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article number 321
article date 03-04-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
We the Colonists Take Iron Processing into Our Own Hands
by Roger Burlingame

From the 1942 book, March of the Iron Men, A Social History of Union through Invention.

§ 1

MODERN Americans can scarcely imagine mechanical inventions without iron. Without steel, it is hard to think of America at all. Our civilization seems to rest upon it. It is the physical basis of industry, the organization of society, prosperity. It forms the arteries of our transport whose failure would immediately starve us.

It is the material of the machines which feed us, water us, clothe us, warm us and light us. It is the bone of our cities; iron and steel form their heart, their veins, their nerves and their intestines. Steel saves our lives in the hospitals, attacks and defends us in war.

These metals are commonplaces to us, necessities taken for granted like blood and bread; there is no mystery about them. They were deeply mysterious to our ancestors.

Iron and steel were used before history was written. They were well known in Old Testament times. In the tenth generation after the scriptural Creation, Tubalcain was “an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron.” “He teacheth my hands to war,” sang David. “So that a bow of steel is broken by my arms” and Zophar the Naamathite told Job: “He shall flee from the iron weapon, and the bow of steel shall strike him through.”

Iron and steel were wrought into the tools, weapons and chariot wheels of Roman antiquity. The realist Romans took them calmly enough. In more northern legend, however, steel acquired a magical property: Excalibar, the sword of King Arthur, had miraculous powers and Nothung, the broken sword of Teutonic legend, could only be reforged by one who had no fear.

Through the Middle Ages the smith who worked with steel to make weapons and armor was looked upon as a magician.

Iron and steel held much of their mystery through the eighteenth century and it was not until modern chemistry was applied to them that the magic disappeared.

If we can draw a curtain over what we know of this chemistry we can feel the magic. When we understand that steel was produced in the first instance by accident and that for thousands of years steel workers practised their art by trying to guess at the reason for that accident, we shall see why the making of steel was regarded as a magic art.

We know that the smiths, working at their forges in secret, uttering incantations over the glowing metal, produced fine, hard resilient steel but we shall never know how many swords were thrown away for every one that went into battle.


Iron, wrought and cast, was easier. It was not put to so severe a test. Various ores were tried with varying results; not because the iron workers knew what the ores contained but because they knew, from long trial and error, what treatment would produce the greatest success with each.

They knew, for instance, that charcoal, lime, air blast had something to do with it.

Working with less of one, more of another, slag and iron flowed from the furnace or the bloom was brought to the anvil but it was not until the ores were broken down in the laboratory and the iron studied with the microscope—it was not, in fact, until all the preliminary processes came under the experimental method of science that iron and steel ceased to be a luxury and that their making moved out of the province of art.

§ 2

Throughout the colonial period in America and, indeed, well into our new national era, production of these metals remained in the trial and error stage. Iron was mined all over Europe and, as England moved from agriculture into industry, the demand for it there increased. That was why, as far back as the “starving time” in Virginia, as soon as the gold fever abated, the colonists were urged to turn their attention to the iron ores.

The Virginia Company invested some £5000—a colossal sum—in bloomeries and furnaces. When the Indians destroyed them and they were overgrown with the profitable tobacco, England turned her eyes to the north where bog ores were being drawn with oyster rakes out of the ponds of New England.

Here, through the seventeenth century, two processes were coincidentally in use and from them came wrought and cast iron. From wrought iron, steel was made in infinitesimal quantity.

To understand the processes it is easier to begin with the simplest aspect of iron chemistry—its carbon content. Wrought iron contains the least carbon, cast iron the most. Wrought iron is, therefore, soft and malleable; cast iron hard and brittle.

Wrought iron was made in two ways, directly from the ore and indirectly from the “pig.” Cast iron was made by melting the ore to liquid in charcoal.

Wrought iron was extracted from the ore in a “bloomery.” This was a kind of furnace in which ore, charcoal and flux (lime) were mixed. Long bars poked through the furnace door kept the mixture constantly stirred during the melting. Gradually, the ball or “loop” of iron was formed. The stirring helped to remove the carbon content.

When the loop was lifted from the bloomery, it contained a certain amount of “slag” which was a combination of lime and the impurities of the ore. The slag in the loop was removed by hammering.

The hammered loop was called the “bloom.” This was wrought into bars and then cut, forged and hammered into nails, horseshoes, tools, frying pans, chain links and other products of the smithy or rolling mill.


Cast iron was produced by melting the ore and lime or flux in charcoal without stirring. The lime induced the impurities in the ore to break away from the iron and form slag.

At the bottom of the blast furnace in which the melting took place the iron and slag formed in two layers—the slag, because it was lighter, floated on top of the iron like cream on milk.

A glance at the chemical equations will show the modern reader why the separation of the iron from the impurities takes place in the presence of lime.

But the artisans of that time had no equations to glance at. They only knew from long practice (which may have started from an accident) that lime was necessary. So they fell back on the old reliable oyster shells which had made the lime for their plaster and their mortar when they had begun to build houses.

Later they made the astonishing discovery that limestone also contained lime. This made it possible for the furnaces to withdraw further from the seacoast.

But to go back now to the carbon. Charcoal was the only fuel which, in combination with an air blast, could make a concentrated and intense heat hot enough to reduce iron ore and impurities to liquid. It could do this only when it was in contact with the ore and flux and confined in a furnace.

But iron, melting to a liquid in contact with charcoal, naturally absorbed much carbon. In the bloomery, a good deal of this was removed by the constant stirring. In the blast furnace it remained. So, though the blast furnace made the process easier by taking advantage of the fact that slag floats on iron and thus may be drawn off separately, it produced a different kind of iron.

This, being high in carbon content, was hard and brittle. It was called cast iron.

An American smelting furnace of 1828. From Butterworth’s ‘The Growth of Industrial Art.’

The furnace was a stack. Before American ingenuity had devised fire-resisting brick, the stack was a hole dug in the side of a hill. Later the stack was made of brick but it was still built against a hill or cliff. This was because, otherwise, there would be no way of getting the ore, charcoal and shells into the top of the stack.

These things were hauled up the hill by animal power and dumped all together into the stack until it was filled. The mass was then ignited and at the bottom of the stack a blast of air was applied by bellows connected with a water wheel.

From one vent at the bottom ran off the slag, from another, the molten iron.

The iron was cast in two ways. Either it was run directly into clay moulds from which it emerged in the form of cannon, pots, “hollow ware,” chimney backs, stove parts (when stoves came in), or it was run into sows and pigs In sand.

The molded sand looked from above like the bird’s-eye view of a sow suckling pigs: thus the curious name which will doubtless survive as long as “pigs” are cast. The name also suggests that iron casting came in while farming still dominated men’s minds.

The pigs were re-melted, stirred and hammered to refine (decarburize) them into wrought iron; in later days parts of them were re-melted, mixed with scrap iron and made into steel.


Steel, in its carbon content, stands between wrought and cast iron. It must have enough carbon to make it hard yet not enough to make it brittle. Steel must bend and spring back into place. In addition to its resiliency it must have tough resistance.

It was made in colonial days by heating iron bars in the presence of pulverized charcoal until they absorbed the right amount of carbon. This was determined by guesswork.

The whole performance is a little suggestive of a cook tasting as she stirs, to make sure there is enough seasoning or, perhaps, of a painter daubing at his canvas, standing back to look at it and then, with his thumb, removing some of the paint.

Knowing these processes, so difficult and so backhanded, it is easy to see why so little iron was used in the colonies. It was used only for real necessities: nails, horseshoes, pots and pans, guns, carpenters’ tools.

As we have seen, nails were used sparingly, the framework of houses being tied together with wooden pegs. Machines, flax-brakes, looms, spinning wheels were made almost entirely of wood. All wheels were made of wood and at first even axle-trees, mill spindles, cogs and pulleys were of white oak or walnut.

Farm implements were “shod” with iron. Even the machinery that mined the iron was largely of wood.

All this was done not only in the colonies but in England. The elaborate textile machinery of the industrial revolution had few metal parts: eighteenth-century coal mining machinery including the mine railway was of wood, the very boilers for the new steam engines were wooden except for the part immediately over the fire.

In the industrial revolution, however, the need of iron was keenly felt in England. Until coal was used for smelting, iron was more expensive there than in America because of the dwindling forests, and the reduction of ore had been prohibited for a time as far back as the reign of Elizabeth to save the wood.

On the other hand, once it had gone through the bloomery or the furnace, its manufacture was on a larger scale than in America. So, in the industrial revolution, what England needed most was raw iron. She turned her eyes, then again, to the colonies.

Running pig-iron from an early type of smelting furnace. From the old “Scribner’s Monthly.”

§ 3

Now the theory of a colony was, as we have seen, a commercial one. The colony supplied raw materials which the mother country paid for with manufactured goods. This, at least, was the English tradition.

In the matter of iron, therefore, she was disturbed to find that the American colonies were not only reducing their own ore but they were making things out of the iron after it was reduced. Rolling mills, slitting mills, foundries, forges, tool shops had grown up round the bloomeries and furnaces.

The supply of exported raw iron was cut down and Americans were buying their own nails and tools, thus keeping money out of the pockets of English industrialists and bread out of the mouths of English labor. As industries multiplied in England and new inventions demanded more iron, the situation appeared critical to English eyes.

So a lobby was formed among the iron men and by 1750 a law was passed forbidding the erection of slitting mills, rolling mills, tilt hammers and steel furnaces in the American colonies. The law came after a long series of similar laws which we shall discuss in a moment; its effect was not great except that it increased the discontent of Americans.

Yet, in a way, it plants a milestone in the history of invention. It shows that England’s industrial revolution was growing conscious of itself. It shows that America’s manufacture of iron had arrived at a point where it could arouse English jealousy. By that fact, in turn, must hang a tale. It is a story of invention in America.

If we look at the advertisements of two American iron works from 1765 to 1776, we shall see how far machinery had progressed from the all-wood days. These mentioned “mill spindles, wrines and iron axle trees, cast mill rounds and gudgeons, forge plates, forge hammers and anvils . . . sugar mill gudgeons, neatly rounded and polished at the ends, gristmill rounds, rag wheel irons for sawmills.”

Though there was no industrial revolution and no reorganization of society yet in America, the mills close to the soil had been equipped with great inventiveness. Sawmills, grist mills, fulling mills, flax mills were already technically ahead of England’s. A “plant” in New Jersey took in grain at one end and put out bread in barrels at the other.

In the mills, no longer was a separate water-wheel required for each machine. “The improvement,” Clark writes, “in power transmission and gearing that enabled several machines to be run from a single wheel-shaft was undoubtedly original in America, though possibly not first invented here; and minor labor-saving devices, such as log carriers in saw-mills and grain-elevators in flour mills, were of American origin.”

The adaptability of Americans to difficult and changing conditions was imposed upon them when deforestation gave way to agriculture. As the seasonal occupations absorbed them, the millers adjusted their mills so that they were seldom idle. Thus inventions were made to change a grist mill at a moment’s notice into a sawmill or flax brake or fulling mill.

When a mill was not grinding grain it ground rags for paper, plaster, malt, mustard or tobacco; presently it would be made, also, to grind gunpowder.


We saw the survival of this adaptability in the World War when many varieties of plants were turned overnight into munitions factories; and conversely when the American synthetic dye industry evolved from the making of poison gas.

By 1750, American ingenuity had been born. We shall bring it back to iron when we see how invention in weapons made our separate existence possible. Meanwhile, it was a cause of English jealousy and, working through this, a cause of American discontent.

What were the other causes? They were of gradual growth; they go back to the English colonial tradition; they multiplied as that tradition wore out. Through their increase, there developed another kind of American ingenuity; one not strictly related to mechanical invention but one so damaging to our modern social integrity that its origins should be explored.

§ 4

Kipling, in 1894, wrote of the American that he had a “cynic devil in his blood,
That bids him flout the Law he makes,
That bids him make the Law he flouts . . . ”

Ever since, Englishmen have looked with amazement at the genius of Americans for evading their laws. One might imagine that the English capacity for surprise on this subject had been exhausted during the dark era of American National Prohibition but this, evidently, is not the case.

Still, from time to time, astonishment bursts from the British press at American disregard of penal codes, of police restrictions, of traffic regulations and the consequent graft, crime, escape of criminals and motor accidents.

The history of our training in these matters is rarely examined. To trace it we must go back to the colonies.

The colonial tradition was, as we have seen, that a colony was established primarily as a commercial aid to the mother country. So when gold, iron, glass and silk failed in Virginia, England accepted tobacco as the staple of commerce.

Then, lest the even export of tobacco be interrupted she soon established a monopoly market for it, ruling that Virginia tobacco should be sold only in England. England would pay for it by manufactured goods, thus creating a balance of trade favorable to herself and unfavorable to Virginia. In time this came to apply also to the rice and indigo of the Carolinas and Georgia.

The result to the planters was a sharp decline in the price paid for their staples. As producing those staples took all their time they had none for manufacture and so they were forced to buy their manufactured goods from England at high prices. Hence they were constantly in debt to the mother country—a cause of discontent.


In the North, the situation was different. New Englanders and the middle colonists had no staple; their farming was subsistence farming. They ate or wore what they grew and where there were short seasons and stony ground there was no surplus for export.

On the other hand they had time for other things. They made lumber, pitch, tar and potash for export, they engaged in a winter fur trade, they made rope and tanned leather. As so many of them knew the sea, they built ships and fished.

But the profits from these things were not enough to pay for imported goods from England. England had her own fisheries, built her own ships, tanned her own leather. Except for lumber, forest byproducts and furs, there were few lucrative exports which England wanted and the fur trade was largely in French hands.

So the Northern settlers had either to pay for English manufactured goods in gold or make them themselves.

Where was the gold? As shipbuilding increased, New Englanders grew adventurous. There was gold in the French and Spanish West Indies; there was also sugar and a market for fish and lumber.

Presently the adventurers discovered that there were other countries besides England across the Atlantic where American rum and lumber could be sold and cheap manufactured goods bought.

For a time, England was too busy at home to give great attention to these activities. She had a Civil War, a Commonwealth, a Restoration and several difficult Stuart Kings on her hands. The colonies were large, forested and contained much savage wilderness.

The history of invention had not progressed far enough to provide the British Government with adequate means of keeping track of its wandering children. So, many things went unnoticed.

Parliament passed haphazard acts about the carrying trade, the tobacco monopoly, the “enumerated commodities” and its juggling of customs duties reflected England’s changing policies and political unrest.

But as things settled down, Englishmen observed that colonial affairs were not going quite according to plan and that America had better be watched. So the Parliament began a more systematic regulation.


In 1663 colonial trade with European countries was forbidden except via England. European goods had to be brought first to England, unloaded and reshipped to America after yielding a profit to the English middleman. Then export duties were applied to these goods, making their price prohibitive in America.

In 1672 duties were laid on goods carried from one colony to another. In 1696 a law forbade American colonists to export directly to Scotland and Ireland. In 1699, the English wool lobby induced Parliament to pass an act forbidding the export of wool, wool yarn or wool cloth from any colony “to any place whatsoever.”

These laws were nothing, however, to the restrictions of the eighteenth century when English manufacture, as we saw in the last chapter, began in earnest. The English by this time had become, as William Penn wrote from London, “very jealous here of encouraging manufacturers there.”

One of the most important manufactures was hats because of the abundance of beavers. They were good hats. The business had been established in Connecticut on excellent principles. This enraged the English hatters and laws were passed prohibiting the export of hats even from one colony to another.

The hat lobby tried to induce Parliament to prevent Americans from wearing American hats. Other provisions made the industry expensive by imposing the English rule of apprenticeship and forbidding Negro labor in hat-making.

Some tools and appliances used by hat-makers. From Chronicles of the Early American Industries Association.

In 1733 came the Sugar Act. Boston had grown too prosperous from its rum, and American shipping had prospered from the sale of sugar in Europe.

The Sugar Act dealt a double blow. It put a duty on molasses shipped from the West Indies to the colonies which was so heavy that, theoretically, the rum business should have to come to an end. Secondly, it forbade sugar to be carried to the continent of Europe in colonial ships.

By this time the net theoretical effect of all this legislation was as follows. The English monopoly market had forced the prices on tobacco, rice and indigo so low that the Southern colonies were no longer able to buy manufactured goods from England and being forbidden to buy them elsewhere had reached an impasse.

New England having too few exports was also unable to buy such goods. Inhibited in manufacturing, deprived of specie by the blows at the West Indies trade and foreign shipping, New England was also up a blind alley.

These were the theoretical effects. We have wisely underscored the word. We know that in practice matters stood quite otherwise. Why? The Americans had been forced by the mother country into an invention. That invention has since been called bootlegging.

Except in the South where the tobacco monopoly market did work a hardship, scarcely any attention was paid to any of these laws. Had they been obeyed, survival would have been impossible. Once the colonists realized this, “the tide of commerce,” as Weeden says “. . . ran eagerly through illicit channels.”

The evasion of the law, says Clark, “appears to have been so common in the northern and central colonies that contraband commerce was recognized as a conservative form of trade, and no moral obloquy and little financial risk attended the traffic.”

So, as James Truslow Adams remarks, “The colonists got in the habit of deciding for themselves as individuals which laws they would obey and which they would ignore or even forcibly resist.”

The English, to be sure, had few inventions for colonial law-enforcement. In the eighteenth century, New Englanders had already invented faster ships. In navigation at least, their invention had gone ahead of England’s.

Already they were shrewder, quicker at a bargain, adept in disguises, knew how to juggle their bookkeeping and dodge inquiring officials. If they were caught, escape was easy. British constabulary hardly penetrated the vast, dense foothills of the Appalachian range.

The important fact is that England forced this kind of invention upon her colonial subjects.

Making hats. From Butterworth’s ‘The Growth of Industrial Art.’

§ 5

As time went on, England fought the bootlegging more and more but with each effort to restore the colonial tradition, she made evasion more necessary. In the middle of the eighteenth century, her colonial laws were recognized as causes of discontent.

At this point Benjamin Franklin exposed the situation. He explained to England that Americans belonged to the British Empire not to England.

“Iron,” he wrote, “is to be found everywhere in America, and beaver furs are the natural produce of that country: hats and nails and steel are wanted there as well a here. It is of no importance to the common welfare of the empire, whether a subject of the King’s gets his living by making hats on this or that side of the water.

“Yet the Hatters of England have prevailed to obtain an Act in their own favour, restraining that manufacture in America, in order to oblige the Americans to send their beaver to England to be manufactured, and purchase back the hats, loaded with the charges of a double transportation.

“In the same manner have a few nail makers and . . . steel-makers . . . prevailed totally to forbid by an Act of Parliament the creation of slitting-mills or steel-furnaces in America; that the Americans may be obliged to take all the nails for their buildings, and steel for their tools, from these artificers under these disadvantages.”

But by this time England had acquired in George Hanover the Third, a monarch so stupid and so stubborn that the gentle reasoning of Franklin and the more impassioned arguments of Tom Paine could no more affect him than the parliamentary eloquence of Burke, Pitt and Fox. The progress from this point is too much the property of every American schoolchild to need repetition here.

Industry and commerce on which invention, rhythmic in England, still interrupted here, depended, were as much the cause of the American break as they are of all modern wars. We shall not go on to tell here of how, one day, as Carlyle says, Boston Harbor was “black with unexpected tea” or of the sacrifices to liberty at Lexington, Concord or Bunker Hill. They are part of our theme only as they were concerned with inventions of war.

It was the printing press, pouring out in hundreds of thousands of copies the grand diatribe and passionate urging of Tom Paine, that kept the Revolution alive.

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