Iron, Steam and Rails

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Intro: Over the past few centuries, some of the biggest technological advancements have been made in societies throughout the world. In the past century alone we have seen advancements made in medicine that can save, extend and enhance the lives of vast numbers of people; and we have seen advancements in digital technologies that have increased the performance, reliability and availability of many of the electronic technologies that we now take for granted. However, to truly understand and appreciate the technological advancements that have been made over recent years, we must look back at some of the discoveries and improvements to technology that literally shaped and defined not only our country, but modern society as a whole. While the technological advancements of the past 100 years have undoubtedly proven crucial to our modern lives, without the monumental discoveries of the 18th and 19th century, we may not have had the opportunities to generate those advancements. In particular, the progress and development of iron and eventually steel, steam power and it’s multitude of uses, and the railway systems has truly defined the technological advancements of recent centuries.

Body: Prior to the 18th century, the methods in place for producing iron were relatively rudimentary and ultimately inefficient. Early 18th century European smelters used charcoal fired iron furnaces. The furnaces were also small and only yielded an “average output of a mere three hundred tons a year” (Technology and American Society, p. 85). By contrast, the United States produced almost 55,000,000 metric tons of iron ore in 2004 ( Obviously, a few changes have taken place over the years to accommodate for such immense growth in production. However, comparing modern production rates to those of early iron producers in the 18th is not realistic, but it does offer some insight as to the advancements over the past few centuries. In order to understand what has led to these increases in production, we must first look at the most basic of advancements made to the processes of production. As stated before, early iron furnaces were small and burned charcoal as the primary fuel source. One drawback of these characteristics was the need for large quantities of wood as a resource to be used by the smelters. Most iron furnaces were located within or very near large forests so as to supply the smelters with the wood needed to make charcoal. As a result of increased wood prices and decreased coal prices in Europe at the time, further experimentation with coal as a fuel source led to increased iron production. The higher temperatures that could be achieved with a coal fired furnace versus a charcoal fired furnace allowed smelters to create thinner, stronger and more reliable iron products. As these methods became proven in their effectiveness, the early 19th century saw charcoal become phased out as an iron furnace fuel supply. It is from these advanced methods of iron production that we see growth across many industries throughout society at the time. Because of the ability of smelters to producer thinner, less brittle iron-based products, industries that involved the making of farm equipment and cooking equipment, to cite a few examples, were now able to produce their products more efficiently and with a greater product. The coal fired iron furnaces also provided smelters with the ability to control furnace temperatures and conditions, so as to limit the amount of carbon that is introduced to the melted iron. Early iron, called pig iron, contained approximately 4% carbon, this due largely to the fact that the iron ore came in direct contact with the charcoal. However, with the coal fired furnaces, iron could be produced with only 2% carbon, which we commonly refer to as steel. Steel at the time though was very expensive to produce, because of the precision needed to keep the carbon content at a specific level. Large scale production of steel...
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