The Iron Masters—Smelting with Coal—Andrew Yarranton’s Tin Plates and Abraham Darby’s Cooking Pots—The Coalbrookdale Inventions—The Invention of Cast Steel.

ONE of the most wonderful men of seventeenth century England was "Dud" Dudley, a son of Edward, Lord Dudley. He was born in the year 1599. At that time Dudley in Worcestershire was already a center of the iron manufacture, and there were said to be no fewer than twenty ironworkers living in and around Dudley Castle. Iron in those days was smelted, as it had always been, with wood, and nothing but wood, and Worcestershire, though formerly "a mighty woodland county", was rapidly being stripped of all its fine timber, with the result that charcoal for iron smelting was fetching famine prices.

It had never occurred to any one to attempt to use coal for smelting, in spite of the fact that there were seams of coal in the neighborhood no less than ten feet thick, and ironstone four feet thick under the coal, and plenty of limestone (which is also needed for smelting) close at hand. Dud Dudley was the first of Englishmen, or indeed of inventors anywhere, to have the great idea of using coal instead of wood in the manufacture of iron.

Dudley was at Balliol College, Oxford, when his father sent for him to take charge of an iron furnace and forges at Pensnet in Worcestershire, and the very first thing he found on arrival was that there was hardly any wood left in the neighborhood. He resolved to use coal; but first he had to turn the coal into coke, which he managed by a similar process to that used for turning wood into charcoal. Presently he was able to write to his father that he was making three tons of good iron weekly from each furnace, and in 1620 a patent was issued to him for the process which he had invented. He started new furnaces

Rioters destroying Dudley's works

at Cradley, and sent some of his "pit cole" iron to London. where it was tested and found good. A fowling gun was made of this metal, which was "well approved."

Just a year later came a fearful flood, still remembered as the "Great May Day Flood", and swept the new works away. Instead of offering any sympathy, the iron smelters of the district were overjoyed at the destruction, for they had seen Dudley turning out good iron at a price lower than that at which they could produce it.

Dudley set his teeth and rebuilt his forges, and, in spite of violent opposition, proved that his iron was good for making muskets, carbines, anchors, and bolts for shipbuilding. He went on making great stores of iron, and selling it for twelve pounds a ton.

The ironmasters banded against him, brought lawsuits, and succeeded in getting him ousted from his works at Cradley. He moved to Hasco Bridge, near Sedgley, and built a larger furnace than any yet; here soon he was turning out seven tons of iron a week. He opened up new seams of coal, and was doing wonderfully, when a mob of rioters, instigated by the charcoal men, broke into the new works, cut his bellows, destroyed his machinery, and left the whole place in ruins. He, too, was ruined, was seized by his creditors, and put into prison in London.

Charles I took pity on the inventor, released him, and granted him a new patent, but this had hardly been done before the Civil War broke out. Dudley at once took service with the king, and there for a time was the end of his ironworks. As he said in a petition made later on to Charles II, "I was in most of the batailes that year, and also supplyed his late Sacred Majestie’s Magazines with arms, shot, drakes, and cannon, and also became Major unto Sir Francis Worsley’s regiment, which was much decaied."

Taken prisoner with a number of others of the King’s officers, Dud Dudley was dragged through Worcester and flung into jail. He and a friend, Major Elliotts, managed to break out and escape. They were so hotly pursued that they dared travel only by night and in the daytime hid themselves in trees. They reached London, but only to be captured a second time and sentenced to death.

They were to have been shot on Monday, August 21, 1648, but, on the previous Sunday, Dudley and eleven other Royalist officers overpowered their jailer and again escaped. In making his escape, poor Dudley got shot in the leg; but his will was like his own iron, and, managing to get hold of some crutches, he limped all across England to Bristol, where he was taken care of by old friends. But he had lost everything, and he had not a penny left. His only possession was his secret process for making iron with pit coal, and after a time he persuaded two business men to furnish the money to make a fresh start. But somehow he and his partners quarreled, and there again was the end of his hopes.

Meantime all sorts of people were trying hard to smelt iron with pit coal, but all making an utter failure of it. Some tried to get Dudley to help them, but no! He kept his secret and waited for the Restoration, when he petitioned for his patent to be restored to him. Charles II, that ungrateful monarch, did nothing to help the man who had been so good a friend of his father, and Dudley, now growing old, at last seems to have given up hope. Yet he lived to be eighty-five years of age ere he found rest in a quiet Worcestershire churchyard. In spite of a sharp and trying temper which made him difficult to work with, Dud Dudley was one of England’s greatest inventors, for it is to him that the country owes its start over the rest of the world in the use of coal for the smelting of iron.

An even greater man, whose name is now almost forgotten, lived in the same century. Andrew Yarranton, like Dudley, was a Worcester ironworker, but, unlike him, a staunch Cromwellian. He fought throughout the Civil War, and in the year 1652 opened ironworks. A little later a charge was trumped up against him, and he was thrown into prison; but the charge was proved to be false, and he was released. The next we hear of Yarranton, he was busy deepening the river Salwarp so that the town of Droitwich might send her salt to the Severn by water.

You must remember that there were at that date no roads worth the name in England, and that canals, too, were almost unknown. Andrew Yarranton was the father, the inventor, of our canal system, and it speaks highly of his genius that he not only proposed to connect the Thames with the Severn by water, but that the route he selected for the new canal was that actually chosen for the canal which was cut a century after his death.

Yarranton was burning with wonderful ideas of all sorts, —ideas that were both sound and good. It was he who first saw the need for what is called the rotation of crops. In those days the same crop would be planted on the same land year after year until the soil was exhausted. He introduced clover seed, clover being a crop which restores land which has been planted in wheat or rye. In this way he doubled the value of thousands of acres of land. He planned new docks for the city of London, but these were not built until a hundred and fifty years after his time.

You will perhaps say that these were ideas rather than inventions, but Andrew Yarranton deserves a very high place among inventors, for it was he who started the tinplate industry which has so greatly enriched South Wales. There was plenty of tin in England, yet English industry was at so low an ebb that all plates—that is, iron plates— were imported from Germany. Yarranton started works in the Forest of Dean, where the plates he made were soon acknowledged to be far better than those brought from Saxony.

Although he had already done more for his country than any living Englishman, Yarranton was not content. At that time the fishing industry was in the hands of the Dutch, who netted their fish within sight of English shores and sold them in English ports. Yarranton visited Holland, found out their methods, then came home and started English fisheries with English boats and fishermen.

Next, he suggested a most excellent plan for growing flax and making linen in England, pointing out that the country would save two millions a year which was then being spent on buying foreign linen. In 1677 he published a book called "England’s Improvement by Land and Sea", a book which was certainly the most remarkable work of its kind that had appeared up to that time. It shows that the writer was one of those rare and wonderful people who sometimes are born into this world a century or more before their time. He clearly foresaw England’s greatness as a manufacturing rather than an agricultural country, and writes of it as though he were possessed of the true spirit of prophecy.

But such a prophet has no honor in his own country or his own times. The shame is that Yarranton has never since his death received the honor that is his due. Samuel Smiles is, so far as I know, the only modern writer who has told Englishmen anything of their debt to this wonderful man.

I have written a little about the two greatest of early ironmasters. I must now tell you about a third, Abraham Darby by name, who was the first Englishman to use coal on a great scale for iron smelting and the first to make iron pots in England. He was an inventor of other things as well, but I had better begin with the story of the iron pots.

In those days ranges and cooking stoves were still inventions of the future, and in most houses cooking was done in iron pots over an open fire. All these pots were imported from abroad, for no one in England knew how to make them. Abraham Darby decided that this was a great opportunity to start a new industry in England and tried to cast pots in molds of clay. It was no use, for they all cracked and burst, so in 1706 he went to Holland and discovered that the molds were made not of clay but of sand.

He came home and began experimenting. He locked his workshop, and even stuffed the very keyhole so that no one should discover what he was about, and after a few trials succeeded in making perfect iron pots. For these he was granted a royal patent, which meant that he and he only was to have the privilege of making these pots for a period of fourteen years. He moved to Coalbrookdale in Shropshire and started work.

But, clever as he was, Darby still used charcoal to smelt his iron, with the result that he soon burned up all the trees around, and, like Dud Dudley before him, was left without fuel. No wonder, for he was smelting ten tons of iron a week, and turning out twelve dozen great pots or kettles in that time. There was plenty of coal near by, and he began to make coke, which he mixed with charcoal and peat, and with this fuel carried on a very big business until he died in 1717.

He was succeeded by his son and grandson, and by the year 1747 Coalbrookdale was celebrated for making some of the best iron in England. Large cannon were cast, and all smelting done with coal. The firm opened branches at London, Bristol, and Liverpool, and began to dig deep for coal. This deep digging was interfered with by water draining into the pits, and it was the need to get rid of this water which in the end produced the steam pump.

In 1763 a man named Richard Reynolds came to the Coalbrookdale works as manager, and he and two of his foremen began experimenting with a new sort of furnace in which the iron was not mixed with the coal but simply heated by the flame from the fuel. They succeeded in producing what is called the "reverberatory" furnace, in which the flame is drawn by the blast of air across a bed on which the metal is laid. The iron so produced was of very high quality and the invention a very important one.

Reynolds’ second invention was equally important. At that time rough trams were used for shifting coal from the pits to the work, and these were run upon wooden rails. These rails decayed rapidly, and often broke under heavy loads. It occurred to Reynolds to use iron in place of wood; he began to make and lay down iron rails, which were found to be so great an improvement that in 1767 the whole of the old wooden rails were taken up and replaced with iron. Reynolds may therefore fairly claim to be the inventor of the railroad, although it was not until a good many years later that the first locomotive made its appearance.

By this time Coalbrookdale had become a populous place; and an old ferry, then the only means of crossing the Severn, could no longer handle the ever-increasing traffic. A bridge was needed, and a plan for one had been made by Abraham Darby the second, but his death interrupted the scheme. This Abraham Darby was succeeded by a son of the same name, and the young man conceived the bold idea of building an iron bridge across the river.

Some years earlier an attempt had been made to build an iron bridge in France, but the attempt failed, and a bridge of timber was constructed instead. So young Darby had nothing to encourage him. He and his foreman, Thomas Gregory, prepared the plans themselves, and in 1777 started the work. All the castings were made in the foundry, and in 1779 the bridge was opened for traffic. The fact that this bridge lasted for over a century is plain proof of its success, and for once in a way an inventor was well rewarded for his work. In 1788 the Society of Arts presented Mr. Darby with a gold medal. This bridge gave its name to the town of Ironbridge.

Another great invention of the eighteenth century was cast steel. Steel, as you know, is iron mixed with a small amount of carbon or charcoal and tempered in a particular manner. The discovery of steel was one of the most important inventions of man, for it gave him a material so hard that it is capable of cutting and shaping almost every other substance known. Steel may be made nearly as hard as the diamond, or, on the other hand, so soft that it can be cut and bent into any shape, rolled into thin plates, or drawn into wire as fine as hair.

Steel was first made thousands of years ago and more or less by accident. When a pure ore, such as a magnetic oxide of iron, is smelted with wood charcoal, steel is made as easily as iron and is of excellent quality. The first steel was made in the East, and the city of Damascus was the home of the finest steel blades of old days. Magnetic oxide, however, is not to be found everywhere, and it would be impossible to procure enough wood charcoal to make steel sufficient for modern needs. A century and a half ago there was already a famine in steel, and the need was felt for some means of producing it in large quantities from ordinary ore. And so we come to the memorable discovery of Benjamin Huntsman.

Huntsman was a Lincoinshire boy, born in 1704. Being of a mechanical turn of mind he set up in business as a clockmaker in Doncaster as soon as he was old enough. He became the "wise man" of the neighborhood; no lock was too difficult for him, and he mended not only machinery but also men. He was an excellent surgeon and a very clever oculist. It was the need for steel to make clock springs which turned his thoughts to the idea of making a better steel than he could buy, and in 1740 he moved to Sheffield, where he began experimenting. He had to build a furnace hotter than any yet made, and a crucible which would be fit to bear this tremendous heat without collapsing.

Unfortunately Huntsman left no written records of his experiments, but we know that they went on for a very long time, and that he had failure after failure. After his death, masses of steel, all imperfect, were found buried in various places round his foundry. But in the end he succeeded—not only in making ingots of cast steel but in producing steel of a quality never since surpassed.

This steel, however, was so hard that, when he offered it to the Sheffield cutlers to make knives and razors, they refused to use it. So Huntsman began to export his steel to France, where it found a ready market. The Sheffield cutlers were furious, and tried to stop the export of Huntsman’s steel. Happily they failed, and finally they themselves were compelled to buy his steel and use it.

They next endeavored to steal his secret, but Huntsman was too clever for them. At last, one winter night, a ragged tramp was found shivering at the door of Huntsman’s foundry, and the workmen let him in to warm himself by the fire. The supposed tramp was in reality an iron founder named Walker, who had adopted this disguise with the sole object of stealing Huntsman’s secret, and in this he was successful.

But Huntsman still made the best steel, and gradually established a great business, which, when he died in 1776, he left to his son. Sheffield, the town that treated him so badly, owes its amazing wealth and prosperity to this brilliant inventor.

The next great man in the manufacture of steel was Henry Bessemer (1813-1898), already known as an inventor before he turned his attention to the science of cannon and projectiles. He found that some method must be devised to supply iron in greater quantities and after many years of experimenting he stumbled on the great secret of reducing cast iron to molten steel by the application of oxygen,—an epoch-making discovery. But all the iron did not produce satisfactory steel and Bessemer spent several more years of research before he discovered that only iron having a small percentage of phosphorus yielded perfect results. Then came success and riches in plenty. Bessemer is called the father of the steel age but in America another iron maker named William Kelly had worked out this same process but was unsuccessful in marketing his patent, so when Alexander Holly obtained a license to make steel in this country under the Bessemer patents, Kelly accepted an offer to combine his own interests with those of Holly and very soon the United States were rivaling England in producing steel. Later inventions, such as improved furnaces, brought the industry still farther along the road until steel has become so essential and so cheap in comparison with former uses and prices that it is accepted as a commonplace factor of present-day industry and this era has come to be called the Age of Steel.

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© 2000, 2001, 2002 by Lynn Waterman