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Iron and Steel Manufacture

The development of the railway stimulated the economy in two important ways. First, the advent of cheap and efficient transport lowered the carriage cost of goods. This meant that goods were cheaper in the shops and this increased the demand. The increase in demand led to the expansion of factories which required more energy. The prime energy source at the time was coal. As the Industrial Revolution began to speed up, the need for coal grew because it provided power for the factory engines, steam powered ships and steam locomotives. Second, the demand for iron increased. Iron was needed to make the railway tracks, steam locomotives and the giant Watt steam engines that pumped the mines and provided energy to run factory machinery. At a later stage, iron was needed to construct the steamships.

The developers of the early steam engines and steam railways would never have been so successful without parallel developments taking place in the iron industry. Without the ironmasters' expertise in creating new methods of iron casting and working iron, it would have been impossible to have produced steam power in the first place. All of these developments which drove the Industrial Revolution were dependent on each other for their success. New inventions in one field led to advancements in another. These, in turn, stimulated further research and development.

John Wilkinson (1728-1808)

John Wilkinson played an important role in the development of James Watt's rotary steam engine. In 1774, he patented a precision cannon borer which he manufactured at his father's Beisham factory at Denbigh in Wales. This boring machine was essential for the manufacture of Watt's engines since it allowed for the detailed measurements needed in the steam engine's design. Wilkinson was then able to use Watt's steam engines to power the bellows at his own wrought iron furnace at Broseley in Shropshire.

Ironbridge ©  Shirley Burchill

Wilkinson was called the "Great Staffordshire Ironmaster". He started his career as an industrialist in 1748 when he built his first iron furnace at Bilston in Staffordshire. One of his most famous achievements was the world's first iron bridge, which he built with the help of Abraham Darby III, and which was opened to traffic in 1781. This bridge was 100 feet (about 30 meters) in length and weighed a total of 378 tons. It was built one mile downstream from Coalbrookdale, and it spanned the River Severn at Broseley. The bridge was also notable because it used joints, pegs and keys in place of nuts, bolts and screws.

Detail of part of the Ironbridge ©  Shirley Burchill

Wilkinson also built the world's first iron barge in 1787. He was also responsible for passing his cannon boring technique and expertise across the channel to France, and his factory cast all of the iron work needed for the Paris waterworks. Not surprisingly, Wilkinson was buried in a cast iron coffin which he designed himself!

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