The Mystery of the Damascus Sword and India's Materials Heritage

By Gopi Katragadda
Published: 11, Oct 2012

(Gopi Katragadda is the Managing Director at GE India Technology Center) Be it going down unknown roads of a new city, or peeling the onion of a known fact to discover fascinating unknown layers, what drives me is the unknown… The amount I have learnt trying to decipher the Indus script is as valuable as the eventual goal of decipherment. As a boy, one summer, I learnt to make soap from my English teacher, and I sold the soap to neighbors and friends. I made soap because I enjoyed the act of creating and I sold soap because it was a validation that what I created had value… Today, deep down, I am still that boy who makes and sells soap… Leading GE Technology in India provides me the ultimate platform to probe unknown corners of Energy, Healthcare, Transportation, and Aviation. We create intellectual property and put it into products that solve some of the world’s toughest problems. Over the last decade, the work done by inventors at GE India has resulted in over 1500 patents being filed by the Parent General Electric Company. My book on innovation titled ‘Smash Innovation,’ explores the barriers to innovation in India and how we could break those barriers. This blog is again my exploration of how to make this a century of Indian Innovation.

Applying new sciences or new materials for the health and comfort of humankind is the story of engineering progress.  Harnessing materials directly by humans predates the emergence of science, as we know it today.  One of the markers of progress of a society has been its ability to work metals and its alloys.  Today, we have come a long way in materials advances.  Recently a friend’s son had an accident and ended up with a decent size cut on his head.  Not too long ago, this wound would have been treated with 4-5 sutures.  Not anymore.  Doctors used a liquid adhesive to close the wound!  The liquid adhesive forms a microbial shield while the wound heals without the use of a needle.  Materials research does take a long time, but research from the last several decades is now bearing fruit and becoming useful applications:

  • Composites have been used for several centuries in many different forms.  A composite material is an engineered structure made up of two or more materials with different material properties and the differences in properties produce a synergistically stronger and lighter structure for the purposes of structural use.  Recent advances in composite technology have made it possible to mold large structural parts with high strengths and resistance to impact.  Also, Ceramic Matrix Composites are increasingly being deployed to take advantage of the high-temperature properties of ceramics and at the same time overcome the brittleness of monolithic ceramics.  Furthermore, the interest in green products has driven the use of natural fiber in composites.  In the distant horizon, the possibility exists to build automotive, rail, and airframe structures using high strength composites that are biodegradable under certain specially designed trigger conditions.
  • Superconductor research has not yet hit the critical point due to the fact that the temperature at which superconductivity is achieved is not practical for most applications.  However, with the theories behind superconductivity and the various compounds with superconductivity being intensively researched, the probability of hitting a critical point in superconductivity exists which would throw open several electro-mechanical and medical applications.
  • Rare earth magnets have been around for past few decades, however the cost points were not at a place to meet large scale needs.  Rare earth magnets are 10-20 times stronger than other permanent magnets.  With most of the technology around rare-earth magnets coming out of patents in the 2003, the costs have dropped setting into motion wider use of rare-earth magnets in several applications replacing wound copper coil magnet configurations.  Additionally, with the confluence of nanotechnology and rare-earth materials, the possibility now exists to dramatically improve the power and efficiency of electric machines and other power systems including the possibility of wireless power transfer, and efficient automotives.
  • Another area of materials’ research that will create a huge impact is that of meta-materials – man made materials that exhibit properties based on structure rather than composition.  As an example, it is feasible to build negative refractive index meta-materials (something not observed in nature) - this will enable much better optical instrumentation for entertainment, medicine, and microscopy, and eventually extend its reach to higher efficiency machines and power-systems.

As we move forward, India has every opportunity to develop leadership in materials and use this to solve tough problems in healthcare, energy and transportation for India and the world.  A particular focus, in my opinion, should be composite materials.  Driven by the use of composites in the Indian aerospace industry (rockets, satellites, missiles, light combat aircraft, advanced light helicopter), we have fairly mature capabilities in the area of composite structures.  Technical assistance and soft loans from the Technology Information Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC), a unit of the Department of Science and Technology as well other government initiatives are in the right direction to enhance India’s capabilities.  Joint ventures and global collaborations are now required to ensure India works at the leading edge of the technology and gets better at raw material development while further strengthening the applications end of capabilities. It will be great to aim for a century of Indian materials.  Remember the Damascus Sword!


  • Omprakash Mall

    Great topic; even I am of opinion that much of the scientific practices that exists, have been used in India, China & Middle east. For example, I remember one incident from my house. In orissa, lot of Aluminium utensils are used in Kitchen, but whenever pickles are made & stored, they are never used. Finally in my school studies, I found out the reason of reaction taking place between pickle & Al to form poisonous product. But it was amazing how my mother & grand mother, who are illiterate knew about wrong happening between Al & pickles.

    on Oct 22, 2012
  • Nikhil

    Excellent topic Gopi, i had never heard of this...Regards

    on Oct 18, 2012
  • Rahul

    Fascinating. This is a great article with so much of details. Thanks for publishing it.

    on Oct 17, 2012
  • Peter Griffin

    Mr Katragadda, would you care to shed some light on the rust-resistant properties of the famous iron pillar of Delhi? Were its makers from a different school of iron-making?

    on Oct 15, 2012
    • Gopichand Katragadda

      There are individuals who have done good amount of research on this topic, and I will draw their attention to this question. The time period ascribed to the Pillar's manufacture is the 4th century AD very much in the period of metalworking excellence in India that I discuss through the much later story of the Damascus sword. The iron pillar however involves much more technology such as forge welding and heat treatment of large scale wrought iron. The corrosion resistance is attributed to several possibilities including dry weather (of Delhi), metal composition, heat treatment, protective oxide layer, etc...

      on Oct 18, 2012

    Thanks to Mr.Katragadda for sharing your views and imp details which are almost a history now As i am still part of steel making process such notes /reviews keep me on my toes. May be we were in hurry to grow ..grow faster borrowing anything everything ..without having a glance at our assets, development and its processing. But these are still fundamental of public sector. I would like to recall Dr.K L Bhat of REC Surthkal and Dr.K Aprameyan of Ex BEML were always calling for younger breed of metallurgy to pay more attention. Wish we make good use of it now and great future for next gen. Regards, Pushpa

    on Oct 13, 2012
    • Gopichand Katragadda

      Thanks Pushpa... Yes, metals (alloys) that operate close their melting point and last 20+ years are at the core of energy and aviation development...

      on Oct 14, 2012
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