Developing stainless steel cutlery

Harry Brearley who developed stainless steel.

The reason that so many of us use stainless steel cutlery has a lot to do with Harry Brearley (1871-1948).

Before  stainless steel was introduced knives were normally made of carbon steel, while spoons and forks tended to be silver plated or, from the 1840s, made of electroplated nickel silver (EPNS).  Steel made better knives than silver  because it kept a sharp cutting edge but it had disadvantages.  It made some foods taste strange, which is why silver, or silver plated, knives were preferred for eating fish.  Also, steel rusts unless it is carefully cleaned and polished.

Harry was born in Sheffield.   His family was not wealthy and, at the age of 12, he started working in the same steelworks as his father.  He was later apprenticed as a laboratory assistant and, in 1895, when married Helen Theresa Crank he described himself as a metallurgical chemist.  His big discovery came in 1912.  While trying to find a way to stop gun barrels corroding Harry developed a alloy of chrome and steel.  He was not the first to realise that this kind of alloy did not rust but he recognised its commercial potential.  Harry argued with his employers about who owned the commercial rights to develop this “rustless steel”.  He claimed that he was entitled to at least half and the Frith Company disagreed.  He resigned in 1915 and went to work at Brown Bayley’s steelworks, also in Sheffield.

When stainless steel cutlery first appeared in the shops it was more expensive than silver plated cutlery.  By the 1950s it had become the norm doing away with the tedious job of polishing the knives and making fish knives redundant.