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  • An Enlightenment in Steel?Innovation in the Steel Trades of Eighteenth-Century Britain
  • Chris Evans (bio) and Alun Withey (bio)

In May 1721 the London newspapers advertised the sale by auction of a parcel of "the right Dartford steel." The metal in question was one of the last consignments "converted by the famous Mr. Kemp" before his death. It was, or so its sellers maintained, a superlative material, one that "exceeds all Venice or German steel"; "none comes near it for hardness."1

This raises a number of questions. Who was the renowned Mr. Kemp, whose fame has not endured? What was "the right Dartford steel"? And in what way did "Venice or German steel" set the benchmark for hardness? To ask these questions is to plunge into the forgotten world of eighteenth-century steel manufacture in Britain. It is a world that is easily overlooked, because before the advent of bulk-production technologies in the mid-nineteenth century—namely, the Bessemer and Siemens-Martin methods— steel was produced in small quantities and at some cost. After 1850 steel became an inexpensive, generic industrial input, the very fabric of modernity. But before then it was a very different article, scarce and sparingly used. Pre-Bessemer steel is better thought of as a boutique good, batch-made by known masters like Mr. Kemp. As such, it has a technological history that requires explanation.

But whose kind of technological history? How does steel in the eighteenth century mesh with current interpretations of British industrialization? More specifically, do recent models of technological change that lay stress on the Enlightenment as a vector of change offer new insights into [End Page 533] steel as a material in eighteenth-century culture? In what follows we detail the emergence of a substantial steel sector in late-seventeenth-century Britain. We will examine the commonly accepted chronology of development, from the adoption of the cementation furnace in Stuart England to Benjamin Huntsman's "invention" of cast steel in the 1740s, and explore how this development path can be theoretically understood within a broader context. We will then take up an alternative model of steel's place in early industrial Britain, one that draws critically upon the notion of an "Industrial Enlightenment," which has been so forcefully developed in recent years by Joel Mokyr.2 The Industrial Enlightenment, we contend, cannot account for technological change in the steel trades. There is little evidence that the circulation and codification of "useful knowledge" among artisans (a key feature in Mokyr's formulation) had a discernible effect on the ways in which steel goods were made. There was certainly innovation in the steel sector, but novelty was concentrated in niche areas and came in response to quite specific stimuli. It was not a shift in the extent or organization of knowledge that drove innovation, but rather it was the requirements of particular consumers. The nature of demand, in other words, was the key determinant, not the cognitive conditions of supply.

That is not to say that the cultural milieu of the Enlightenment was irrelevant to the development of the British steel trade. On the contrary, the development of new types of steel was associated with manufacturers who catered to those who might be termed "enlightened practitioners"—the makers of medical instruments, say, who supplied physicians and anatomists. Furthermore, high-end artisans working in steel became increasingly eager to badge their wares as embodying enlightened ideals or refined values. In this sense, there was an enlightenment in steel, but it manifested itself in the design and marketing of goods rather than their manufacture.

The Cementation Furnace: A British Anomaly

It is not always appreciated how much of a success story steel was for Georgian Britain. In the mid-seventeenth century the British Isles were marginal to European steel making, which was concentrated in the German lands.3 The sellers of Kemp's steel acknowledged the historic supremacy of [End Page 534] central Europe when they spoke of the prestige of "Venice or German steel," by which they meant steels exported via the Rhine or steels originating in the Alpine provinces of the Habsburgs and shipped via Venice. German imports occupied a preeminent...


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