The history of steel in America dates back to the mid 19th century when the country was still forming its character and laying the foundation for what would become a major world economic power player.
The Industrial Age which was credited with developing the American economy throughout the 19th century was propelled in large part by the advent of the country’s railroad systems. The durability, strength and overall quality of the railroads’ physical infrastructure was enhanced by the replacement of iron tracks with those made from steel.
Here is a brief history of how steel became a widespread building material in America and how the wealth gained from the steel sector continues to strengthen the country today.
Benefits of Steel Over Iron
Iron has been a part of human society for over 4,000 years; even Biblical writings note the powerful iron chariots that were employed by ancient military powers based near the Mediterranean Sea.
Iron is a common element that is found throughout the earth, and it has been mined and smelted to produce all types of items for many years. Mined, raw iron ore is melted at high temperatures to produce malleable iron that has a carbon content of .08 percent. Iron that is further heated at higher temperatures produces a very brittle, hard metal called cast iron that has a carbon content of about 4.5 percent.
Early metallurgists created steel that was stronger than the malleable iron but more flexible than the cast iron variety; its carbon content was about 1.5 percent.
Industrial America’s Steel Magnates and Associates
The discovery of a new way to mass produce the beneficial steel by an Englishman named Henry Bessemer was not lost upon the young railroad superintendent Andrew Carnegie.
Carnegie eventually invested in a new Pittsburg steel plant with the help of early finance experts like J.P. Morgan. Steel did indeed change the face of the railroads, and it also revolutionized many other building projects in the country.
Social Strife Amid Great Wealth
Andrew Carnegie leveraged his knowledge of railroads and his contacts within the industry to build an empire that mass produced steel rails for the railroads. The Scotsman who was known for his untiring work ethic apparently expected much the same from his steel workers even though he frequently stood up for worker rights.
As Carnegie and his peers continued to amass fortunes many industrial workers like those in steel lost their lives fighting for reasonable work hours, fair wages, the elimination of child labor and safer working conditions. Many of the workers achieved their goals when labor unions joined the industry.
Widespread Legacy of Steel
The Eads Bridge in St. Louis that was built in 1868 still stands as a tribute to the quality of Carnegie’s steel.
Andrew Carnegie also founded Carnegie Mellon University to ensure that America maintains its tradition of scientific research and innovation. He gave away most of his fortune to institutions that were known for helping others to help themselves.
The Information Age that began in the 20th century has all but eclipsed industrialization and manufacturing as far as the national economy is concerned.
However, one can still see the accomplishments of the early American steel industry within nearly every commercial construction project conducted today.
For more steel facts, check our our post on the History of Steel.