Iron, Steam and Rails

Intro: Over the past few centuries, some of the biggest technological advancements have been made in societies throughout the world. In the past century alone we have seen advancements made in medicine that can save, extend and enhance the lives of vast numbers of people; and we have seen advancements in digital technologies that have increased the performance, reliability and availability of many of the electronic technologies that we now take for granted.

However, to truly understand and appreciate the technological advancements that have been made over recent years, we must look back at some of the discoveries and improvements to technology that literally shaped and defined not only our country, but modern society as a whole. While the technological advancements of the past 100 years have undoubtedly proven crucial to our modern lives, without the monumental discoveries of the 18th and 19th century, we may not have had the opportunities to generate those advancements.

In particular, the progress and development of iron and eventually steel, steam power and it’s multitude of uses, and the railway systems has truly defined the technological advancements of recent centuries. Body: Prior to the 18th century, the methods in place for producing iron were relatively rudimentary and ultimately inefficient. Early 18th century European smelters used charcoal fired iron furnaces. The furnaces were also small and only yielded an “average output of a mere three hundred tons a year” (Technology and American Society, p. 85). By contrast, the United States produced almost 55,000,000 metric tons of iron ore in 2004 (www.

indexmundi. com). Obviously, a few changes have taken place over the years to accommodate for such immense growth in production. However, comparing modern production rates to those of early iron producers in the 18th is not realistic, but it does offer some insight as to the advancements over the past few centuries. In order to understand what has led to these increases in production, we must first look at the most basic of advancements made to the processes of production. As stated before, early iron furnaces were small and burned charcoal as the primary fuel source.

One drawback of these characteristics was the need for large quantities of wood as a resource to be used by the smelters. Most iron furnaces were located within or very near large forests so as to supply the smelters with the wood needed to make charcoal. As a result of increased wood prices and decreased coal prices in Europe at the time, further experimentation with coal as a fuel source led to increased iron production. The higher temperatures that could be achieved with a coal fired furnace versus a charcoal fired furnace allowed smelters to create thinner, stronger and more reliable iron products.

As these methods became proven in their effectiveness, the early 19th century saw charcoal become phased out as an iron furnace fuel supply. It is from these advanced methods of iron production that we see growth across many industries throughout society at the time. Because of the ability of smelters to producer thinner, less brittle iron-based products, industries that involved the making of farm equipment and cooking equipment, to cite a few examples, were now able to produce their products more efficiently and with a greater product.

The coal fired iron furnaces also provided smelters with the ability to control furnace temperatures and conditions, so as to limit the amount of carbon that is introduced to the melted iron. Early iron, called pig iron, contained approximately 4% carbon, this due largely to the fact that the iron ore came in direct contact with the charcoal. However, with the coal fired furnaces, iron could be produced with only 2% carbon, which we commonly refer to as steel. Steel at the time though was very expensive to produce, because of the precision needed to keep the carbon content at a specific level.

Large scale production of steel was thus limited, ultimately keeping prices high. With iron production experiencing rapid growth through the 18th and 19th centuries, the capturing of steam power and the development of steam powered machines greatly complemented the rise in iron production. Much like the restrictions of an ironworker before the widespread use of coal as a fuel, factories and factory workers depended heavily on location of a factory building. If the means of production within a factory didn’t depend solely on human power, the only other readily available resource for providing labor at the time was water.

Many factories and mills were located along rivers so as to take advantage of the flowing water and use it as a power source. The water could be used to turn a water wheel, and ultimately the continuous movement of the water wheel could be converted into other forms of useful mechanical energy in the factories and mills. However, in the event of a drought (or flood) production in these facilities could be greatly affected. Through the advancements of steam technology during the 18th and 19th centuries, steam became the “characteristic and ubiquitous power source of the British Industrial Revolution” (Encyclopedia Britannica, “Steam Engines”).

Demands of early coal miners drove the development of steam powered machines. Early steam machines were used as mechanical pumps for evacuating water from the mines, however, the steam-based methods proved to be more dangerous than practical. In a basic steam engine, hot steam is supplied by a boiler and the pressure from the steam is converted into work. These first steam engines were designed and built by Thomas Savery, but were later improved upon by Thomas Newcomen. Because the 18th century was seeing such a demand for coal, the use of these steam engines greatly increased the ability of miners to obtain coal.

As we saw before in the importance of coal in iron production, the development of steam engines “increased the amount of coal available” and could arguably be “responsible for England’s leading role in industrialization” (Scientists, Mathematicians, and Inventors: An Encyclopedia of People Who Changed the World (Lives and Legacies Series), p. 150). Despite the relevance of steam power during the British Industrial Revolution, these machines didn’t catch on as rapidly in the United States. Early colonists worked sufficiently with man and water power.

It wasn’t until the development of factories in cities around the early United States that steam power became much more useful and practical. Factories in the United States were not using early steam machines due to lack of reliability; in the early 1800’s, steam provided approximately “5 percent of industrial power in 1830,” nearly “half by 1860,” and “over 80 percent by 1900” (Technology and American Society, p. 93). These numbers increased at such an astounding rate largely because of the advancements made in steam engines George Corliss.

Corliss developed a steam engine that used valves to vary the times at “steam entered the cylinders,” giving the engine the ability to “maintain constant speed despite changes in load” (Technology and American Society, p. 93). As steam machines gained usefulness in the factory setting, their worth began being proven as a means of transportation as well. Steam powered ships allowed for more advanced navigation using natural waterways. Along with steamboats was the use of steam engines in the railroad industry.

As was just stated above, steam power started the revolution towards developing a railroad system. In the United States for example, the first railroads began appearing in the early 19th century, around the same time that the steam engine was gaining popularity in factories and mills. Prior to the development of a defined railroad system, cross country transportation relied solely on foot travel, whether that be by human foot or animal; nevertheless, the process was long and slow, and didn’t accommodate the movement of materials or resources across vast spans of land.

In the time before the railroads, waterways were the most efficient way to move large materials, or large supplies of materials from one part of the country to another. This obviously posed problems for those who didn’t live near large cities based around ports and harbors, and also made travel out west limited to very few steamboat routes and foot travel. The first railroads were opened in northern England in 1825. Prior to this, “steam engines and boilers were much improved, as was the track” (Technology and American Society, p. 99).

The early railroads and locomotives developed in Europe influenced Americans directly, and the United States followed England in their development of a railroad system. The first railroads in the United States began appearing in 1830, and by 1860, nearly “30,000 miles [of railway] served all the states east of the Mississippi [river]” (American Railroads, p. 35). These numbers far exceeded the miles of railway in place in Europe, due largely to the fact that the United States had vast quantities of land mass that needed to be connected in order to supply goods and resources to the people living throughout the country.

Without the development of a unified rail system in the United States, areas such as the West would not be as well established as they are, or were at the time, because with no effective means to travel to the West, the resources available in the West may not have been as available to the East, and vice versa. No rail system would have also greatly affected peoples’ ability to travel west, following the frontiersmen who fled West on foot in hopes of escaping the city life back East.

As the railroad developed into a national icon for the United States, cities that may or may not have previously profitable were now booming into metropolises thanks to the railroads ability to take people around the country. Cities like Chicago, a central railroad hub for the country, relied on the railroad to charter people to various parts of the country, as well as provide an effective means of transporting the goods of one of the largest industries in the area; the meat packing industry.

Conclusion: The 18th and 19th centuries saw great advancements in many different industries throughout the world. Coal mining led to the advancements in iron production and helped to drive the need for steam machinery. Steam machinery and iron lead to the development of the locomotive and fueled the creation of early railroads. These advancements undoubtedly changed the lives of every person alive during the time.

Starting with early iron production in Europe, and ultimately leading to the extensive railroad system in the United States, various advancements in technology deeply shaped the technological revolutions around the world. Works Cited * “United States Iron Ore Production. ” Index Mundi. N. p. , n. d. Web. 27 Sept. 2010. <www. indexmundi. com/minerals/? country=us&product=iron ore&graph=production>. * Cross, Gary, and Rick Szostak. Technology and American Society (2nd Edition). 2 ed. Alexandria, VA: Prentice Hall, 2004. Print. * Zantium.

“History of Technology :: Steam engines — Britannica Online Encyclopedia. ” Encyclopedia – Britannica Online Encyclopedia. N. p. , n. d. Web. 28 Sept. 2010. <http://www. britannica. com/EBchecked/topic/1350805/history-of-technology/10449/Steam-engines? anchor=ref367967>. * Schuyler, Tami. Scientists, Mathematicians, and Inventors: An Encyclopedia of People Who Changed the World (Lives and Legacies Series). Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1998. Print. * Stover, John F.. American Railroads (The Chicago History of American Civilization). 2 Sub ed. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1997. Print.