Today, we smelt the first American iron. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Iron is such a primal need
for any modern civilization. One of the first
things that early colonists went after, as they
tried to recreate Europe in the American
wilderness, was iron. Iron ore had turned up on an
island off the North Carolina coast in 1585. That
was too inaccessible to mine, but then Jamestown
settlers found iron ore on the mainland.
In 1608, just after the Jamestown colonists came,
John Smith shipped several barrels of ore back to
England. The East India Company found that the ore
yielded top-quality iron. So in 1619 they set out
to buy Virginia iron. And a Virginia company sent
iron-workers out to set up smelting operations.
Three years later, just as a settlement of 25
people was starting to smelt iron near present-day
Richmond, Virginia, Indians massacred them and
destroyed their furnaces. Virginia Iron-making
limped after that, and eyes turned to the Plymouth
Colony in Massachusetts.
In 1644, only 24 years after the Pilgrims landed,
John Winthrop set out to build bog-iron smelters on
two sites -- one in Braintree, south of Boston, the
other just north of Boston on the Saugus River. The
Saugus Iron Works operated until 1668, when a labor
shortage put it out of business.
The Saugus Works was an integrated facility. It had
a dam to provide water power for forging, a
smelting furnace, a trip-hammer forge, and a
rolling/slitting mill. The name given to the
factory was Hammersmith, and it produced two
kinds of iron. Cast iron was poured directly
into molds to produce an end product. The other
form was cast into "pigs" -- large lumps that could
either be remelted and cast later or made into
To make wrought iron you melt the pig at a high
temperature to reduce its carbon content. Then you
forge it to refine its grain structure. The result
is both tough and strong.
Now, what do you suppose the primary product of the
Saugus Works was? What do people need when they're
trying to build cities from scratch? They need lots
of nails. The Saugus smiths milled most of
their wrought iron into thin strips. Then they slit
those strips into small square rods and sold them
It was up to the user to cut the square rods into
short lengths and use small dies to shape points
and heads. That kind of nail production was rare in
Europe, but our needs weren't European needs. New
wooden buildings were our first order of business
in the 17th century. So the Saugus Iron Works was
not just a well-put-together factory, it was a
visionary response to basic need.
Today you can visit the rebuilt Saugus works just
off Highway One. The blast-furnace is working
again. The water wheel drives the hammer forge and
rolling mill. And, while you're wondering how they
set such complex equipment up so quickly, a tour
guide will hammer out a square nail for you, right
there where it all began.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Hartley, E. N., Ironworks on the Saugus: The Lynn
and Graintree Ventures of Undertakers of the
Ironworks in New England. Norman OK: University
of Oklahoma Press, 1957.
To see the rebuilt Saugus (Hammersmith) Ironworks,
click on the website: http://www.nps.gov/sair/
Archaeologist James Brothers IV, a student of
Virginia iron, writes (in 2004) to indicate that
since this episode was written (ca. 1996) much has
been learned. He recommends reading Robert Gordon:
American Iron: 1609-1900. Baltimore, MD:
Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2001 reprint. Brothers
also points out that the Saugus reconstruction was
based heavily upon the illustrations in Diderot. Hence the reconstruction
may well represent eighteenth-century French
practice better than it replicates
seventeenth-century British/colonial iron works.
This is a greatly reworked and emended version of
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1998 by John H.
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