xxxxxIn 1709 (AN) the English engineer Abraham Darby replaced charcoal with coke in the smelting of iron and, by so doing, greatly reduced the cost of making wrought iron. In 1784 the Englishman Henry Cort improved the quality of this wrought iron, and reduced the cost further by introducing his “puddling” process, a means whereby the molten iron was stirred or “puddled” to remove impurities, and then passed through grooved rollers in specially designed rolling mills. This made British iron as good as any produced on the continent, and greatly helped in the manufacture of armaments during the Napoleonic Wars. Later came further improvement in production by the Scotsman James Beaumont Neilson in 1828, and then in 1856 (Va) by two inventors working independently, the Englishman Henry Bessemer and the American William Kelly. These advances in production were to give an enormous boost to the Industrial Revolution.

HENRY CORT 1740 - 1800  (G2, G3a, G3b)


Cort: front cover of book published by The Metals Society, 1983, headquarters Warrendale, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, portrait based on print by unknown artist, 1856 – Science and Society Picture Library, Science Museum, London. Ironworks: date and artist unknown. Coal and Iron: by the Scottish artist William Bell Scott (1811-1890), 1855/60 – National Trust, Wallington, Northumberland, England. Child Labour: 1871 engraving, artist unknown – Bibliothèque des Arts Decoratifs, Paris. Young: pastel, by the English artist John Russell (1745-1806), 1794 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Coke: by the English portrait painter Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), 18th century – Collection of the Earl of Leicester, Holkham Hall, Norfolk, England. Holkham Hall: from Views of Seats, a series written and originally illustrated by the English engraver John Preston Neale (c1771-1847). Son: detail, by the English portrait painter Leslie Ward (1851-1922), featured in the magazine Vanity Fair, 1883.

xxxxxAs we have seen, in 1709 (AN) the English ironmaster Abraham Darby, by a series of experiments, found a means of purifying coal and then using the resulting “coke” to replace charcoal in the smelting of iron. This proved a much cheaper method, and it also made possible the use of larger blast furnaces, thus reducing the cost of production even further. But the making of wrought iron remained a lengthy process, and the quality of the end product left much to be desired. The solution to this had yet to be found.

xxxxxHenry Cort was born in Lancaster, England, and, on leaving school, worked for ten years as a civil agent, purchasing arms for the Royal Navy. At that time - British iron not being of the required quality - the metal most suitable for making weapons had to be imported from abroad, mainly from Sweden, Russia and North America. In 1775 Cort left his job and, using money he had accumulated while working with the navy, bought an ironworks at Gosport, near Portsmouth, moving there with his family in 1777 (illustrated below).

xxxxxAt first he used the conventional method, producing wrought iron by hammering cast iron in a forge. However, with the sharp rise in the cost of Swedish iron during the American War of Independence, he began making wrought iron from scrap cast iron, and looking for a better means of production. In 1784 he came up with a method whereby iron made molten in a coal-fired reverberatory furnace was stirred or “puddled” to remove impurities (especially carbon), and then passed through grooved rollers. This “puddling” process, together with the use of mechanized rollers in specially designed rolling mills, revolutionised iron making in Britain. It produced bar iron more quickly, more efficiently and of a much higher quality. It was, declared Cort, as good as the Swedes could offer, and made at a fraction of the cost.

xxxxxHis invention could not have come at a better time for Britain. With the Napoleonic Wars just over the horizon, it meant that the country had no longer to rely on imported iron, having the ready means to produce its own armaments more cheaply and on a larger scale. Over the next 20 years production increased fourfold, whilst the ability to produce wrought iron in various shapes and forms spurred on the Industrial Revolution, paving the way for the introduction of the railways, and the eventual construction of metal ships and buildings.

xxxxxWith the marked increase in the production of iron, it looked as though Cort’s invention was about to bring its reward. But it was not to be. In August 1789 he learnt that his financial backer had invested stolen government funds into the business, and had used the patents governing his inventions as security. With twelve children and another one on the way, Cort was forced into bankruptcy. He was eventually granted a small pension, but he died a poor man.

xxxxxFor a short time puddling furnaces kept up with the demand for wrought iron, but advanced techniques were clearly going to be needed, and they were not long in coming. In 1828 production was further increased by the introduction of the hot-blast stove, an invention by the Scottish engineer James Beaumont Neilson. Then, as we shall see, in 1856 (Va) two men, the Englishman Henry Bessemer and the American William Kelly, working independently, developed a process which led to the production of high-quality steel at a much lower cost.  


The Industrial Revolution

Arthur Young and

Thomas Coke

xxxxxAs we have seen, it was in 1771 (G3a) that the textile “king” Richard Arkwright opened the first factory working by water power, and the Industrial Revolution really took off. This significant development was made possible by a series of inventions in the woollen and cotton industries - by men such as Kay, Hargreaves, Crompton and Arkwright himself - together with the development of more efficient engines - due in large measure to the work of the engineers Newcomen and Watt. At the same time, improvements were being made to the means of transport. Canals were being constructed (The Bridgewater Canal was opened in 1761) and turnpike trusts were providing more serviceable roads.

xxxxxNot surprisingly, the next thirty years witnessed a number of important inventions in keeping with these fundamental changes. ThexEnglish engineer Joseph Bramah (1748-1814), for example, who had improved upon the existing flush toilet in 1778 and later became famous for his “unpickable” locks, suggested the use of screws to drive a ship, and in 1795 came up with his hydraulic press. This was able to shape and stamp metals, and was later used to lift massive girders for the making of bridges. Hextrained a whole generation of engineers during his career, and one of his assistants, the Londoner Henry Maudslay (1771-1831), later became a celebrated toolmaker, responsible for developing a highly efficient screw-cutting lathe. And thisxperiod also saw the introduction of the cotton gin, invented by the American Eli Whitney, - destined to increase cotton production enormously - and a wool combing machine, produced in 1789 by the English inventor Edmund Cartwright (1743-1823). And, as we have seen, following the first self-propelled road vehicle, invented by the French engineer Nicholas Joseph Cugnot in 1769, the Englishman William Murdock, James Watt’s foreman, was running a model steam carriage on the roads of Cornwall as early as 1784. In America, too, steam vehicles were introduced in Salem, Massachusetts and Hartford, Connecticut, soon after that date.

xxxxxBut the Industrial Revolution was a long and erratic process. Up to the 1790s the majority of industries were still rural based, and simply provided goods for the home market. As we have seen, it was not until James Watt invented his rotary steam engine in 1782 that industry was given the opportunity of moving away from water power, and factories, based on mass production, began to spring up around coal mines, the new source of power. Such a move was not made overnight, and, in many cases, had to go hand in hand with improved roads and extended canals. The cotton and woollen industries were generally the first to make the change, followed by the likes of distilleries, and paper and flour mills.

xxxxxIn the meantime, (as noted above) more efficient methods of producing wrought iron, such as Cort’s puddling process, gave promise of a new Iron Age. As we shall see, by the time the next break-through came in this industry - the Bessemer converter of 1856 (Va) - the Industrial Revolution was well under way - together with its social problems (illustrated) - and Britain was fast becoming the workshop of the world. In the meantime, a vital step along that path was the opening of the world’s first official railway line, accomplished by the English engineer George Stephenson in 1825 (G4). This marked the beginning of extensive railway building in continental Europe and North America, as well as in Britain - another milestone in the march of the Industrial Revolution.

xxxxxIncidentally, after Joseph Bramah had invented his “unpickable” lock in 1784, he displayed it in his shop window in 1789, and offered a prize of 200 guineas to anyone who could unlock it. It was 61 years later before an American mechanic, struggling for over 50 hours, met the challenge! We are not told how much prize money he picked up!

xxxxxAs we have seen, the Industrial Revolution began in earnest in 1771 (G3a) when Arkwright opened the first factory worked by water power, made possible by inventions in the woollen and cotton industries, and the development of more efficient engines. Over the next thirty years, Watt invented his rotary engine in 1782, allowing factories to move to coalfields (their new source of power), and there were a number of inventions, including Bramah’s “unpickable” lock and hydraulic press, Maudslay’s metal lathe, Whitney’s cotton gin, and Cartwright’s wool combing machine. And alongside these developments went an improvement in roads, and an extension of the canal system. In addition, Cort’s puddling process gave promise of a new Iron Age, and by the time the next break through came - the Bessemer converter in 1856 (Va) - the Industrial Revolution, with all its social problems, was well under way, and Britain was fast becoming the workshop of the world. In the meantime, as we shall see, in 1825 (G4) Stephenson opened the first official railway line, and the building of railways soon got under way in Britain and overseas.

xxxxxThe English farmer and writer Arthur Young (1741-1820), secretary to the Board of Agriculture when it was established in 1792, was mainly responsible for organising a county-by-county survey of British agriculture. Earlier he had himself studied farming techniques during extensive tours of Britain and Ireland. He began the publication of the Farmers’ Calendar in 1771, and his Annals of Agriculture, started in 1784 and running for 45 volumes, was a valuable periodical for exchanging new ideas on farming methods. The king was one of its contributors. Later, as we shall see (1815 G3c), the English scientist Humphry Davy played an important part in agriculture by applying chemistry directly to the improvement of farming.

xxxxxThroughout this period, improvements were also taking place in agriculture in an attempt to meet the needs of an increasing urban population. The English farmer and writer Arthur Young (1741-1820) was appointed secretary of the Board of Agriculture when it was established in 1792, and he was the prime mover in the production of a county-by-county survey of British agriculture. Earlier he had himself carried out research into the state of farming, and published his findings after extensive tours in England and Ireland.

xxxxxHe was also responsible for the publication of the Farmers’ Calendar, begun in 1771, and his Annals of Agriculture, first produced in 1784 and running for 45 volumes, provided a valuable vehicle for the exchange of new ideas in farming practices. Among the contributors to this periodical was the king himself, writing under the nom de plume of “Ralph Robinson”. Young’s books on agriculture, containing as they did information on improved methods of crop rotation, the use of different fertilizers, and details of new farming machinery, proved of immense value in their day, both at home and overseas. As we shall see (1815 G3b), work of this nature was continued by the English chemist Humphry Davy. He was one of the first scientists to put his knowledge to good use in the direct service of agriculture.

xxxxxIncidentally, in addition to agriculture, Young also wrote about his travels in France in the late 1780s, and these included some lively and useful accounts of the opening stages of the French Revolution. …… He was a cousin of the novelist and letter writer Fanny Burney.

xxxxxIt was during this time that Thomas Coke (1752 -1842) also made a big name for himself in farming. He served for many years as an MP for Norfolk and, as an ardent Whig, was a close friend of Charles James Fox, but he is remembered today for the improvements he introduced on his large estate at Holkham. Over a period of some sixty years, beginning in the late 1760s, he became known nationwide for his advanced methods in arable farming and animal husbandry. These included crop rotation, the use of fertilizers, and the cultivation of fodder crops. He developed a highly successful breed of Southdown sheep, and his annual sheep shearing event - known as “Coke’s Clippings” - was a forerunner of the modern agricultural show. At these well-attended meetings there was the opportunity to discuss new strains of crops, improvements in the breeding of cattle and sheep, and advances in farming equipment. Commonly known as “Coke of Norfolk”, he was created Earl of Leicester in 1837. (The portrait is by Thomas Gainsborough.)

xxxxxIncidentally, as a matter of interest, Coke’s son and heir, Thomas, was the first Englishman to wear a bowler hat. He had one made in 1849 in order to protect his head from overhanging branches when out shooting on his estate. It became a popular form of headdress (sometime known as a coke hat) in the Victorian era, and later became closely associated with the banking fraternity.