The inaugural speech of the first meeting of the Iron and Steel Institute

Materials World magazine
10 May 2019

The Duke of Devonshire was the first President of the Iron and Steel Institute. His inaugural address has points that remain valid for modern researchers and professional engineering institutions.

William Cavendish, the 7th Duke of Devonshire, addressed the first formal gathering of the Iron and Steel Institute, ‘the members of which assemble this evening for the first time in their collective capacity’ in London on 23 June 1869.

Opening the speech, he gave credit to the Secretary, Jonathan Jones, for suggesting the organisation and running preliminary meetings to establish the viability of such an Institute, ‘based on the same general principles as the many existing societies founded for the promotion of scientific enquiry and practical improvements in other important spheres of industry’.

So why establish another society for the promotion of scientific enquiry? ‘The advantages of mutual co-operation among those engaged in a common pursuit, whether scientific or practical in its character, are manifest. Experience furnishes us with abundant evidence that the advancement of knowledge – especially knowledge partaking more or less of a scientific character – has been greatly promoted and accelerated by the numerous societies which feature among the distinguishing characteristics of the times in which we live.

‘Not to speak of the purely scientific societies which are so actively and successfully engaged in promoting the progress of the respective sciences, furnishing us with examples of associations whose aims more nearly resemble those of this Institute, in as much as, though the promotion of science holds a prominent place among the purposes for which they have been established, it is the promotion of science in its practical applications rather than in its purely intellectual aspects.

‘We have good reason to anticipate a not inferior measure of success to an association designed to further the progress and improvement of our iron manufacture. To anyone, indeed, who possesses a general knowledge of the enormous scale on which this manufacture is now carried, and who is, at the same time, aware how important is the aid which chemical science has already shown itself able to render both towards a true understanding and towards the improvement of the processes by which the raw ores are converted, and how essential are the services of mechanical science in the various applications of the manufactured products, it must be a matter of some surprise that an institution of this kind has not been long ago called into existence.’

This statement remains true. Large-scale manufacturing requires knowledge and materials from various sources to come together to produce better products, processes, and environmental outcomes.

The role of education, so important to professional engineering institutions (PEI) today, also features in the address. The Duke noted that universities have yet to formulate ‘courses of study … with any direct reference to the manufacture of iron, yet for many years an increasing degree of importance has been assigned to those branches of knowledge, an acquaintance with which is of essential service to the ironmaster, and at the present time proposals are under consideration for promoting a more systematic cultivation of experimental science, several branches of which have already exercised great influence, and are, in all probability, destined in future to exercise a still greater influence in promoting improvements in the processes and operations carried on in our furnaces and ironworks’.

‘This Institute will afford facilities for imparting to its members the knowledge of any valuable discoveries, whether scientific or practical, originating abroad, and of any contributions bearing on the metallurgy of iron which may make their appearance in Continental publications.’ The Duke acknowledged the UK did not stand in isolation – he discussed developments in Europe and the USA, marking an early recognition of the global role that PEIs play.

‘The great object of our Institute is to give an impulse to the progress and improvement of the manufacture in all its departments, and its success will no doubt be measured by the influence it shows itself capable of exerting in promoting such improvements.’ IOM3 continues to support such improvements through our Industrial Affiliates Scheme.

Economy and sustainability

An overview of the history of ironmaking follows, noting the moves from charcoal to coal as fuel. Here, the Duke recognised issues that are still relevant to us in 2018 – supply of raw materials and environmental impact. He said, ‘By the middle of the 16th Century, the increasing scarcity of this material [wood for charcoal] had made itself felt to so great a degree that Parliament thought it necessary to restrict the felling of timber for smelting purposes.’

The Duke noted that, over time, several attempts had been made to introduce the use of coal in blast furnaces but these resulted in practical failure, due, probably, to the small size of the furnaces, and to imperfections in the blowing apparatus. It was not till 1718 that Abraham Darby, who had previously brought over brass founders from Holland, and who appears to have been the first person to employ iron instead of brass for castings in the foundry, succeeded in producing iron by use of coke.

Modern manufacturers will recognise the quest for fuel economy, which is acknowledged here, ‘the invention, indeed, of the hot blast by [James Beaumont] Neilson, in 1829, takes rank as one of the most important epochs in the history of the manufacture’.  This fuel economy assisted the expansion in the manufacture of, and the demand for, iron. ‘Cheapness speedily led to its use on a very extensive scale for railways, bridges, shipbuilding, agricultural implements, and a variety of other purposes,’ the Duke said.

This rapid development of manufacturing was rendered possible only by vastly increased supplies of ore, due to the discovery of the carbonaceous ore deposit known as Black Band, Scotland, and supply from the Oolite formation of the North Riding of Yorkshire, which, in 1867, furnished the chief source of supply for the furnaces of Durham, as well as of the North Riding itself. ‘Very large deposits of ore have also, within about the same period, been discovered in Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, and Leicestershire. At present, the iron produced from these ores is not of a first-class quality, but the beds are, nevertheless, of immense importance, inasmuch as the argillaceous ores of South Staffordshire, Shropshire, and Derbyshire are becoming rapidly exhausted.’

Manufacturing is not only about the supply of raw materials, and the Duke stated that ‘means and appliances have kept pace with this development of the manufacture’. Improved equipment results in faster processing and better returns.

Noting that malleable iron is, ‘now almost universally made from pig iron by puddling’, praise is given to Henry Cort for this invention, ‘which consists in stirring vigorously a liquid bath of pig iron on the bed of a reverberatory furnace, which is at the same time exposed to the decarbonising influence of a heated current of air’.

‘The invention of puddling is not the only service rendered by Cort, as the use of grooved rolls for the production of bars from the balls or blooms of malleable iron was also suggested by him. The hammer had previously been the only instrument in use for
this purpose.’


Around halfway through the address, steel is finally mentioned. ‘The manufacture of which has, during the few last years, owing to recent inventions and improvements, acquired an importance greatly exceeding that which it previously possessed,’ the Duke said.

Turning to another novel invention of the time, the Duke simply states, ‘the Siemens’ gas furnace has been found a very valuable auxiliary. The distinguishing feature [of] this invention consists in conducting the gases obtained by the slow combustion of fuel through a chamber filled with fire bricks loosely piled together, which become intensely heated. The direction of the draught is then reversed, and the heat previously imparted to the brick work is reabsorbed, and carried by the reversed current into the interior of the furnace.

‘The Bessemer process, however, may be justly regarded as the most important modification of steelmaking yet introduced … The novelty consists [of] the mode of application, active combustion taking place everywhere in the mass of molten metal, under conditions the most favourable for the production of high temperatures. For the complete success of this process, manganese is, according to present ideas, required.’

Nothing occurs in isolation and the Duke referred to other improvements, such as the use of the waste gases from the blast furnaces, a practice that is now commonplace in industry for efficiency and sustainability. ‘The importance of not allowing resources of this kind to be wasted has now, for many years, been recognised in many of the British iron districts. The gases flaming at the top of the blast furnaces are now, in great measure, collected and applied in obtaining the steam required for raising materials to the furnaces, for driving the blowing engines, and for heating the blast. It is stated that in the Cleveland district alone, the introduction of this system has been attended with an annual saving of 500,000 tons of coal. With such results, it hardly admits of doubt that arrangements for the adoption of this improvement will, at no distant day, be made in all the ironworks of this kingdom,’ he said.

Another familiar refrain will be a lament on ‘the duties imposed by foreign nations on the import of iron’. Issues of competitiveness and a fear of being left behind technologically are also revealed, a theme resonating in mid-Brexit Britain. ‘An opinion, founded on the examination of the products of the ironworks of all nations, at the French International Exhibition of 1867, has been expressed by several persons, that other nations had become our superiors in practical and scientific skill’. The Duke concluded that this was not the case.

With an eye on the future, turning to the USA, he noted a ‘most extraordinary development of mineral wealth, far beyond our utmost conceptions, founded on European experience. [While] there is not any immediate prospect America will compete with the iron-producing countries of Europe in the open markets of the world, at some future period it is probable that the manufacture of iron will be carried on across the Atlantic to an extent never yet witnessed’.

Constant improvement

The Duke referred to the ‘constant aim’ of scientists to reach for further improvements in processes, chemistry and materials as, ‘the chemistry of iron, although it has engaged the attention of men of great eminence in this department of science, is still in many other respects enveloped in obscurity and uncertainty’. While testing and analysis of materials has come a long way since the experiments he referred to using spectrum analysis, the application of pure science to practical purposes remains an important pursuit of our members.

In conclusion, our first President listed the benefits of iron stating, ‘it is hardly possible to name a single necessary or convenience of life to the production of which iron has not contributed, or a single branch of industry in which it is not an indispensable auxiliary’.

While the Duke could not have foreseen the development of IOM3, he did show how the initial Institute saw links between various materials and industries. He wrapped up by commenting the Institute should be ‘entitled to claim the sympathy and good wishes of all who take an interest in the advancement of the arts of industry’, and what more could IOM3 wish for the next 150 years?