Connections Through Time – Part III:  On The Shoulders of Giants

To fully appreciate the evolution of springs,  it would be strikingly deficient to omit entirely the monumental points and achievements that came from the “shoulders of giants”.

Sir Isaac Newton once wrote, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.  The long progress of metallurgical knowledge and skill has been the product of millenniums—of great thinkers, craftsmen, diligent pursuers of recipes and techniques of which products and things we enjoy today in the 21st century.  

 

Although it’s a fascinating and colorful story1, I’m dissuaded from writing a treatise covering the progress of iron and steelmaking—which lead us to our current times as beneficiaries of the genius of the Industrial Revolution. However, to fully appreciate the evolution of springs—whether our car suspension or our furniture and mattress— I believe it would be strikingly deficient to omit it entirely,  so I must at least mention a few of the monumental points and achievements—that came from the “shoulders of giants”. 

 

James Watt worked in Carron Iron Works before creating steam engine.
James Watt worked in Carron Iron Works before creating the steam engine.

 

“The invention and enterprise of the pioneer ironmasters of the 18th century provided enough wrought iron and cast iron for the revolutionary applicants of steam power  by James Watt and the new race of engineers who followed him to transform the face and life of Britain”.2

 

Abraham Darby I
Abraham Darby I

 

Abraham Darby of Coalbrookdale in Shropeshire was the first to produce high-grade iron substituting charcoal with pit coal and then in 1709 the breakthrough of using coke3 which was suited for casting iron—thus greatly increased cast iron supplies. In 1750, Abraham Darby II enhanced the process to provide good malleable iron in coke-fired furnaces. This quickly spread to new regions like Merthyr Tydfil4 and Dowlais5 in South Wales, Workington in the west of England in Cumbria, and Carron in Scotland. Darby’s contribution unleashed a dynamic energy across the country as greater hearths6 were constructed.

 

Iron Bridge To The Future

 

Abraham Darby II embarked on an astounding project Ironbridge—commissioned by the House of Commons in The Act of 1775,  first proposed in 1773 by architect Thomas Farnolls Pritchard to build a bridge of cast iron. The site for the bridge on the River Severn was between Madely and Benthall and in 1777-78 the masonry abutments were build on both side of the span.

 

“The bridge is to a carpenters design typically used for wood structures, built from five, sectional, cast iron ribs that give a span of 100 feet 6 inches (30.63 m). Exactly 384 tons of iron was used in the construction of the bridge, and there are almost 1700 individual components, the heaviest weighing 5.6 tons. Each iron components was cast individually to fit with each other, rather than being of standard sizes, this adjusting for discrepancies of up to several centimeters between ‘identical’ components in different locations. 7

 

The construction of iron bridges, small gauge railroads, and structures were begun earlier8 than Ironbridge—but this served as a curiosity and was certainly a vision into the future. Within 100 years enormous iron bridges would span rivers, form railroad trestles, and cast iron features adorned some modern buildings.

 

 

GAS LINES, IRON PAVEMENT & IRON BEDS

 

Uses for iron branched into many directions in the 1800s—and the locations of various end use commodities branched into local region specialties. For examples: Shropeshire became famous for small cast irons such as cooking pots, domestic grates, utensils; the Midlands for hollowware9, wrought iron for nails, locks, chains, edge tools, and horseshoes; tubes and axels at Wednesbury; nuts and bolts at Darleston; heavy chain and cable making at Dudley and Tipton; Birmingham10 for heavy wrought iron, tinplate, japanned ware, and wire11; and Carron12 Works of Scotland for large cast foundries where giant armaments such as the Carronnade naval guns were made. London experimented with iron paving13; iron ship building began at Birkenhead in 1830; iron beams and columns were being used in architecture; railroads used iron for rails, spikes, and locomotive parts; cast iron pipes for water, gas, and sewage entered production; and a new sterile type 100% iron bedsteads with ribbed cross slats began in France in the late 18th century and were moving to the consumer markets in the United Kingdom.

 

 

Considering that England’s entire iron bar national output was only 20,000 tons of bar iron14, the production for all United Kingdom had grown to 68,300 tons in 1788, to 258,200 tons in 1806, to 452,000 tons in 1823, and continued to double every decade so by 1852 national output had grown to 2,701,000 tons.15

 

Great Iron and Steel Inventors and Industrialists
Great Iron and Steel Inventors and Industrialists

 

It is worth noting that Staffordshire Marked Bars were the hallmark of premium wrought iron. The reputation was so great, when in 1870 makers of Staffordshire Marked Bars were asked to submit to one simple test for a large order, they replied: “I don’t know about tests; if they want my brand they can have it; if they don’t they can go elsewhere.”

 

Although such vast use of iron began the century, the period between 1830-1850 began to see market complications, labor issues, and decline in new railroad tracks. But the 2nd Industrial Revolution was about to take place through another breakthrough in quality mass produced steel.

 

 

 

FURTHER READING

Connections Through Time – Part 1: Ancient Springs and Metalworks

Connections Through Time – Part 2: Sprung Forward

The Story of The Iron Bridge (video)

BBC – Why the Industrial Revolution Happened Here (video)

1853 Heal & Sons Catalogue, UK (pdf)

Baltic Iron and the British Iron Industry in the 18th Century (pdf)

 

 

FOOTNOTES

  1. Swedish steel was a favorite of the Sheffield and Staffordshire iron shops—of which Huntsman had worked with. But in the 1730s, Russian and American steel was flooding in, as well. One Swedish merchant alarmingly said, “The Russians ‘having fallen into the Making of Iron & Vending it so low it will be a means to keep Down the Sale of so much Sweeds’ and the monopoly party investigated the Russian threat and downplayed it. A big mistake.  Economic History Review LV 4, 2002, p-642-665. (It seems that international steel and iron trade was as fierce three hundred years ago as it is today!)
  2. History of the British Steel Industry, J.C. Carr and W. Taplin, Harvard University Press, 1962
  3. Coke is a fuel with few impurities and a high  carbon content, usually made from coal. It is the solid carbonaceous material derived from destructive distillation of low-ash, low-sulphur bituminous coal. Cokes made from coal are grey, hard, and porous. –Wikipedia
  4. Merthyr Tydfil had rich mineral deposits used for iron railroad rails and armaments. My great grandparent Ephraim and Ann Thomas lived in Tredegar, Wales having twelve children where all six sons worked in the mines of Merthyr Tydfil—so it’s a personal interest to me.
  5. Dowlais Works founded in 1823 and by 1846 was the largest iron works in the world—having 18 blast furnaces employing 7000 people. By 1847, Wales was supplying 39% of total UK pig iron production.
  6. Blast furnaces were typically 42’-45’ high with 4’6” hearths. A French process was invented an enclosed top hearth named the “reverbatory process” where exhaust gasses were recycled— increasing the heat. This was adopted across the UK and by 1856 a typical furnace was 60’ tall and produced 220 tons of pig iron per week compared to 100-120 tons before this process.
  7. Excerpts from Wikipedia. The town of Ironbridge was subsequently founded due to the change in towpaths along the river and the road changes. The bridge was damaged in a flood in 1795 and replaced with medieval bridge Buildwas that survived until 1906.
  8. An ornamental iron footbridge having a 73’ span was constructed in Yorkshire, England. An iron bridge construction project was begun in Lyons, France in 1755 but was abandoned.
  9. Pots, skillets, kettles and various cookwares.
  10. The “Black Country” stretching from Birmingham to Wolverhampton and Stourbridge had coal seams ten yards thick and ironstone with metallic content of 30% or more.
  11. In The London Furniture Makers: From The Restoration To The Victorian Era 1660-1840, Sir Ambrose Heal, 1953—of a total of 2,500 cabinet-makers, upholsterers, carvers, and gilders there was not a single mention of wire springs nor a chamber-horse although Thorn’s in Oxford offered “rocking horses” in 1765.
  12. James Watt came to live nearby and designed giant pumps for the blast furnace.
  13. European Magazine, July 1817 “Iron Pavement—this experiment seems to have been tried in more than one part of London. Iron pavement was laid down in Leadenhall Street in the ‘1860s’ to remedy the slipperiness of the wood pavement. It was not a success.
  14. Iron And Steel In The Industrial Revolution, p.13
  15. Op Sit,  History of the British Steel Industry, p. 6.