- Ribbon of Fire: How Europe Adopted and Developed US Strip Mill Technology (1920–2000) ed. by Jonathan Aylen and Ruggero Ranieri
This edited volume represents a collection of contributions to a conference in Manchester in 2001, which since then have been reworked and complemented by further archival research and comparative as well as specialized essays by the two editors. Ruggero Ranieri is a historian of the iron and steel industry in Europe and Jonathan Aylen is an industrial economist and historian of technology from the University of Manchester. Although this project has taken more than a decade to complete, the resulting volume clearly shows that the work has been worthwhile. It is the first comprehensive historical account of the arguably most important technology developed by the iron and steel industries in the twentieth century. [End Page 556]
Despite its pivotal role in the industry, especially in its postwar development in Europe, the hot strip mill has been sidestepped by most industrial histories. Its story, however, has much to teach, not only about the technology but also about the economic mechanisms, prospects, and limits of the iron and steel industry as a whole. It encapsulates many of the processes of technological diffusion in this industry—first the adaptation of U.S. technology by European steelmakers, then the technical innovations by European plant suppliers who took the lead in the field, then the export of plant designs to other regions, particularly in Asia, in the course of globalization.
The volume assembles eleven case studies of the introduction of the hot strip mill—or more specifically the wide strip mill—in European countries between the 1930s and the 1960s. (The United States pioneered this technology in the 1920s.) The strip mill revolutionized the rolling of thin plates and steel sheets which had formerly been produced by rather tedious procedures at rolling stands fed and operated by hand. This severely limited the format and thickness of the sheets as well as overall production capacity. The new strip mills typically consisted of an electrically driven reversible roughing stand to roll down flat steel ingots to the width and length necessary; the metal then was fed into a sequence of finishing stands that rolled the steel to sheets of the required dimensions in a continuous process. They no longer produced single sheets but a long—and if the layout of the plant allowed for it—really continuous strip which was curled up in so-called “coils” and delivered in this form to customers.
The case studies are informative because so little has been known about the timing and circumstances of the adoption of this mill technology in different countries, including the former USSR. Yet their value for the historian differs, since many of the contributions have not been written by historians proper but by veterans of the trade or technological experts. Especially instructive is the complicated history of the first wide strip mill in Europe at the Dinslaken Works of the August Thyssen-Hütte, whose construction began in 1935 under the auspices of National Socialist policies of autarky. Yet in many cases the essays demonstrate the particularities of each steel mill in Europe adapting the technology while passing over in silence the obvious parallels of developments and problems that actually made the transnational and global diffusion of strip mill technology an encompassing process.
Much to their credit, the articles by Ranieri and Aylen forge the diverse contributions into a coherent book. Ranieri provides a comparative angle to the case studies on particular countries and plants. Aylen adds a masterful technical history of the hot strip mill from its humble beginnings to the high-tech plant designs of today, explaining all the revolutionizing technological steps that separated the different generations of mills: the introduction of continuous casting which replaced ingot casting, the “coilbox,” the [End Page 557] development of the most recent thin strip casting, and (in an extra essay), the impact of automation on strip mill technology. Finally, Peter Wells sheds a light...