Steel built many of the modes of transportation and pieces of infrastructure we see in America today. The rapid development of steel technologies, pushed forward by companies like U.S. Steel, put America on a path for the massive growth of cities – and American vehicles. We'll explore the early history of the use of steel, the companies involved, and how steel shaped America.
One of the earliest — and ultimately biggest — steel companies in the United States formed when Andrew Carnegie and Charles Schwab created Carnegie Steel Company together with Chicago-based Federal Steel Company. This company would later become the extraordinarily large United States Steel Corporation.
By 1910, American steel mills were already making more steel than any other country. Mid-19th century transformations pushed steel production from 1.25 million tons to 10 million tons — then 24 million tons by 1910.
Steel manufacturing had undergone significant changes with the well-known Bessemer process and open hearth furnaces. Coming onto the scene at this time was Paul Héroult's electric arc furnace, known as EAF. This kind of furnace would send an electric current through already charged metal. The result was exothermic oxidation and very high temperatures in excess of 3,000°F. While EAFs were originally specialized, by the time World War II broke out, they were being used for producing alloys. They were soon deployed across all major steel manufacturers because they were a relatively low investment solution to making lots of steel, faster.
A big advantage of EAFs was that they could make steel from scrap and required less energy to run, which is hard to believe given the temperature it could reach! They also required less time. While open hearths require time and energy to fire back up, EAFs could be nearly turned on and off for a worker to go on break — though factories operated nearly 24 hours a day during World War II.
Being able to recycle steel made a big difference in price as companies were not as reliant on ore that had been mined. This made steel much more affordable as the process of removing ore from the ground is quite expensive and time consuming.
While these methods helped increase output, you may be surprised to learn that American steel production peaked after the 1950s. In fact, it wasn’t until 1969 that production peaked at 141 million tons.
As cities seemingly rose out of the earth from the east coast to the west coast, steel demand remained high. The result? U.S. Steel became the first company valued at over $1 billion dollars. This was also the result of many mergers with National Steel Corporation, American Steel and Wire Company, and many more that would be bought out by larger companies in an effort to consolidate steel mills and competition. We could include more names, but the number is almost countless.
Part of the reason for drastic growth of the American steel industry throughout the 20th century was the Second World War. While other countries like Japan and Germany were devastated by war, American companies were largely untouched and were able to produce half the world's steel — in part due to a lack of European and Asian mills. The United States did help war-torn countries in Asia and Europe develop their own mills, and some people believe this led to the decline of the American steel industry. The bigger culprit, however, was improved steel-recycling practices that required less ore and fewer workers.
Steel made life easier for everyone. Steel could be used to make vehicles, and newer processes made the distinctive wing shape on some 1940s and 1950s-era cars possible. Household appliances nearly automated certain chores like washing clothes or preparing dinner that would take hours of hard work to complete before. Bridges could also span rivers and make trips to other cities and communities shorter, safer, and easier.
Improvements in steel-production processes and facilities also made more jobs possible with workers being needed all along the production and value chain. The increased availability and quality of steel led to the development of infrastructure and communities, leading to jobs for those who wanted to get to work.