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