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History of the American Steel Industry

May. 29, 2024

From humble beginnings to global dominance, the American steel industry was forged through innovation and perseverance. The transformation of the steel industry has played a vital role in creating the U.S. as we know it today. Let’s dive into the rich history of the American steel industry.

Colonial America

The need for steel in America can be traced back to colonial times when food and shelter were the primary concerns, both of which required specific tools. Knives, hammers, saws, axes, nails, bullets, horseshoes, and more were all necessary to survive. During this time the tools were made from iron, which sufficed, but a stronger, more durable metal was needed.

19th Century

Thanks to human ingenuity, steel manufacturing became a more dominant industry in the 19th century. In 1856, Englishman Henry Bessemer invented what became known as the Bessemer process. During this process molten iron was poured from a blast furnace and hot air passed through the bottom of a converter. This oxidized the impurities in the iron, thus removing the carbon to create steel. The process was fast, but early on it removed too much carbon and left too much oxygen in the iron. The phosphorus was also left behind, which was not ideal as high concentrations of phosphorus make steel brittle. As a result, the Bessemer process could only initially be used with iron obtained from ore with a low phosphorus content, which was scarce and expensive. This problem was solved by Sidney G. Thomas, who discovered that adding a chemically basic material like limestone removed the phosphorus. The revised Bessemer process made it possible to quickly create affordable steel.

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Credit:iStock, Nastasic
Illustration of a Bessemer converter

The 19th century was no stranger to innovation. The open hearth process was also developed during this time and involved heating a mixture of pig iron, scrap steel, and fluxes in a large furnace called an open hearth. This allowed for greater control over the composition of steel and the process was widely used until the mid-20th century.

Also introduced in the late 19th century was the electric arc furnace, which uses an electric current to melt scrap steel and produce molten steel.

The technological advancements seen in the 19th century decreased the cost and improved the quality of steel. Between 1880 and 1900, steel production in the U.S. increased from 1.25 million tons to more than 10 million tons. In 1890, American steel mills were running virtually 24 hours a day to meet the railroad industry’s demand, with over 50,000 miles of railroad tracks being constructed.

20th Century

By 1900, the better control of composition and temperature in open-hearth steelmaking completely replaced Bessemer converters. The steel industry was booming during this time, with the U.S. producing more than 24 million tons by 1910. After World War II, the steel industry in America continued to grow as demand was greater than ever before. Foreign mills were destroyed in the war; as cities in Europe and Asia were rebuilding, the U.S. was continuing to grow and by 1940 was producing half of the world’s steel.

The 20th century saw the introduction of another invention known as the basic oxygen furnace. This process involves blowing oxygen through molten pig iron to reduce impurities and adjust the carbon content. The result is the rapid production of steel with higher purity and strength. The BOF further improved the efficiency and quality of steel production. 

In 1955 the U.S. produced 117 million tons of steel, which was enough to make 60 million automobiles. The peak of U.S. steel production was in 1969 with the production of 141 million tons. However, overseas production started to increase during the second half of the 20th century, as well. International production went from 28 million tons a year to 781 million tons by 1999. This growth created fierce competition for the American steel industry. As a result, by the end of the 20th century the U.S. was producing less than 6% of the world’s steel.

American Steel Industry Today

Today, steel is primarily produced with a blast furnace or an electric arc furnace. The latter now accounts for 70% of steel production in the U.S. Navigating a complex landscape of global competition, technological disruption, and shifting market dynamics has positioned the U.S. as the largest steel importer in the world. Although the annual production rate of 106 million tons is less than what was produced in previous years, the American steel industry remains an essential component of U.S. infrastructure and the economy.

Dixon Products for the Steel Industry

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Dixon manufactures and supplies fluid transfer products to meet the demanding environmental requirements and ever-changing needs of the steel industry. In fact, Dixon’s commitment to the steel industry can be traced back to our roots with the Goodall Rubber Company with the development of the GSM armored hose. With production solutions for all 6 Steps of the Steel Manufacturing Process, Dixon remains committed to providing The Right Connection®.

Summary

Without steel, our buildings would not extend to the heights we see today, bridges would not be possible, and transportation would be less efficient. The importance of the steel industry in America, historically and moving forward, cannot be overstated. Dixon is delighted to provide high-quality products to support the steel industry around the world.

For recommendations on your specific application, visit dixonvalve.com or call 877.963.4966.