Around 5,000 years ago, somebody in the Middle East chanced upon a lump of raw iron nestled in the earth and decided to extract it. That piece of iron was smelted in a clay furnace, and then hammered it into a valuable bead necklace, which probably rocketed the status of its wearer1.
Iron became a critical resource for early human civilisation, allowing the creation of conquering swords, daggers, and axes, and remains a vital metal today in the form of alloys such as steel. But what is iron used for today? Here are five things made of iron that we can’t live without.
When carbon is added to iron, a much stronger alloy is created: steel. Steel is so strong that it’s used to reinforce buildings, used commonly in construction projects across the planet. Without steel, there’d be no high-rise apartments, skyscrapers, train stations, airports, and numerous other buildings that require its immense strength to remain upright. Buildings are one of the primary uses of iron today, which has changed the way we live.
If you’re looking for one of the common uses of iron in the 21st century, look no further than cars. Steel makes up the body and chassis of most vehicles, with cast iron used to create the engine’s blocks, to withstand extreme temperatures. More expensive vehicles use aluminium, which is lighter and just as tough (but much more expensive).
The next time you open the iron door of your oven, throw your frozen pizza onto its iron rack, and wait for the heat trapped inside its iron walls to cook your dinner, try to appreciate how important iron is in your life. And if you’re using your iron cutlery to eat the pizza, use your hands you uncultured swine.
Before refrigeration came along, food was preserved by adding tons of salt and spices, as well as smoking it, pickling it, or drying it out. Thankfully, by combining iron with refrigeration cycle technology, we have a chilled box that allows us to keep a variety of foods fresh and nutritious, improving our health in the process. Fridges are one of today’s most important uses of iron in daily life.
When you next glimpse your overflowing washing basket and decide to do something about it, grab a bar of soap, wander down to the local river, and get scrubbing. This might help you to appreciate the miracle of the modern washing machine, which slathers your filthy clothes in soap and water, swirls them about at varying speeds, and is made mostly from iron.
Unless you’re a particularly dedicated jellyfish who has learned to read English, you have a circulatory system that pumps blood around your body, which provides oxygen and nutrients to your cells and keeps you alive. And in your blood is an astonishing amount of iron—around 70% of the total amount found in your body. Without iron, your body can’t produce blood, and you’d quickly find yourself dizzy, exhausted, and possibly running for the nearest t-bone steak (or iron tablets, if you’re vegan).
With tens of thousands of rivers criss-crossing the world’s surface, and with our species’s tendency to roam about like jittery nomads, we needed a way to get across them. The first bridges were thought to have been made of large stones, stacked on top of each other and about as safe as a game of Russian roulette2. With the discovery of iron, steel, and modern engineering techniques, we were able to construct bridges that last for centuries, and provide a quick and easy way to cross large bodies of water.