A Failed High-Tech Gamble

Ten miles north of Boston is the National Historic Site of  the Saugus Iron Works, site of the first heavy industry in the country.   It’s a pretty spot, and a great place for a picnic, which my family took advantage of a couple of weeks ago:

Water wheels to drive the blast furnace (foreground) and rolling mill (background)

It’s a reconstruction of the first blast furnace and iron works in the US.  It had its first pour in 1648 and last in 1668.  The site was lost for centuries, until archaeologists uncovered it in the 1950s.  They found the original hammer for the rolling mill (a 500-pound chunk of iron), found the remains of the wooden water wheels, and found the foundations of the brick furnace itself.  Then volunteers found the plans and rebuilt the entire site, re-creating both the mechanisms and the buildings.

I’m sure that most visitors today see it as a charming piece of antique technology, the kind whose workings one can actually see and understand.  You can trace just how the water runs down the spillway, drives the overshot wheel, and turns a crank to pull a bellows or a hammer up and down.

To me, though, it looks like a desperate attempt to build the highest technology of the day by people who were living on the edge of world.   It’s as if the people of McMurdo Station in Antarctica attempted to build a semiconductor fab.

In the 1640s the Massachusetts Bay Colony was barely established.  The main fleet of some 20,000 colonists had only come across in the 1630s.   They had settled the coast of New England, and penetrated a few miles inland along water routes, but were faced with a vast and unknown continent to the west, full of hostile natives.   Plus there were hostile French to the north and hostile Virginians and Spaniards to the south.   Few others had come since then, since England was in the midst of a horrific civil war.  King Charles II and Parliament were at each other’s throats over who was the actual master of England.

The colonists could grow their own food, weave their own clothes and build their own houses.   The key technology they lacked was iron.   Every nail and every axehead had to come from England.    So in 1641 the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts  set up a plan for “the discovery of mines”, and appointed the governor’s son, John Winthrop Jr., to lead it.  He found financing for an iron works in England, and artisans to run it, but picked a bad site in Quincy Mass (now the John Winthrop Jr. Furnace Site) that was too far from the bog iron that would supply the furnace.  Another man, Richard Leader, got money from the same investors and built the site in Saugus starting in 1646.

Saugus was ideal in that it was close to ponds and swamps for the bog iron, surrounded by forests for charcoal (it took an acre a day to feed the furnace), close to lime in Nahant for driving off the slag, and on the navigable Saugus River for transport.   The furnace could produce 8 tons a week when running full out, and you wouldn’t want to move that by wagon.  There’s a good description of the site here.

Its actual operation must have been hellish.   Molten iron dissolves everything, and burns must have been routine.  The cast iron blobs  (“pigs”) were worked into square wrought iron rods by pounding them with an enormous water-driven hammer.   The noise must been crippling.  The Puritans themselves wouldn’t work there – they brought over prisoners of war captured in Cromwell’s Scottish campaigns and had them work off a multi-year indenture.   The hard-drinking, foul-mouthed Scots did not get along with the Puritans, and much of what we know of the operation of the works comes from arrest records.

Although the quality of the iron produced was apparently quite good, the English investors ultimately fired Leader, and his successors didn’t last long either.   The bog iron ran out, the forests were cut down, the Scots high-tailed it out of there, and the English forced fixed prices on the colonial industry and forbade them from selling to anyone else.   It all dissolved in a welter of law suits, as high-tech ventures have from that day to this.

Maybe it was just too early.   There were no other blast furnaces in the US for another 35 years, not until the early 1700s. That’s also about when Abraham Darby figured out how to use coke instead of charcoal in the furnace, strongly cutting its cost.    A better technology had to come along before the provincials could actually master it.   The colonists at McMurdo, stranded there by the Second American Civil War of 2025, will have to wait for the multi-ebeam direct-write-on-wafer semiconductor fab machines to come along before they can start making their own chips.

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1 Response to A Failed High-Tech Gamble

  1. Pingback: Tech Tourism Around Boston « A Niche in the Library of Babel

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