The Steel Business
Andrew Carnegie's relentless efforts to drive down costs and undersell the competition made his steel mills the most modern in the world, the models for the entire industry. By 1900, Carnegie's steel was cheap. Suddenly bridges and skyscrapers were not only feasible but affordable, too. Steel fed national growth, accelerating the already booming industrial sector. Steel meant more jobs, national prestige, and a higher quality of life for many. For Carnegie's workers, however, cheap steel meant lower wages, less job security, and the end of creative labor.
Carnegie's drive for efficiency cost steel workers their unions and control over their own labor.
To the casual observer a Carnegie mill was chaos. "Wild shouts resounded amid the rumbling of an overhead train," McClure's Magazine reported of the Homestead mill in 1894. "On every side tumultuous action seemed to make every inch of ground dangerous. Savage little engines went rattling about among the piles of great beams. Dimly on my left were huge engines, moving with thunderous pounding."
Indeed, flames, noise, and danger ruled the Carnegie mills. "Protective gear" consisted only of two layers of wool long-johns; horrible injuries were common. Wives and children came to dread the sound of factory whistles that meant an accident had occurred.
"They wipe a man out here every little while," a worker said in 1893. "Sometimes a chain breaks, and a ladle tips over, and the iron explodes.... Sometimes the slag falls on the workmen.... Of course, if everything is working all smooth and a man watches out, why, all right! But you take it after they've been on duty twelve hours without sleep, and running like hell, everybody tired and loggy, and it's a different story."
For Carnegie, efficiency, not safety, was paramount. His vast steel mills at Braddock, Duquesne, and Homestead boasted the latest equipment. As technology improved, Carnegie ordered existing equipment to be torn out and replaced. He quickly made back these investments through reduced labor costs, and his mills remained always the most productive in the world.
The Lot of a Steel Worker
The life of a 19th-century steel worker was grueling. Twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week. Carnegie gave his workers a single holiday-the Fourth of July; for the rest of the year they worked like draft animals. "Hard! I guess it's hard," said a laborer at the Homestead mill. "I lost forty pounds the first three months I came into this business. It sweats the life out of a man. I often drink two buckets of water during twelve hours; the sweat drips through my sleeves, and runs down my legs and fills my shoes."
For many the work went without a break; others managed to find a few minutes here and there. "We stop only the time it takes to oil the engine," a stop of three to five minutes, said William McQuade, a plate-mill worker in 1893. "While they are oiling they eat, at least some of the boys, some of them; a great many of them in the mill do not carry anything to eat at all, because they haven't got time to eat.
The demanding conditions sapped the life from workers. "You don't notice any old men here," said a Homestead laborer in 1894. "The long hours, the strain, and the sudden changes of temperature use a man up." Sociologist John A. Fitch called it "old age at forty."
For his trouble, the average worker in 1890 received about 10 dollars a week, just above the poverty line of 500 dollars a year. It took the wages of nearly 4,000 steelworkers to match the earnings of Andrew Carnegie.
A Ferocious Geyser of Saffron and Sapphire
The squat, egg-shaped Bessemer converter seemed an unlikely candidate to lead a revolution in manufacturing. Yet when it roared to life in a geyser of flame, nothing could be more beautiful or more terrible.
The device transformed pig iron into steel, a process previously managed by highly skilled artisans working with small batches. With the Bessemer converter, relatively unskilled men could make vast quantities of steel cheaply. Carnegie invested heavily in the converters, installing them in his Edgar Thomson Steel Works at Braddock, PA.
In August 1875, the Bessemers at Edgar Thomson made their first blow. Cold air shot through the bottom of the vessels and through the molten iron. The heat increased tremendously, burning out impurities in the iron and forming steel. The process was simple, but the effect was extraordinary. In 1893 McClure's Magazine described the results:
Out of each pot roared alternately a ferocious geyser of saffron and sapphire flame, streaked with deeper yellow. From it a light streamed -- a light that flung violet shadows everywhere and made the gray outside rain a beautiful blue. A fountain of sparks arose, gorgeous as ten thousand rockets, and fell with a beautiful curve, like the petals of some enormous flower. Overhead the beams were glowing orange in a base of purple. The men were yellow where the light struck them, violet in shadow.... The pot began to burn with a whiter flame. Its fluttering, humming roar silenced all else.... A shout was heard, and a tall crane swung a gigantic ladle under the converting vessel, which then mysteriously up-ended, exploding like a cannon a prodigious discharge of star-like pieces of white-hot slag.... Down came the vessel, until out of it streamed the smooth flow of terribly beautiful molten metal. As it ran nearly empty and the ladle swung away, the dropping slag fell to the ground exploding, leaping viciously, and the scene became gorgeous beyond belief, with orange and red and green flame.
The Bessemer converter became obsolete by the 1930s, and the last Bessemer in North America went out of commission in the 1960s. The only remaining Bessemer shop on earth is operating in the Ural mountains of Russia.
The Open-Hearth Furnace
By the turn of the century, most of Carnegie's steel came from vast brick ovens called open-hearth furnaces. They were the future of steel-making. In 1890 at Homestead, the world's largest open-hearth mill, 16 furnaces ran-each producing forty tons of steel every six hours.
Open-hearth furnaces produced terrific heat and used the waste gases of the molten iron to generate even more heat, nearly 3,000 degrees. Fires blazed at both sides of the hearth, passing heated currents of air and gas alternately from each fire over the molten iron. The waste gas passed into chambers above the two fires, trapping heat in special firebrick and making the next flow of gas even hotter. The extreme heat eventually burned out the impurities in the iron, resulting in silvery white steel.
Before the furnace was tapped and the steel poured out, workers banged on beams to warn others to take cover. "Jesus, it was hot," recalled a worker. "If there was water in the molds when they would tap it, the damn thing would explode and metal would fly all over the area."
The steel was finished by adding carbon and manganese-not as simple as it sounds. In 1919 an open-hearth worker described the process in his diary: "You lift a large sack of coal to your shoulders, run towards the white hot steel in a hundred-ton ladle, must get close enough without burning your face off to hurl the sack, using every ounce of strength, into the ladle and run, as flames leap to roof and the heat blasts everything to the roof. Then you rush out to the ladle and madly shovel manganese into it, as hot a job as can be imagined."
By the middle of the 20th century, the open-hearth process was surpassed by other technologies. The last open-hearth furnaces in North America were bricked up in the 1980s.