100 Fixing the Calendar 1582

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62  A Blast Of Oxygen 1854 
CIVILIZATIONS CAN be traced through steel--those who made it won the wars. The Arabs had their legendary Damascus swords, tempered in blacksmiths' forges. The Swedes had been making small amounts of steel since the 13th century by melting iron ore in crucibles. But it was not until 1854, when English inventor Henry Bessemer set out to build a better cannon for French Emperor Napolééon III, that anyone figured out how to produce steel strong enough to withstand an explosion or hold up a bridge. The problem was impurities. Bessemer's method used a blast of oxygen to burn off excess carbon in molten iron ore, and from that moment the Steel Age was in gear. (An American, William Kelly, made the same discovery at roughly the same time but didn't hurry fast enough to the patent office.) 

Soon steel framed tall buildings and stenciled skylines. It supported bridges over rivers, laid railroad tracks around the world and put America on wheels. And steel built fortunes as well as cities. By the turn of the century, American mills were rolling out 8.5 million tons of steel a year. Space-age alloys have tarnished steel's luster, and cars are now made of plastic. But the demand for steel remains enormous--a billion tons worldwide last year--even if it is delivered on aluminum trucks. 

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