What Even is Smelting?

Last year, I taught the Industrial Revolution in World History. One of the things we focused on was how the changes in iron smelting prompted further changes in manufacturing. We watched videos about it, lectured about it, and it featured in our end-of-unit assessment. But I realized something later, as I thought about how effective the unit had been.

None of my students have any idea what “smelting” means. Sure, they probably have a vague idea about melting metal down, and there are enough portrayals of blacksmiths in popular culture that they probably have a notion about what forging entails, but these concepts can only be hazy at best. Why? No one has ever seen it. I mean, haven’t seen it, and I am supposed to be teaching it!

My initial idea is that I need to find someone who knows how to build a smelting furnace and invite them to demonstrate the process right in front of my students. After all, providing first-person experience is the best way to make educational experiences meaningful. However, while I still think this would be the best way help students understand this particular facet of the Industrial Revolution, I have to acknowledge how difficult it could be to find an artizan, build a smelter, and get students down to see it within the bounds of a school day.

Fortunately, we live in the information age! I found a series on youtube called Man At Arms: Reforged, where a team of metalsmiths in Baltimore create real world versions of pop culture weaponry. They have created all kinds of interesting things, from the katana from Kill Bill, to fantasy weapons from The Lord of the Rings and the Zelda video games.

However, the video I am interested in now is this: a historical blade that they created by smelting a bloom of iron from ore.

The video is a little long for classroom use, but I could point students to it if students need a deeper understanding of this alien process. It is also fun, which is a bonus.

After I stumbled across that first video, I realized there must be others that focus more on the historical process of making iron. After a short search, I came across this:

 

The people in this clip have significantly less screen presence than the folks in Man at Arms, but it is much shorter, and feels a little more relevant to history. So until I can find myself a blacksmith (or learn the process myself), I will probably use this one.

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