To what extent was the iron industry ‘transformed’ between 1750-1830?
Though the iron industry undoubtedly experienced a notable transformation between the years 1750-1830, the extent to which it was transformed, in R. Brown’s opinion, was not of the same immense scale of that of the cotton industry. He claims that ‘no other industry underwent the explosive development that the cotton industry experienced during the ‘industrial revolution’. ‘ This is true in some respects, but evidence indicates that though the iron transformation may have been less ‘explosive’, it was still a highly significant revolution, which occurred at a more gradual, yet accelerating pace.
The change in the iron industry was caused by a number of factors. Firstly, Abraham Derby’s substitution of coke for charcoal, which was said by J. R Harris to be “One of the greatest advances in the history of technology. ” This was followed by the development of the steam engine by Boulton and Watt in 1774, and finally Henry Cort’s noteworthy ‘puddling and rolling’ technique in the 1780s, which was said to bring rationalisation to the iron industry.
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It is these innovations that assisted the iron industry in changing from “small, scattered and stagnant” (M. Falkus) to being widespread, “large scale” and “integrated” (J. R Harris), and ultimately leading to a dominant British iron industry by the beginning of the 19th century. Chronologically, the first significant innovation which was to transform the iron industry was that of the substitution of charcoal for coke by Abraham Derby in 1709. Before 1750, the British iron industry was described to be “scattered, migratory and tightly constrained by its resource limitations. ” (P. Deane).
Sites were usually confined to areas which had both water and woodland nearby, such as the Sussex Weald, the Scottish Highlands and Shropshire. There was also said to have been a massive decline in pig iron production from 26,000 tonnes per annum in 1625-1635 down to approximately 23,000 tonnes in 1720, and therefore most wrought iron had to be imported from Sweden, a country rich in resources. However, Derby’s innovation did eventually provide a vital discontinuity which enabled Britain to break free from the constraints of wood.
A wider range of household utensils could be produced, which were affordable to a poorer stratum. Moreover, though the industry still remained scattered, as sites had to be located near water, the geographical restrictions of ironmongers were much reduced, as they no longer were confined to sites near woodland. However, despite undoubtedly being a formidable breakthrough, Derby’s invention was not widely diffused until the 1760s, a “very significant time lag” in P. Mathias’ opinion. This “time lag” could be attributable to a number of reasons; the main one probably being that of the sheer cost of the coke technology.
It was not until the 1750s that the prices of the equipment dropped enough to enable iron masters to save between i??1. 50 and i??2. 00 a tonne (C. K Hyde), and therefore the innovation was slow to be adopted until this time. As late as the turn of the century, Britain was still importing a massive 53,000 tonnes of iron from Sweden (Mitchell and Deane), and imported materials still remained of a much higher quality, indicating to some extent that Britain had not yet transformed its iron industry enough to be wholly independent.
Finally, the geographical constraints of the industry were still heavily evident, as there had not yet been an alternative method to water power suggested. Nevertheless, a transformation was evident, and the ultimate transfer to the use of coke could definitely be seen as the driving force which caused the initial transformation of the iron industry. By 1806, there were 221 coke producers in comparison to only 11 of charcoal. Furthermore, between 1788 and 1810, coke furnaces had almost trebled and the Black Country had increased its output from 26% to 67%, a noteworthy increase in such a short period of time.
Arguably, the real ‘revolution’ in the iron industry came only after the development of the steam engine by Boulton and Watt in 1774. It provided the power for blowing the blast furnaces, the mechanical power for forging and was applied in the production of both cast and wrought iron. Unlike Derby’s innovation, the steam engine had “an immense and immediate” impact on the iron industry. (P. Deane). The main advantage of this innovation was indisputably the fact that the ironmaster could now place his ironworks where he could “best take advantage of his raw materials. (C. K Hyde).
This enabled the development of “large scale integrated ironworks” (J. R Harris), thus sparking the move away from sites close to water and closer to coalfields, eliminating the geographical constraints related with the use of water power, and finally overcoming the “tyranny of wood and water” (T. S. Ashton). Areas which had abundant coal resources were finally able to benefit;
a chief example of this being the Black Country, which was indeed transformed from contributing only 10% of pig iron output in 1788 to a position of dominance 30 years later. C. K Hyde). Multi-furnace sites grew after the introduction of steam power, with 22 such sites existent in Britain in 1790. Also, blast furnaces became more productive, with estimates from M. Falkus stating that the annual production of a blast furnace in 1788 was 750 tonnes, compared to an almost doubled amount of 1491 tonnes by 1805. This clearly contributes to the argument of great transformation of the iron industry significantly, as the efficiency and dispersal of the sector was improving rapidly.
Furthermore, the introduction of steam power eradicated the long shut downs associated with water power, which disrupted the industry significantly. An example of this is Stavely ironworks in Derbyshire, which had to shut down for five and a half months a year, due to the inefficiency of water power. With the introduction of steam power however, yearly shut downs were reduced to only one month a year and output almost doubled to 776 tonnes a month. (C. K Hyde). Conversely, steam power did have some weaknesses.
Though unarguably providing a massive turning point in the development of the iron industry, in some areas there is little evidence of progress. The quality of British iron still remained of a very poor standard compared to that of her competitors, particularly Sweden, as impurities were still present in the ore. Therefore, it is fair to comment that in some ways, even despite great transformations initiated by the efficiency and popularity of steam, progress was still incomplete. It was the innovation of Henry Cort in the 1780s which was said to finally rationalise the iron industry, and was claimed by J. R. Harris to have been “the second classic ironmaking method of the 19th century”, after Derby’s innovation.
Cort’s method of ‘puddling and rolling’, and the substitution of coke for coal played a pivotal role in the development of the iron industry. It was only after the introduction of Cort’s ‘puddling and rolling’ method, that the problem of impurities in coal was reduced, and a quality of iron equal to Sweden’s could be produced. Between 1783 and 1805 the British pig iron output almost quadrupled, and by 1812 Britain exported more iron than she imported. (P. Mathias. Furthermore, in initiating the use of coal, Cort finally ended all dependence on wooded areas, and thus also the “tyranny” of wood and water.
Iron finally lost its ‘nomadic’ character and was able to migrate to areas where there was an abundance of coal, such as the Black Country, South Wales, Clydeside and South Wales. This, in turn, enabled all operations to take place on the same site – a noteworthy advance. Such ‘integrated concerns’ (P. Mathias) required a high capital investment. A perfect example of this is the Walkers of Rotherham, who had a capital of a massive i??299,000 by 1812.
Seemingly, the iron industry had overcome all previous constraints, and therefore had undertaken a significant transformation. Productivity increased appreciably, on source (the background booklet) stating that Cort’s method could process 15 tonnes of iron in the time formerly needed to produce one tonne of bar iron. The Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) also proved a catalyst for the iron industry, with a demand in order to produce weapons and other war-related goods. By 1801-1811 iron had reached a peak growth of 7. 45% per annum (P. Riden). With the introduction of these new innovations, iron developed considerably. This can be evident when considering that Swedish imports in 1800 were 50,000 tonnes, compared to only 10,000 in 1820. (A. E Musson).
Moreover, Iron’s share of national income rose from about 1-2% in the 1760s to approximately 6% in 1810 (P. Deane). Clearly, the transformations of the iron industry were highly significant. However, debatably, it was only after the 1830s that iron experienced a complete transformation. It is apparent from R. Brown’s quote that though the “tyranny of wood and water” had been eliminated, scattered locations still remained. He opines that “As the traditional forms of power were slow to decline, steam was slow to grow. ” This would seem to indicate that geographical limitations were still evident prior to 1830, which would only be overcome after the true dispersal of the methods – after 1830, and beyond the scope of this essay. Furthermore, it was only by the 1830s that exports which were to have an influential effect of railway development abroad occurred.
From the 1830s, exports were sent to Germany, France, the U. S. A, India and Australia, which helped to boost the British economy and to continue the ‘railway revolution’ that occurred post 1830. Essentially, there is evidence of significant transformations in the Iron industry prior to 1830, in the form of Abraham Derby’s substitution of charcoal for coke (1760s), Boulton and Watt’s steam engine (1774) and Henry Cort’s techniques of ‘puddling’ and ‘rolling’, and the substitution of coke for coal in the 1780s.
Conversely, though they did succeed in eliminating restrictions brought about by the prolonged use of water and wood (for charcoal), the true actualisation of the iron industry could be said to have only occurred post 1830, as before this date sites still remained “scattered” and development was piecemeal. However, the iron industry did undoubtedly experience measurable transformations during the period 1750-1830. Though the industry may not have shown signs of the ‘explosive’ development of the cotton industry, P. Deane argues that iron played “a more powerful and pervasive role in the process of British industrialisation than did cotton.
This seems to indicate that though iron’s progress was slow at first, the industry’s growth eventually took precedence over cotton, and after 1830 (beyond the scope of this essay) the iron industry emerged as a prominent sector in British economy. Therefore, it is fair to conclude that the transformations of the iron industry during the period 1750-1830 provided a platform upon which the industry could grow, which enabled the full ‘transformation’ of the industry post 1830, and beyond the requirements of this essay title.