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Welding is one of the most important skills that holds modern society together, literally. Yet most people don't really know much about welding. They might not even know exactly what welding is, yet it is undeniable that welders provided amazing contributions to the manufacturing revolution in the United States. Without welding, it would have been impossible for Henry Ford to build cars that virtually every American could afford, for example. At its heart, the art of welding is simply joining pieces of metal together through heating. Of course, it's also much more! Industrial society depends on it.
When you think of welding, you probably think of someone wearing a big mask and holding a blowtorch. However, this isn't always how welding looked, and it might not be how it looks for very much longer. In truth, the earliest form of welding emerged in the Bronze Age. That's right: Before the advent of modern nations, back when the Nile and the Fertile Crescent nurtured the legendary ancient civilizations you've read about in history books, welding was getting its start. The ancient Egyptians created many iron tools that could only be made by welding.
Throughout the medieval era, welding became more and more important. In Europe, noblemen were expected to maintain warhorses, iron armor, and fine blades. All of these were created by the blacksmith, an elite tradesman who understood how to use heat from a forge, a bellows, and a mighty hammer to create fine metallic items. For the elite knights and aristocrats who were able to wear full ring mail or plate armor, this craftsmanship was crucial. Armor was both a sign of noble birth and a matter of life and death. As such, blacksmiths were relatively respected people.
If you were asked to select the most common surname among people of European descent, you would probably pick Smith. It's no mistake that this name became so important: The art of the local smiths truly helped to bring society out of the Dark Ages. However, there were still many serious limitations to what welding could do. There was no way to generate and maintain a flame that was both hot enough and precise enough to craft sophisticated metal tools. In the early 1800s, however, there was a major breakthrough that changed everything: the acetylene torch.
The development of the acetylene torch was a true game-changer in the world of welding. Not since the days when the first open forge was developed had welding changed so profoundly in such a short period of time. Edmund Davy, an English chemist, laid the foundation for the use of an acetylene open flame in welding in 1836. A handful of years earlier, Sir Humphry Davy, Edmund's cousin, created tools that paved the way to the advent of arc welding in 1881. All told, a half-dozen innovators from England, France, and Russia transformed welding in decades.
By 1900, a wealth of new industrial welding techniques were being perfected. These included seam welding, spot welding, projection welding, and others. Society was about to learn firsthand of the crucial importance of welding thanks to world wars I and II. Even the development of early automatic welding couldn't ensure that the Allies could keep up with the tremendous need for welded parts during World War II. With many men away, thousands of women throughout the U.S. also learned the fundamentals of welding. After the war, it became a common vocational college course.
Welding, of course, has continued to grow more efficient over the years. The advent of laser welding has made it possible for today's welders to surpass what's possible with the arc welding techniques that have been dominant since the 1950s. This kind of welding is more efficient in that it does not require electrical current. Output is not affected by magnetic factors, and this style of welding equipment can be used on materials that are not electrically conductive.
Laser welding has actually only been available since about 2002. Although it is safer, easier, and more efficient than arc welding, it is not yet widespread in most of the world. Although it bypasses some of the limitations of arc welding, it also has some advantages common to plasma welding, such as keyholing. This type of welding provides a beam with similar density and power to an electric beam. Because heat-affected zones are much smaller, however, welders who use this technology need to use special techniques to prevent cracking in high-carbon steel.
This new form of welding provides flexibility to use conduction welding or penetration welding. Conduction welding is performed at low energy levels either through direct heating or energy transmission. Penetration welding, by contrast, occurs at medium energy density. Used correctly, these modern welding tools are more versatile than common arc welders and can be adjusted for a wide range of materials. These include carbon steel, aluminum, titanium, and stainless steel. The new methods also show promise in welding metals that are dissimilar and in dealing with the latest synthetic alloys.
Without a doubt, laser welding is the most extraordinary change in welding that has happened for many years. Welders of the future will be able to use this remarkable approach to welding in situations that conventional arc welding tools simply cannot handle. This new age of industrial welding also makes it easier to deal with some of the extreme working conditions professionals are called on to face today, such as underwater welding. No matter how much technology changes, however, one thing remains true: All welders are part of a crucial trade that helps the world run.