O.K. listees, I think I will chime in on this old chestnut.
Way back when in the days of the 1930's to the 70's (and probably well before that as well) there were always attempts to use various grades of what is referred to as "stainless" in assorted areas of bike equipment. For many years Schwinn used to offer fenders, er mudguards as a higher cost option on their ballooners and lightweights. Raliegh tried dropouts, and there were many attempts at rims, handlebars, and toeclips. Notice that these were common areas where rust would form on chrome and nickel plating. Many of these attempts, besides the spokes, were failures because the quality and grades of "stainless" were often not as good as is currently available. AND stainless steels have always tended to be more expensive than other materials which often leads to designers choosing marginal grades because the bike trade has always tended towards the cheaper lower-end market. Indeed, the widespread trade in upper-end bike and component sales is a recent trend and not the industry norm. Do NOT underestimate this aspect of bike part engineering through the years !
Often the stainless parts would SEEM like a better idea but the improvements usually always came with significant drawbacks. The dropouts that Raliegh used weren't malleable enough to be easily bent back after suffering crash damage. The fenders were more difficult to remove dents and creases from (how many listees remember when this was a mainstream bike shop repair activity ?). Same thing for the rims - I haven't worked on these myself, but supposedly they were more difficult to true if they sustained any sort of damage. Maybe Hilary Stone or Mick Butler, et al could chime in and refute/confirm my recollections. The various rims were popular in England's wet climate so maybe they did work o.k. ?
What is important in discussing these items and the material is not to cloud and confuse the issue with layman's attempts to understand complex metallurgical details. I have seen some truly laughable attempts to do so and all it does is add to the considerable confusion on the topic. If the terms "austenitic, martensitic, pearlite nose, 300 grade, 400 grade, etc. etc. etc." are not very familiar to you then please DO NOT use them. Likewise, potshots and side-line quarterback attempts to criticize the use of a specific alloy without a good background in metals and engineering is particularly pointless. Sometimes sticking to generalizations is better than mis-using jargon, eh ?
Now for spokes. Many years ago wheels were usually built with LESS spoke tension then nowadays because the rims were not strong enough to allow for higher tension without the spokes pulling through the inner face of the rim. Ever wonder why higher spoke count wheels were the norm for so many decades ? Or why Fiamme came up with the idea for the "Longhi" design with a ferrule joining the top AND bottom of the rim wall ? Or conversely why there were so few road and track wheels with fewer than 32 spokes. The traditional way to cope with lower spoke tension is to use thinner butted spokes and more of them. So back in the day there were many variants of 14-16 and 15-17 guage butted spokes available for lighter higher quality wheels. The thin butted spokes made it easier to acheive acceptable tension and to hopefully keep the nipples from unscrewing during use and allowing the wheel to lose it's shape. The only spoke prep I recall hearing about from the years past is that old-timers told me to apply a drop of clear nail-polish to the nipple/spoke thread interface after building to help prevent "unwinding". Or use linseed oil as a spoke thread lube because it dried out into a nice and sticky sort of loctite material. All of this goes for wood rim wheels in addition to lightweight metal rims.
So early attempts at stainless steel spokes were hampered by both the material (not so great choices in metallurgy/forming technology), AND application - i.e. that in a lower tension structure there is more flex, more tension peaks/ebbs, more chance for fatigue to occur. And so stainless steel as a spoke material (back in the pre-dt / wheelsmith days) developed a VERY well-known reputation for offering poor reliability and much breakage. Notice I did not mention grade, nickel, vanadium, or stress corrosion cracking once so far.
Old-timers I knew often spoke of stainless spokes with UTTER derision. On the other hand, they often spoke very fondly of the various grades of "plain" steel GALVINIZED butted spokes that were once available such as Robergal, Berg Union, Prym, and especially the old Torrington "Diamond E" spokes (made here in the USA ! ). The mere mention of Diamond E spokes was once a way to build instant street credibility with riders and mechanics of a certain generation ! Pop Brennans' sons told me there wasn't a spoke made ever that was better than the Diamond E - they said it was "piano wire". I'll leave it up to experts to let us know exactly what "Piano Wire" consists of.
So, from the 50's up until the late 70's stainless was considered an inferior choice for spoke material. What changed ? Well, higher spoke tension along with better quality, stronger rims has helped alleviate some of the tension peaks/valleys that cause fatigue. Overall, there is a greater awareness of the issues involved in wheel building - i.e. higher tension and EVEN tension, regardless of spoke pattern. These sorts of details were once not easy to find out about and wheel issues usually de-volved into truly stupid pseudo-scientific discussions of three-cross versus four-cross, and the like. But most importantly was the greater availability of DT (and later Wheelsmith and Sapim) spokes in the mid-late 70's. These spokes utterly blew a hole in the old monolithic theory that ALL stainless spokes were bad. For whatever reasons (high grade Swedish wire as a raw material, better drawing/head and butt forming technology ?) these spokes set a new standard for strength and quality. No they are not perfect, occasional spoke breakages still do occur but nowhere near the #s like there used to be IMHO. One important aspect to consider is that DT made a premium product and priced themselves accordingly. They did not allow themselves to accept the trade-offs in performance vs. cost of raw material and processing that dictated what other spoke makers had offered for decades. Nowadays high quality spokes can easily cost five times what was commonly acceptable "back in the day" but here we truly have a rare instance of "you get what you pay for ".
I hope some of this may make some sense to the wheel-oriented folks out there. Like frames, high quality wheels were once the exception, not the norm. There was a "mystique" to the wheel builders who figured out some of the issues and could repeatedly build high quality long lasting wheels. Spence Wolf was probably the best known of these folks, but there were many others. What I am somewhat unclear on is the problems and foibles of the various Robergal stainless spokes that were available. As far as I know these were once the premium choice before DT entered the scene. They seemed to be a higher quality than the Stella's and Raedelli's from Italy, but folks have told me numerous stories of "they work well for maybe a year or two and then . . . " breakage nightmares start.
Enough with old bikes ! Get out there and go for a ride !
Mike Fabian in SF