Early Story of the U. S. Steel Industry
BY HERBERT N. CASSON IN MUNSEY’S MAGAZINE.
Like the beginnings of all great industries, that of the steel industry in America was very humble. It is the same old story. There was the persevering inventor working amid almost superhuman difficulties, and there was the usual circle of sceptics and scoffers. Also there was the final triumph which has meant so much to the prosperity of the United States.
THERE is not a chapter of ancient history in the story of steel. Any one who visits the little Pennsylvania town of Bethlehem may still see John Fritz, who might almost be called the father of the steel mill. In Louisville still lives a whitehaired old lady, wife of William Kelly, the original inventor of what is called Bessemer steel. In Chicago any visitor may see Bob Hunt, whose personal reminiscences reach back to the earliest dawn of the steel era. And the masterful Scot who rescued our sfeel business from periodic bankruptcy, and won for it the commercial supremacy of the world, is still flitting between New York and Skibo and thinking more of the future than of the past.
Even our younger steel kings— Frick, Schwab, Corey, Morrison, Dinkey, Jones, and the rest —can remember the early period of small sales and: petty economies,. Hundreds of men who helped to rock the steel giant in his cradle are still to be found in the mills and offices of Pittsburgh. In Johnstown may be seen the first tilting converter that Kelly used in making Bessemer steel; and the boy who helped the inventor with his experiments is still employed in the Cambria mills. In fact, the whole steel industry is so young that ninetenths of the information in this series of articles was obtained, not from libraries, but from the men and women who have seen it grow out of feeble infancy into its golden age.
On that bleak November day when Andrew Carnegie was born in a Scottish cottage, the iron and steel makers of America had no more thought of millions than of castles in Spain. Steel sold for twenty-five cents a pound. The ironmasters mined little coal and baked no coke. Not an ounce of iron had been made in Wheeling, Youngstown, Cleveland, or Chicago— the latter being a fur-trading village, without harbor or railroad. Birmingham, Alabama, was not on the map until two-score years later. There was not a foot of railroad; near Pittsburgh, and not one rail, either of iron or steel, had been produced in any part of the country. And the total American output of iron in that year was less than we make nove in four days.
As late as the beginning of the Civil War, what was called a firstclass furnace would cost about fifty thousand dollars, employ seventy men, and produce a thousand tons of iron a year. The business was conducted, not by corporations, but by individual ironmasters, who ruled in a truly feudal way over their small communities. There were no millionaires, and what little money an ironmaker had was liable to become waste paper at any moment by the collapse of a rickety bank. Four furnaces out of five were haunted by the specter of debt; and in a bad year, like 1837 or 1857, scores of furnaces were blown out. The tariff, too, was even more variable than the currency. It Avas raised and lowered by the fitful gusts of politics until 1861, when the Morrill tariff first gave some chance of stability to the unfortunate industry.
With the Civil War came the first large orders and continuous business. Every plant Avas run night and day.
The output of iron nearly doubled, and the price jumped from $18.60 to as high as $73.60 per ton. Of the three billion dollars that the war cost the Federal Government, a goodly share went to the iron-men. Uncle Sam, Avas the best customer they had ever known. They had a surplus in the bank, at last—a store of capital Avhich enabled them to do business on a larger scale. When the smoke of battle had cleared away, Captain Eber B. Ward, of Detroit, loomed up as the first of the iron kings, with several millions to his credit and three flourishing plants, in Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee.
The marvelous modern expansion of the iron and steel industry Avas now about to begin. The germ of its stupendous growth lay in the invention of the Bessemer process,. It is necessary, therefore, that this article should describe that wonderful discovery— Avhat it is, and how and when and by Avhom it was invented.
When there arises a demand for something that shall play a vital part in our national and social development—a demand which is earnest and universal—science is pretty sure to meet it. Even nature must yield when the human race centers its brain-force, with white-hot energy, upon a certain point of attack. It was so in the cases of electricity, railroads, cables, the telegraph, and the telephone; and fifty years ago the most pressing need of the civilized world was a new metal—one that would be as strong as steel and as cheap as iron. This was more than a trade problem. The railroads were using iron rails, which wore out in less than two years. The largest locomotive of that time Avould to-day be considered little more than a toy. There were no skyscrapers and no
subways, and stages were practically the only street cars. Neither wood nor iron was fit for the new uses of the growing republic; and the high cost of steel made it almost as much out of the question as silver. The greatest need of the world was cheap steel.
At this juncture an answer to the universal demand was voiced by the inventive genius of two men—William Kelly, a Pittsburgh Irish-American, and Sir Henry Bessemer, an Englishman of French descent. They devised a new way to refine iron, which has since been known as the Bessemer process. Their discovery was an entirely new idea, and one which at first seemed absurd to every other steel-maker; but within a few years it wTas universally adopted, revolutionizing the iron and steel trade, and providing the world with a cheap and abundant supply of its most useful metal. It expanded the industry with almost the suddenness of an explosion, and for the first time in the long history of steel-making the steelsmiths were fairly swept off their feet by a flood of riches. Hundreds of individuals were picked up—by merit, by luck, or by chance—and flung upon the golden thrones of an international empire of steel.
In 1846 William Kelly and his brother bought the Suwanee Iron Works, near Eddy ville, Kentucky. Kelly’s father was a well-to-do landowner in Pittsburgh, where it is said that he erected the first two brick houses in the city. At the time when William Kelly began to make iron, he was thirty-six years old—a tall, well-set-up, muscular, energetic man, with blue eyes and close-cropped beard. In inventiveness his brain ranked high; in business ability, low. He had leit a commission business
and become an iron-maker mainly to carry out a process which he had invented, by which larger sugar-kettles were to be made. The “Kelly kettles” became well known among the southern farmers.
He had married Miss Mildred A. Gracy, of Eddyville, and secured the financial backing of his wealthy father-in-law. His iron plant was a fairly good one, close to high-grade ore, and needing the work of about three hundred negro slaves. Mr. Kelly was strongly opposed to slavery, and tried to escape being a slave-holder by importing «Chinese. He was the first employer in this country to make this experiment, and found it successful; but international complications prevented him from putting it into practice on a larger scale.
Kelly’s first aim was to make good wrought iron for his kettles and for customers in Cincinnati. His iron was refined in what was called a “finery fire”—a small furnace in wThich about fifteen hundred pounds of pig iron was placed between two layers of charcoal. The charcoal was set on fire, the blast was turned on, and more charcoal was added until the iron was thoroughly refined—a slow, old-fashioned process which used up quantities of charcoal.
In a year all the wTood near the furnace had been burned, and the nearest available source, of supply was seven miles distant—a fact with which the unbusinesslike Kelly had not reckoned. To cart his charcoal seven miles meant bankruptcy, unless —he could invent a way to save fuel.
One day he was sitting in front of the “finery fire” when he suddenly sprang to his feet with a shout, and rushed to the furnace. At one edge he saw a white-hot spot in the yellow
mass of molten metal. 'The iron at this spot was incandescent. It was almost gaseous. Yet there was no charcoal—nothing but the steady blast of air. Why didn’t the air chill the metal? Every iron-maker since Tubal Cain ha,d believed that cold air would chill hot iron. But Kelly was more than an iron-maker. He was a student of metallurgy, and he knew that carbon and oxygen had an affinity for each other. He knew what air was'and what iron was,, and like a flash the idea leaped into his excited brain—there is no need of charcoal. Air alone is fuel.
It was as simple as breathing and very similar, but no human mind had thought of it before. When the air is blown into the molten metal, the oxygen unites with the impurities of the iron and leaves the pure iron behind. Oxygen—that mysterious element which gives life to all creatures, yet which burns up and destroys all things; oxygen, which may be had without money in infinite quantities —was now to become the creator of cheap steel.
Kelly was carried away by the magnitude of his idea. His unrestrained delight, after months of depression, amazed every one in the little hamlet. Most of his neighbors thought him crazy. Only three listened with interest and sympathy—two English iron-workers and the village idoctor.
At first Kelly snapped his fingers at opposition. “I’ll prove it publicly.” he said. At his invitation a number of jesting iron-makers from western Kentucky gathered around his furnace the following week, and Kelly, caring nothing for patents, explained his idea and gave a demonstration of it. Air was blown through some melted pig iron, agitating it into a white heat, to the amazement of the
brawny onlookers. A blacksmith seized a piece of the refined iron, cooled it, and with his hammer produced in twenty minutes a perfect horseshoe. He flung it at the feet of the iron men, who could not believe their eyesight, and, seizing a second scrap of iron, made nails and fastened the shoe to the foot of a nearby horse. Pig iron, which cannot be hammered into anything, had been changed into malleable iron, or something very much like it, without the use of an ounce of fuel.
Surely the thing was too absurd. Seeing was not believing. “Some crank’ll be burnin’ ice next,” said one. The iron-men shook their heads and went home tot boast in after years that they had seen the first public production of “Bessemer” steel in the world.
Kelly called his invention the “pneumatic process,” but it became locally known as “Kelly’s air-boiling process.” Pie proceeded at once to refine his iron by this method. He sent his steel,; or refined iron, or whatever it was, to Cincinnati, and no flaws were found in it. Years before Mr. Bessemer had made any experiments with iron, there were steamboats on the Ohio River with boilers made of iron that had been refined by Kelly’s process.
But now came a form of opposition that Kelly could not defy. His. fatherin-law said: “Quit this foolishness or repay the capital I have advanced.” Plis Cincinnati customers wrote : “We understand that you have adopted a new-fangled way of refining your iron, fis this so? We want our iron made in the regular way or not at all.”
About the same time, Kelly’s ore gave out. New mines had to be dug.
Instead of making ten tons a day, he made two.
He surrendered. He became outwardly a level-headed, practical, conservative iron-maker, and won back the confidence of his partners and customers. Then one night he took his “pneumatic process” machinery three miles back into a secluded part of the forest and set it up. Like Galileo, he said: “Nevertheless, air is fuel!” No one knew of this, secret spot except the two English ironworkers whom he brought out frequently to help him.
Under such conditions progress was slow. By 1851 his first converter was built—a square, brick structure, four feet high, with a cylindrical chamber. The botto mwas perforated for the blast. Lie would first turn on the blast, and then put in melted pig iron with a ladle. About three times out of five he succeeded. The greatest difficulty was to have the blast strong enough; otherwise the iron flowed through the air-holes and clogged them up.
His second converter was made with holes in the side, and worked better. He discovered that he could do ninety minutes’ work in ten, and save further expense in fuel. One improvement followed another. In; all, he built seven converters in his backwoods hiding place.
In 1856 Kelly was told that Henry Bessemer, an Englishman, had taken out a United States patent for the 1 i pneumatic process. ’ ’ This aroused Kelly’s national pride more than hid desire for a monopoly, and he at once filed in the patent office his claims to priority of invention. The patent office was convinced and granted him United States Patent No. 17,628, declaring him to have been the original inventor.
Then came the panic of 1857, and Kelly was one of the thousands who toppled over into bankruptcy. To get some ready money, he ¡sold his patent to his father for a thousand dollars. Not long afterwards the elder Kelly died, and willed} his right to his daughters, who were shrewd, businesslike women. They regarded their brother William as, a child in financial matters, and refused to give him his patent. After several years of unjustifiable delay, they transferred it to Kelly’s children. And so, between his relations and his creditors, Kelly was brought to a standstill.
But even at the lowest point of defeat and poverty, he persevered. Without wasting a day in self-pity, he went at once to the Cambria Iron Works, at Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and secured permission from Daniel J. Morrell, the general superintendent, to make experiments there.
“I’ll give you that corner of the yard and young Geer to help you,” said Morrell.
In a short time Kelly had built his eighth converter—the first that really deserved the name—and was ready to make a public demonstration. About two hundred shopmen gathered around his queer looking apparatus. Many of them were puddlers, whose occupation would be gone if Kelly succeeded. It is often fear that makes men scoff, and the 'puddlers were invariably the loudest in ridiculing the “Irish crank.”
“I want the strongest blast you can blow,” said Kelly to Lefbfreit, the old German engineer.
“All right,” answered Leibfreit. “I gif you blenty.”
Partly to oblige and partly for a joke, Leibfreit goaded his blowing engine to do its best, hung a weight
on the safety-valve, and blew such a blast that the whole contents of the converter went Hying’ out in a tornado of sparks. The air, it must be remembered, will take away, first, the impurities in the iron, and, second, the iron itself, if it is too strong or too long continued. This, spectacular failure filled the two hundred shopmen with delight. For days you could hear in all parts of the works roars of laughter at “Kelly’s fireworks.” In fact, it was a ten years’ joke in the iron trade.
In a few days Kelly was ready for a second trial, this time with less blast. The process lasted more than half an hour, and was thoroughly unique. To every practical iron-maker it was the height of absurdity. Kelly stood coatless and absorbed beside his converter, an anvil by his side and a small hammer in his hand. When the sparks began to fly, he ran here and there, picking them up and hammering them upon his anvil. For half an hour every spark crumbled under the blow. Then came one that flattened out, like dough—proving that the impurities had blown out. Immediately he tilted the converter and poured out the contents. Taking a small piece, he cooled it and hammered it into a thin plate on his anvil, proving that it was not cast iron.
He had once more shown that cold air does not chill molten iron, but refines it with amazing rapidity if blown through it for the proper length of time. His process was not complete, as we shall see later, but subsequent improvements were comparatively easy to make. Bessemer, by his own efforts, did not get any
better “steel” in 1855 than Kelly had made in 1847.
For this, exact account of Kelly’s achievements, I am indebted to Mr. J. H. Geer, who was his helper at Johnstown, and to others who were eye-witnesses of his earlier success in western Kentucky.
Kelly remained at Johnstown for five years. By this time he had conquered. His patent was restored to him, and Mr. Morrell and others bought a controlling interest in it. He was now honored and rewarded. The “crank” suddenly became a re~ cognized genius. ;By 1870 he had received thirty thousand dollars in royalties and after his patent was renewed he received about four hundred and fifty thousand more. After his process had been improved and widely adopted, Kelly spent no time claiming the credit or basking in the glory of his success. No man was ever more undaunted in failure and more modest in victory. He at once gave all his attention to manufacturing high-grade axes in Louisville, and founded a business w'liich is to-day being carried on at Charleston, West Virginia, by his sons.
When more than seventy years of age, he retired and spent his last days at Louisville. Few who saw the quiet, pleasant-faced old gentleman in his daily walks knew who he was or what he had accomplished. Yet in 1888, when lie died, it was largely by reason of his process that the United States had become! the supreme steel-making nation in the world. He was buried in the Louisville cemetery, wife is still living.