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To what extent was the iron industry 'transformed' between 1750-1830?

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Introduction

To what extent was the iron industry 'transformed' between 1750-1830? Though the iron industry undoubtedly experienced a notable transformation between the years 1750-1830, the extent to which it was transformed, in R. Brown's opinion, was not of the same immense scale of that of the cotton industry. He claims that 'no other industry underwent the explosive development that the cotton industry experienced during the 'industrial revolution'.' This is true in some respects, but evidence indicates that though the iron transformation may have been less 'explosive', it was still a highly significant revolution, which occurred at a more gradual, yet accelerating pace. The change in the iron industry was caused by a number of factors. Firstly, Abraham Derby's substitution of coke for charcoal, which was said by J.R Harris to be "One of the greatest advances in the history of technology." This was followed by the development of the steam engine by Boulton and Watt in 1774, and finally Henry Cort's noteworthy 'puddling and rolling' technique in the 1780s, which was said to bring rationalisation to the iron industry. It is these innovations that assisted the iron industry in changing from "small, scattered and stagnant" (M. Falkus) to being widespread, "large scale" and "integrated" (J.R Harris), and ultimately leading to a dominant British iron industry by the beginning of the 19th century. Chronologically, the first significant innovation which was to transform the iron industry was that of the substitution of charcoal for coke by Abraham Derby in 1709.

Middle

Ashton). Areas which had abundant coal resources were finally able to benefit; a chief example of this being the Black Country, which was indeed transformed from contributing only 10% of pig iron output in 1788 to a position of dominance 30 years later. (C.K Hyde). Multi-furnace sites grew after the introduction of steam power, with 22 such sites existent in Britain in 1790. Also, blast furnaces became more productive, with estimates from M. Falkus stating that the annual production of a blast furnace in 1788 was 750 tonnes, compared to an almost doubled amount of 1491 tonnes by 1805. This clearly contributes to the argument of great transformation of the iron industry significantly, as the efficiency and dispersal of the sector was improving rapidly. Furthermore, the introduction of steam power eradicated the long shut downs associated with water power, which disrupted the industry significantly. An example of this is Stavely ironworks in Derbyshire, which had to shut down for five and a half months a year, due to the inefficiency of water power. With the introduction of steam power however, yearly shut downs were reduced to only one month a year and output almost doubled to 776 tonnes a month. (C.K Hyde). Conversely, steam power did have some weaknesses. Though unarguably providing a massive turning point in the development of the iron industry, in some areas there is little evidence of progress.

Conclusion

Essentially, there is evidence of significant transformations in the Iron industry prior to 1830, in the form of Abraham Derby's substitution of charcoal for coke (1760s), Boulton and Watt's steam engine (1774) and Henry Cort's techniques of 'puddling' and 'rolling', and the substitution of coke for coal in the 1780s. Conversely, though they did succeed in eliminating restrictions brought about by the prolonged use of water and wood (for charcoal), the true actualisation of the iron industry could be said to have only occurred post 1830, as before this date sites still remained "scattered" and development was piecemeal. However, the iron industry did undoubtedly experience measurable transformations during the period 1750-1830. Though the industry may not have shown signs of the 'explosive' development of the cotton industry, P. Deane argues that iron played "a more powerful and pervasive role in the process of British industrialisation than did cotton." This seems to indicate that though iron's progress was slow at first, the industry's growth eventually took precedence over cotton, and after 1830 (beyond the scope of this essay) the iron industry emerged as a prominent sector in British economy. Therefore, it is fair to conclude that the transformations of the iron industry during the period 1750-1830 provided a platform upon which the industry could grow, which enabled the full 'transformation' of the industry post 1830, and beyond the requirements of this essay title.

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