American Iron by Robert B. Gordon: a review

A good introduction to the topic.

This is an interesting book that mixes high-level overview, illustrative anecdotes, and technological detail surprisingly well. At heart this is a high-level survey of the development and decline of the North American iron industry from its Virginia origins through its eclipse by Big Steel as the twentieth century began. But there’s a concurrent technical essay about the development–and shortcomings–of the mastery of various technologies over the course of the period. Both stories are told with examples from the historical record which demonstrate the analytical points the author is making. One important point Gordon makes is that the charcoal iron industry’s survival into the steel era was not the result of ignorance, and that American ironworkers generally kept up to date on current technology.

The last chapter is really an appendix; it discusses the publicly-available remnants of the industry at such places as Hopewell, Pennsyvania, and Fayette, Michigan. A couple properly-labelled appendices briefly summarize metallurgical archeology and historical production levels; the second appendix is, frankly, inadequate.

The author makes it clear that knowledge of the chemistry of the processes involved in making iron was insufficiently known until the steel industry hired scientists to solve everyday problems posed by their operations. He clearly regrets that these things were not discovered earlier in the nineteenth century.

One major shortcoming, acknowledged by the author, is the lack of information about iron working in the areas settled by the Spanish. A similar summary work would certainly be useful.

I was already fairly familiar with the historical overview presented here (look at my library), but the technical discussion of metallurgical theory and practice was illuminating in ways I’d not encountered in earlier reading.

Oh, yes: Great end notes, too.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.