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Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel

The Industrial Revolution began in Britain in the 18th century. It was the greatest period of change in history, transforming the handicraft and agricultural economy into the modern era of machine manufacturing and industry.

It occurred during the period 1760 to 1840, when the rapid changes affected not only manufacturing and technology, but also society as a whole. A new type of work, the factory production line, meant more employees were needed. This led to increases in the population in urban areas.

The revolution continued throughout the 19th century and spread across Europe and the rest of the world. Key changes that took place included the use of new materials in industry (mainly iron and steel) and different energy sources.

Fuels including petroleum and coal and power sources such as the steam engine, electricity and the internal-combustion engine were widely used in the workplace. New machines were invented, increasing production, while developments in communication and transportation further advanced industry.

Iron production

Iron and steel had a major impact on the Industrial Revolution. Prior to 1760, the iron industry was based on small, local production facilities, located near water, charcoal and limestone, which were essential to the process.

Some areas, such as South Wales, had a monopoly on iron production. The iron produced in other parts of Britain was of a lower quality and contained impurities. This limited its use and not much was turned into wrought iron. The impurities had to be hammered out to produce wrought iron and it became a time-consuming process.

This added to the costs and as wrought iron was available more cheaply by importing it from Scandinavia, it created a challenge for industrialists to solve. More than 50% of the iron used in Britain at this time was imported from Sweden.

Main problems

Iron smelting techniques in Britain in the early 18th century were old and traditional. They used a blast furnace – a process invented in 1500 that tended to produce brittle iron. Furnaces were small, so their output was limited. The process was dependent on how much timber was in the local area.

Due to inadequate transport, everything had to be close together, which limited production further. Smaller ironmasters began grouping together to form larger organisations, with a little success.

The industry was very labour-intensive, and the iron was produced at a high cost. It tended to be used mainly for items like nails, which didn’t require a high quality iron.


Steel was more durable and less brittle than iron, but consequently it was more difficult to make. Turning molten iron into steel was a long process before the Industrial Revolution. New technology and sense of entrepreneurship created by the Industrial Revolution was the basis of today’s modern steel industry.

Prior to this, steel was manufactured by simple, small-batch production, but after the Bessemer process was developed in England in 1854, it launched the beginning of mass production. It was the first inexpensive industrial process to mass produce steel from molten pig iron and preceded the development of the open-hearth furnace. The principle of the Bessemer process was the removal of impurities in the iron through oxidation, which involved blowing air through the molten iron.

The inventor, Henry Bessemer, later set up his own steel works in Sheffield. He solved early issues of contamination of the iron ore with phosphorus by changing the lining of the furnace. This caused the phosphorus to be removed from the steel.

This was the start of the huge Sheffield steel industry, which helped propel Britain to the role of world leader in steel production. By the end of the 19th century, Britain produced 30 million tonnes of steel annually. The scale of production increased significantly during the 20th century, when large-scale blast furnaces were introduced.

Although the Bessemer process is no longer used commercially, when it was first invented, it was of massive importance to the industry, because it reduced the cost of producing steel.

Greatest inventions

Bessemer’s steel production process was of great interest to Andrew Carnegie, the industrialist and business magnate, who used it in his existing businesses, the Union Iron Works and the Keystone Bridge Company in the US. It was largely used to replace wrought iron in bridges because it was stronger.

There had been a number of rail disasters in the 19th century, where bridges reinforced by wrought iron had collapsed, including the Dee Bridge collapse on 24th May 1847 in Chester, UK. Five people lost their lives on the bridge over the River Dee, built by the Chester and Holyhead Railway.

Carriages of a passenger train fell through the bridge into the river, causing serious injuries, as well as the fatalities. Before the Bessemer process was introduced, steel production was too expensive to use it for bridges, but it soon became the popular choice due to its superior strength.

In the 1860s, railways in Britain and overseas started using steel rails. In the United States, this began to open up the country for the first time.

When farming became mechanised during the Industrial Revolution, much of the machinery was built from steel, such as the combine harvester, invented in 1865.

The first steel-reinforced skyscraper, which was ten storeys high, opened in Chicago in 1883, while the first steel wire suspension bridge, Brooklyn Bridge in New York, opened the same year.

Lifestyle innovations

Up until the 1950s and 1960s, steel was largely used for industrial purposes, including military and vehicle use, but new processes meant it could be used for lifestyle and comfort as well. There was a huge growth in the range of home appliances made of steel during these two decades and consumers flocked to buy them.

Today, manufacturers are forging a new era for steel. They are looking to reduce costs and increase productivity by collaborating on new production technologies. Steel is also 100% recyclable without downgrading in quality. It has become the most recycled material in the world in recent years.

Pipecraft’s tube bending expertise produces smooth, even and uniform results, ensuring consistency for all your tube manipulation requirements. Contact us by email at or give us a call on 01903 766778.

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