The Economic History of Steelmaking, 1867-1939: A Study in Competition

By Duncan Burn | Go to book overview

Chapter IV
ENGLAND AND THE ADVANCE OF TECHNIQUE 1870-1878

"So far as skill in the conduct of the various metallurgical operations themselves is concerned, I have never heard it pretended, and I have failed to discover, any superiority in the practice of foreign manufacture over ourselves."1Bell in the early 'eighties stuck to his thesis of fifteen years ago. But it was the opposing view which gained ground in the decade after the Paris Exhibition, if the bias of leader-writers may be taken as a guide; the view that technical leadership in the industry had ceased to be an insular monopoly, and that in some directions the British makers were falling behind.2 It was right that the less complacent view should advance. The picture of the industry given in the official inquiries and expert surveys of 1867-8 was necessarily an impressionist sketch, catching the emphasis of passing conditions of light and atmosphere. But a growingly rich technical literature from 1869 (when the Journal of the Iron and Steel Institute began to appear) shows that the critics of these years, albeit perhaps over-emphatic, had apprehended a real trend in the industry. The ten years after the Exhibition were characterised by no dramatic inventions, but by the continuous cumulative improvements which Bell rightly stressed. In these years American and Continental competitors were making novel advances in most branches. Some of the innovations quickly made their way in England: in all likelihood England learned

____________________
1
Bell, Manufacture of Iron, p. 582.
2
E.g. Daily News, June 19, 1876, leader on the Iron Trade. The Daily News sent a commissioner to all the chief iron districts at the period. With regard to new processes the leader concluded that "our foreign rivals are quite equal to us in discovering such aids and utilising them". Also The Times, May 28, 1875: "The iron trade must make an effort to keep pace with production elsewhere." The Times, it is interesting to note, relegated the industry to the fourth leader.

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