Popular Science Monthly/Volume 1/July 1872/Iron and Civilization

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IRON AND CIVILIZATION.[1]
By ABRAM S. HEWITT, Esq.

MR. PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN: To me is assigned the honor of bidding you welcome to the city of New York, on this, the occasion of our first annual meeting, and I am sure that you will find yourselves made welcome by all who have the honor and prosperity of the city at heart. For New York, although far from being the cherished home of science and art, comprehends that its growth and its future greatness depend upon the development of the natural resources of the country of which it is the commercial metropolis; and it is sufficiently enlightened to understand the necessity of scientific knowledge and trained experience for the attainment of the most useful and profitable results from industrial enterprises. No body of men can understand better than you that capital is essential to the development of natural resources on the scale demanded by modern civilization; but capital does not always comprehend as fully that science and experience are essential for the profitable use of money in the vast industrial undertakings of our day, and hence result great waste of resources and disastrous failures. A few considerations may serve to shed some light on this subject, of such material consequence to science and capital; and, at the risk of overstepping the conventional limits of a formal welcome, I venture briefly to suggest them as the means of establishing a common ground of sympathy and fellowship between the men of science and the men of business, and I am sure that you will pardon me if I draw my illustrations from that subject with which I am most familiar—the production of iron.

In 1856 I had occasion to trace the history of the manufacture of iron, and established what may be termed its law of development, rather rude indeed, but plainly dependent upon the growth of population and the spread of civilization throughout the world. At that time the annual production of iron had reached about 7,000,000 tons, of which Great Britain produced 3,500,000 tons, and the United States about 1,000,000 tons. The consumption of Great Britain was 144 pounds, and of the United States 84 pounds, while the average consumption of the world was only 17 pounds, per head, of population. It was shown that the consumption per head was steadily on the increase, and that consequently the annual production was enlarging so rapidly as to double once in 14 years; and it was predicted, after making due allowances for all the drawbacks, such as the wars which have unhappily taken place in the interval, beyond any possible expectation, that in 1875 the production of iron would surely reach 14,000,000 tons. The actual returns show that in 1871 the production amounted to 13,500,000 tons, and in 1872 the limit 14,000,000 will undoubtedly be passed, so that the estimate made in 1856 is more than realized. Meanwhile the consumption has risen in England to 200 pounds, in the United States to 150 pounds, and in the whole world to 30 pounds, per head. It is not possible to convey a more striking idea of the progress of the world, during the last 17 years, than this statement affords. The consumption of iron measures the progress of civilization, and it is impossible not to believe that the whole world will ultimately require as much iron per head as we now use in the United States, when a total annual production of over 70,000,000 tons will be required. But, if these figures seem to be at all wild, no one can for a moment doubt that the next 17 years will double the present annual production of iron, bringing it up to 28,000,000 tons per annum; and I feel quite safe in asserting that the beginning of the twentieth century, which some among you may hope to see, will witness an annual production of over 40,000,000 tons.

You need not be told that iron is produced at less money-cost in Great Britain than in any other quarter of the globe. This has enabled her to produce about one-half of the total annual make. Of the 7,000,000 tons made in 1855, Great Britain produced 3,585,906 tons, and, of the 13,500,000 tons produced last year, she turned out nearly 7,000,000 tons. It it is evident, however, that there are limits in the way of raw material and labor beyond which Great Britain cannot go. While I see no reason to doubt that there will be a steady increase in production, it is evident that she will not be able to supply hereafter, as heretofore, so much as half the annual wants of the world for iron. But, allowing this proportion to Great Britain, there will still remain 14,000,000 tons to be made by the rest of the world. The history of the trade, as well as the natural resources of the several nationalities, prove that the bulk of this additional product can only be made in the United States. We are, in fact, the only people who have kept pace with Great Britain in the ratio of increase. In 1855, when Great Britain produced 3,500,000 tons, we produced 1,000,000 tons. In 1872, when Great Britain will produce 7,000,000 we produce 2,000,000 tons—the quantity produced in Great Britain in 1847, showing that we are only 25 years in arrear of her magnificent production. At the same rate, therefore, we could make 7,000,000 tons in 1897. But, as Great Britain cannot possibly maintain her rate of increase, there does not seem room for a doubt that our annual production will reach at least 10,000,000 and will probably amount to 15,000,000 tons before the close of the present century. This means that 25,000,000 to 40,000,000, tons of iron ore shall be annually extracted from our mines, and that our coal-production will exceed 100,000,000 tons per annum, required for iron and other branches of industry. It means that an investment of capital to the amount of $500,000,000 at least, and probably $1,000,000,000, shall be made in opening mines, erecting works, and supplying the requisite machinery of production. New York is already the financial centre of the American Continent, and is destined to be the main distributor of capital for the world. This vast sum of money will therefore be drawn from the accumulations of capital controlled in New York, and its productive results will depend mainly upon the judgment and skill displayed in its expenditure. Here, then, is the common ground on which Capital and Science must meet and shake hands, and be henceforth inseparable friends. But, if it be the mission of science thus to reconcile capital with industry, it is the still higher and nobler mission of science to reconcile industry with capital. The world is full of the conflict between capital and labor. Where there should be peace, there is war. Where Nature intended an absolute harmony, there is utter discord. For one, I am free to say, after the most careful investigation, and very extensive observation, that iron has heretofore been made at too low a cost in foreign countries to allow the workmen engaged in its production a fair share of the necessaries and comforts of life. This is due to the fact that the possession of virgin resources in coal and iron made it easy to increase production beyond the present wants of society. The resulting competition has had the effect to reduce prices to so low a point that proper wages could not be paid, and mankind has been enabled to get cheap goods at the expense of humanity itself.

I thank God, reverently and with gratitude unspeakable, that this day has passed, I trust, forever. These virgin resources are mainly exhausted, and it is no longer possible in Europe, at least, to produce more iron than the world requires; prices have risen; the workmen are demanding and receiving a more reasonable reward for their labor, and it now only remains for them to fit themselves and their families for a rational use and enjoyment of the fruits of their toil. In looking back over the sad and gloomy fields of suffering among the European mines and works which I have traversed so often, and in looking forward to the more cheerful prospect now spread out before the sons of toil, I am tempted to exclaim with the patriarch: "Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation."

But cheap iron is a blessing to mankind, and to deprive the world of it is a calamity so serious that no one can contemplate it without a feeling of reluctance. Here, again, science steps in to reconcile high wages with cheap iron. It is the mission of science to cheapen processes, which enables wages to be raised without enhancing the cost of the product of the world. The history of industry is full of examples of the truth of this proposition, but for our purpose the Bessemer process affords its best illustration. By the genius of one man the whole world is enriched, its comforts enlarged, its progress promoted, and new fields of art and industry opened to its enterprise and energy. The annual saving in carrying on the business and transportation of the world can only be measured by millions; and when equal genius is applied to the proper distribution of the savings produced by the Bessemer process, by the Danks puddler, and other economical processes that have been and will be invented, the laboring classes all over the world will be lifted out of the depths, and this earth become the paradise it was intended to be, when the Great Giver of all endowed it with so much beauty and such boundless sources of wealth, and made the forces of Nature to be the servants of man, whenever he learns how to use and govern them. You, gentlemen, have limited yourselves to the study of physical laws and their application to industry, but I hope to see the day when all over this land, and throughout the world, there will be similar associations devoting themselves with equal zeal and intelligence to the discovery of the laws upon which society should be organized, and to the application of these laws to the proper distribution of the fruits of industry among those who labor for their production; so that nowhere in the world, and least of all in this land of boundless resources, shall it be said that there are idle hands because there is no work to be done, or that there are want and misery because there is not a just division of the proceeds of industry. If then, my views in regard to the dignity and importance of your mission be correct, you have not associated yourselves together one day too soon. You can derive encouragement from the magnificent results already achieved by your sister association, the British Iron and Steel Institute, only two years your senior, which has already given to the world several volumes of papers of inestimable value, and among them that admirable treatise of J. Lowthian Bell, on "the Chemical Phenomena of Iron Smelting," wherein the laws covering the operation of the blast-furnace are placed upon settled foundations, and two continents have been made his debtor—a debt which you will gladly join with me in recognizing on the first suitable public occasion which has occurred since the completion of his great work.

Having thus briefly traced out the mission of science in our day to bring capital into productive relations with labor, and to remove the just grievances of labor, not against capital, but against its ignorant administration, and to make commodities cheap for the benefit and not at the expense of humanity, let me, in conclusion, sketch the picture which will be presented at the beginning of the next century, when our mining interests will be developed on a scale somewhat commensurate with the area of the country and the extent of its resources. As New York will be the centre of capital, so will it be the initial point of our iron and steel industry. On the shores of the Hudson River, the ores of Lake Champlain, of the valleys of Connecticut, and of the highland ranges of New York and New Jersey, will meet the anthracite coals of Pennsylvania upon conditions so favorable that New York and its vicinity must become a great metallurgical centre. Thence the chain of fire, extending across New Jersey and following the banks of the Lehigh and Schuylkill to the Susquehanna, will lead us by the margin of the coal-fields, along the outcrop of the magnetic, hematite, and fossiliferous ores which extend through Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama, nearly to the Gulf, so that the light of furnace answering to furnace will never be lost sight of in the long line of over 1,000 miles! Hence, turning to the West, Missouri, Kentucky, Western Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, will be all aglow with furnaces, forges, and mills, fed by the admirable fuel of the inexhaustible coal-fields of the West, and the superb ores of Missouri and Lake Superior. The waters of the great lakes will reflect the flames which will light up their margin, while to the west, along the lines of the various Pacific Railways, the newly-found coal and iron of that hitherto trackless region will form an enduring basis for the growth of industrious communities, busy cities, and teeming farms. The West coast will not be behind in the race, but an iron industry, more valuable than its mines of gold and silver, will yet supply its growing millions with the fundamental basis upon which modern civilization rests. The growth of this vast industry will be accompanied by the school-master, the preacher, and the physician. Homes of which human nature may be proud will be established in its wake, labor and Christianity will march hand in hand, binding all interests and all classes so harmoniously and so indissolubly together, that peace and good-will between capital and labor shall prevail throughout the land forever.

  1. An address before the American Institute of Mining Engineers.