Iron and Steel in Alabama:
The Technical Story
- Huge quantities of iron and steel were indispensable for the industrialization of America. Alabama played a significant role in the development of the American iron and steel industry after the Civil War because of its natural and human resources. Birmingham was particularly important because of the natural resources of Jones Valley, in which it is located.
Birmingham became a great iron and steelmaking center because:
- it had access to enormous quantities of iron ore, coal, and limestone, all within a thirty-mile radius of the city
- it could draw on large numbers of black workers from nearby agricultural areas who wanted to escape rural poverty and were willing to perform the heavy, hot, and dangerous labor that iron and steel manufacturing involved.
Iron is a metallic element yielding two crucial commodities:
- cast iron, a heavy but brittle alloy that can be cast into various useful shapes.
- steel, an extremely hard and malleable alloy that can be hammered and drawn into products that will withstand heavy abrasion and great tension under stress.
- An alloy is a mixture of two or more elements. Cast iron and steel are alloys that combine two basic elements, iron and carbon, in differing proportion, high in the case of cast iron and low in the case of steel, resulting in dramatically different properties. The presence of a third element, phosphorus, gives cast iron a high degree of moldability.
Cast iron is molded in an installation called a foundry. The great suitability of Southern raw materials for cast iron made Alabama the world's leading producer of cast iron products. Some products made of cast iron, which is highly resistant to corrosion, are:
- soil pipe, through which liquids flow under the force of gravity.
- pressure pipe, through which liquids flow under applied force.
- Because phosphorus, which is highly prevalent in southern iron ore, is detrimental to steel, it was difficult and expensive to make steel in Alabama. Some products made of steel are:
- railroad rails, which must withstand prolonged pounding by fast-moving trains.
- frames for highrise buildings, which must have enormous tensile strength.
- The basic substance out of which both cast iron and steel are made is a commodity called pig iron, which is produced by an installation called a blast furnace.
- The raw materials processed in a blast furnace to make pig iron are:
- iron ore, a natural substance that contains a high amount of iron mixed with impurities from which the iron must be separated.
- coke, a processed form of coal that is practically pure carbon.
- limestone, a substance that promotes the fusion of iron and carbon under extreme heat.