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Blaenavon History and The New Age of Steel
When considering the history of Blaenavon, most people think of the coal mines and ironworks, and while it is true that coal was mined at Blaenavon (to fuel the furnaces), and that the ironworks of the city were once world famous (and in some respects still are), it is in the history of steel development that the city deserves its highest honor.
For a small town halfway up a Welsh mountain, Blaenavon has accomplished a lot. Sadly, however, the chemistry of steel isn’t sexy enough to excite historians and the press, and a lack of informed chemical knowledge leaves the city known only for its iron heritage and perhaps the confused belief that it had something to do with iron without phosphorus.
Close, but not close enough, and the clocks should be set to give this small Welsh town in the eastern valley the place it deserves in history. Blaenavon’s story is not just limited to iron, but to the development of steel, the alloy that changed the nature of industry and warfare in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Before discussing the town’s rightful place in the 19th century steel industry, acknowledged even by Andrew Carnegie, it should be emphasized that Blaenavon’s industrial landscape is fully deserving of its World Heritage status, a distinction awarded to the town by UNESCO in December 2000.
It is also true that this recognition has been given to the landscape around the town created by collieries and iron mines, the purpose of which was to supply Blaenavon Iron Works which produced much of Britain’s iron in the 19th century. Blaenavon’s history is rooted in the iron and steel industry, not the coal that many mistakenly believe was its staple product.
The Blaenavon was not only used to lay railway tracks around the world, but also to provide the railings, doors and even window frames for the Church of St. Peter, built in 1804 and consecrated in June 1805. This small town not only enjoys UNESCO recognition, but St. Peter’s has been honored with two visits from the Archbishop of Canterbury in the last decade: once for the enthronement of the current vicar, the Reverend Jason Bray , and later on Palm Sunday 2005, for the church’s 200th anniversary.
However, I digress, the point here being that although Blaenavon has enjoyed the fame it fully deserves, the town has not been properly recognized for the role it played in the development of steel modern. Here is a brief summary of the history of steel and why Blaenavon’s history is rich in the influence the town has had on British industrial development for over 100 years.
Steel is produced by combining iron and carbon in defined quantities: from 0.25 to 1.5% iron depending on the grade of steel required. Iron normally contains more carbon than this, so Henry Bessemer invented a process by which air was blown through molten iron to oxidize the carbon to its oxides, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide which were released into the iron. ‘atmosphere.
The carbon could then be added to the molten iron in the correct amounts to form the required grade of steel. A fun side note is that in today’s controlled industrial environment, the process would probably have been banned because it’s responsible for too many carbon emissions into the atmosphere. It’s just as well that the steel was already developed before today’s bureaucrats got involved!
A major problem was the natural phosphorus in iron ore which could not be removed by normal smelting techniques. Phosphorus makes steel too brittle for major use in construction. Long story short, a young chemist by the name of Sidney Gilchrist Thomas developed a method of removing phosphorus during the steelmaking process.
He did this by adding lime to the mixture of carbon and iron which reacted with the phosphorus, forming calcium phosphate. This rose to the top of the kiln as slag which was then skimmed off – a bonus of this process being phosphate fertilizer which was sold to provide even more profit to the Blaenavon company! Production tests of this process, known as the Thomas process, were carried out at Blaenavon using a Bessemer converter purchased for this purpose by the Blaenavon company.
The development of high quality steel is therefore one of the main highlights of Blaenavon’s history. The New Age of Steel was made possible by the Blaenavon Company’s willingness to offer Gilchrist Thomas the equipment for his testing, although there is a twist to this particular story.
The new Thomas process made it possible to use poor quality iron to make steel at a lower cost, which opened the door to large-scale steel production in Europe and the United States, which n was not possible until then. This led to the demise of the Blaenavon Ironworks which only lasted 25 years after Sidney Gilchrist Thomas unwittingly signed his death warrant by opening up the production of high quality steel to the huge iron foundries of the world with which Blaenavon could not compete.
Biter bit, hoist on its own firecracker or whatever term you want to use. By making steel easier to produce, Blaenavon’s forges destroyed themselves. In the words of Sir Michael Caine – “few people know that!”
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