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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.

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Member Sites ERIH Association

Muskiz | Spain
El Pobal Ironworks, a 500 years old foundry, is the only of all the ancient foundries located in the Basque Country that has preserved part of the original mechanisms and installations. This hydraulic and preindustrial complex includes a watermill dated back to the XVIIth Century, a palace and the ...
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El Pobal Ironworks
Ferrería de El Pobal
48550 Muskiz, Spain

Portugalete | Spain
Portugalete is a municipality on the south–west bank of the River Nervión downstream from Bilbao, where the river is best known as the Ria de Bilbao. The industrial museum RIALIA (which takes its name from the river) occupies a building begun in 1993 which was intended for various projects that did ...
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RIALIA: Museum of Industry
RIALIA: Museo de la Industria
Paseo de la Canilla
48920 Portugalete, Spain

Sagunto | Spain
Puerto de Sagunto, one of the latest factory-town of Spain, offers us a journey through its Industrial heritage, legacy of his more recent history. Its origins are due to the initiative of the Basque shipping company “Sota y Aznar”, which chose this point on the coast in 1900 to release iron ore ...
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Puerto de Sagunto
Address Horno Alto nº2: Avenida Altos Hornos 46520 Puerto de Sagunto
Address Tourist Info Sagunto: Plaza Cronista Chabret s/n
46500 Sagunto, Spain

San Salvador | Spain
The museum remembers the social and regional transformation that meant the settlement of a French company in this agricultural and livestock mountain area. From their industrial activity, it is interesting to visit the preserved old steel-making ovens as well as the galleries connected to the ...
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Ethnographic Museum of Quiros
Museo Ethnográfico de Quirós
Carretera General AS 229 - P.K. 8,4
33117 San Salvador, Spain

Santa Cruz de Mieres | Spain
The region of the Turón Valley was one of the most important coal mining areas in northern Spain. Numerous abandoned mines still tell of the former importance of this area and the old machinery and facilities form a kind of open-air museum. The best way to understand the mining landscape is to join ...
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Turón Valley
Valle de Turón
33610 Santa Cruz de Mieres, Spain

Sestao | Spain
Blast furnace no. 1 is the most important legacy passed down to our times from the Altos Hornos de Vizcaya (AHV) company. AHV, a Spanish iron and steel company, was founded in 1902 by the merger of three steel companies. At that time it was the largest company of its kind in Spain. It had its ...
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Blast Furnace No 1
Horno alto número 1
Calle Txabarri
48910 Sestao, Spain

Fagersta | Sweden
In 1927, the Västanfors area was established by an antiquities association as a beautiful place to visit next to Strömsholm's Canal. It is now associated with the large Bergslagen ecomuseum of sites related to the historical iron industry of the region. The conserved buildings at Västanfors include ...
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Västanfors Area
Västanforsområdet
Rune Lindströms väg
73730 Fagersta, Sweden

Ludvika | Sweden
Hammarbacken is part of old Ludvika ironworks and dating back to the 16th century. Four buildings are conserved and open to the public, a smith’s house of four rooms, with walls of iron slag, a house showing the living conditions of a family of circa 1900, another house used for meetings, and a ...
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Hammarbacken
Bruksgatan 2
Ludvika, Sweden

Norberg | Sweden
Lapphyttan is a site of world importance in industrial archaeology and a place where you can go back in time to see an early furnace in action. Archaeological excavations from the 1970s proved this was the oldest site discovered of a blast furnace – the innovation that revolutionised iron making. ...
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New Lapphyttan
Nya Lapphyttan
Västanforsvägen 30
Norberg, Sweden

Schlatt | Switzerland
Only a few meters from where bathers and water sport aficionados enjoy the Rhine in fine weather stands Klostergut Paradies, with its unique Iron Library. The core of this special library, set in the idyllic surroundings a former convent, is literature on the history of iron and steel. The ...
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Iron Library
Eisenbibliothek, Stiftung der Georg Fischer AG
Klostergut Paradies
8252 Schlatt, Switzerland

Carnlough | United Kingdom
Industrial heritage display featuring limestone quarrying in Carnlough, iron mining in Glenravel and other industries of the Glens of Antrim in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The interpretation display in The Heritage Hub at Carnlough Town Hall celebrates Carnlough’s harbour, its maritime ...
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The Heritage Hub at Carnlough Town Hall
Harbour Road
BT44 0EU Carnlough, United Kingdom

Taynuilt | United Kingdom
Bonawe is a remarkably complete charcoal-fired 18th-century iron furnace. Opened in 1753, it is possible to trace the entire manufacturing process from the surviving components at the site. These include the lade directing water to and from the furnace from the River Awe, driving the waterwheel ...
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Bonawe Iron Furnace
PA35 1JQ Taynuilt, United Kingdom

Sites

Andorra, the tiny independent principality bordered by France and Spain, which has a population of only 86,000, was of considerable importance as a source of iron in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. One of the principal monuments of the iron industry is the ore mine at Llorts in the parish of ...
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Llorts Mine and Rossell Forge
La Mina de Llorts | Farga Rossell Lorts 300 Ordino Tel + 376 (0)878-152
Areny-Plandolit Museum
300 Ordino, Andorra

Guntramsdorf | Austria
Guntramsdorf is a small town with about 9000 inhabitants, south-west of Vienna on the edge of the Vienna Woods. The Museum Walzengravieranstalt (Museum of Engraving) opened in 1989 on the premises that were occupied from 1911 until closure in 1986 by a business established by a Czech engraver, ...
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Museum of Engraving
Museum Walzengravieranstalt
Steinfeldgasse 4
2353 Guntramsdorf, Austria

Gußwerk | Austria
The mountainous region of Styria was the most important source of iron and iron products in Austria from the Middle Ages onwards. In 1880 it made 60% of the iron in the Habsburg Empire. The museum of mining and foundry work at Gußwerk is in the impressive building of the former ‘kk’ iron foundry. A ...
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Mining and Foundry Museum
Montan- und Gießereimuseum
Bahnhofstraße 7
8632 Gußwerk, Austria

Hüttenberg is a former mining town in Carinthia which has suffered since 1978 from the closure of mines and associated industries. The Carinthian Land Exhibition in 1995 attempted to revitalise the area by displaying its mining heritage and creating an open air museum to display the history of iron ...
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Hüttenberg Show Mine | Heft Open Air Museum
Hüttenberg Show Mine
Knappenberg 32
A-9376 Hüttenberg, Austria

Linz | Austria
The most significant innovation in the making of mild steel during the 20th century was made at Linz. Here in 1949 molten pig iron was decarburized by the insertion of oxygen lances to produce mild steel. This process, with many variations, is now used throughout the world. It is known as the basic ...
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Voestalpine Steel World
Voestalpine Strasse 4
4020 Linz, Austria

Vienna | Austria
The technical museum in Vienna holds many artefacts of significance to the industrial history of Europe. It was formally established in 1908, with Dr Ludwig Erhard as its director, as part of the jubilee celebrations of the Emperor Franz Josef, but it was not opened until 1918. The museum has an ...
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Technical Museum
212 Mariahilfer Strasse
1140 Vienna, Austria

Ybbsitz | Austria
The area around the market town of Ybbitz, 35 km south-east of Steyr, and 45 km north of the Iron Mountain was celebrated from the sixteenth century for the products of the many smiths who settled there, which were exported to distant parts of Europe. The region continues to produce steel wire, ...
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FERRUM. The World of Iron
Markt 24
3341 Ybbsitz, Austria

The contrast could scarcely be greater: the little town of Amay, with its old town centre, narrow alleyways, mansions and cloisters situated idyllically in the Mass valley, in the shadows of the massive cooling towers of the Huy atomic power station. Baroque middle-class splendour right next to the ...
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Les Maitres du Feu - Route du Feu
Maîtres du feu à Amay – Route du feu
Rue de Bende 5
B-4540 Amay, Belgium

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