From robotic welders and 3D printing to virtual reality welding machines, there’s no doubt that welding has gone high-tech. But don’t let today’s technology fool you; welding is an ancient art. Dating back to the Bronze Age, it has long played an essential role in industry and architecture, including some of history’s most famous structures.
Early welding & blacksmithing
Historians have traced welding back to the Bronze and Iron Ages. The earliest tangible examples of welding are thought to be small gold boxes from around 1000 B.C., fused together through heat and sustained pressure (i.e. pressure welding).
From these ancient eras through the Middle Ages, blacksmiths primarily practiced forge welding, where two pieces of iron are heated until malleable, then fused together with a hammer.
One early example of forge welding is the mysterious Iron pillar of Delhi, which has managed to withstand corrosion for more than 1600 years. The wrought iron pillar is thought to have been built around 300 or 400 A.D. by a Gupta monarch. The anti-corrosion techniques and materials used to build the pillar are evidence of the high level of skill among Indian blacksmiths during that time.
The emergence of modern welding
Following the enlightenment, the development of the scientific method and the rise of industrialization, modern welding began to take shape during the 19th Century. It was during this era that scientists discovered the core properties of arc welding. In 1801, inventor and chemist Sir Humphrey Davy of England used a battery to create a short-pulse arc between two electrodes. Davy and other scientists of the era expanded on this discovery to eventually produce a continuous arc and develop carbon arc welding using carbon electrodes.
In 1836, Humphrey’s cousin, Edmund Davy, discovered acetylene, a colorless gas that, when combined with oxygen, was able to weld and cut through metals. This method, now known as oxy-fuel welding, was popular during the early 20th century.
More discoveries during this era include resistance welding (1885), thermite welding (1893) and alternating current welding (1919).
20th Century — welding, war and women
Building on the discoveries of the previous century, the 20th century saw the rise of welding as an essential component of modern construction and manufacturing. Much of the growth was spawned by World War I, where welding was used primarily for weapon production. Due to a gas shortage during the war, electric arc became the welding method of choice at this time.
Following the war, in 1919, members of the ‘Wartime Welding Committee of the Emergency Fleet Corporation’ formed the American Welding Society. The nonprofit continues to promote welding standards and education to this day.
World War II brought another surge in demand for skilled welders, only this time there weren’t enough men for the job. With their husbands, brothers and fathers deployed overseas, women were recruited to fill vacant factory jobs. Images of a jumpsuit-clad ‘Rosie the Riveter’ (and the lesser-known ‘Wendy the Welder’) in recruitment posters became iconic symbols of this historic moment for women and the country in general.
3D printing, virtual welding and robots, oh my!
Even today, the ancient art of welding continues to improve and innovate. In this age of automation, many fabrication processes that once required a skilled welder can now be done by robotic machines.
Despite the rise of automation, there’s still an incredible need for (human) welders, and today’s trainees are perfecting their skills on virtual reality machines. Used both for training and to test the skills of potential employees, these machines eliminate many of the costs and safety issues associated with welding training.
Additive layer manufacturing is another modern technique shaking up the welding world in recent years. Rather than welding separate pieces of metal together, 3D printing machines gradually layer composite metal material (in powder form) to create the desired part. Far less wasteful than “subtractive” fabrication methods (e.g. cutting, grinding, milling), this approach could one day overtake traditional welding to become the primary method of metal fabrication.