Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 22:   IRON

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 22.

Today, we see where the first American iron came from. 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! What an elementary need for a new civilization trying to find its way out of the wilderness. The first American iron ore was found in 1585 on an island off the North Carolina coast. It was too inaccessible to mine, but iron ore that could be mined was found in Virginia in 1607. When colonists sent a shipload to England, they found it just wasn't efficient to ship unsmelted ore that far. A company finally set up an American iron-smelting operation near Richmond in 1622, and then Indians massacred the whole group just before it went into production.

So the first American iron was finally produced in 1644 on the Saugus River just north of Boston -- 24 years after the Pilgrims landed, and 59 years after the first iron ore was located. This operation lasted until the 1670s, when it was forced out of business by a labor shortage.

The Saugus Iron Works was an integrated facility involving a dam to provide water power for forging, a furnace for smelting, a trip-hammer forge, and a rolling/slitting mill. It produced two forms of iron. One was cast iron, which was directly poured into molds to shape whatever product was needed, or cast into "pigs." A pig was a lump of cast iron that could be remelted and cast later, but which was more often made into the second form of iron, which was wrought iron.

Wrought iron was made by remelting the pig to reduce the amount of carbon in it and then forging it to refine its grain structure. This took a lot of power, but it yielded a very strong metal.

Now, what do you suppose was the primary product of the Saugus Works? What do people need when they're building cities out of the wilderness? They need nails, and lots of them. A great deal of the wrought iron was milled out into thin strips which were then slit into small square rods. These were sold to individual housholders who cut them into short lengths and used small dies to form points and heads on them.

Nail-rod production of this kind was rare in Europe at the time, but our needs weren't European needs -- construction was our first order of business in the 17th century. The Saugus Iron Works represented an intelligent, well-put-together -- even visionary -- answer to those needs.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


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.

This episode has been revised and expanded as Episode 1317.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode