Monday, August 22, 2011

Men of Iron and Steel

The Iron Bridge at Ironbridge, Shropshire, England (Original)

A Briton named Abraham Darby ignited the industrial revolution around 1710 when he substituted coke (from coal) in his recipe for ironmaking. Traditionally, iron ore had been smelted using charcoal derived from trees (charcoal is "cleaner" carbon). Learning to smelt iron with coke in blast furnaces ultimately freed the iron industry from the natural limits of forests, much like the invention of the automobile would later free arable land from the yoke of producing fodder for horses. Three generations of Darbys stoked the wrought iron age.

Perhaps the most iconic monuments wrought from iron are Gustave Eiffel's eponymous tower in Paris (1889) and the first Ferris Wheel erected in Chicago in 1893 by George Ferris, Jr.  Eiffel also designed and produced the wrought iron framework beneath the copper sheathing of our Statue of Liberty. But even these structures were out of date when they were completed.

By the mid-1800's the demand for wrought iron was so great that inventor Henry Bessemer developed and patented the first modern process for making steel (steel is essentially purified pig iron alloyed with other metals). Vastly superior to wrought iron, Bessemer's steel revolution was so successful that it returned wrought iron making to a cottage industry. European steel maker Alfred Krupp adopted the process, and built his company on cannons and railroad wheels. Andrew Carnegie brought the same process to America but also began buying ore-rich land in Minnesota, developing a vertically integrated business model. By the time Carnegie sold his immense fortune to J.P. Morgan in 1901, the price of steel rails had fallen from $160 per ton to $17 per ton. Carnegie devoted the rest of his life to philanthropy, perhaps returning to the promise of an earlier self.*

Subsequent, more efficient processes eventually supplanted the Bessemer process, including the Open Hearth Process, the Basic Oxygen Process and the Electric Arc Process, first patented by Carl Wilhelm Siemens in 1878.

*In December 1868, Carnegie wrote in a "memo to self:" 
Man must have an idol and the amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry! No idol is more debasing than the worship of money! Whatever I engage in I must push inordinately; therefore should I be careful to choose that life which will be the most elevating in its character. To continue much longer overwhelmed by business cares and with most of my thoughts wholly upon the way to make more money in the shortest time, must degrade me beyond hope of permanent recovery. I will resign business at thirty-five, but during these ensuing two years I wish to spend the afternoons in receiving instruction and in reading systematically!  Link

Cold Iron is master of them all! 


  1. Here's a steel bridge in Cleveland, much less looked after: link

  2. I worked for about a year at a steel mill...and would often go out to the BOP which was quite a show....I mainly programmed the wastewater facility and the galvanizing mill....alas, they are long gone now...

  3. and would often go out to the BOP which was quite a show

    It's what you think of when you think lava and volcano right?

  4. I became familiar with the story of Bessemer the engineer/inventor when our eldest was working near Bessemer City, NC earlier this year. The town, named to honor Bessemer, has an interesting history involving iron production.

    In 1754, James Ormand, one of the area’s earliest European settlers, received a land grant from King George II and settled in the Bessemer City region. He started the Ormand Mining Company to produce ore. Today, the Old Ormand Furnace is one of the oldest remaining furnaces in the country and a historic monument. In 1760, John Fulenwider moved from Switzerland to High Shoals, an area neighboring Bessemer City. Like Ormand, he also started a company, called High Shoals Iron works and capitalized on the area’s natural resources. High Shoals produced much of the nation’s iron and earned a reputation for producing some of the highest-quality iron in America. High Shoals also produced iron used to manufacture weapons during the American Revolution (1775-1783).

    On a side note, that city is now home to FMC Lithium, the world largest producer of lithium.

  5. @MamaM: I didn't know there was a Bessemer, NC. The City With A Hearth!

  6. Hearth, Mine and Coal!

    Spirit too it seems...

    Whiskey production was also profitable. Gaston County had more licensed whiskey distilleries than any county in North Carolina

  7. I should write something about Union Carbide and coal country.

  8. Modern industry definitely owes these men quite a lot. We've come so far, I think, when it comes to construction and technology, and these fathers of steel are huge parts of that evolution. We have skyscrapers these days because we've found a material that was strong enough to hold up our designs for years to come. We're now even using steel in art, showing just how talented this material truly can be.

    -- Kai Tiger