Iron in the Industrial Revolution

Color sketch of a busy wharf during the industrial revolution.

Robert Friedrich Stieler (1847–1908)/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Iron was one of the most basic requirements of the rapidly industrializing British economy, and the country certainly had plenty of raw materials. However, in 1700, the iron industry was not efficient and most iron was imported into Britain. By 1800, after technical developments, the iron industry was a net exporter.

Iron in the 18th Century

The pre-revolution iron industry was based on small, localized production facilities sited near essential ingredients such as water, limestone, and charcoal. This produced multiple small monopolies on production and a set of small iron producing areas like South Wales. While Britain had good iron ore reserves, the iron produced was of low quality with plenty of impurities, limiting its use. There was plenty of demand but not much was produced as wrought iron, which had many of the impurities hammered out, took a long time to make, and was available in cheaper imports from Scandinavia. Thus, there was a bottleneck for industrialists to solve. At this stage, all the techniques of iron smelting were old and traditional and the key method was the blast furnace, used from 1500 onward. This was relatively quick but produced brittle iron.

Did the Iron Industry Fail Britain?

There is a traditional view that the iron industry failed to satisfy the British market from 1700 to 1750, which instead had to rely on imports and couldn’t advance. This was because iron simply couldn’t meet demand and over half of the iron used came from Sweden. While the British industry was competitive in war, when the costs of imports rose, peace was problematic.

The size of furnaces remained small in this era, limited output, and the technology was dependent upon the amount of timber in the area. As transport was poor, everything needed to be close together, further limiting production. Some small ironmasters tried to group together to get around this issue, with some success. In addition, British ore was plentiful but contained lots of sulfur and phosphorous, which made brittle iron. The technology to deal with this problem was lacking. The industry was also highly labor-intensive and, while the labor supply was good, this produced a very high cost. Consequently, British iron was used for cheap, poor quality items like nails.

The Development of the Industry

As the industrial revolution developed, so did the iron industry. A set of innovations, from different materials to new techniques, allowed iron production to expand greatly. In 1709, Darby became the first man to smelt iron with coke (which is made from heating coal). Although this was a key date, the impact was limited — as the iron was still brittle. Around 1750, a steam engine was first used to pump water back up to power a water wheel. This process only lasted a small time as the industry became better able to move around as coal took over. In 1767, Richard Reynolds helped costs fall and raw material travel farther by developing the first iron rails, although this was superseded by canals. In 1779, the first all-iron bridge was built, really demonstrating what could be done with enough iron, and stimulating interest in the material. The construction relied on carpentry techniques. Watt’s rotary action steam engine in 1781 helped increase the furnace size and was used for bellows, helping to boost production.

Arguably, the key development came in 1783-4, when Henry Cort introduced the puddling and rolling techniques. These were ways of getting all the impurities out of iron and allowing large-scale production, and a vast increase in it. The iron industry began to relocate to coal fields, which usually had iron ore nearby. Developments elsewhere also helped to boost iron by stimulating demand, such as the increase in steam engines (which needed iron), which in turn boosted iron innovations as one industry bred new ideas elsewhere.

Another major development was the Napoleonic Wars, due to increased demand by the military for iron and the effects of Napoleon’s attempted blockade of British ports in the Continental System. From 1793 to 1815, British iron production quadrupled. Blast furnaces got bigger. In 1815, when peace broke out, the price of iron and demand fell, but by then Britain had become the largest European producer of iron.

The New Iron Age

1825 has been called the start of the new Iron Age, as the iron industry experienced a massive stimulation from the heavy demand for railways, which needed iron rails, iron in the stock, bridges, tunnels and more. Meanwhile, civilian use increased, as everything which could be made of iron began to be in demand, even window frames. Britain became renowned for railway iron. After the initial high demand in Britain dropped, the country exported iron for railway construction abroad.

The Iron Revolution in History

British iron production in 1700 was 12,000 metric tons a year. This rose to over two million by 1850. Although Darby is sometimes cited as the major innovator, it was Cort’s new methods which had the major effect and his principles are still used today. The location of the industry experienced as big a change as that of production and technology, as businesses were able to move to coalfields. But the effects of innovation in other industries on iron (and in coal and steam) cannot be overstated, and neither can the effect of iron developments on them.