Coal, Iron, Guns, Steel
Coal, Iron, Guns, Steel
Anthracite Coal and Pig Iron. The industrialization of the Northern states was fueled, literally, by rich supplies of key raw materials. In the 1820s substantial anthracite coal fields opened in eastern Pennsylvania, and as canals and eventually railroads reached into the region, substantial supplies became available to the nation’s burgeoning mills, forges, factories, and railways. By the mid 1840s annual production of the Pennsylvania mines topped two million tons, and the price had dropped to three dollars a ton. This output in turn supplied American manufacturers and railroads not only with inexpensive fuel for steam power, but also with plentiful domestic stocks of iron. In the 1840s and 1850s the number of anthracite coal blast furnaces proliferated, rising from 60 to 121 between 1849 and 1853 alone. With average workforces of eighty and capital assets typically close to $100,000, these operations were not especially large, but their impact on the industrializing northern states was disproportionately enormous.
Metalworking. The development of coal mines and iron furnaces and forges encouraged substantial expansion in the American metal-working industry. Firearms manufacturers, bolstered by army contracts, had pioneered increasingly specialized production methods and the use of interchangeable parts—called “the American System of manufacturing.” Starting in the late 1840s, these methods spread to factories making locks, safes, clocks, and watches. Meanwhile, new small-arms manufacturers built formidable factories and businesses, including Christian Sharps, Eliphalet Remington, and Samuel Colt.
Colt. The rise of Samuel Colt’s firearms manufacturing company demonstrated the prowess and potential of American industrial methods not just to the nation, but to the world. As a young man in the 1830s Colt had invented a revolver and, after securing a patent, immediately set up a business to manufacture and market it. Business got off to a slow start, but picked up once Colt secured profitable government contracts during the Mexican-American War, enabling him to build a factory in Hartford, Connecticut, to expand production. Colt aggressively mechanized and streamlined production, undermining the process control and prerogatives of traditional, skilled gunsmiths, but achieving impressive efficiencies. In 1855 he built a second, larger factory, and within several years his company was making 150 guns a day. Meanwhile, Colt’s revolvers were attracting worldwide notice. A display at the Crystal Palace of 1851 was a triumph, generating many orders from clients. Several years later a visiting member of the British Parliament toured Colt’s plant and found the production methods equally striking. Commenting as much on the industrial culture of the workplace as on its equipment, he remarked: “In those American tools there is a common
sense way of going to the point at once, that I was quite struck with; there is great simplicity, almost a Quakerlike rigidity of form, given to the machinery; no ornamentation, no rubbing away of corners, or polishing; but the precise, accurate and correct results. It was that which gratified me so much at Colonel Colt’s, to see the spirit that pervaded the machines.”
REMINGTON DURING THE CIVIL WAR
Of course, the firearm industry boomed during the Civil War, when government contracts kept factories going full throttle. Industry grew frantic at places such as Illion, New York, where workers at E. Remington and Sons churned out revolvers and rifles in response to government orders numbering in the tens of thousands. In an effort to meet demand, the company threw up a temporary production facility and a steam generator to increase power. In peak periods, it was reported, every man and boy in the town worked day and night for weeks at a time to fill contracts. All told, the company (and the town) made nearly $3 million worth of rifles. The pace of production may have contributed to founder Eliphalet Remington’s death in the first few months of the war. But the company pressed on, passing to Remington’s sons and, in the midst of the urgent press of wartime production, developing a rifle that was breach- rather than muzzle-loaded, a product that would buttress his company’s growth through and beyond the war years.
Source: Warren E. Schulz, Illion: The Town Remington Made (Hicksville, N.Y.: Exposition Press, 1977).
An International Arms Trade. Colt eagerly courted just this kind of testimony. He promoted international sales vigorously, sending agents abroad to dispense gifts of custom-made weapons, ornately engraved, to kings and ministers throughout Europe. In the wake of his Crystal Palace success, he set up a factory in England (a first for American manufacturers). Elsewhere he licensed the manufacture of his revolvers to foreign companies and armories, including those equipping the Russian army. These efforts were matched by Colt’s competitors, especially in the post-Civil War years, after factories had expanded production capacities. Remington, for example, began shipping rifles to Sweden, Denmark, France, Spain, and Egypt. When France went to war with Prussia in 1870, the company secured more than $11 million in contracts from the French military. These kinds of successes firmly established American small arms in the European marketplace. Between 1868 and 1878, U.S. manufacturers exported over $4 million of firearms annually, prompting one Russian to observe, “Just as European factories had earlier supplied America with arms, so America, in turn, is now the great industrial power. Its products are capable of glutting all the European arms markets and with little strain filling the enormous orders of European governments.”
Metal. Notable as it was, however, American success in metalworking industries would eventually be overshadowed by the more basic industry of making the metal that was coming to symbolize the age: steel. Industrial demand, particularly from the railroads, encouraged substantial expansion in ironmaking over the 1850s, at the same time as mounting coal production and spreading railroad transportation made expansion feasible. By the eve of the Civil War, the largest ironmakers ran plants that integrated blast furnaces, forges, rolling mills, and finishing mills. These operations included three major Pennsylvania mills—the Mountour Iron Works of Danville, the Cambria Iron Works at Johnstown, and the Phoenix Company of Phoenixville—along with the Trenton Iron Works in New Jersey. They were capital-intensive (more than $1 million each), and labor-intensive as well, with workforces of one thousand or more—three thousand at Mountour. Maintaining industrial capacity on this scale might have proven difficult, especially given the vulnerability of the mills’ most important customers, the railroads, to financial vicissitudes. But the Civil War bolstered production, and during the war years the mills grew in number, though not appreciably in size.
The Bessemer Process and the Engineered Steel Plant. In the years immediately following the war, an important new technology of steel manufacture swept through the industry, the Bessemer process. Achieved by blasting air into hot pig iron (consuming the carbon in the iron and so producing a metal that was less brittle and therefore more malleable—steel), the technology was perfected in the late 1850s and the 1860s. American mills began to introduce Bessemer converters in the late 1860s, setting them up alongside traditional puddling mills. It was a plastic moment, when the possibilities of new, more efficient technologies of production met up against the existing plant investments and structures, and Andrew Carnegie, a rising Pittsburgh steel magnate, seized it aggressively. While other mill owners tried to fit Bessemer converters into existing plants, Carnegie overhauled or built new ones, custom-designed to integrate the new technologies into a streamlined flow of production. His masterwork was the 1875 Edgar Thompson Works, engineered by Alexander Lyman Holley to run like a machine. With the completion of the E.T. Works, Carnegie was positioned to lead Americans to the forefront of world steel production in the closing decades of the nineteenth century.
“KING COTTON” AND THE WAR
Southern secessionists boasted at the outbreak of the war that “King Cotton” would force Great Britain to recognize the Confederacy and bring the North to terms. The British textile industry depended on Southern cotton, the theory ran, and once the supply was cut off and the mills ground to a halt, popular opinion would compel the British government to mediate and the North to negotiate. It proved to be a disastrous miscalculation. At the outset of the war Southern planters embargoed cotton shipments and waited for Britain to act, but bumper crops and record exports in 1857-1860 allowed the British mills to wait out the first stages of the conflict; textile manufacturers did not feel a serious pinch until 1862. Meanwhile, European governments, reluctant to antagonize the Union, waited to see how the war developed. By the time British mills had consumed their stockpiles of cotton, the Confederacy, starved for supplies and funds, had itself abandoned the embargo. British public opinion did not prove as mercenary as secessionists had expected; especially after Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, a strong anti-slavery movement in England resisted Confederate recognition. Finally, as the price of cotton climbed to new highs, cotton planting and exporting developed in Egypt and India to fill the need. As Confederate military initiatives flagged, hopes of British recognition died. “King Cotton” had proved to be an empty figurehead.
Joseph Bradley, Guns for the Tsar: American Technology and the Small Arms Industry in Nineteenth Century Russia (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1990);
Alfred D. Chandler Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977);
Robert Laurence Wilson, The Colt Heritage (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979).
"Coal, Iron, Guns, Steel." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 23, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/coal-iron-guns-steel
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