The material of choice of a given era is often a defining point. The following phrases such as the following are good examples: Stone Age, a broad prehistoric period during which stone was widely used to make implements with a sharp-edge, a point, or a percussion surface; Bronze Age, a period characterized by the use of copper and its alloy bronze as the chief hard materials in the manufacture of some implements and weapons; and the Steel Age, which is actually the Industrial Revolution, a period from 1750 to 1850 where changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transportation, and technology had a profound effect on the social, economic and cultural conditions of the times.
Originally deriving from the manufacture of ceramics, an inorganic, nonmetallic solid prepared by the action of heat and subsequent cooling, and its putative derivative metallurgy, materials science is one of the oldest forms of engineering and applied science. Modern materials science evolved directly from metallurgy, a domain of materials science that studies the physical and chemical behavior of metallic elements, their intermetallic compounds, and their mixtures, which are called alloys, which itself evolved from mining and (likely) ceramics and the use of fire.
A major breakthrough in the understanding of materials occurred in the late 19th century, when the American scientist Josiah Willard Gibbs, an American scientist who made important theoretical contributions to physics, chemistry, and mathematics, demonstrated that the thermodynamic properties (the branch of natural science concerned with heat and its relation to other forms of energy and work) related to atomic structure, the basic unit of matter that consists of a dense central nucleus surrounded by a cloud of negatively charged electrons, in various phases, which in the physical sciences, is a region of space (a thermodynamic system), throughout which all physical properties of a material are essentially uniform, are related to the physical properties of a material.
Important elements of modern materials science are a product of the space race, a mid-to-late 20th century competition between the Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States (USA) for supremacy in space exploration: The understanding and engineering, or the science, skill, and profession of acquiring and applying scientific, economic, social, and practical knowledge, in order to design and also build structures, machines, devices, systems, materials and processes, of the metallic alloys, a mixture or metallic solid solution composed of two or more elements, and silica (â€œsilicon dioxideâ€), an oxide of silicon with the chemical formula SiO2, and carbon (the chemical element with symbol C and atomic number 6) materials; used in the construction of space vehicles enabling the exploration of space.
Materials science has driven, and been driven by, the development of revolutionary technologies such as: plastics, any of a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic organic solids that are moldable; semiconductors, which has electrical conductivity intermediate to that of a conductor and an insulator; and biomaterials, or any matter, surface, or construct that interacts with biological systems.
Before the 1960s (and in some cases decades after), many â€œmaterials scienceâ€ departments were named â€œmetallurgyâ€ departments, from a 19th and early 20th century emphasis on metals. The field has since broadened to include every class of materials, including: ceramics (ceramic engineering, the science and technology of creating objects from inorganic, non-metallic materials); polymers, chemical compound or mixture of compounds consisting of repeating structural units created through a process of polymerization; semiconductors; magnetic materials (magnetism is a property of materials that respond to an applied magnetic field); medical implant materials, a medical device manufactured to replace a missing biological structure, support a damaged biological structure, or enhance an existing biological structure; and biological materials (materiomics, the holistic study of material systems).
See: What is medicine?