Metals have accompanied mankind since ancient ages, and steel, if we begin to follow it from the moment of its historically famed damascene form - for some millennia.
From the era of craftsman-like small-scale production to today's form of industrial mass production, steel has covered an intricate path lined with significant innovations in production processes, development of range and quality of products, and perpetually growing productivity of labour, improving economies and ecological load. In addition, a radical change in relationship to the customers is occuring at the end of this century, namely by a pronounced shift of readiness towards the needs and requirements of these customers.
Steel's indisputable significance is confirmed by the fact that it has become the second most mass-produced commodity after cement production, attaining the world-wide production volume of approx. 750 mil tons yearly.
The art of iron production from ore arose in connection with the practices of copper and lead technologies in Anatolya, in northern Syria and possibly also in part of Iran. Iron ores were added as fluxes for treatment of sulphide copper ores. Iron drops, which the local manufacturers identified already 3000 years BC, comparing these with meteoritic iron, already hinted at the existence of the possibility of producing iron, but this only occurred practically 15 centuries later. Since that time, it is necessary to reckon that only small amounts of this, in that time, rare metal dedicated to the highest strata of population or to the sovereigns and their courts could get out of this area, most probably as gifts only.
The first occurrence of an iron object in our region on the territory of Slovakia is dated back to the 15th century BC, i.e. to the Bronze Age. This was the haft of a dagger. The first occurrence in Bohemia is dated back to the 12th century BC. Very primitive iron production in the oldest processory equipment - simple open hearths with blowers - appears around the last half of the last millennium BC. The iron pieces obtained by iron reduction were forged. In the era of the Great Moravian Empire, i.e. around 9th century AD, tools for wood working, hoes, spades, scythes, sickles, and shares - approx. 100 iron products in total - were already made.
The process of the location of iron production on the raw-material base began to be realised in the 10th to 13th century. Metallurgy was a key component in the system of craftsmanship of the early Middle Ages and already in this time progress in many areas of economy began to depend on it. Approx. 250 iron works existed in the 13th to 16th centuries in Bohemia. At that time, organisation, economy and iron trade may already be spoken of, and this is also the era of iron-mills coming into existence. The iron wholesalers, the so-called ironmongers, already appear. In the Czech countries, the iron works were under the control of mining authorities. Institution of iron works and iron-mills was permitted only by higher mining authorities and unlike the already developing textile industry, iron making was for a long time tied with many limitations which hindered its development. The making of iron in blast furnaces lead us to liquidation of old ferrous metallurgy and the building of new blast furnace iron works. This was later in comparison with Germany, France and England where the beginning of blast-furnace production is put into the first half of the 15th century. In the first half of the 19th century, the rolling mills are opened. Malleable iron - partly also a predecessor of today's steel - was produced by firing in hearth and then was treated in the iron-mills. The rod iron-mills were the most widespread. During the industrial revolution, all technical inventions contributing to the change-over of iron making to mass production were transferred gradually from England to the European continent. Faster rates of this shift took place in the second half of the 19th century. Coke began to be used in blast furnaces, the blast-air was preheated and steam-mechanical blowers became a driving unit in the refining hearths. Steam engines began to drive rolling mills. The rolling mills replaced previously used laborious forging of rods and plates. Crucible steel for production of instruments was developed. So-called mild iron was produced both in the refining hearths and by so-called puddling, which was the most laborious process of all. Using the puddling process, it was already possible to produce so-called hard iron, i.e. steel. The crucible process enabled coping only with melting steels at higher carbon contents which have lower melting points. In 1855, a patent for refining pig iron in converter was applied for. This process, called the Bessemer process, was considerably more productive than the other processes and was performed in the so-called converter, and was based on air blowing into the metal bath. In 1860, already 40 iron works in the world used this process. When the regenerative heating method had been patented by Siemens, there was only a small step to building the first 2-ton hearth furnace in France in combination with Siemens air regenerators. This process, called Siemens-Martin process, already managed also to melt scrap, and the way to steel mass-production had been opened. In 1864, the so-called Thomas process of steel production suitable for refining iron with higher phosphorus content was put into operation. These processes were, as opposed to hearth processes whose product was wrought iron, named cast steel processes.
The first rolling mill driven with a steam engine was built in England in 1783. The first satisfactory universal mill stand was built in 1848, which having horizontal as well as vertical rolls was able to roll flat products with exact edges. In addition, the calibration of rolls was developed and it became possible to roll angles and sections, and flat-bottom rails.
The continuous wire rod mill was patented in 1862, and 2 years later the three-high rolling mill for rolling plates for ship building.
In the years of economic crisis 1873-1879, a marked concentration of production occurred in the territory of Bohemia with two centres: the Ostrava region and the Middle-Bohemian region. From 1875 to 1880, more pronounced transfer of pig iron production in favour of the Ostrava region occurred.
At the end of the 19th century, we are witnesses of the setting out of cartels whose aim was usually to stand up against competition. Their marked concentration occurs with the increasing mass character of production. Many non-profitable plants in Bohemia were abolished at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. Prazská zelezárská controlled iron making in Bohemia, Vítkovické zelezárny in Moravia and Bánská a hutní spolecnost in Silesia. Stock in banks played a big role here. Blast furnace production was concentrated in Vítkovice, Trinec, Kladno, and Králuv Dvur. The joint-stock company Mannesmanngesellschaft was founded in 1887 in Chomutov where a pilger mill for rolling seamless tubes using quite new technology was installed in 1890 as the first in the world.
Development of metallurgical production in Bohemia also continued between both World Wars.
After the 2nd World War, the abovementioned four localities of metallurgical production and their enterprises continued to dominate.
The period after 1948 can be called a period of extensive development. In the first years, development of steel production did not differ from that in other industrial countries. The tendency to make the Czechoslovak Republic a forge of the Eastern Block launched big actions, and new enterprises arose in the territories of Moravia and Slovakia. In the Ostrava region, the integrated iron and steel works Nová hut produced long products, hot strips, tubes and engineering products for automobile industry, along with the enterprise Válcovny trub in Veselí nad Moravou with production of tubes. In Slovakia, integrated iron and steel works Východoslovenské zelezárny, whose main production programme was directed to flat products, welded tubes and the production of central-heating panels. The enterprise Oravské feroslitinárské závody in Istebné and Široká was directed to the production of ferroalloys.
Iron and steel metallurgy employed nearly 170,000 people and produced 15.8 million tons of steel in the year of record production 1988. In consequence of investing in growth of production capacity and volume, no means remained for modernisation of production equipment and restructuralisation of technologies and the range of products. As a result, the technical-economic level retarded as a whole.
Nevertheless, erection of some progressive equipment was realised, such as the middle/light section mill in Nová hut, and gradually, even when very slowly, also equipment for continuous casting of steel, secondary metallurgy, and progressive steelmaking technology - steel production in oxygen converters. After 1989, the decline of development of our steelmaking from the trends and forms of steelmaking development in the West-European countries which came about after the petroleum crisis, i.e. in the seventies, showed in full nakedness long-term problems from today's view.