Friday, January 18, 2013

the last book I ever read (David McCullough's The Johnstown Flood, excerpt one)

from The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough:

Henry Bessemer, a brilliant English chemist, had devised just such a process at about the time Kelly first arrived at the Cambria works, and, deservedly enough, got nearly all of the credit. The Bessemer converter used a blast of air directed through the molten iron to oxidize, or burn off, most of the carbon impurities in the metal to make steel. Previous steelmaking techniques required weeks, even months. The Bessemer process could produce good-quality steel in less than one hour.

It was one of the important technological innovations of all time, and Morrell was among the first to recognize just what its impact might be. He financed Kelly’s erratic pioneering in the technique for close to five years and after the war invested heavily in new Bessemer equipment. In the late ‘60’s and ‘70’s Johnstown was the liveliest steel center in the country, with the most inventive minds in the industry gathering there—the Fritz brothers, George and John, Bill Jones, and the brilliant and energetic Alexander Holley.

Moreover, Morrell had Cambria Iron do something no other steel company experimenting with the Bessemer process dared try, and something that was to prove immensely beneficial to Andrew Carnegie. He used only American workers, training Pennsylvania farm boys to understand and master the new technology, while everyone else in the business was importing English workers already familiar with it. At first there were months of costly setbacks and disappointments in Johnstown, but the results in the long run proved Morrell right.

In 1867, from ingots made at Steelton, the first Bessemer rails to be rolled on order in the United States came out of the Cambria mill. By 1871 Morrell had one of the first really big Bessemer plants in operation, and for the next five years Cambria would be the largest producer in the country, if not the world.

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