Contrary to popular belief India was a major player in the global metallurgy industry long before the late J.N. Tata established the Tata Iron and Steel Co in Jamshedpur in 1907 and before the London-based Laxmi Mittal started grabbing newspaper headlines around the world. It is arguable that Indian scientists and technologists started producing high-quality corrosion-resistant iron and steel as early as 400 AD.
There is considerable evidence of the ingenuity of ancient India’s metallurgists in the form of permanent installations, museum exhibits and pillars installed in places of worship across the country. The most famous of these — one which has defied and confounded students and professors of metallurgy in India and abroad — the 32 ft high pillar of rust-free iron sited contiguous to the 239 ft tall stone tower — Qutb Minar — constructed by Qutb-ud-Din Aibak in 1199 AD to commemorate the victory of Mohammud Ghori over the Rajputs in 1192 AD. And the wonder of this metallurgical marvel is that it has not rusted or succumbed to atmospheric corrosion despite being unprotected against the elements for over 1500 years.
The latest book on Delhi’s iron pillar is Prof. R. Balasubramaniam’s Story of the Delhi Iron Pillar — a simplified version of his earlier book on the subject titled Delhi Iron Pillar: New Insights which targeted metallurgical professionals, scholars and academics. Unlike the earlier book, this one is written for lay readers, particularly higher secondary students with the objective of arousing student interest in history, metallurgy and archaeology and to encourage them to undertake fieldwork, self-study and research. “The iron pillar in Delhi fascinates scientists all over the world, due to its excellent resistance to atmospheric corrosion. This is an attempt to explain the story behind the pillar in a very simple manner, so that a lay reader can appreciate the history, science and technology of the iron pillar. In addition the artistic merit of the pillar is highlighted. This book also explores and presents some basic aspects of materials science and engineering, while addressing different aspects of the Delhi iron pillar. It is sincerely hoped that the imagination, especially of the young readers, will be fired by the facts and ideas presented in this book,” writes Balasubramaniam.
The Story of the Delhi Iron Pillar traces the history of this metallurgical wondera nd recounts that it was engineered in Udayagiri. The author reveals that the iron pillar was originally installed atop a hill near near Udayagiri in the hinterland of Madhya Pradesh during the reign of Chandragupta II Vikramaditya (374-413 AD) of the Gupta dynasty. The original site of the pillar was the exact location where the imaginary line of tropic of cancer crosses India from where one can observe the sun rising in the east and setting in the west on spring and autumn equinox days.
However in 1234 King Iltutmish (1210-36 AD) the third sultan of Delhi’s slave dynasty captured the pillar and transported it to Delhi as part of his victory booty. The Delhi iron pillar is indeed an engineering marvel was conceded by the president of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, London who remarked in 1851: “While considering forging of large masses of iron and steel, it is not easy to forget the impression caused by first seeing the iron pillar at Delhi. This column of wrought iron… is finished perfectly round and smooth, with an ornamental top, and was made many centuries ago. Remembering the lack of facilities men had in those days for first forging and then welding together such an enormous mass makes one wonder at the iron worker of those days, who must have possessed engineering ability claiming the admiration”.
The incumbent professor of materials and metallurgical engineering at IIT-Kanpur, Balasubramaniam also unravels the mystery of the amazing durability of Delhi’s iron pillar. According to him unnamed engineers of that era used the film forming quality of phosphoric acid to create a thin protective layer of ‘misawite’, a compound of iron, oxygen and hydrogen to prevent rusting and corrosion. The protective film enveloped the pillar within three years after its erection and has been growing imperceptibly since. Today 1,600 years later, the film is of a thickness of one-twentieth of a millimeter.
Story of the Delhi Iron Pillar is well structured into five sections — Introduction, History of the Iron Pillar, Structural Features of the Pillar, Manufacturing Methodology and The Pillar’s Resistance Corrosion — each dealing with a different perspective of this engineering marvel. Written as a simple, easy-to-comprehend narrative, the book is a useful for history and science teachers to plan supplemental lesson plans, as also for secondary school students interested in history/ metallurgy.
Quite obviously ancient India’s universities and institutes of learning had well-developed research and learning capabilities. But during the next millennium this research and scholastic tradition was lost. Fortunately this lost knowledge is being recovered slowly through the initiatives of entrepreneurs such as Laxmi Mittal and Anil Aggrawal (of Vedanta). Although they may not know it, they are heirs to a great tradition.