Welding has evolved over the centuries to become the glue that holds the modern industry together. Here, we track the developments that have made its role so important today with a comprehensive look into the milestones and pioneers of its processes.
The basic process of welding or forging two or more materials together has been around for centuries. Millennia in fact. But it was not until the turn of the 20th century that we saw modern day welding techniques come into use.
These techniques were mainly brought about by the discovery and application of electricity which allowed welding to be done much more quickly and efficiently than had been previously possible.
The industrial revolution drove demand, but it wasn’t until the outbreak of the two World Wars in 1914 and 1939 which really saw welding come into its own. The high demand placed on manufacture and repair increased dramatically. The range of welding techniques and process also evolved during this time as vehicles, ships, armaments and general construction, such as bridges and modern and larger scaffold structures where needed to be produced quickly and in a number of differing environments.
To understand welding properly today however, it is important to take a look at where it all started and how welding became one of the most important developments in the history of construction and engineering.
The introduction of ‘forging’ was used most widely used in the early Bronze Age, mainly in the production of amour and weaponry. As was the demand for better, stronger weapons and armour, necessity was once again the mother of invention and the basic forging process at the time meant that the technique to spread relatively quickly, from the hoards in northern Europe to advanced civilisations of Egypt.
It was here that Solid State welding was born. The heat of charcoal fires was hot enough to melt the commonly used metals of the time, such as bronze, and materials were forged together.
It wasn’t for another 1,500 years or so that welding started to evolve. The discovery of more complex metal compounds such as Mercury meant that the welders or forgers at the time were able to really start to control the heat flow and practice with how different metals reacted to processes.
This advancement, although simple gave birth to a host of techniques that allowed for more skilled and intricate items to be made, such as items for high ranking officers, rulers monarchs. As you would imagine, the more intricate the design, the greater the demand on the process and in term, this led welding’s evolution to speed up.
By the turn of the new Millennium, more metals had been discovered, such as lead and because of this, a greater number in the types of welding had been invented, such as forge welding and pressure welding.
As well as the new techniques which we now in common use around the world, the advancement in process had led to larger structures and items being built. Welding evolution was now taking giant strides where the more people there were welding, the more opportunities lay for someone to take it to the next level.
Within 400 years, structures in Italy, England and Northern Europe were springing up and structures as far a field as India were starting to grab people’s attention. The Iron Pillar of Delhi, weighing approximately 5-6 tonnes and measuring in excess of 7 metres (23 feet) was produced by blacksmiths.
Over the next 1000 years, the Middle Ages saw relatively little advancement in the process of welding. For many, the peak of forging’s capabilities had been reached and blacksmith’s were bound by the heating process and metals available. Although metals like Zinc were discovered during this time, they unfortunately few and far between.
The spread and dissemination of literature was slowed in the Middle Ages or as some refer to it as ‘the Dark Ages’. At this time education was limited and where the once thriving civilisations had taken ancient welding practices to dizzying new heights, it wasn’t until much later in the late 18th century that the age of discovery in welding really took hold once again.
International travel and exploration was in full swing by the late 1700s and with came the discovery of new and purer forms metals. Nickel was discovered in its purest form to date by German miners at the beginning of the decade and two years later in 1753 across the Atlantic, Platinum had just been discovered in South America.
The next eureka moment in the history of welding came in 1774 with the discovery of ‘O’, more commonly referred to today as Oxygen. Whist the 1700s had been a time of exploration to the far corners of the world in the search for new metals and purer forms of metals already used in welding; little was done in evolving, or understanding the heat regulation in the welding process. The discovery of Oxygen changed all that and two years later after its discovery, oxides were being produced.
In 1776, a French Chemist called Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier played what would become a crucial role in the understanding of combustion. He established many defining principles in Chemistry but the most relevant one here was the discovery of oxygen cutting and the relationship between fusion and detachment with the introduction of oxides to metals.
By 1808, a number of new metals had been discovered, many of which are crucial to the role of the types of welding we see today, including Tungsten which was discovered in 1783, followed by Zirconium in 1789 and Titanium just years after this, in 1791. Magnesium also joined the list of new metals which were able to be welded in 1808 and by this point, a new metal called Aluminium was being touted although by this point, its existence was not 100% proven.
It wasn’t until 1827 when Friederich Wöhler finally proved without doubt that the metal existed. Combined with the advancement in the understanding of fuels and types of energy used in the welding process, most notably the discovery of Oxygen in 1774, new highs in temperature were achieved.
The role of electricity as, until now, not properly applied to the welding process. This new and exciting discovery had many new uses and revolutionised the way industry was run as well as playing a defining role in people’s domestic lives.
The relationship between magnetism and electricity first occurred in the 1820’s, pioneered by Danish born, Hans Christian Oersted. It was this breakthrough that allowed electricity to be harnessed and its power to be realised and controlled by scientists.A decade of discovery followed when in 1831, British born inventor, Michael Faraday put together the world’s first invents the electric dynamo to ‘create’ electricity and later generates ‘voltage’.
Whilst the decade before might have been characterised by this advancements made in electricity and the control of this new and exciting energy source, the 1830s and 1840s were best defined by another piece of apparatus which took welding to the next level; blowpipes. The intense heat generated by blowpipes allowed for metals with higher melting points, such as Platinum, to be used in the welding process.
In 1835, a French inventor called Sainte Claire Deville invented a highly effective blowpipe which combined both Oxygen and Hydrogen. Three years later in 1838, rubber was being used in the blowpipe process. Its potential as a material which could be strengthened established its role as the best material to be used for welding gases.
Later that year, patents were published into Fusion Welding. Fusion welding differs from other forms of welding in that it indicates the materials in question are in a liquid state, not solid state.
The next eureka moment came in 1846, but this discovery, you might be pleased to know, did not take place in the lab. A young man by the name of James Nasmyth working for the British navy discovered that welding upon a properly prepared material would create a much stronger joint.
This was the first time the basic process of modern welding started to take shape. The basic principle where a weld surface is prepared with space for the flux to escape upon fixing the adjoining material meant that the weld would produce a much stronger joint.
In 1856, an Englishman called James Joule discovered the welding process by which heating a material with electricity could also produce an effective weld. His early experiments were pointed to as the first time an internal resistance were produced, a technique perfected into what we now know as Resistance Welding.
The birth of this method is widely regarded as the idea of welding pioneer, Elihu Thomson. His techniques would advance to what would later become known as Incandescent Welding.
The 1860s gave birth to Acetylene thanks to the efforts of French chemist and politician, Pierre Eugène Marcellin Berthelot. Acetylene was first produced by combing compounds from organic gases such as ethanol and heating them to collect their residual effluent. This chemical compound is used widely throughout the welding industry today thanks to its high bonding compound structure.The gas produces a very high flame, in excess of 6000°F (3300°c), perfect for Gas Welding and cutting.
This development ultimately led to the introduction of Arc Welding. It was this discovering which leads to the third Eureka moment in welding, which as you may have noticed, is starting to speed up somewhat now.
The arc welding process took welding to the next level and the number of practical uses and applications sky rocketed. This can also be seen in the huge number of patents that started to be filed around the world as businessmen and entrepreneurs alike wanted to take their slice of the action as the industrial age rumbled on.
Patents for new and exciting products were springing up everywhere and it seems as if there was no stopping the applications welding could be used for. Pipelines and locomotives advancements made up a large portion of such patents which were being granted across Europe and the US. Patents for materials, compounds and methods were increasingly filling the desks of approving administrators around the world. Patents for metal electrodes, blowtorches, wheelbases and pipelines were a common occurrence.
At the turn of the century, the American landscape was patchwork of inter crossing and interconnecting pipelines and railways. All thanks to the advancements made in welding. By this point, Samuel Van Sickel had just completed the world’s first oil pipeline in Pennsylvania which measure over 2 miles in length. Railways were to benefit next when German born, Hans Goldschmidt discovered Thermite Welding or (Exothermic Welding) in 1903 using aluminium and metal oxide. This was the method by which railroads would be welded together – something which would continue for some time.
Some four years later, it was another German born welder, Herr Wienzell, who moved to the US and so introduced Arc Welding to the wider industry in 1907. This was the same year that the covered electrode was also pioneers. This time by a Swede called Oscar Kjellberg. This coating of the electrode protected the molten metal from the elements and gave birth to flux coated electrodes which he secured patents for in Europe a year later.
In 1911, one of the finest examples of welding took to the seas. The launch of HMS Titanic was seen as a marvel at the time. One of the most luxurious ships every to be built was done so in the shipyards of Great Britain. By now, welding had become a necessity in any build and whilst the iconic Titanic eventually ended up not making it to its destination of New York on that maiden passenger voyage, its demise was certainly not the fault of welding. Despite the tragic loss of Titanic, 1911 was another landmark year in the history of welding as the world’s first portable welding machines were produced and rolled out by Lincoln Electric in the US.
The break out of World War I saw production and industry output predominantly across Europe dramatically increase. The need for a range of vehicles, ships and armaments grow sharply and competition against the warring sides to maintain efficiencies in industry pushed welding to new levels. The need for trained professionals also increased and so the trade was passed to many more people.
Throughout the four year war, a major role of the welder was in repairs out in the field. Portable welding devices were by now a common site, but it was the welding of different materials in extreme environments which gave rise to an increase in the understanding and reliance of this process which had, until now, been mainly used in construction.
By 1915, longer pipelines had become established across the US, stretching now for tens of miles and by 1916, welding equipment was available to the public. This consisted of mainly Spot Welding equipment but nonetheless showed the development of the process and trade. That trend grew in 1916 with the introduction of MIG Welding, as companies began to produce and sell a range of gases and equipment to the everyday welder.
With the public and industrial demand for welding gases and equipment, the industry was thriving and corporations began to grow. Mergers and take overs were a common occurrence in the US welding industry at the end of the decade and competition drove further advancements such as combining acetylene and oxygen which created a flame hot enough to melt most metals 3100°c (5700°F) in use at the time.
By now, methods in welding such as Plasma Welding and Electroslag Welding were common place alongside the established methods such as MIG Welding. Because of a gas shortage in England during World War I, the use electric arc welding to manufacture bombs, mines, and torpedoes became the primary fabrication method.
The First World War had finally drawn to a close but the lessons learn by welders in the factories and welders in the field would not be forgotten. For welders, it was a time to look back at what they had accomplished as part of their war effort. Welding was for the first time used in the production fighter planes and battleships. The Great War had created a huge increase in the use of welding and the spot light shone as bright on its ability to construct, as to repair.
Following the war, welding was recognised across the US for the fundamental role it had played. A number of societies for welding began to spring up, but none more pivotal or important to welding’s future than the American Welding Society (AWS). The AWS was established with the aim to improve and advance the welding process and it is a society which is still going strong. Later in the decade, the Institute of Welding Engineers would also be established (1923).
By 1920, automatic welding was growing in popularity. The automation introduce arc voltage in regulating feed. But the effects of war were still very apparent. Because of Germany’s role in the war, the Allies subject the country to strict production limits on the building of new armaments. In shipping, this limit was placed on the combined weight of a fleet, a standard measure in seafaring.
This meant that German’s turned to welding as opposed to riveting as a way severely reduce the weight of ships, something that by 1924 was happening in the construction of building as well. Not only did welding offer a lighter alternative across bigger builds, but it was also cost effective. It was this point that put welding at the heart of construction. By 1928, mass structures like bridges were opting to use welding over rivets.
By 1926, hydrogen and atomic energy were starting to play a part in the evolution of the weld. This was led by the American Physicist and Chemist, Irving Langmuir who was credited for developing Atomic Hydrogen Welding (AHW) or Atomic Hydrogen Arc Welding (AHAW). Gamma radiation was at the forefront of scientific method in the mid-1920s and is potential in welding would not be truly understood until late in the century.
One of the many roles of the American Welding Society (AWS) was to advance the welding industry through research. The society also acted as a hub for welders and welding companies alike. As the influence of the AWS grew, so too did its role as a responsible regulatory body where safety in welding began to become of paramount concern as to did the practice of standardisation. As such, at the end of the decade, the AWS introduced the first ever Welding symbols.
By the turn of the 1930s, plastics and thermoplastics were introduced in welding as lightweight alternative to metals. Experiments showed that thermoplastics could be welded in a similar way to metals when heated. This breakthrough would really take off when war would eventually breakout in Europe at the end of the decade. German engineering and research led the way in the early development of welding process using thermoplastics.
By the mid-1930s, the worst of the Great Depression had passed and employment was beginning to pick up once again. During this time, a number of new techniques and welding methods were established. Stud welding was starting to be replaced by a new process in ship building called, Submerged Arc Welding. By this point, Underwater Welding was a reality and Gas Tungsten Arc Welding (GTAW) or TIG was in its early stages of development. Although this process was, at the time, still a relatively expensive method as was its requirement for Shielded Gases.
The world was once again gripped by the second World War in 1939. But as was seen some 20 years before, war had a tendency to supercharge the welding process and by 1939, the advancements in industry had led to a number of processes that put under the pressure of huge demand, would once again deliver a number of new landmarks in welding’s evolution.
Where as in 1914 there had been a demand for welding heavy machinery, now it was the turn of the aviation industry to truly benefit from welding on a mass scale. Spot Welding was used widely in aviation, as was Stud Welding in naval application.
Much like in World War I, for the world of welding, World War II offered a period for the process to be pushed further. New, lighter metals were available and were shaping the production of, predominantly, aircraft, metals such as Aluminium.
In the US alone, some 300,000 airplanes were built during the war and you can imagine how man needed repairing. The extent to which industrialisation played a part in World War II meant many people around the world saw the factories at home, as important as the troops fighting abroad.
Gas Tungsten Arc Welding (GTAW) was found to be a useful technique for such repairs, a type of welding which was further developed through the war, as were the more common names we see today, such as Gas Shielded Metal Arc Welding and TIG Welding. This process revolutionised modern welding allowing for the welding together of multiple metals and was until the early 1990’s the go-to weld of choice for many.
Post War Period 1945-1955
Much like seen after the WWI, the pace of developments in welding following the war did not slow. This pre-war period gave birth to processes such as Inert Gas Metal Arc (MIG) welding, (otherwise known as Gas Metal Arc Welding). This welding techniques was utilised initially in large scale welds such as boat hulls.
By the turn of the 1950s welding was becoming increasingly popular amongst not just large scale industry, but for individual use as well. Developments made mainly in Eastern Europe and Russia led to the introduction of the Flux Coated Consumable Electrode which at the time of its launch, was very popular. Electroslag Welding (ESW) was also developed, although it would take until 1958 before it would be in large scale use, and by 1953 Gas Metal Arc Welding (GMAW) was being used to push the boundaries again for the process, higher currents were being used and as a result, hotter arcs were produced.
It was in 1955, a decade following the end of World War II when the world of welding was introduced to plasma torch which revolutionised the cutting process.
By the mid-1950s, the initial Cold War was thawing and Russian advancements in welding were being embraced in Europe and the US. A new Solid State method was invented and is still used popularly today. The method was called Friction Welding. By 1957, some two years after the introduction of the plasma torch, Plasma Arc Welding (PAW) was introduced as too was Flux-Cored Arc Welding (FCAW).
By 1960, industry entered into a new phase. Large scale war as behind most people and global economies were starting to show stability in recovery. Middle classes were beginning to grow and although we are someway of the capitalist era of the 1980s, populations started to surge and with them, the desire for consumer electronics and cars. Passenger airplanes were becoming increasingly popular as well and the developments in welding followed suit. Space flight was also capturing the imagination of many and the space race between Russia and the US saw the welding taken into outer space, a processes used on the Space Capsule, Mercury.
In France, Electron Beam Welding was developed and remains a process we still see today in the manufacture of aircraft. The world was introduced to the laser and many began to ponder its uses in welding one day.
It wasn’t until sometime later in mid 1960s when lasers would be finally used in welding and cutting and by the end of the decade, science fiction had become science fact, when the Electron Beam weld led to the establishment of the first welding programme in space, introduced by Russia.
The 1970s saw in a new age of industrialisation. The growing demand on oil and gas led man big firms to step up in their exploration efforts and in doing so, an increase of rigs were starting to be manufactured. The requirement on welding was once again taking big strides in terms of its commercial and large scale use. New technologies such as the development of infrared were bought into play as the complexities of miniaturization pushed welders and welding companies further and into smaller gaps, than ever before.
By the mid-1970s, space exploration was really starting to ramp up. Man had stepped foot on the moon and the demand for better, more efficient welding methods in space meant that Electron Beam welding started to make a real impact in the space race.Back on earth, oil was beginning to flow and with it, the need to transport these newly filled barrels of black gold. Super tankers were produced capable of a carrying upwards of three million barrels of oil.
The gigantic floating fortresses once again showed the world the capabilities of welding.
Much like the 1970s, there were fewer developments in the welding process during the 1980s, but its application continued to grow. Large projects require an increase in workforce and welding became a very desirable career choice for a growing population. Welding Schools began to fill as people looked to be a part of this growing industry. Year on year, the dependency on welding grew.
Projects such as the Fort Henry Tunnel in the US showed the demand for a growing skilled work force and whilst Wall Street grew, so too did the number of people entering the trade. It wouldn’t be until the 1990s when the world of welding would be once again changed with new developments to the process.
By 1991 in a laboratory in the UK, the first Friction Stir Weld (FSW) was developed. This new process was invented be a member of the Welding Institute, a man called Wayne Thomas. The process differed from conventional practice whereby a Solid State bond was formed through friction without the need or reliance on filler metal or gas. This was however an expensive process and which limited it to some extent.
Where the turn of the decade was characterised by the introduction of a new method of welding through friction, the end of the decade will be remembered for developments in penetration.
The GTAW method was advanced and a deeper, stronger weld was produced by the introduction of flux at the joining of the weld. The additional flux would go on to help to push the weld approximately three times further and deeper into the joint.
2000 – Present day
By the turn of the millennium, a new method was introduced called Magnetic Pulse Welding (MPW) by a company based in Israel, showing the extent to which countries around the world were now improving and inventing new, sophisticated welding procedures. Spot Welding was becoming to be used less in industry as new, more efficient and atomisation processes came to market.
Lasers were now driving the production on the factory floors around the world and in 2001, the introduction of Laser Power Welding meant that substrate materials could now be rebuilt. For the first time, plastics really started to be used in the welding process in a large scale. This was mainly thanks to the laser once again which revolutionised the way polymers could be welded, producing an almost invisible weld line.
The precision of the laser allows for a wide range of applications and so cementing its place alongside some of the other, more commonly used methods today.