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Sheffield as the Metropolis of Steel


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There was a time when people thought of Sheffield almost solely as the place where knives and forks were made. It is true to-day that Sheffield is the chief city of the world for the making of cutlery, but how little of the work of this huge hive of industry does that one fact express! For Sheffield is the source of the world's best steel; and steel is the very mainspring for the mightiest industries of mankind. We live in the age of steel far more truly than men ever lived in a stone, or bronze, or iron age.

All the chief activities of civilised man are carried on by machinery, worked by power in the form of heat or electricity, and this machinery is made of steel. That is the only material strong enough to contain and control the enormous power which mankind is using everywhere. It is the only material plastic, enough to be shaped exactly to express man's wish, and yet tough enough to hold even the tremendous forces he uses. It fills our factories with machinery. It tunnels the earth to reach its minerals, and hauls them to the surface, or breaks down the rocks for their extraction. It builds our railways and the trains that traverse them. It frames alike the humble bicycle and the lordly motor-car on our roads, and overhead the whirring aeroplane. Of it the giant ships that race across the oceans are made, and the throbbing engines that force them at a speed of thirty miles an horn-through the stormy waters. It encases the world's huge warships; forms the destructive guns that hurl their projectiles beyond the bounds of human sight; and it hardens those projectiles till they will pierce any material except its own densest and thickest plates. It ploughs, sows, and reaps our fields, and carries the produce to market. It makes the framework of our many-storeyed buildings. It is the material of the wonderful tools that will bore and cut steel itself as one might scoop or cut a cheese. It shapes and trims all the world's softer materials, such as wood, leather, or densest paper, with a playful ease. In short, steel is, beyond imagination, the most powerful of all man's servants. If a great poet were to write the story of man's latest material triumphs, steel would have to be his subject.

All this is new to the world. The story of it began less than eighty years ago. And Sheffield is its place of origin. Here the chief discoveries respecting the wonderful powers and possibilities of steel have been made. Here steel is understood most thoroughly by scientific research and practical experience. Today four hundred firms in the city are making it in many varieties, or shaping it to innumerable uses. This is what Sheffield stands for in the sight of all the world. It is because the place has helped so much towards the perfecting of this marvellous instrument of civilisation that its past history, as outlined in this book, should be a source of general interest; and the present, even more than the past, a cause of just pride to its own people.

Sheffield industries began to collect together into great works in the year 1823, when the Sheaf Works were built with the object of carrying out all the processes of manufacture in one place. Gradually the ambitious firms, or those that were attracted to the heavy trades, followed suit, and laid out new works within reach of the railways. Nearly all the great firms were begun in some other locality than that which they now occupy, so it is difficult to give any one of them a starting date. Each was an outgrowth from a comparatively small beginning, and the demand that caused them to expand was the spread, first, of railways throughout the land, later, the change to armoured warships, and, finally, the use of steel, enormously in shipbuilding, and to a large extent in the machinery of every industry, accompanied by the need for tools.

The great forward steps taken in Sheffield industries in the nineteenth century are associated most closely with the names of Sir Henry Bessemer and Sir John Brown. Bessemer was associated with Sheffield only through the establishment there of the works where he put into use his new method of making steel. Steel is now made in four ways - first, by the oldest method of heating and hammering and re-heating and re-hammering, after the iron ore has been smelted and formed into thin bars. This is the shear steel, still in use for cutlery. Next, by the crucible method of Huntsman, modified by later knowledge and experience. This is still the method used for the most valuable steels. Third, the Bessemer process, modified by the improvements of Mushet, who was employed by the Osborn firm.

And, lastly, by the Siemens-Martin process, which is now in most general use in Sheffield.

The special feature of the Bessemer process was the introduction of such a strong blast to the molten metal as would burn out all the carbon, and then leave the steel-maker free to add such other ingredients as the chemical study of steel showed to be necessary for the production of steels of different qualities - harder or softer, brittle or more ductile.

Siemens, in the open-hearth process, saved heat and intensified it by using for his blast hot air from the furnace instead of cold, and this enabled manufacturers to use ore with a smaller percentage of carbon and a higher percentage of impurities, such as phosphorus, as the blast cleared away the harmful elements more thoroughly. Both these improvements enormously cheapened the production of the average steels in ordinary use.

A later improvement of vast importance has been the production of high-speed steel, containing tungsten, chromium, vanadium, or other ingredients, which retains its hardness under heat, so that instead of becoming broken down at, say, 250 C., it will retain its working power up to as high as 650 C. The hardening of steel in this way, first discovered by Robert Mushet, was carried further in America, and has since been greatly increased by the steel experts of Sheffield, with the result that the city is now supplying almost the whole world with the steels that are so hard that they will cut or bore other steels; or keep a keen edge on such tools as drills, without sharpening, while doing ten times the work possible to the best steel made a generation ago.

Something must be said here about the two inventors, Bessemer and Siemens, and about John Brown who helped to widen the range of work for which steel was proved to be suitable.

Sir Henry Bessemer was born in 1813 near Hitchin, but came of Huguenot stock. His father, also a clever inventor, was born in England, but had spent his early working life in France, till he had to flee from the Revolution. When he returned to England he started a type-founding business, working, by the way, in connection with the historic type-founding firm of Caslon, from which the great Sheffield firm of Stephenson & Blake is descended. When quite a youth, Bessemer junior went to London, and there, for a quarter of a century, he thought out a great number of inventions. Indeed, when he died, at the age of 85, the Patent Office had records of 114 patents he had taken out.

It was really the Crimean War that led him towards his process of making steel. Artillery was then very defective, and Bessemer turned his attention to making guns, but found the gun metal too weak to bear the strain of the charges he wished to use. So he set about making a stronger steel, and in trying to do this found his way to an invention which, it has been said, perhaps with some exaggeration, "ranks in modern history with the invention of printing and the introduction of the steam-engine." Bessemer's patents brought him in a million pounds. Yet, for a while, manufacturers laughed at his method, and to make his steel known he started in Sheffield in 1859 the firm still known as Henry Bessemer & Co.

Sir William Siemens, whose steel-making process is most generally used now, was born ten years later than Bessemer. He was a Hanoverian German who became naturalised in England. Three brothers, all ingenious, worked with him. They were always inventing, and improving each other's inventions. William himself took out 113 English patents. He first insulated telegraph wires by surrounding them with gutta-percha, and his firm laid the first Atlantic cable. He was the first man to run an electric railway. A memorial window in Westminster Abbey preserves his name for those who do not know how it is written as by fire in the history of steel.

While men like Bessemer and Siemens and Mushet were improving the steel material with which Sheffield works, others like Sir John Brown were showing how this material might be applied to fresh uses. John Brown, the son of a slater, was born in 1816, in a yard off Fargate. He became a merchant of Sheffield goods before being a manufacturer. His first success was in making up an invention of his own - steel springs for the buffers of railway waggons, which before had been of wood. In 1856 he started the Atlas Works in Savile Street, where he developed a great business in all kinds of railway requisites, such as springs, tyres, axles, wheels, and, above all, steel rails made by the Bessemer process. This was the beginning of a revolution in laying the railway tracks of the whole world.

He also convinced the British Government of the possibility of sheathing the Navy in rolled armour plate, and actually accomplished the protection in this way of three-fourths of the country's men-of-war, after the American naval battles had proved that the day of the wooden warship was ended. With him as partners were William Bragge and John Devonshire Ellis. Sir John Brown retired with a fortune, built Endcliffe Hall, and spent much time on public affairs, including the first chairmanship of the School Board. He died in 1896.

For nearly forty years Mr. Ellis, who succeeded him, remained the managing director of the firm. One of his favourite stories in later years was how the firm utterly failed to convince the Midland Railway officials of the superiority of steel rails, until they had laid some without permission beyond their sidings on the adjoining track belonging to the Company, and proved by the comparison the advantage of the steel rail from every point of view.

The firm of John Brown & Co. made a point early in their career of supplying themselves with materials from their own mines, both coal and iron. They own collieries with an output of over 2½ million tons per year. They have carried to the fullest extent the principle of co-operation with other firms doing allied kinds of work, by acquiring a great shipbuilding yard at Clydebank, and an interest in Haiiand & Wolff's of Belfast, with joint ownership of the Coventry Ordnance Works (with Cammells), and association with the Sheffield firm of Thomas Firth & Sons. Their works in Sheffield cover over 40 acres, and at Clydebank 78 acres, and their turnover amounts to over four million pounds annually.

Like the firm of Vickers, and the firm of Cammell, they can build and arm a battleship completely. A special feature of their work is the production of turbine drums for warships and the great passenger liners. The firm, in short, is doing things with its 200-ton cranes and 8,000-ton bending-press that its founder could never have dreamed of.

The same story is repeated in each of the other gigantic Sheffield firms. Thus, Cammells of the Cyclops Works, have become Cammell, Laird & Co., by union with the great shipbuilding firm, Lairds of Birkenhead, with a united works expanse of 250 acres. The firm has a department, largely for railway material, at Penistone; furnaces at Workington and Maryport; iron ore mines in Cumberland; and collieries at Barnsley. It joins with John Brown & Co. in ownership of the Coventry Ordnance Works; and is also associated with the Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. Cammells not only build and arm warships and do all kinds of marine work and railway work that is based on steel, but they are a great steel-making firm, producing annually 100,000 tons of steel ingots; and they retain the file trade with which they originally started in Furnival Street, their output being about a million and a half of files a year.

The great firm of Vickers Limited was, among the businesses that have reached gigantic proportions, one of the last to be established, but it has grown with extraordinary rapidity, and is now "up to date" to the last minute. Its River Don Works occupy 73 acres, and its Barrow shipbuilding Works over 100 acres. It employs between 5,000 and 6,000 men in Sheffield, and about 12,000 at Barrow. Its melting and forging plants are "the last word" in this department of the world's industry. The fame of Vickers' ordnance, from the great guns of the Dreadnoughts to machine guns, is in every land. The smaller quick-firing guns are made at Erith, and the Company has ammunition works at Dartford. Its Wolseley Motor Car Works are at Birmingham. Vickers Ltd. also undertake electrical installations on a large scale. Of course, where departmental works are carried on in other towns, the steel-making and forging are done in Sheffield, where they can be constantly tested by the metallurgical staff.

The firm of Thomas Firth & Sons, of the Norfolk Works and also of Tinsley, made its name by the quality of its steel, and it still preserves that reputation, while it has branched off into the manufacture of heavy guns, shell, marine shafting, turbines, railway material of all kinds, and the special steels needed for the working parts of motor cars. Firth's is associated in co-operative production with John Brown & Co. It also has works in Russia and in the United States. The firm is one that in every way has commanded respect, for it has always preserved in the city "a good name."

Hadfield's Steel Foundry Company, of the Hecla Works, Attercliffe, and East Hecla Works, Tinsley, is a firm of comparatively recent origin which has expanded into a remarkable success. It was started in 1872, on a four-acre area at Attercliffe, but now has added 90 acres more at Tinsley, where it includes the largest foundry in the world - half as large again as the whole of the original works. Nearly 5,000 men are employed. The head of the firm, Sir Robert Hadfield, is known throughout the engineering world as the discoverer of manganese steel. Before the scientific introduction into pure carbon steel of such metals as manganese and tungsten, the harder a steel was the more brittle it became; but now steels can be made both hard and tough - qualities which previously were supposed to be the opposite of each other. Manganese steel is used where there is great friction, as at the crossings and curves of tramways, and Hadfield's has a large business in this special steel department, which includes making wheels for colliery tubs.

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Pictures for Sheffield as the Metropolis of Steel

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Tilt Hammer for Forging Tool Steel
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Rolling an Armour Plate
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150-TON SELF-CONTAINED HIGH-SPEED FORGING PRESS
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