Milestones of Innovation 17: ‘Golden Spike’ Heralds Era of Cheap Steel


One hundred fifty years ago May 10, around mid-day, railroad promoters from two coasts clumsily drove the final spikes of America’s first transcontinental railroad near Promontory Point, Utah. Two of the spikes used that day were made of gold. The blows themselves triggered a telegraphic message to the world.

The joining of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads heralded several decades of breakneck railway construction in the United States, including several more railways to the Pacific. It was a time of gargantuan innovations – accompanied by frenzied finance – that helped propel this nation to the forefront of world industrial production.

The railroad whirlwind was based on a fundamental change, the opening of the era of cheap steel. A swarm of new ways of making steel swiftly in giant quantities took hold with astonishing speed. Starting off with rotating Bessemer converters, the revolution was soon joined by Siemens-Martin open-hearth furnaces and supplemented by the Gilchrist-Thomas adaptations allowing use of iron ores with a high content of phosphorus.

These techniques wrought revolutions in the vast common market of the United States – not only in a dense web of railroads but also in skyscrapers with their own vertical railways: elevators.

The result of inventions in England, Bessemer steel rails may have been the most consequential technology transfer in history. Steam locomotive pioneer Peter Cooper, a leading American iron-master, called it “almost the greatest invention.”

Steel suddenly changed from a luxury to a necessity. With the aid of blasts of air, and the energy of its own carbon, iron could now be converted into steel – in gobs of multiple tons in twenty or so minutes – rather than by the pound over periods of weeks. It was no longer just a precious commodity for scissors, knives, swords, or watch parts.

As with so many innovations, a great many developments had to come together to accelerate American commerce on a web of steel. These included:

1) long-delayed inventions in the 1850s that allowed the proportion of carbon in big batches of molten iron to be controlled precisely with less energy.
2) the formation of what amounted to a patent pool.
3) years of “piloting” to determine the best layout for a steel factory.
4) readiness of a set of iron-masters to cooperate and minimize risk by concentrating on a particular market that was well-known to them.

The making of huge batches of rough-and-ready steel was first enabled by Henry Bessemer’s 1856 invention of blasting air through pig iron, using the carbon in the iron as the fuel. Shortly afterwards, a refinement devised by Robert Mushet – using a special compound of iron and manganese with a dash of carbon – allowed fine-tuning the molten metal’s carbon content at the last moment. Exploiting what swiftly became a river of steel, Americans with a mania for borrowing technology could criss-cross their landscape with at least 4,000 miles a year of new mainline railroad for the next half century.

The result was an immense speed-up of America’s dash toward global economic leadership. The Bessemer process produced, fast and cheaply, a steel that lasted about ten times longer than the widely used wrought iron of railroads that had been spreading across European nations, India, and America since the 1830s.

Raw materials could be assembled and finished goods could be moved hundreds or even thousands of miles at 30 miles an hour or even faster, a pace at least ten times that of the canals and rivers that had dominated transport up into the 1860s. The materials could be ordered instantly over the telegraph lines that often stretched along the railroad tracks. To cut down on interrupting the flow of goods, the spacing of rails was standardized. To simplify scheduling, time zones, too, were standardized across the world.

Bound by the steel rail network, American commerce rolled forward like a tsunami. American factories seized the leadership of world production. The numbers of Americans, including hundreds of thousands of immigrants every year, tripled by 1910 (from 32 to 100 million).

The rails outlasted their wrought-iron predecessors. And the development not only spurred a continuing chaos in railroad finances (leading to J.P. Morgan’s massive consolidations of the 1890s) but also a new technological crisis around 1900. The avalanche of American commerce drove up the size and weight of locomotives and the number of cars they pulled. Trains were so much longer and heavier than before that a crash effort was needed to make the rails even sturdier. Railroaders and steelmen had to mobilize to settle on new, heavier rails and standardize both their chemistry and their physics.

The direct and indirect effects were huge. Usually dismissed by Mark Twain and others as a “Gilded Age,” the four decades of vast expansion of the rail grid saw a huge leap in high school education, millions of women entering service industries including education, the rise of industries such as petroleum and electric light and mechanical refrigeration and telephones and automobiles, and a huge new middle class settling into “networked” houses with central heating and indoor running water.

The start of all this was celebrated in white-hot language in the Troy, NY Daily Times. The language came from a 36-year-old steam locomotive enthusiast, the boundlessly energetic Alexander Lyman Holley. A technology journalist and veteran writer of a couple of hundred articles in the New York Times, Holley proved to be more than a prophet – he was a catalyst of the revolution he was writing about.

He not only led in securing the American patent rights to the new technologies, he also designed and operated the “parent” pilot plant in Troy, NY, and went on to design all but one of the principal mills that sprang up over the next decade to make Bessemer steel rails. He proved to be a titan of scale-up.

Holley’s 1868 article in the Troy Daily Times was reprinted shortly afterwards in the New York Times, and then, before the year was out, in a 39-page pamphlet by D. Van Nostrand. Turning “to the Arabian Nights rather than sober history for an index to the coming scenes,” Holley described a “modern revolution in metallurgy,” visible to most people as only the smoke from a factory chimney but actually “more wonderful than all the others.”

The heart of the innovation, Holley wrote, was a “blow,” the tempestuous process of converting tons of pig iron into steel in Bessemer’s tilt-able, brick-lined urn within twenty minutes, undergoing “a conflict of the elements.” The amount of carbon in the iron was cut ten-fold, from 4 percent to 0.4 percent, and then, at the last moment, a bit of carbon was added back by Mushet’s method.

Holley’s continued his breathless account: “As the combustion progresses, the surging mass within the converter grows hotter, throwing out splashes of liquid slag – and the discharge from its mouth changes from sparks and streaks of red and yellow gas, to thick, full, white, howling, dazzling flame. But such battles cannot last long. In a quarter of an hour, the iron is stripped of every combustible alloy, and hangs out the white flag.

“The converter is then turned on its side, the blast shut off, and the recarburizer run in. Then for a moment the war of the elements rages again; the mass boils and flames with higher intensity, and with a rapidity of chemical reaction sometimes throwing it violently out of the converter mouth; then all is quiet, and the product is steel – liquid, silky steel, that pours out into the ladle from under its roof of slag, smooth, shining, and almost transparent.”

The explosive growth of steel rail-making catapulted the domains of the steam engines that, since 1776, had been driving both manufacturing and transportation into an increasingly networked modern existence.

Holley didn’t rest on his laurels. Before his death just before turning 50, Holley turned his ceaseless attention to advocating additional frontier knowledge from abroad, such as the Siemens-Martin open hearth furnace and the Gilchrist-Thomas process for handling high-phosphorus iron. These two processes proved equally revolutionary. They opened up huge new deposits of iron across the world. They not only enabled production of steel suited to the structures of skyscrapers, but also armor for warships.

His monument in Washington Square, New York City, records that “engineers of two hemispheres” honored Holley as “foremost among those whose genius and energy established in America and improved throughout the world the manufacture of Bessemer steel.”

Editor’s Note: This is the seventeenth of a series of notes about major anniversaries in innovation and what they teach us. Earlier “Milestones” posts have highlighted the anniversaries of the first sustained nuclear chain reaction in Chicago in 1942 and of the first communications satellite stationed above the Earth’s equator in 1963. You’re invited to suggest other Milestones of Innovation for the Xconomy Forum.


(On the same page and immediately after, ‘Continental Gossip…from our own correspondent.’) “The Bessemer Process. The Production of Cheap Steel in America. Completion of the Parent Works at Troy – The Old Processes – The Nature, Particulars and Value of the Bessemer Improvement – The Various Works in The Country; From the Troy Daily Times, July 27, 1868,” New York Times, Sunday, Aug. 9, 1868.

(D. Van Nostrand pamphlet, 1868);view+1up;seq=1 (of 43)

D.K. Derry and Trevor I. Williams, A Short History of Technology, From the Earliest Times to A.D. 1900, Oxford University Press, 1961, “The Coming of Cheap Steel,” 480-486.

Thomas J. Misa, A Nation of Steel: The Making of Modern America, 1865-1925, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995, Chapter 1, “The Dominance of Rails.” ISBN 0-8018-4967-5.

Jeanne McHugh, Alexander Holley and the Makers of Steel, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, ISBN 0-8018-2329-3.

Elting E. Morison, Men, Machines, and Modern Times, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1966, Chapter 7, “Almost the Greatest Invention,” 123-205.

Xconomist and science reporter Victor McElheny of MIT is author of Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution (2003) and Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project (2010) Follow @

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