The history of welding according to Marty

November 20, 2003
By: Marty Rice

This is a welding history synopsis, as seen by me. If you are a history or English professor, you might want to stop reading at this point; it ain't gonna be pretty.

OK, so this guy back in ancient times got into a fight with another guy. He got punched in the eye and fell backward, hitting his head on a fallen tree branch. He thought to himself, "That fist hurt, but that dang tree limb hurt worse." (This was the first time the expression "dang" was used.) So he got up and belted the other guy with the tree branch. The other guy fell backward, hitting his head on a rock on the ground, and he thought to himself, "That tree branch hurt like heck, but by gosh, that rock hurt worse." (Yep, first time for "by gosh" also.) So he got up and smacked the other guy with the rock, knocking him out and winning the fight.

The winner woke up the loser; they shook hands and became friends. That night they were sitting by the fire talking about the fact that they had just discovered weapons. Little did they realize they were about to build the foundation for the art of welding.

Bubbling Crude

As the fire burned, one of our ancient warriors noticed something happening to one of the rocks they had used as a border around the fire. It began to glow, bubble, then turn into liquid. The liquid flowed down into the canal they had scraped out around the fire. After the fire was put out, the cool night air caused the now-formed liquid to solidify. You see, one of the rocks contained copper, which has a low melting point.

One of the ancient warriors picked up the round, newly formed copper piece, screamed, and quickly threw it on the ground. He had discovered that you should alwaysassume metal is hot! After it had cooled sufficiently, he picked it up again and said, "Look, we've invented the wheel! Now all we have to do is invent a wagon to put it on."

The Bronze Age

Now it may have happened a bit differently than this, but however it happened, that was how a form was used to make the first metal casting. Copper was soft, and as experimentation continued, it was found that adding tin to the copper made it harder. Thus, bronze was discovered, leading to the Bronze Age.

More experimentation revealed that the more heat the fire generated, the faster the bronze melted. Other findings included using a bellows to make the coals burn even hotter, adding charcoal to the fire, and using sand to cool the newly cast form.

Hammer Welding

As the fires got hot enough, iron ore was discovered, leading to the Iron Age. After casting, forming, and molding, it was discovered that iron could be hammer-welded when two pieces of freshly cast plates were put side by side and then beaten with a hammer. Some historians estimate this could have taken place as long ago as 1000 B.C. However, my research leads me to believe this could have happened as long ago as 1001 B.C.

Except for the quality of craftsmanship, things didn't change much until the 19th century. That means it took about 2800 years for someone to come up with an idea to improve the trade. However, once the ideas started, welding began growing by leaps and bounds.

In the 1830s, acetylene was discovered, and by 1900 a crude torch system had been developed, allowing for gas welding and cutting.

From 1890 to the early 1900s, the first arc weld was made by melting an electrode with an arc, similar to what is done now. Although I imagine that was one primitive-looking welding rig! First a battery was used, then a generator.

World War I

So now that I've jumped about 2800 years, why don't I jump up to World War I? By now some spot welding, resistance welding, and seam welding were being done. A lot of welding was done with bare wire electrodes. There was a big-time need for tanks, submarines, battleships, planes, guns, and other war necessities that required welding, so welding became one of the most important fields almost overnight.

After the war, around 1919, the American Welding Society (AWS) was formed as a nonprofit organization to help advance welding. AWS helped organize welding codes and standards.

Shielding the Weld Pool

In the '30s and '40s, many studies were done on methods to shield the weld pool from contaminants—nitrogen, hydrogen, and other atmospheric elements that can get into the molten weld pool and cause porosity (worm holes) and cracking. It became apparent that the better the puddle was shielded, the better the weld. I have heard someone (possibly a descendant of the ancient warriors) picked up a rusty rod and welded with it because he was in a hurry. He found that the rusty rod actually welded better than the clean one. And so experiments were done adding cellulose and other elements to the welding wire, which would burn and form a gas that protected the puddle from the atmosphere.

I am discussing only stick (SMAW) welding here, but leaps and bounds also were made in the discovery of both Mig (GMAW) and Tig (GTAW) welding along with other processes. Since I am primarily a structural hand, I will leave you to check the research books for those.

World War II

In World War II stick welding was used a lot, mainly in the flat position. I worked with an old ironworker who had welded on ships during the war. He told me about plugging holes in the ship deck with big bare electrodes, and how it was a frustrating, horrible job. If the rod touched the side of the hole, it would stick. If the rod touched the deck going into the hole, it would stick. If the rod went perfectly into the hole and hit right where it was supposed to, it would stick. Twelve- to eighteen-hour days with the rod sticking over and over would definitely be awful. I get mad when it sticks once! I have to stop my students from punching walls when their welding rods stick more than once.

Women and Welding

World War II also proved that women affectionately called Rosie the Riveter could weld and rivet just as well as men. Many women put in long, tiring days in the shipyards, weapons industries, and production lines. They kept the supplies and machinery rolling while the men were fighting overseas.

Even though many women had proven what great workers they were, most were expected to go back to being housewives, schoolteachers, nurses, and other, more traditionally female jobs when the war ended. Only within the last decade have women become more accepted on construction job sites. And even now it can be rough for a lady working out there with a bunch of guys. I've had young women do really well in my welding classes, win contests, work hard, and secure good-paying jobs.

Some Things Never Change

With all the different welding rods and fluxes, stick welding has come a long way since World War I and II. However, the techniques are still the same—relax your hand and watch the puddle. No matter how many times I tell my knucklehead students to do that, I still find them tensing up on the stinger (electrode holder). Heck, sometimes I even find myself gripping too tightly. A good stick welder welds with his or her wrist. If you grip tight, you're going to be welding with your arm. Wrist equals subtle, smooth moves as you oscillate (move back and forth) the rod. Arm equals way too many shaky, uneven moves, which result in a weld that looks like well, it will not look good.

I started welding in 1977, and I'd have to say there is a lot about it that is the same now. Like I stated, the techniques are still the same. Almost all the rods are the same, with the exception that perhaps some run more smoothly. The biggest change is in the machines. I've used some old, sideways, gigantic generators—loud-as-heck, work-some-of the-time-not-all-of- the-time, oil-dripping, hard-starting, flat-tire-on-one-side, amp-fluctuating, weld-different-every-day machines. And I've used them in all kinds of weather, in trenches, up on high-rises, and in shops. One thing they all have in common is if you find the right setting, you make a good weld.

The Robot Scare

I remember the robot scare years ago. Everyone was freaking out about robots taking over their positions. I wasn't worried about that though, because I knew no robot was going to climb columns on a high-rise. And as it turned out, it wasn't the robots that took the jobs, it was the companies leaving to go overseas. Don't even get me started on that one.Robots are great for repetitive welding such as is done in auto plants. But even robots require humans to program and service them and make sure the welds are being made to spec.

The Greatest Change

I guess the most drastic change I've seen is in inverter technology. It is unbelievable how an inverter can make a machine the size of a case of beer more powerful than my old factory welding machine, which was the size of a VW Beetle®! Yeah, inverters, now we are getting way too deep for my shallow mind.

Marty Rice

Marty Rice

Contributing Writer
High School Career Center in Texas
Marty Rice is a welding instructor at a high school career center in Texas. He is an honorary member of the Ironworkers Local 263.


Questions for the author can be e-mailed to