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The stolen iron making technique

This one:

Industrial Revolution iron method ‘was taken from Jamaica by Briton’
Wrought iron process that drove UK success was appropriated from black metallurgists, records suggest

Dunno enough about it to be categoric. But wouldn’t surprise me if the basics are true.

They’re saying that 70 slaves came up with a method which enabled wrought iron to be made from scrap (as opposed to only from brand new). This involved rolling and specifically rolling on ridged rollers as used to sugar cane.

Lots of bits that I’m not sure about here both in tech and history. But, umm, yes, could have happened.

Something worth thinking about – this is late Georgian we’re thinking about here. The Satanic Mills are still to come really. 70 metalworkers under the one roof was a damn big factory by the standards of the time.

I’ve no proof of anything either way in this story but the message from your local dodgy metals dealer is there’s little reason to think that it couldn’t have happened this way.

23 thoughts on “The stolen iron making technique”

  1. Wootz steel was known in southern India about 1500 years ago IIRC. Metallurgy has been around a long time. The Industrial Revolution happened here rather than Jamaica because we also had a lot of coal and an economy that made it possible.

  2. Black people would be building Dyson Spheres around Arcturus by now if it wasn’t for them pesky white men.

  3. One could argue that the blacks owe us all enormous reparations for not introducing this innovation millennia ago, and forcing us to go to all the trouble ourselves.

  4. Note the use of the word “appropriate” in the article: the French were pioneers in motor car production and aviation but no one says that they appropriated the ideas from the Germans and Americans. And, of course, the article ends on the reparations note.

    Just looking at Wikipedia, “although its commercial viability, with the raw materials used, was only accomplished by innovations introduced by the Merthyr Tydfil ironmasters Crawshay and Homfray.” So not much value and to what extent was the process the product of the white owner.

  5. The Meissen Bison

    historical records suggest
    …76 black Jamaican metallurgists…
    trafficked from west and central Africa, which had thriving iron-working industries at the time…
    ironworks was owned by a white enslaver, John Reeder, who in correspondence described himself as “quite ignorant” of iron manufacturing…
    impressive profit of £4,000 a year.

    What a bunch of orchids

  6. In the essay Bulstrode says

    At the same time, Reeder sent to England to engage 60 white artificers for the instruction of Black metallurgists in using this specialist machinery, but rapidly found their services unnecessary. Within a few years, the Black metallurgists were ‘sufficiently acquainted with the business for Reeder to dismiss all the white men but two & a perfect foundry was established where not only sugar utensils were made but cannon manufactured’.

    When the foundry was closed diwn, there were 30 white men working there and 76 black “metallugists”.
    A bit of spin by the author, methinks.

  7. African slavers wouldn’t be capturing iron workers, iron workers would be buying slaves themselves.

  8. Black people would be building Dyson Spheres around Arcturus by now if it wasn’t for them pesky white men.

    C’mon, it’s well known that Alan Turing and Wernher von Braun met on a Caribbean holiday before the war.

  9. Steve but actually Tom Lehrer

    PJF – Some have harsh words for this man of renown,
    But some think our attitude
    Should be one of gratitude,
    Like the widows and cripples in old London town,
    Who owe their large pensions to Wernher von Braun

  10. This involved rolling and specifically rolling on ridged rollers as used to sugar cane.

    Sounds highly unlikely to me. There’s a principal in engineering. You don’t make anything better than it needs to be if it costs.
    Ridged rollers for rolling sugar cane will be suitable for a relatively soft material at low temperatures. You could do that with any cast iron. Basically, the only property you require is that it’ll stay together. You won’t be cold rolling scrap iron. Iron work hardens. Rollers for rolling high temperature steel would have to be a totally different material.

  11. Ridged rollers have been around since god-knows-when. Phoenicians? I’ve used them for rolling all sorts of metals & alloys. Gold, silver, copper, brass. It’s just tools of the trade.

  12. I’ve just been trying to think how I’d knock up some ridged rollers, on site , in Jamaica. Probably start with a half buck carved out of wood & use that to sand cast in two halves. Then bolt together. You want them interlocking ridge? That’d give you a shear cut on the cane. Do you?

  13. Can’t think of any reason you’d want a pitch on the ridges. That’d move the work across the rollers as it went through. Again, entirely doable.

  14. “sand cast in two halves. Then bolt together”. Bolts not needed. You can cast the roller in one piece.

  15. Quote: They’re saying that 70 slaves came up with a method which enabled wrought iron to be made from scrap /quote

    How lucky is that? That all 70 were geniuses! Wow! I’m impressed!

    Rather a pity they hadn’t thought of that before becoming enslaved. Woulda saved a lotta trouble….

  16. Sure you could do. But I specified on-site in Jamaica. It’s just an easier job. One gets the opportunity to put a higher grade steel spindle through the middle & if you get wear or cracking you replace half, not the whole thing. With all engineering – just good enough to do the job.

  17. Wrought iron is a bit pants, which is why you don’t see much of it these days except in decorative ironwork.
    Carbon steel is the thing. People have been making that for many centuries. Think farriers, toolmakers, armourers. They didn’t know that repeated heating over a fire introduced the carbon. But once the penny dropped…

  18. BiS, Call it typical Guardian Journalism.. Even more so than usual, actually, as the complete of lack of understanding in the way the claimed process works, and the one that Cort actually patented in the UK is appalling.

    Cort patented the puddling process, which for various reasons worked on the materials available in the Carribean, but not on the better “scrap” from elswhere, including the French, the Dutch, and the Spanish.
    The problem was also not carbon, as mentioned in the article, but mainly sulphur, which does lower the melting point, and makes iron very, very brittle, rendering it unsuitable for forging.
    And guess how incredulously bad british metal was in the day….

    Cort introduced the method, based on the scrap available in the Carribean, and was surprised it didn’t quite work as expected when back in Britain.
    It took the mentioned Welshmen to actually figure out what was going on and make puddling a rather unique british way of making forgeable iron. Note: not steel…
    Mainland foundries used either charcoal or different sources for coal with less sulphur –> better cokes, so they didn’t need that extra step.
    And when they did need it, they used an early version of the blast furnace to get rid of impurities.
    Different raw material sources, different solutions to different problems in a time where peeps just started to get a grasp on metallurgy as we now understand it.

    The rollers were used, but the fact that they’re mentioned tells me what was going on in that ironworks (at least regarding that part) had nothing to do with Cort’s process.

    Those rollers were pretty universally used to “mollify” Wootz steel.
    The Wootz process makes a very fine steel with a highly controlled carbon content, if you know what you’re doing.
    The problem with that particular process is that the various iron cristals are *HUGE*, making it incredibly hard and brittle to work with.
    Traditionally, Wootz steel was re-heated to near-welding temperature and carefully hammered to break up those crystals to a finer structure, so that it could be properly worked.
    An experienced smith could ( and still can..) use that hammering to work that type of steel down to the hardness required, meanwhile controlling the carbon content to control flexibility.
    (This humble commentard can do the basic work, but lacks several decades of practice to do it well. Although my potential new volunteer job would have me working a smithy on weekdays to Educate and Entertain the Kids… So here’s to hoping they’ll have me… )

    This is where the Myth of the many-folded steel blades comes from. No, they’re not uniquely Japanese. They’re pretty universal through the ages, with the *Frankish* Ulfbe(h)rt blades the earliest extant examples of the technique in Europe. The Japanese clock in late as they only managed that type of stuff from the 18th C on…

    The rollers do come in with the Wootz method of making steel, because the hammering is …tricky to get right. And, as you can expect, quite labour-extensive, requiring specific expertise.
    The Italians pioneered the process, and the Spanish nicked and perfected the method of using ribbed rollers to soften up and shape the Wootz steel ( and lesser irons..) on an “industrial” scale, replacing hammering with…. well.. squishing things.
    Using equipment that can still be found in smithies to this day, because it has many uses besides that. And any idiot can crank a handle on a wheel at a set pace…
    That’s why you had Genovese armor, and Toledo steel, and….

    Cort solved a uniquely british problem, using knowledge and means at hand.
    And requiring a solid, strong man to keep stirring a pool of molten metal for hours…
    Whether he deserves the credit for “discovering” it… dunno.. He certainly saw the potential of it.
    Then again.. Edison perfected the technique of getting credited for other peoples’ work and brainfarts while the only thing he really invented was Intern Abuse, and he is an unassailable Genius Hero….. So why not?

    But the Cort method itself.. Oh wait.. the quite early-medieval “stirred crucible” method comes to mind.. Used by early foundries and later..Alchemists (!) for small batch production..
    Someone just figured a way to upscale a by the time rather obscure, but known technique..

  19. @Grikath
    One thing that’s puzzling me. Where were they sourcing all this scrap iron in the Caribbean? You’re talking about the C18th. Iron, any iron, is still a fairly valuable commodity. Basically any iron product that’s broken or redundant gets recycled* into something useful. Especially at the end of a long supply chain. So how do you build up sufficient of it to need mass processing in what is presumably a growing economy?

    *Your smithy is also your scrap merchant. Old iron he buys in is raw material for what he makes. They really did forge swords into ploughshares. Or the other way round. It’s similar to a jeweller. You buy in scrap. That gets reused to make new stuff. You never have enough of it. All that you send to Johnson Matthey is the sweepings off the floor & the filings out the skin.

  20. “Where were they sourcing all this scrap iron in the Caribbean?”

    Ship’s ballast.
    “Scrap iron” was regularly used as ballast, since it was both used to get the ship to proper sailing weight and doubled as shrapnel in the guns.
    On the return trip, the sugar made the weight, so a lot of the scrap iron got unloaded and left behind.

    In fact, the dutch merchants didn’t use scrap iron, but nails instead. You can always sell those anywhere, after all. And they knew dutch/german iron was superior to what other people had, so could charge a premium.
    When they had the monopoly on Japan, the japanese blacksmiths noticed this, and got a Nerdgasm..
    The dutch nails were far superior iron than they could make with the stuff they had available, so they bought them by the bucketload to proceed to make the Mythical Katanas using the traditional techniques with that superior iron ( and resulting steel..).

    This got so bad, and prices for those nails so high, that ships’ officers had to stop crewmen from stripping the nails from ships for some impromptu, and quite illegal…, trade with the locals.
    Sort of the same with european sets of armor that were “gifted” to the local dignitaries as “gifts” by the captains and merchants.
    They weren’t top of the line, but they were made from european steel..

    Guess why there aren’t many european harnesses from that era found in Japan, even though quite a few were Gifted…. 😉

  21. You’ll all be pleased to know that the Guardian article is already referenced in the Wiki on puddling.

  22. Also Jamaica was a major military outpost and so had constant imports and production of ordnance. The essay and article make great play of the slaves melting their own chains and shackles to make the wrought iron. LOL

    There was ( still is ) iron ore in Cuba and the mainland (Brazil & Chile ). There was ample charcoal of course, but even coal could be bulk imported from Britain, loaded at Bristol at shipped over.

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