spinner
+
Shrink map
Only Anchor Points.

European Themeroute | Iron and Steel

Two steps are needed to make iron and steel – the key materials of the industrial era - from iron ore. First, the ore has to be smelted in the blast furnace to produce pig iron, which is then refined in the fire to produce wrought iron or steel. Both steps are dependent on the type of fuel used. Hard ... more

Icon: Iron and SteelThe glow of the blast furnaces. European Theme Route Iron & Steel

Two steps are needed to make iron and steel – the key materials of the industrial era - from iron ore. First, the ore has to be smelted in the blast furnace to produce pig iron, which is then refined in the fire to produce wrought iron or steel. Both steps are dependent on the type of fuel used. Hard coal is not suitable for producing iron because its trace elements, above all sulphur, can damage the metal. For this reason charcoal was used in furnaces and forges until the start of the 18th century when a shortage of firewood made it very expensive. Thereupon Abraham Darby, the owner of an ironworks in the Midlands county of Shropshire which was rich in coal, resorted to a fuel that was used in malt houses and coked the coal hermetically. In this way he was able to remove the harmful trace elements. From 1709 onwards Darby was able to use coke to produce iron in his blast furnace at Coalbrookdale. 

This was a decisive step. Nonetheless many decades were to pass before the new fuel could establish itself: since a huge amount of coke was necessary to make iron and steel, it was only economically viable in mass production in large furnaces. But the technical preconditions were still not in place; more than anything else powerful blowing engines were needed. 

Hard coal was soon to revolutionise refining processes. The second step in producing wrought iron is necessary because, when the pig iron emerges from the blast furnace it still contains a very high proportion of carbon. True, you can cast it: but it is too brittle either to forge or roll. The carbon is therefore burnt off at high temperatures and the resulting iron can be processed in many different ways. During this process it is vital to prevent the pig iron from coming into direct contact with the coke, which still contains many destructive elements. In 1740 a Sheffield man named Benjamin Huntsman came up with a solution. He filled the pig iron into closed crucibles which were then heated up in a coke oven. The result was steel – but later regulations prescribed that steel should not contain more than 1.6% of carbon. For many decades hard crucible steel was in great demand as a valuable basic material, and the region around Sheffield became a centre for the iron industry. 

In 1784 Henry Cort came up with an alternative: he refined pig iron in a half-open furnace, on which the iron was separated from the burning coal only by a low wall. The hot air from the furnace was conducted over the pig iron to heat it. At the same time it was stirred by a worker with a long rod to release the carbon into the air. The result of this "puddling" process was a highly resilient iron which could be used equally for making swords and ploughshares. Cort also invented the heavy rolling process, whereby the iron could be shaped into sheet iron, pipes and railway lines. Now iron began to replace timber as the universal working material and chimneys and blast furnaces began to spring up at ironworks in the coalfields of Shropshire and Staffordshire, in the south of Scotland and in Wales. By the end of the 19th century Great Britain had become the world's largest producer of iron.

The government in France now began to commit all its efforts to producing iron, not least because it was afraid it would fall behind in the manufacture of arms. It lured over British experts to France and in the 1780s set up the Royal Foundries at Le Creusot in Burgundy. Like the glassworks, also at Le Creusot, and the older salt works at Arc et Senans, the symmetrically designed plant reflected the centralised industrial policies of the French state. 

Other European regions only reached the level of British industry in the 19th century. The Belgian iron region around the rivers Sambre and Maas received a boost in 1827 when the first coke furnace went into action in Charleroi. The German iron industry originated in Upper Silesia and the Saar region: other isolated works arose in the countryside, like those in Wetter in the Ruhrgebiet and Rasselstein, near Neuwied. But the German economy only really began to get moving in 1834 with the establishment of the Customs Union. Within the space of a few decades a close-knit industrial topography sprang up in the Ruhrgebiet, dominated by pithead towers, blast furnaces and working-class housing settlements. 

In 1828 a Scotsman by the name of James Beaumont Neilson came up with the last vital improvement to blast furnaces. He discovered that, by blowing in hot air, it was possible to drastically reduce the amount of coke needed. Production exploded in the subsequent years. In 1850 Great Britain was producing at least 10 times as much pig iron as it was at the start of the century; by 1900 more than 30 times as much.

Give the boom in iron, it was not long before the next technical advance occurred. In 1856 Henry Bessemer, yet another Englishman, invented a refractory-lined pear-shaped vessel for refining iron. When it was filled with pig iron and blasted with air, a spectacular reaction occurred within the Bessemer converter. The silicon burnt off and heated the glowing iron to such an extent that almost all the carbon was removed, without having to insert any fuel from outside. The result was high-quality Bessemer steel which could be used to manufacture cannons, railway lines and knives. 

Almost at the same time competitors – this time on the Continent - were developing yet another alternative to the open refining furnace. Wilhelm Siemens used to the warmth from waste gases in his "regenerative furnace" to additionally heat up the combustion air needed to process the pig iron. In this way iron could be smelted at higher temperatures than had previously been possible, and at the same time fuel could be saved. A French ironworks owner by the name of Pierre Martin brought the process to maturity in 1864. The Siemens-Martin furnace was able to produce top quality steel like that needed for shipbuilding plates, and for many decades it was regarded as the very best method of producing steel.

But the more problems in processing poor quality iron ore containing phosphorus. In 1879 a chemist by the name of Sidney Gilchrist Thomas came up with a solution. He had a Bessemer converter lined with a basic material which eliminated phosphorus. Now it was possible to use iron ore areas like Lorraine, for example; but the region which profited the most was the Ruhrgebiet. Here the steelworks were able to produce huge amounts of wire, pipes, and construction steel - not to mention railway lines - from low quality steel. 

Again in 1879, Wilhelm Siemens succeeded in making a further improvement. His electric arc furnace was able to produce very high temperatures with ease. That said, electric power was more expensive than coke. For this reason the process was initially restricted to the manufacture of highly stable steel which was alloyed with chromium, nickel or tungsten. The resulting material could be used to make large corrugated sheets, marine propellers, armour plating and engineering tools. It was only after the First World War that electric steel was mass manufactured. By that time steel production in Great Britain, the cradle of industrialisation, had been overtaken by the USA and Germany.

Related Links
Eisenhüttenstadt is a new town of the mid-20th century, an expression of the belief of Communist economists in the primacy of heavy industry. It stands on the River Oder, close to the point where it is joined by the Oder-Spree Canal, 25 km south of Frankfurt-an-der-Oder. Since the Second World War ...
more

Documentation Centre of Everyday Life in the GDR
Erich Weinert Allee 3
15890 Eisenhüttenstadt, Germany

The piercing pounding of the mighty scythe rings through the green valley of the Mäckinger stream – no wonder that the old blacksmiths suffered from deafness. Other locations are also full of activity. An agate grinder is cutting unprocessed agate, a clog maker is hollowing out a piece of willow ...
more

LWL Open Air Museum of Handicrafts and Science
Westfälisches Landesmuseum für Handwerk und Technik
Mäckingerbach
58091 Hagen, Germany

Lauf-an-der-Pegnitz | Germany
The museum of industry at Lauf-an-der-Pegnitz, which lies 15 km north-east of Nurnberg, is concerned with life and work in industrial society between 1900 and 1970, but also with the earlier stages of industrialisation, involving working by hand and with the use of water-power, which has always been ...
more

Industrial Museum
Sichartstrasse 5-25
91207 Lauf-an-der-Pegnitz, Germany

The River Dhünn doesn’t look powerful enough to drive a factory. But it did just that for exactly two hundred years. And what a factory it is! The transmission wheels alone are gigantic. And the machines themselves are even more formidable. Heavy drop hammers whose incessant pounding seems to shake ...
more

Freudenthal Scythe Forge Industrial Museum
Freudenthal 68
51375 Leverkusen, Germany

A particularly fine example of the asynchrony of the industrial revolution can be seen with the King Frederick Augustus Tower, built in 1854 on Löbau Hill. It is the only surviving cast-iron lookout tower in Europe and probably the oldest cast-iron tower in the world. In the planning phase, ...
more

King Frederick Augustus Tower
Löbauer Berg
02708 Löbau, Germany

Lüdenscheid | Germany
Picture an idyllic valley dotted with attractive ponds which have built up here along the River Bremecke. They were once needed to provide the necessary water power for the many hammer works in the neighbourhood. In 1780 there were 88 such works in the area of Lüdenscheid. Just one has survived the ...
more

Bremecker Hammer Museum of Forging
Brüninghauser Straße 95
58513 Lüdenscheid, Germany

Lüdenscheid is a town in the Sauerland, and forms part of the Märkischer Kreis in North Rhine Westphalia, 46 km east of Wüppertal and 60 km north-west of Siegen. It lies amongst mountains on the watershed between the rivers Lenne and Volme, both of which are tributaries of the Ruhr. In the Middle ...
more

Historical Museum of the City of Lüdenscheid
Geschichtsmuseum der Stadt Lüdenscheid
Sauerfelder Strasse 14
58511 Lüdenscheid, Germany

Coal is not the only source of power: but also water. Water power is responsible for rotating the transmission belts and driving the engines in the Fellenberg mill in the Saarland. As one of the few remaining fully functional mills in the country Fellenberg bears witness to the transition period ...
more

Fellenberg mill fine mechanical workshop
Marienstraße 34
66663 Merzig, Germany

München | Germany
The Deutsches Museum von Meisterwerken der Naturwissenschaft und Technik (German Museum of the Masterpieces of Natural Science and Technology) holds one of the world’s most important collections of artefacts relating to science and industry, comparable with those of the Science Museum, London, the ...
more

Deutsches Museum
Museumsinsel 1
80538 München, Germany

Neunkirchen | Germany
Iron was smelted here until 1982. Today a modern shopping centre stands amidst the few remaining relics of iron and steel production. But there was more to the "Stumm empire " than mere blast furnaces and their adjacent production sites: these included technical constructions like the different ...
more

Neunkirchen Iron Works and Trail
66538 Neunkirchen, Germany

Heavy industry is heavy labour – for man and machines. A very clear example is the ten metre high steam forging hammer dating back to 1900, which stands in a museum on the site of the Altenberg zinc factory in Oberhausen. You only have to stand in front of this monster to suddenly feel very small ...
more

Altenberg Tin Works LVR-Industrial Museum
Hansastraße 20
46049 Oberhausen, Germany

Ohrdruf | Germany
Ohrdruf is a small town in Thuringia about 30 km. south-west of Erfurt where ironworking was an important part of the economy for five centuries. A forge powered by the waters of the River Ohra was established there in 1482. In 1592 the works was purchased by Tobias Albrecht, and it was subsequently ...
more

Tobias Hammer Technical Museum
Technisches Museum Tobiashammer
Suhler Strasse 34
9985 Ohrdruf, Germany

Peitz | Germany
Peitz is a small town 10 km north of Cottbus on the edge of the Spree Forest and on the banks of a large system of connected lakes. The town is notable for its ancient fortress tower which has walls more than 6 m thick. A state ironworks, whose principal products were munitions, was established ...
more

Peitz ironworks museum
Schulstrasse 6
03185 Peitz, Germany

Remscheid | Germany
A converted office building, a disused factory, an opulently furnished historic merchant’s house and a spacious modern new building. From the outside alone it is evident that the Remscheid German Tool Museum and historic centre unites both past and present. Inside you can see almost everything to do ...
more

German Museum of Tools
Cleffstraße 2-6
42855 Remscheid, Germany

Schmalkalden-Weidebrunn | Germany
Ironworking was important in Thuringia by the 14th century and by the 16th century the town of Schmalkalden, 40 km south-east of Eisenach, was famous for the manufacture of cutlery. The principal monument of the Thuringian iron industry is the blast furnace at Weidebrunn, 3 km north of the ...
more

Neue Hütte Technical Museum
Gothaer Strasse
98574 Schmalkalden, Germany

Solingen | Germany
ME FECIT SOLINGEN –Solingen made me. These three words were engraved into sword blades all over the world. In the Middle Ages Solingen began to make a reputation for itself as a “weapons factory” of European rank. Its most prominent customers were General Wallenstein (during the 30 Years War) and ...
more

German Museum of Blades
Klostenhof 4
42653 Solingen, Germany

St. Ingbert | Germany
The "Old Smelt" is a historic ensemble of factory buildings, housing estates and parks, most of which have been preserved in their original state. The ironworks was set up in 1732. Production reached its peak here in the 19th century when it turned out pig iron, cast iron and sheet iron products. ...
more

Old Smelt
66386 St. Ingbert, Germany

Stolberg | Germany
The decisive moment has arrived. The children gaze wide-eyed at the shape. Will it be a success? Yes, the young visitors have just cast a brass coin with the help of one of the museum workers, and after it has been polished, it will shine like gold. Brass and zinc dominate a large part of the ...
more

Zinkhütter Hof
Museum für Industrie-, Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte
Cockerillstraße 90
52222 Stolberg, Germany

Wenden | Germany
The first ever blast furnaces like the smelting furnace in Wenden were enclosed in huts to protect them from the weather. Here in the region of Olpe a museum has been opened to show the gradual growth of iron and steel manufacturing, the origins of which go right back to the early period of blast ...
more

Wenden Ironworks
Hochofenstraße 6d
57482 Wenden, Germany

Wurzbach | Germany
Wurzbach is a small town in Thuringia, surrounded by the forests of the Sormitztal, some 45 km north-west of Hof. In the time of the German Empire it was part of the principality of Reuss-Gera. Heinrichshütte, an ironworks dating from the eighteenth century, is one of the few places in Europe where ...
more

Heinrichshütte
Heutenberger Strasse 44
07343 Wurzbach, Germany