Iron, Steel, the Steam Engine, Railroads, the Bessemer Process, Andrew Carnegie and the Lucy Furnace

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 21st, 2012

(Originally published December 14, 2011)

With the Steam Engine we could Build Factories Anywhere and Connect them by Railroads

Iron has been around for a long time.  The Romans used it.  And so did the British centuries later.  They kicked off the Industrial Revolution with iron.  And ended it with steel.  Which was nothing to sneeze at.  For the transition from iron to steel changed the world.  And the United States.  For it was steel that made the United States the dominant economy in the world.

The Romans mined coal in England and Wales.  Used it as a fuel for ovens to dry grain.  And for smelting iron ore.  After the Western Roman Empire collapsed, so did the need for coal.  But it came back.  And the demand was greater than ever.  Finding coal, though, required deeper holes.  Below the water table.  And holes below the water table tended to fill up with water.  To get to the coal, then, you had to pump out the water.  They tried different methods.  But the one that really did the trick was James Watt’s steam engine attached to a pump.

The steam engine was a game changer.  For the first time man could make energy anywhere he wanted.  He didn’t have to find running water to turn a waterwheel.  Depend on the winds.  Or animal power.  With the steam engine he could build a factory anywhere.  And connect these factories together with iron tracks.  On which a steam-powered locomotive could travel.  Ironically, the steam engine burned the very thing James Watt designed it to help mine.  Coal.

Andrew Carnegie made Steel so Inexpensive and Plentiful that he Built America

Iron was strong.  But steel was stronger.  And was the metal of choice.  Unfortunately it was more difficult to make.  So there wasn’t a lot of it around.  Making it expensive.  Unlike iron.  Which was easier to make.  You heated up (smelted) iron ore to burn off the stuff that wasn’t iron from the ore.  Giving you pig iron.  Named for the resulting shape at the end of the smelting process.  When the molten iron was poured into a mold.  There was a line down the center where the molten metal flowed.  And then branched off to fill up ingots.  When it cooled it looked like piglets suckling their mother.  Hence pig iron.

Pig iron had a high carbon content which made it brittle and unusable.  Further processing reduced the carbon content and produced wrought iron.  Which was usable.  And the dominate metal we used until steel.  But to get to steel we needed a better way of removing the residual carbon from the iron ore smelting process.  Something Henry Bessemer discovered.  Which we know as the Bessemer process.  Bessemer mass-produced steel in England by removing the impurities from pig iron by oxidizing them.  And he did this by blowing air through the molten iron.

Andrew Carnegie became a telegraph operator at Pennsylvania Railroad Company.  He excelled, moved up through the company and learned the railroad business.  He used his connections to invest in railroad related industries.  Iron.  Bridges.  And Rails.  He became rich.  He formed a bridge company.  And an ironworks.  Traveling in Europe he saw the Bessemer process.  Impressed, he took that technology and created the Lucy furnace.  Named after his wife.  And changed the world.  His passion to constantly reduce costs led him to vertical integration.  Owning and controlling the supply of raw materials that fed his industries.  He made steel so inexpensive and plentiful that he built America.  Railroads, bridges and skyscrapers exploded across America.  Cities and industries connected by steel tracks.  On which steam locomotives traveled.  Fueled by coal.  And transporting coal.  As well as other raw materials.  Including the finished goods they made.  Making America the new industrial and economic superpower in the world.

Knowing the Market Price of Steel Carnegie reduced his Costs of Production to sell his Steel below that Price

Andrew Carnegie became a rich man because of capitalism.  He lived during great times.  When entrepreneurs could create and produce with minimal government interference.  Which is why the United States became the dominant industrial and economic superpower.

The market set the price of steel.  Not a government bureaucrat.  This is key in capitalism.  Carnegie didn’t count labor inputs to determine the price of his steel.  No.  Instead, knowing the market price of steel he did everything in his powers to reduce his costs of production so he could sell his steel below that price.  Giving steel users less expensive steel.  Which was good for steel users.  As well as everyone else.  But he did this while still making great profits.  Everyone was a winner.  Except those who sold steel at higher prices who could no longer compete.

Carnegie spent part of his life accumulating great wealth.  And he spent the latter part of his life giving that wealth away.  He was one of the great philanthropists of all time.  Thanks to capitalism.  The entrepreneurial spirit.  And the American dream.  Which is individual liberty.  That freedom to create and produce.  Like Carnegie did.  Just as entrepreneurs everywhere have been during since we allowed them to profit from risk taking.


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