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January/February 2010

The Stainless Steel Chronicles

ASTM Member and Former Staff Manager Harold Cobb Has Written a History of Stainless Steel

A small airplane and a tall building have each played major roles in the development of stainless steel, and Harold Cobb knows quite a bit about both of them. In fact, if you need to know practically anything about stainless steel, Cobb, a longtime ASTM International member as well as a retired ASTM staff manager, ought to be your primary source.

The airplane is the Pioneer, a craft built by the E.G. Budd Manufacturing Co. in Philadelphia in 1931. The plane is one of the earliest examples of an engineering structure to be made of stainless steel. The Pioneer can now be seen outside the main entrance to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pa., which is where Cobb first encountered it in 1937.

The building is the Chrysler Building in New York City, completed in 1930 and the tallest building in the world until it was eclipsed by the Empire State Building in 1931. The Chrysler is an architectural landmark on several fronts, not the least of which is the fact that the entire crown of the building is clad in austenitic stainless steel.

The stories behind both the airplane and the skyscraper are told in The History of Stainless Steel, a new book written by Cobb that will be published by ASM International later this year. The book covers stainless steel from the earliest discoveries and experiments to modern developments with the metal.

Writing and editing books on steel has been Cobb’s primary work for the last 25 years, but this is just the latest stretch of a long career. Following his 1942 graduation from Yale University with a bachelor of engineering degree in metallurgy, Cobb began his career at Budd (developer of the Pioneer). He then worked for more than two decades for a variety of organizations as a metallurgical engineer.

A career change led him to ASTM in 1965, where he spent 18 years managing technical committees that specialize in metals. During his stay at ASTM, Cobb was heavily involved in the development of the Unified Numbering System for metals.

Today Cobb says that moving to ASTM in 1965 was “one of the best decisions I ever made. I’ve appreciated getting to know literally hundreds of people on the committees, many of whom I’ve kept in contact with over the years.” He is also particularly happy to have been heavily involved in the development of the UNS, which he says was an exciting part of his career.

While studying and telling the story of metals remains an important aspect of Cobb’s life, his interests extend into other realms. Having been born and raised in Pennsylvania, Cobb became interested in Pennsylvania place names and has compiled a book explaining the origin of different town and city names in the Keystone State. He has also spent time investigating the case of the Mary Celeste, a merchant ship that was mysteriously found abandoned in the Atlantic Ocean in December 1872.

Still, Harold Cobb’s primary interest remains rooted in metals, as evidenced by a new project he would like to tackle: a dictionary of metals. Cobb says that his association with ASTM metals committees, both as a staff manager and as a member of Committee A01 on Steel, Stainless Steel and Related Alloys, has been an ongoing education for him. “I was learning something about metals all the time,” says Cobb, who is very happy to share what he has learned.