It All Started Here; This Year Is Said to Mark the 300th Anniversary of the Birth of the Industrial Revolution. Ross Reyburn Examines Its Origins

The Birmingham Post (England), June 26, 2009 | Go to article overview

It All Started Here; This Year Is Said to Mark the 300th Anniversary of the Birth of the Industrial Revolution. Ross Reyburn Examines Its Origins


Byline: Ross Reyburn

It is somewhat ironic that the inspirational symbol of the Industrial Revolution which changed the world is sited on one of the best scenic views in England.

Opened on New Year's Day in 1781, the striking arched Iron Bridge, elegantly spanning the River Severn, is today overlooked by the small Shropshire town of Ironbridge, picturesquely perched on the steep wooded hillside of the Severn Gorge.

The world's first cast iron bridge was a PR coup for the Darby dynasty, the family of great ironmasters, echoed today by the fact that it provides the serene focal point for the UNESCO Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site.

"The bridge was a fantastic exercise by Abraham Darby III to promote iron," said David de Haan, the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust's director of learning.

"The bridge goes from nowhere to nowhere - the location was just a wharf where there was a ferry and the town didn't exist when it was built. There was a bridge upstream and another being built two miles downstream. It was built in a location where it would look good." Travel a mile from the bridge into the valley at Coalbrookdale and you can find the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution near the Museum of Iron: the ruined remains of the formidable brick furnace which was known as The Old Furnace where Abraham Darby I (1678-1717) succeeded in smelting iron by using coke instead of charcoal in 1709, exactly 300 years ago.

The son of a Quaker farmer, Abraham Darby I was from Wren's Nest, Sedgley in Staffordshire and later ran his own business in Bristol, malt-making, brassand iron-founding.

"He was aware this part of the country was rich in raw materials and had the River Severn, the motorway of its day, for transport," pointed out de Hann. "So he took a lease on a derelict furnace in Coalbrookdale and restored it, played with it and experimented with making cast iron rather than cast brass." Abiah Darby, wife of Abraham Darby II and mother of Abraham Darby III, provided a rare 18th-century account of her father-in-law's achievement in smelting iron with coke.

"Many years later, in a letter Abiah Darby wrote in 1763, she recalled the date as around the year 1709," said de Haan. "The company records show bills for 'charking coles'( ie charcoaling coal, or roasting coal until it becomes coke) in January 1709." Perceptively likening the achievement as the equivalent of what "printing was to writing", she wrote: "He first try'd with raw coal as it came out of the mines, but it did not answer. He not discouraged, had the coal coak'd into Cynder, as is done for drying Malt and it then succeeded to his satisfaction." "There is very little we know about Abraham Darby I," said de Haan. "The Quakers didn't believe in excess or frivolity - there is no portrait of him." "Darby's key product was cast-metal iron pots. He found that, with coke, he could make cast-iron pots half the thickness of charcoal-fired pots - twice as many with the same quantity of iron." This was a somewhat modest outcome, for Darby's great achievement was showing that coke could replace charcoal in the process of making iron.

Darby's involvement in producing malt mills for the brewing industry provided an obvious link with his 1709 breakthrough, for coke was used in the malting process as the sulphur from charcoal tainted the beer..

Initially Darby's discovery was handicapped by the fact that his cast iron was not suitable for conversion to wrought iron. This was solved by his son, Abraham Darby II (1711-63), in the 1750s, heralding the start of the Coalbrookdale area spearheading the Industrial Revolution by producing iron for the steam engines which transformed manufacturing.

Besides becoming a main supplier of parts for the steam engine market generally, The Coalbrookdale Company opened new ironworks at Horsehay and Ketley and provided the cylinders for the Newcomen engine. …

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