In many cases different cultures leave their materials as the only records which anthropologists can use to define the existence of such cultures. The progressive use of more sophisticated materials allows archeologists to characterize and distinguish between peoples. This is partially due to the major material of use in a culture and to its associated benefits and drawbacks. Stone-Age cultures were limited by which rocks they could find locally and by which they could acquire by trading. The use of flint around 300,000 BCE is sometimes[when?] considered the beginning of the use of ceramics. The use of polished stone axes marks a significant advance because a much wider variety of rocks could serve as tools.
The innovation of smelting and casting metals in the Bronze Age started to change the way that cultures developed and interacted with each other. Starting around 5500 BCE, early smiths began to re-shape native metals of copper and gold - without the use of fire - for tools and weapons. The heating of copper and its shaping with hammers began around 5000 BCE. Melting and casting started around 4000 BCE. Metallurgy had its dawn with the reduction of copper from its ore around 3500 BCE. The first alloy, bronze came into use around 3000 BCE. Iron-working came into prominence from about 1200 BCE.
In the 10th century BCE glass production began in ancient Near East. In the 3rd century BCE people in ancient India developed wootz steel, the first crucible steel. In the 1st century BCE glassblowing techniques flourished in Phoenicia. In the 2nd century CE steel-making became widespread in Han Dynasty China. The 4th century CE saw the production of the Iron pillar of Delhi, the oldest surviving example of corrosion-resistant steel.
Wood, bone, stone, and earth are some of the materials which formed the structures of the Roman empire. Certain structures were made possible by the character of the land upon which these structures are built; a volcanic peninsula with stone aggregates and conglomerates containing crystalline material, will produce material which weathers differently from soft, sedimentary rock and silt. That is one of the reasons that the concrete Pantheon of Rome could last for 1850 years. And why the thatched farmhouses of Holland sketched by Rembrandt have long since decayed.
After the thighbone daggers of the early hunter-gatherers were superseded by wood and stone axes, and then by copper, bronze and iron implements of the Roman civilization, more precious materials could then be sought, and gathered together. Thus the medieval goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini could seek and defend the gold which he had to turn into objects of desire for dukes and popes. The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini contains one of the first descriptions of a metallurgical process.
In the 16th century, Vannoccio Biringuccio publishes his Pirotechnia, the first systematic book on metallurgy, Georg Agricola writes De Re Metallica, an influential book on metallurgy and mining, and glass lens are developed in the Netherlands and used for the first time in microscopes and telescopes.
In the 17th century, Galileo's Two New Sciences (strength of materials and kinematics) includes the first quantitative statements in the science of materials. In the 18th century, William Champion patents a process for the production of metallic zinc by distillation from calamine and charcoal, Bryan Higgins was issued a patent for hydraulic cement (stucco) for use as an exterior plaster, and Alessandro Volta makes a copper/zinc acid battery.
In the 19th century, Thomas Johann Seebeck invents the thermocouple, Joseph Aspin invents Portland cement, Hans Christian Ørsted produces metallic aluminium, Charles Goodyear invents vulcanized rubber, Louis Daguerre and William Fox Talbot invent silver-based photographic processes, James Clerk Maxwell demonstrates color photography, and Charles Fritts makes the first solar cells using selenium waffles.
In the early part of the 20th century, most engineering schools had a department of metallurgy and perhaps of ceramics as well. Much effort was expended on consideration of the austenite-martensite-cementite phases found in the iron-carbon phase diagram that underlies steel production. The fundamental understanding of other materials was not sufficiently advanced for them to be considered as academic subjects. In the post-WWII era, the systematic study of polymers advanced particularly rapidly. Rather than create new polymer science departments in engineering schools, administrators and scientists began to conceive of materials science as a new interdisciplinary field in its own right, one that considered all substances of engineering importance from a unified point of view. Northwestern University instituted the first materials science department in 1955.
Dr. Richard E. Tressler was an international leader in the development of high temperature materials. He pioneered high temperature fiber testing and use, advanced instrumentation and test methodologies for thermostructural materials, and design and performance verification of ceramics and composites in high temperature aerospace, industrial and energy applications. He was founding director of the Center for Advanced Materials (CAM) which supported many faculty and students from the College of Earth and Mineral Science, the Eberly College of Science, the College of Engineering, the Materials Research Laboratory and the Applied Research Laboratories at Penn State on high temperature materials. His vision for interdisciplinary research played a key role in the creation of the Materials Research Institute. Tressler's contribution to materials science is celebrated with a Penn State lecture named in his honor.
The Materials Research Society (MRS) has been instrumental in creating an identity and cohesion for this young field. MRS was the brainchild of researchers at Penn State University and grew out of discussions initiated by Prof. Rustum Roy in 1970. The first meeting of MRS was held in 1973. As of 2006, MRS has grown into an international society that sponsors a large number of annual meetings and has over 13,000 members. MRS sponsors meetings that are subdivided into symposia on a large variety of topics as opposed to the more focused meetings typically sponsored by organizations like the American Physical Society or the IEEE. The fundamentally interdisciplinary nature of MRS meetings has had a strong influence on the direction of science, particularly in the popularity of the study of soft materials, which are in the nexus of biology, chemistry, physics and mechanical and electrical engineering. Because of the existence of integrative textbooks, materials research societies and university chairs in all parts of the world, BA, MA and PhD programs and other indicators of discipline formation, it is fair to call materials science (and engineering) a discipline.