Articles

Phosphorus in Antique Iron Music Wire

Science  22 May 1987:
Vol. 236, Issue 4804, pp. 927-932
DOI: 10.1126/science.236.4804.927

Abstract

Harpsichords and other wire-strung musical instruments were made with longer strings about the beginning of the 17th century. This change required stronger music wire. Although these changes coincided with the introduction of the first mass-produced steel (iron alloyed with carbon), carbon was not found in samples of antique iron harpsichord wire. The wire contained an amount of phosphorus sufficient to have impeded its conversion to steel, and may have been drawn from iron rejected for this purpose. The method used to select pig iron for wire drawing ensured the highest possible phosphorus content at a time when its presence in iron was unsuspected. Phosphorus as an alloying element has had the reputation for making steel brittle when worked cold. Nevertheless, in replicating the antique wire, it was found that lowcarbon iron that contained 0.16 percent phosphorus was easily drawn to appropriate gauges and strengths for restringing antique harpsichords.

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