He was the first of six children. He grew up in a rich farming household in Dearborn, Michigan. He enjoyed a typical childhood, spending his days in a one-room schoolhouse and doing farm chores.
Steel sold for twenty-five cents a pound. The ironmasters mined little coal and baked no coke. Not an ounce of iron had been made in Wheeling, Youngstown, Cleveland, or Chicago--the latter being a fur-trading village, without harbour or railroad. Birmingham, Alabama, was not on the map until two-score years later.
There was not a foot of railroad near Pittsburgh, and not one rail, either of iron or steel, had been produced in any part of the country.
As late as the beginning of the Civil War, what was called a first-class furnace would cost about fifty thousand dollars, employ seventy men, and produce a thousand tons of iron a year. The business was conducted, not by corporations, but by individual ironmasters, who ruled in a truly feudal way over their small communities.
There were no millionaires, and what little money an iron-maker had was liable to become waste paper at any moment by the collapse of a rickety bank. Four furnaces out of five were haunted by the spectre of debt; and in a bad year, like orscores of furnaces were blown out.
The tariff, too, was even more variable than the currency. It was raised and lowered by the fitful gusts of politics untilwhen the Morrill tariff first gave some chance of stability to the unfortunate industry.
With the Civil War came the first large orders and continuous business. Every plant was run night and day. Of the three billion dollars that the war cost the Federal Government, a goodly share went to the iron men. Uncle Sam was the best customer they had ever known.
They had a surplus in the bank, at last--a store of capital which enabled them to do business on a larger scale. When the smoke of battle had cleared away, Captain Eber B.
Ward, of Detroit, loomed up as the first of the iron kings, with several millions to his credit and three flourishing plants, in Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee.
The marvellous modern expansion of the iron and steel industry was now about to begin.
The germ of its stupendous growth lay in the invention of the Bessemer process. This was more than a trade problem. The railroads were using iron rails, which wore out in less than two years.
The largest locomotive of that time would today be considered little more than a toy. There were no skyscrapers and no subways, and stages were practically the only street-cars. Neither wood nor iron was fit for the new uses of the growing republic; and the high cost of steel made it almost as much out of the question as silver.
The greatest need of the world was cheap steel. At this juncture an answer to the universal demand was voiced by the inventive genius of two men--William Kelly, a Pittsburgh Irish-American, and Sir Henry Bessemer, an Englishman of French descent. They devised a new way to refine iron, which has since been known as the Bessemer process.
Their discovery was an entirely new idea and one which at first seemed absurd to every other steel-maker; but within a few years it was universally adopted, revolutionising the iron and steel trade, and providing the world with a cheap and abundant supply of its most useful metal.
It expanded the industry with almost the suddenness of an explosion, and for the first time in the long history of steel-making the steelsmiths were fairly swept off their feet by a flood of riches. Hundreds of individuals were picked up--by merit, by luck, or by chance--and flung upon the golden thrones of an international empire of steel.
Kelly's father was a well-to-do landowner in Pittsburgh, where it is said that he erected the first two brick houses in the city. At the time when William Kelly began to make iron, he was thirty-six years old--a tall, well-set-up, muscular, energetic man, with blue eyes and close-cropped beard.Also An Essay on the Portraits of John Knox appeared in , Carlyle's name for a "captain of industry" or member of the manufacturing class.
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