Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Color Of Steel

So the graduations hang on the wall
But they never really helped us at all
No they never taught us what was real
iron and coke
and chromium steel
And we’re waiting here in Allentown

-Billy Joel*

I wrote a bit about American iron and coke back here, but what is chromium steel?  The Germans, who first mass produced it, called it Edelstahl (noble steel)  We're more humble less deferential and just call it stainless steel. A thin layer of shiny chromium oxide protects the underlying chromium/iron alloy. Scratch the metal and another tiny layer of protective chromium oxide forms.
Stainless steel detail from the Chrysler Building.
Actually, the term "stainless steel" is generic and countless species exist. But they all share iron and chromium. Some stainless alloys further include nickel, molybdenum, vanadium, etc., but this post is about chromium, that most colorful of the transition metals.

Van der Krogt writes about the element's discovery and obvious naming:
In 1797 Nicolas-Louis Vauquelin...[was] determined to find the correct composition of crocoite. He boiled pulverized crocoite with two parts potash obtaining a yellow solution. The solution formed a beautiful red precipitate with a mercury salt, and a yellow precipitate with lead. Adding tin muratic turned the solution green. In 1798 he precipitated lead with muratic acid, dried the green solid, then cooked it for half an hour in a charcoal crucible with charcoal dust. Upon cooling he discovered a network or gray, metallic needles weighing one third of the original...Vauquelin named the new element Chromium, because of the many colours of its compounds. The name derives from the Greek χρωμα [chrōma] = colour.
Chromium also gives color to sapphires, rubies and emeralds.

Chrome bumpers, once ubiquitous, were sucked dry by EPA fellatrices.

*Only one line really bothers me in that Billy Joel pop song: "But they've taken all the coal from the ground." This is emphatically not true.  US steel production is limited by cheap iron ore, not coal supplies. We are the Saudi Arabia of coal.


  1. Chrome was the nemesis of women drivers! You couldn't pull out of a spot, without denting it. And, then husbands would get so angry. Glad they're gone. Along with hood ornaments.

  2. Chromium in water got a seriously bad rep from Erin Brockovich but I never heard that one Carol. maybe it's an urban thing. I've never lived east of Cleveland.

  3. You mean chickenlittle that you were born too late?

    Back in the 1950's and 1960's ... American cars grew longer and longer. (The station wagon wasn't enough.) Fins went into the air! And, there were crome bumpers that were just for decoration. You couldn't use them to get behind anything that would push anything else forward.

    But you're right. "Chrome" on bumpers was just a "detail." Not an "element."

  4. I used to own a '63 T-Bird so I know what the chrome was about. It was blinding inside in a bright sun: the rearview mirror, the frame around the windshield, the instrument panel, the horn "ring" and turn signal on the steering column, various trim--and that was just the inside!

    Outside it had chrome bumpers, lights, and two stainless steel pieces of trim running on both side front to back. T-Bird emblems and insignia too.

  5. Oh, I just left you another important comment at the Marktredwitz thread too.

  6. You were born in 1960. And, you drove a 1963 Ford Thunderbird? How did you swipe your parents car keys? Did you have to sit on yellow pages so you could see over the steering wheel to see what's outside the windshield? /s

    Who owned that car before you drove it?

    How many miles were on it when you started to drive?

    The car I remember (that a boyfriend drove), was the 1969 Pontiac GTO. Turquoise. Convertible. He drove us to Woodstock.

  7. Was the '63 T-Bird a stick shift?

  8. What kind of tranny?

    Cruise-O-Matic (automatic 3-speed).

    Who owned that car before you drove it?

    When I returned from Europe in 1993 to marry my girlfriend (we couldn't do it there) we returned to Colorado. We bought the car using money her parents gave us as a present. We had both lived without a car for years before that point and we decided that if we were to buy something it might as well be a fixer, something I could DIY. lol. The saga of that car could be a great a blogpost. A series of blogposts. I drove it for about a year, even out to California once before its motor gave out. It had about 80k miles on it but it had been sitting for years. We were the third owners.

    I actually removed the motor (with the help of a mechanic friend) then proceeded to rebuild the motor over the courses of a year or so (we had a VW bug in the meantime). We kept the car rolling for quite a few years and I even installed rear seat belts (not standard equipment) in the back after our two kids arrived. I pretty much knew that car inside and out. I would have kept it had it been (1) a convertible and (2) if I had spare garage space. We sold it to a Mexican family with 6 kids for what we paid for it. They were very excited.

    I have fond memories of my 'Bird.

  9. I can still smell the rotted-out interior.

  10. To know the "tyranny" of a clutch ... you'd have to read Donald Rumsfeld's memoir. (Which is as delightful as all the things he's said ... so poetically ... through unknown, unknowns.)

    In 1942, his dad joined the Navy. And, his mom put her two kids into their car. And, followed him Stateside. Before he shipped out.

    The West Coast was alive with navy activity. So You get Rumsfeld's memories of going from Chicago, to Washington State. And, down, all the way to San Diego. Every port we had. He was there as a 10 year old. His sister was 7.

    One of my favorite stories ... because back in those days all cars had clutches ... was her fear of driving down the winding San Francisco street ... So she made the kids get out, to walk it. While she drove the car down, alone. No passengers. Because her passengers were her kids.

    Using one foot on the clutch and the other on the brake, I'm sure she also used physics ... so she could lift her left foot up. Then, press it down. And, lift her right foot. Up and down. That car must have looked like quite a sight ... for Don Rumsfeld to remember it.

    Did I tell you Don Rumsfeld's book is a great memoir? He reads it himself, on the audio book I got.

  11. The car I remember (that a boyfriend drove), was the 1969 Pontiac GTO. Turquoise. Convertible. He drove us to Woodstock.

    GTO = gas, tires, oil. Actually not. It stands for gran turismo omologato. My older brother (the real gearhead of the family) asked me what it stood for once. He knew I knew Italian. Grand tour is a kind of motor race and omologato which literally translates as homologated, means "the same" in the sense of "approved for."

    I was always a fan of Rummy and thought he was given a bad rep.