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Iron

( Originally Published 1918 )



Iron in antiquity. Iron ore is widely distributed throughout the world ; probably no other mineral except aluminum occurs in such abundance. No one knows when iron was first used by man, for iron rusts away easily and does not remain, like flint, or even copper, to bear evidence of the life of prehistoric ages. But it is probable that man learned to use the metal in extremely early times. In any case both Assyrians and Egyptians had it many centuries before Christ ; in a dry climate like that of Egypt iron rusts away slowly, and so a few ancient iron implements have been found. Also there are many savage tribes known whose members are on a plane of civilization much lower than that of our remote predecessors but who are able to smelt a very good variety of iron and to make all sorts of efficient tools and weapons from it. It is reasonable to argue that if such people had arrived at the iron stage, certainly ancient peoples much superior to them in culture must have done so. And the oldest literature of which we know mentions iron as an everyday familiar object.

Early stages .of the industry. However, it seems quite clear that the use of iron was not known in America previous to the Discovery. What metal implements the Indians possessed were of copper. The iron was here, but all the knowledge and skill needed to make it available had to await the coming of the white man. And the first form used was largely so-called bog iron."

For a long time the iron used in New England was not mined, but derived from the lakes and ponds that abound in that section.

Smelting. Genuine iron ore, in order to be available for man, has to be smelted ; thus the iron is obtained from the ore and freed of impurities. Of course the fuel used earliest was wood ; the savage African made an underground retort, with alternate layers of ore and fuel, and assisted the combustion by the use of a blowpipe, worked with rude hand bellows. Later in the development of the industry, and lasting down to modern times, came the use of charcoal. This was the colonial method. The ore was placed in a bed of ignited charcoal, whose heat readily reduced it to a lump of metallic iron, one end of which could be hammered and drawn out into a bar. The product was " wrought," or " malleable " iron, or " bloom." Out of this still rude process was gradually developed the blast furnace, whose product was obtained in fluid condition and run into sand molds, forming " pigs." Other specially constructed molds were needed to form castings of various shapes. But the metal thus obtained was hard and brittle ; it was " cast," as distinguished from malleable iron. However, owing to the fact that the blast furnace speedily became the regular agency for getting the metal from the ore, its typical product, the pig, has become the rough standard for measuring iron production. Out of this raw form comes practically all the finished iron and steel.

The colonial iron industry. Having indicated the general lines of development in the process of ore treatment, we now return to the colonial iron industry. Aside from the collection of bog iron, there was some little mining and smelting in Virginia by the early colonists, but it did not last. The Salisbury iron beds in Connecticut were among the first to be worked steadily ; they were famous in their day, and for a hundred and fifty years were the source of an important industry. Anchors and cannon were made there at the time of the Revolution and in large numbers for that age, likewise many flintlock muskets. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Maryland also were mining iron ore twenty or thirty years prior to the Revolution. In New York, however, the opening of mines in the northern part of the state occurred only after 1800.

The day of small things. We might say that at the time of the Revolution iron was being used, on a small scale of course, in every colony-in fact, that it was being manufactured in more places in the country than it is now. It was the day of small things and of poor conditions of transportation. The iron that was . needed had to be produced locally, and the fact that the ore was so widely distributed made such local manufacture a possibility. It must be recalled that the British government discouraged the manufacture of iron, not wishing the English industry to be interfered with by competition or limitation of its market. This forced the production into out-of-the-way localities, since the regions most remote from the seaboard were less likely to be inspected and repressed. There was plenty of wood at hand, and so wherever there was any knowledge of smelting, the process started up ; and the product was a strong and excellent quality of charcoal iron. It was rudely formed into such articles — bars, nails, etc. — as were locally in demand.

Westward movement. During the half-century or more following the Revolution very little progress was made in iron-making; charcoal was still used, though it had been practically abandoned in England by 1800, for in England the coal and iron were in close proximity, and the wood was coming to be more and more scarce in some of the smelting districts. There was also, among us,. little change in the general character of the industry ; it was still local, although it had spread practically all over the country. There were fewer plants in the South, but the industry had crossed the mountains and was growing in Ohio as early as 1805. By 1840 furnaces and forges were numerous throughout the Central West. The industry was kept in its primitive condition chiefly because of the vast extent of the country, coupled with inadequate transportation facilities.

Conditions prior to 1860. Down to the year 185o lead and iron were the only metals worth mentioning that were produced commercially in the United States. The output of iron fell off in the decade 1810 to 182o from 54,000 to 20,000 tons; in 183o it was 165,000, and double that figure in 1840. There were some ups and downs in the next years, but it touched 800,000 tons on more than one occasion. In 1860 it ran over a million tons.

The use of hard coal for smelting. During this half-century Pennsylvania was preeminent in iron production ; in 1840 she produced more than three times as much as New York, the nearest rival ; in 1860 over half of the iron produced in the country came from Pennsylvania. This state was much advantaged by the changes in type of fuel. Between 1840 and 1850 many experiments were being made with coal, both bituminous and anthracite, but it was 1849 before the anthracite iron became important enough to set the standard in iron quotations, so that the standard became the ton of anthracite iron instead of charcoal iron. In the year 1854 the two fuels had produced almost the same amount, but in 1855 anthracite was 40,000 tons ahead.

The use of soft coal. This success was quickly neutralized by the entrance of bituminous fuel. This fuel was in common use in England long before we adopted it ; it was about the middle of the eighteenth century that the English iron-makers took up the use of coke made from bituminous coal, but it was not until after the Civil War that the process got its momentum here. Anthracite was enabled to hold out because it was easy to get, cheap, and showed some advantages when it came to transportation ; it was also near the iron region (Lehigh) where the start was made. But as soon as the center of the great coke industry—western Pennsylvania—became connected with the East by railroads, the geographical advantage of the anthracite area was at an end. In 1875 the bituminous fuel overtook the anthracite and the center of iron production shifted just across the Appalachian Mountains to the basin of the Ohio River.

Location of the mining regions. The iron mines upon which the industry now chiefly depends are those farther to the west ; of the available iron ore about 75 per cent is in the Lake Superior region. It may be stated here that of the available iron ores at least half are owned by the United States Steel Corporation. This Lake Superior region (Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin) con-tributes four fifths, and the Southern District (Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, the Virginias, Maryland, Kentucky, Arkansas, Missouri, Texas) about one seventh, of the total annual output of ore for the country. The old Northern District (western New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa) contributes a little less than 4 per cent.

The demand for iron. The output of the mines since 187o has increased at an unparalleled rate. This is the great iron age : iron is used for railroads, structural purposes, ships, munitions, and a thousand other important purposes. We are so used to this fact that we fail to realize the amount of metal needed ; but let one stand by a railroad track and realize that the steel strip on which he places his foot reaches to San Francisco without a break — and not one strip alone, either, and not to San Francisco alone—and that all this metal has had to be mined and worked over by the hand of man, and the iron industry in this country begins to take on more massive and imposing outlines.

Advances in production. Huge quantities of the metal have been demanded for huge undertakings. The figures for per capita consumption show, as is natural, an immense rise. The present production of pig iron in the United States is about 39,000,000 long tons, worth over $1,000,000,000. This is less than the value of our wheat crop, but among minerals it is exceeded only by coal. The world's annual production of pig iron is about 69,000,000 tons, so the share of our country in iron production is a large one.

Factors favorable to the industry. Less than fifty years ago the United Kingdom was preeminent in iron and steel production, the United States holding second place but far behind the leader. It was the development of the Lake iron region and the application of the Bessemer process during the eighties which really established the American steel industry, so that by 1890 the United States surpassed all rivals. And there were other factors which helped considerably : an abundant supply of cheap coke and limestone ; machine methods of all sorts ; plants of large capacity under a highly economic system ; and an adequate home market entirely controlled by home manufacturers. There is no manner of doubt that the above factors have strongly contributed to the increase of the industry, however much one may be inclined to disapprove the presence of certain of them.

The war demand for iron. Here we have infringed somewhat upon the subject of manufacture — for steel, at any rate, belongs to that topic rather than to the present one — and thus have anticipated slightly what is to be said later on. It remains to be noted that the importance of iron deposits came out strikingly in the Great War ; the control of such deposits was a bone of bitter contention throughout the struggle. Germany early seized the iron regions of northern France, and it has been stated by a high French official that the enemy, from the very outset, sought to maintain possession of the French deposits, and that the attack on Verdun was for the purpose of confirming and perpetuating this possession. It is estimated that into every acre in the vicinity of Verdun an average of fifty tons of metal — chiefly iron and steel — have been shot, the whole amount being 1,350,000 tons ; it has even been proposed to mine it out again. And Verdun is not the only region that is full of metal from projectiles. But all this iron and steel had to be mined somewhere and worked up into proper form. When an idea is gained of the rain of shell on the battle fronts, some conception of the demand upon the iron deposits can be attained. All this looks like gigantic and insane waste, but it is worth the price if benefits that are not material are purchased by losses that are material.

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