is pronounced huo.
It is broken, so it was possible to measure the thickness at its
How they were cast in the 19th century can be seen here. They
are still being cast today, probably by
Here are a few illustrations
related to woks.
It is interesting to note that cast-iron woks are now being imported to
Europe in large numbers and used as portable fireplaces.
Woks were expensive, and they could
easily break, as can be seen in a photograph further above.
This is an itinerant tinker, who mends broken woks using molten cast iron.
There is more on how the tinkers worked here.
Gouache by an anonymous Chinese artist in Guangzhou, mid-19th century. (The
Royal Library, Copenhagen, Denmark)
Photo by Tang
Another major use for cast iron was
for statues and other large monuments. These are the famous bridge
anchors at Pujin 蒲津, Shanxi, cast in AD 724.
And another quite famous cast iron
statue, one of four at the Zhongyue
Dengfeng, cast in AD 1024.
By studying the mould-seams on statues like this one and the next we
can learn a lot about how these statues were cast.
Zhongyue Temple, Dengfeng, Henan (登封中岳庙), 1987
Iron Rhinoceros (铁犀), cast AD
1446, village of Tieniu 铁牛, near Kaifeng 开封, Henan
In this case we have a very interesting
phenomenon. The photograph shows what looks like a repair to the
statue, but in fact it represents a repair to the mould.
Something happened to the mould – it broke and
had to be repaired. The bumps which can be seen are probably the heads
of spikes that were used to hold the repair in place.
I think it is only in China
that bells have been made of cast iron.
This broken bell is interesting because we can see in the fracture that
something has gone wrong. Those air bubbles at the surface would (I
believe) have had a bad effect on the tone of the bell.
Probably the founders added sulphur to the
iron to assure that it would solidify as white cast iron, but added too
much, so that the bubbles formed.
Shaolin Monastery, Dengfeng, Henan (登封少林寺), 1987
Nanjing Museum (南京博物院), 1987
Here is again an example of a
combination of materials – this anchor is made
of several pieces of wrought iron, joined together by casting iron at
the join instead of by forge welding, which was also practised in
And here is the famous Iron Lion of
Cangzhou, which also uses a combination of materials.
The lotus seat, and a bronze Buddha which originally sat on the seat,
were too heavy to be supported by cast iron alone, so wrought-iron
supports were incorporated into the casting. Part of the wrought-iron
reinforcement can be seen extending from the centre of the rightmost
photograph to the lower right corner.
Read, Mining and Metallurgy, August 1937, p. 383. Photographed
statue, photographed from below, 1987. Note modern repairs.
There is more on Chinese monumental iron castings in my
article in Journal of East Asian Archaeology, 2000, 2.3/4, pp.
199-224, which is available for purchase from Ingenta.
The illustrations of this article can be seen for free here, and a Chinese translation can
be downloaded here.
Cannon, Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Military Museum, Beijing (中国人民革命军事博物馆), 2006.
The ancient founders’ experience in casting statues and such came in very handy
when they began casting iron cannons.
The first iron cannons in China come at the very beginning of the Ming
Dynasty, in the 1370’s.
The cannon above is probably a combination of materials – wrought iron and cast iron – as we
can see at the right: two cannons with wrought iron inside and cast
iron outside. George Banks sketched these at the Dagu Forts, in modern
Tianjin, in 1860. He believed that these were ‘evidently
very old’, from the +17th century or before;
while this dating is quite plausible it is not clear what evidence he
could have had for it. He does not mention any inscriptions.
He described the guns as follows:
‘No. 1 had a piece broken from the muzzle,
which enabled me to see how it was made. The inner part or bore was
made of longitudinal bars, one inch wide and half an inch thick [2.5,
1.25 cm], welded together, and forming a lip where they terminated at
the muzzle. Round these, and binding them together, were rings, one
inch thick and three inches wide [2.5, 4.5 cm], also welded. Outside
these, again, is a layer of cast iron, two inches and three-quarters
[7 cm] thick at the muzzle, and of course much thicker at the breech,
giving shape to the gun. The faint lines on the surface are caused by
the crevices between the bricks of which the mould was built in which
the casting took place. This piece is 9 feet 6 inches long, 23 inches
diameter at the breech, and 15 inches diameter at the mouth [291, 60,
39 cm]. No. 2 is a similar gun, but with only rings welded together
and encased in cast iron. It is very singular that both these guns
should be broken in the same way. It is 9 feet 7 inches long, 2 feet
1 inch diameter at the breech, and 16 inches at the mouth
[respectively 292, 64, and 41 cm]’
Banks, Illustrated London
News, 6 April 1861, p. 325
This is part of a description of
iron casting, in a German manuscript dated 1454.
15th-century German is not easy to read, but it says roughly that if
you want to cast iron, you should use the same sort of furnace as is
used to cast bronze bells, and add certain materials which seem to have
the effect of adding phosphorus to the iron, thereby lowering its
This would seem to be the earliest technical description of iron
casting in the world.
The original manuscript was in the Zeughausmuseum, Berlin. It was one of a large number
carried off as war booty by Soviet troops at the end of World War II,
and is now presumably lost.
Johannsen, Stahl und Eisen, 1910, p. 1373
Potter, The Bells and Bellringers of York Minster, 1987
To show the type of furnace which
the German manuscript refers to, here is a picture of bell-founding
from around that time, the famous Bellfounders’
Window in York Cathedral, England.
With a little imagination one can see the cupola furnace, the bellows,
and molten bronze flowing out.
20 Cast Iron
Boundary Posts, Trzemeszno
Lubuskie, Poland, AD 1345–1364
Niezoldi, Die Giesserei, 1942, 29.8, pp. 136–137)
The earliest known cast iron
artefacts in Europe are some boundary posts in what is now Poland.
(A border region which has gone back and forth between Poland and
Germany – in German the region is called
I don’t have a picture of the artefacts, but
here is an analysis of one which was in a museum in Berlin in 1942.
You can see that a large amount of phosphorus has brought down the
melting point considerably, just as the 15th-century manuscript
Cast iron objects were always very
simple until Europeans began casting cannons and other artillery.
This German bombard, AD ca. 1400, seems to be the earliest extant
cast-iron gun in Europe.
It seems that in the course of the 14th century European iron-founding
quickly became quite advanced.
Johannsen, Geschichte des Eisens, 1953, p. 203
Needham, Science and civilisation in China, vol. 5, part 7,
p. 286, from Tushu jicheng 圖書集成.
on the other hand, cannon-casting had a long background in the casting
of other large objects, and I am sure that the European development
owed a great deal to China.
Here is a Chinese bombard of much the same type around the same time.
The drawing is from the 18th century, but it is a copy of a copy of a
copy, and Joseph Needham believes the original would have been from the
14th or 15th century.
Later cast iron was used for all
manner of useful products, like this stove in Denmark,
ca. 1900 . . .
Ebbe Johannsen, Danske Antikviteter af Støbejern, 1982, p. 59
Johannsen, Danske Antikviteter af Støbejern, 1982, p. 59
. . . and
these kitchen pots, flatirons, etc. (Denmark, ca. 1850).
Cast-iron manhole covers are found
in every modern city in the world. These are in Beijng. The one on the
left is dated 1953; the one on the right may be considerably older,
since the text reads right-to-left rather than left-to-right.
Here is a flatiron (England, 19th
century?), which is interesting because it is one of the very few
examples I have seen in Europe of the use of a combination of cast iron
and wrought iron. The bottom part is cast iron, the handle wrought
Anchor Chain, Wrought Iron with Cast Iron Reinforcement, Bristol, 19th
And here is one more example. These
chain links are of wrought iron or steel, but the reinforcements are of
Cast iron became very important in
the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. This enormous steam
1840) could not have been built without cast iron. In particular, the
tilt arm is 11 metres long, and at this time could not possibly have
been made by smithy methods.
Perry Foundry Co., Catalogue, ca. 1875, p. 7
(Rupprecht von der Pfalz), 1619–1682
I have talked about malleable cast
iron in acient China – the first malleable cast
iron in Europe seems to come more than 2000 years later, in the 17th or
Prince Rupert doesn’t look like a scientist or
a soldier, but he was in fact both.
He patented a process for softening cast iron, but the patent was kept
secret, and it now seems to be lost, so we do not know what the process
was. But undoubtedly it was a kind of malleablizing annealing.
Ferchault de Réaumur [雷歐姆], 1683–1757
the first person to make a scientific study of cast iron.
book was published in 1722. It has been translated into English,
and it would be a good idea to translate it into Chinese. It is still
useful as an introduction to the early European techniques of iron
He describes very clearly the process of making malleable cast iron, and
says he learned of it from artisans in Paris.
Here are the sorts of things he
wanted to make of malleable cast iron – mostly
decorative objects which would otherwise have been made by a smith.
L’art de convertir . . .,
opposite p. 560.
catalogue of malleable iron castings made by the California Iron and
Steel Company, 1884.
Later we find other objects of
malleable cast iron which earlier had been made by smiths and now are
being made cheaper of malleable cast iron.
Today malleable cast iron is used
for a wide variety of fittings of various complex shapes which need to
be cast but don’t need the strength of steel.
These happen to be made in China, but I could have
shown similar products from almost anywhere in the world.
Jizhong Malleable Iron Co., Ltd.
Chinese Malleable Cast Iron
Ferro, 1734, p. 194:
There is also
a tradition that the Chinese and the Japanese know an art of bringing
[cast] iron to a high degree of softness, so that it can receive impressions
of figures as easily as lead can; . . .
from the Swedish translation of H. Sjögren, 1923)
John Barrow, Travels
in China, 1804, p. 299:
Their cast-iron wares appear light and neat, and are annealed in
heated ovens, to take off somewhat of their brittleness.
It is very curious that the latest
known Chinese artefacts of malleable cast iron seem to be from the 9th
century AD, but European travellers as late as the 18th century told of
Chinese and Japanese malleable cast iron.
And here are some 19th-century
Japanese vessels of cast iron which have been surface-decarburized so that
they can be engraved.
J. J. Rein also gave a very interesting description
of the Japanese process.
J. J. Rein, Japan nach Reisen und Studien,
vol. 2, 1886, pl. VII;
industries of Japan, 1899, p. 433.