Head's Tour, 1835::


Extract from "A Home Tour Through the Manufacturing Districts of England in the Summer of 1835" by Sir George Head. (1836)

P. 129-140

     I visited a wire-drawer's establishment; where the wire, which comes from the foundery a quarter of an inch in diameter, is reduced to various sizes, and finally drawn out as fine as a hair: thus prepared, it is capable of being woven by ordinary weavers, as if it were flax or cotton. The perfection to which this wire cloth has already arrived is sufficiently testified in its general adoption for window blinds; besides which a great deal is sent to the West Indies, for mosquito curtains, &c. It is certainly a beautiful fabric, combining delicacy of texture with strength in an especial degree, and capable, no doubt, of being applied to many uses not yet thought of.
Nothing can be more simple than the process of drawing wire; in fact, too simple to be consistent with true perfection; though were the process of thinking to be confined to the mere practical object in question, it would be hardly worth while to notice the slight deviation in a hank of wire some miles long from a perfect cylinder; a difference so little as to be probably imperceptible, in any of the purposes to which wire is applied, whether in the production of musical sounds or otherwise. The only mode adopted, I believe, up to the present day, of making wire, is to drag it by force through a small hole in an iron block, and afterwards through a similar but smaller hole in another block, and so on, through one hole after another, until it is brought to the size required. In the meantime, each hole is subject, by continual attrition, to gradual enlargement, and this defect is submitted to for a long time, when it is closed by a few smart blows of a hammer, and re-bored of the original size. Consequently, the size of the wire changes as the diameter of the hole enlarges between the operations of boring and re-boring; and this change must be constant and gradual throughout the whole operation. Insignificant as the variation may be, diffused through a long hank, were the same divided in the middle, the difference of weight would be no doubt perceptible; whence it perhaps follows, that, to attune an instrument to perfect harmony, the nearer similar strings are cut from the same end the better.

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On the morning on which I witnessed the wire-drawing process, whereby the malleable and tenacious properties of iron are exerted in producing a minute thread, I visited the stupendous foundery on Wibsey Low Moor. Wibsey Low Moor is situated about five miles from Halifax, on the south of the road leading to Bradford; between the latter town and Leeds are the Bowling founderies: those of Wibsey Low Moor, however, are the larger of the two.
I descended from the coach, at a public-house on the turnpike-road, and walked about a mile to the works.
In this region of iron and coal, for the whole surface of the moor is rich in both, the approach to these magnificent founderies bears the type of universal combustion, as in the vicinity of the crater of a volcano: to witness a more awful picture, produced by the combined features of fire, smoke, and ashes, an individual must bend his steps at least towards Ætna or Vesuvius. For a long way the surface of the moor is covered with heaps of calcined shale and cinders, the collection of many years, upon which, here and there, plants of furze have spontaneously taken root: from these the eye, attracted onwards, rests on a cluster of low blackened buildings, containing numerous fires, for the purpose of charking the coal used in smelting the metal; and among the more massive piles of brickwork broad flaring flames crawling upwards from the main furnaces exhibit an awful appearance; for the mouth of each of these furnaces is near ten feet diameter, its form that of an ordinary lime-kiln, and on the summit, in the midst of the eager flames, strange-looking wheels recall to the memory a whole host of mythological images - such as the instrument of torment whereon the ill-fated Ixion expiated the vengeance, not undeservedly, of ancient Jupiter. These wheels are appendages of the machinery by means of which the ore is dragged up an inclined plane, on iron waggons, to the mouths of the furnaces; which waggons, self-acting, where no living power could perform the office, turn topsy-turvy, and there unload their contents. It is a noble sight to stand here and see the devastating element in such radiant glory, yet at the same time under perfect subjection; but awful to reflect, that science will never, probably, wholly avert those catastrophes which, either by combustion or explosion, in the melancholy reverse of fortune, serve to remind man of the finitude of his wisdom, and occasionally obtrude the fortunes of the victim on the victor.
The seams of coal on the Moor are shallow, generally not more than 26 inches deep. It seems incredible that men are capable of working in such narrow compass; yet such is the case; neither are those employed particularly undersized.
Previous to the iron ore being emptied into the furnace, it is roasted in a kiln : it is then put into the iron carriage, and, as before alluded to, dragged up the inclined plane and capsized into the furnace. The machinery for this service is worked by water, and the carriage is flung over at the top by a curved plate of iron, which inclines downwards : under this plate the fore-wheel of the carriage proceeds, till the latter, losing its equilibrium, turns fairly over.
The most various operations are conducted within the interior of this large establishment; and the most ponderous articles manufactured, from an iron bridge to an attenuated plate or rod, amidst a scene wherein the four ancient elements are subjugated by human power and intelligence. Here, the ore dug from the bowels of the earth; there, the steam-blast rushing through the furnaces; together with various contrivances for the economy of water, and application of its power to the machinery - all these sights and sounds are sufficient to raise, even in the apathetic mind, the sentiment of veneration.
Within a vast shed, or workshop, so extensive, that being under one part of the building it is not possible clearly to perceive what is going forward in the other, among the furniture not the least remarkable were the huge cranes, the mighty agents for the casting pits in the centre of the floor, capable of raising fourteen tons and upwards, and equipped with iron blocks and quadruple sets of chains. From an orifice, at the bottom of the door in the furnace, the scoria, or blue dross, was sluggishly trickling in a steady creeping stream into an iron vessel, in shape like the body of a wheelbarrow, placed to receive it : when cool, the vitrified mass is turned out from this vessel in a cubic block, and broken for mending the roads; though it is extraordinary that, excellent as this material is for that purpose, it never was so applied till within the last eight or ten years : at present, more is so expended than is furnished at the foundery; the quantity disposed of last year being twenty-one thousand six hundred tons. The size of these heaps of shale and dross, the refuse of forty years, is quite extraordinary; those of the former, having been set fire to, are reduced to a substance like red tile : at this moment, supposing the whole were to form a cone in the centre of Grosvenor-square, I really believe its base would include all the houses. The premises, notwithstanding these indications, are now being enlarged, both as to new buildings, engines, and furnaces, in a proportion not less than as two to three.
To pass over the two first operations, whereby the iron, after being separated from the ore in the first furnace, and cast into pigs, is again liquefied by heat and re-cast in a shallow trough into slabs, which slabs, being remarkably brittle, are broken up and thrown into a third furnace; the next process is that whereby it is first beaten into a malleable form. Athletic men, bathed in perspiration, naked from the waist upwards, exposed to severe alternations of temperature, some, with long bars, stirring the fused metal through the door of the furnace, whose flaming concavity presented to the view a glowing lake of fire, - were working like Cyclops. By continued and violent applications of strength, visible in writhing changes of attitude and contortions of the body, raking backwards and forwards, and stirring round and about, the yielding metal, they contrived to weld together a shapeless mass, gradually increasing in size till it became about an hundred pounds weight : this, by a simultaneous effort of two men with massive tongs, was dragged out of the furnace, radiant with white heat, a snow-ball in figure and appearance, along the paved floor. Now subjected to the blows of a ponderous hammer, it was wonderful to mark the vigour and dexterity with which the men contrived to heave the mass round and round at every rise of the hammer, whose every fall sounded like a mallet on a cotton bag, while the fiery ball was now turned one side, again the other side uppermost, with the same facility apparently to the operators as if it had been a horse-shoe. The glowing substance yielded like clay to the thumps of the hammer, and as it was pounded into form by the tremendous concussion, at each stroke the more liquid matter was forced from the centre and bubbled on the surface : thus what was spherical was soon brought to the shape of a slab or brick, which figure is the one preparatory to its being rolled into plates.
The weight of the hammer was at least four tons, and it was moved by an excentric wheel, which revolved above the extremity of its shaft. The simplicity and usefulness of the excentric wheel in mechanics, to produce such a motion as is here required, is particularly interesting and pleasing : in the present instance, were the wheel in question perfectly circular, the shaft of the hammer could receive no motion, but the former being in one part protuberant, the latter was depressed by coming in contact with the protuberant point in the circumference once in every revolution; a motion which may be easily elucidated by nailing a piece of wood on the outer rim of the wheel of a wheelbarrow.
The mode by which the two men who attended the hammer jointly threw their powers into co-operation was as follows :- one held a hook and the other a lever; he of the lever stood always ready to aid, by a seasonable and well-directed effort, him of the hook, adding his whole force, in one collected impulse, the moment the latter had taken his grip, to produce a force to fling over the mass.
The iron being by the above process manufactured into a slab, the next operation is to form a plate, by passing the slab several times in succession between a pair of weighty cylinders, whose position is continually adjusted closer and closer, as the plate diminishes in thickness, by a powerful press screw. The slab, again red hot, was placed between the revolving cylinders, the upper one of which fell with a jarring, clanking sound upon the lower, as the slab was speedily snatched through, and disgorged on the other side. The transit was momentary, and the impression at first trifling, the alteration in shape in fact scarcely perceptible, great as was the shock produced on the machine as the massive bulk was forced through; but the oftener it passed the greater the change, and every time, by a turn of the screw, the cylinders were adjusted closer accordingly; till what was at first the size of a folio volume, was brought to the dimensions of a Pembroke table. The manner in which the slab was handled on the present occasion, and passed over and between the cylinders, was as simple and dexterous as the former process : as it fell from the cylinders it was received by a man on a flat shovel, which shovel was suspended by a chain from the ceiling, at a point in the handle about a foot from the plate of the shovel. The handle was long, and so was the chain, so that the man was enabled by the above purchase to give way to the slab as it approached towards him, and when free from the cylinders, easily to push it over the top of both. It was then handed back by two men on the opposite side, by means of levers applied somewhat in a similar way.
The stupendous power of the shears here used for the cutting of iron is very wonderful. I saw a square iron bar, one inch and three-quarters the side of the square, cut asunder in an instant, with as much ease as a ploughman would bite off the end of a carrot. The mechanical appliance was the same as that adopted with the aforesaid hammer - that of the excentric wheel, and equal in power to the weight of the cutting limb, as well as that of the resistance to be overcome; that is to say, the lever was here one of the second order, the action of the instrument being that of a pair of nutcrackers. On another occasion I observed a machine of this description, at a foundery in Leeds, worked also by an excentric wheel, but a lever of the first order, the action that of a pair of scissors. This instrument, though not so powerful as the former, produced an extraordinary effect in appearance : for as the excentric wheel continually revolved, the blades opened and shut as it were spontaneously, after the manner of the jaws of a huge animal, munching, as if in expectation of food; and the illusion seemed the more perfect when on a piece of iron being presented it was bitten through without an effort, and the motion, with unappeased voracity, still continued.
But the sight, or rather sound, of all others which created upon my mind the strongest impression was that of the air-blast driven by two powerful steam-engines through the main furnaces; the two furnaces about twenty feet distant from each other - the engines in the rear of these. A cylindrical trunk, of a couple of feet diameter, extends from the engines, sending forth at right angles two smaller branches, decreasing gradually in size to about four or five inches at the extremities, which enter one at the bottom of each furnace, like the nozzles of bellows. No verbal description can do justice to the awful effect produced by the air rushing through these iron tubes; and I was involuntarily led to the reflection to what extraordinary extent such a power might be applied in the production of musical sounds : for, combining the volume of air at command with the thrilling softness of tone already attained in the key bugle, the effect with which these two elements, - quality and quantity may, by and bye, be blended together, is almost indefinite. Not a word, though delivered with the utmost effort, was heard, spoken at the same time close to the ear. I have listened to a storm on the Atlantic, I have stood on the Table Rock at Niagara, yet never did I hear a sound in nature equal to this, - so terrific, or of so stunning a din.
There was an aperture in the main trunk between the diverging tubes, in which a large wooden peg was firmly driven by a mallet, and removed occasionally for the purpose of allowing the air to escape when the blast was too strong. This being removed, I placed my hand at the draft, when it required all my strength to retain it in its position. It was said that its force was sufficient to drive a man's hat to the ceiling, or to cause a wooden ball transfixed by a peg to dance in the air like a pea on a tobacco-pipe. Though I did not see either of these feats performed, I believe them both to be practicable.
The stupendous force of these continuous air-blasts is supplied in an equable never-failing stream from an air-chamber below, of ample dimensions : compared with an ordinary blow-pipe, its multiplied effects in engendering heat must be truly astonishing.
The heated air-blast has not yet been introduced in these founderies. I had an opportunity during the present summer of witnessing the operation of the latter at the Gartsherrie iron-works on the Clyde. There the object seems to answer as well as in the various other establishments wherein it has been introduced, namely, the effecting a considerable saving of fuel by introducing a hot blast instead of a cold one. I was informed the saving was equal to one-half. I saw the apparatus at work, but heard no sound whatever. The air passed first through a heated retort, and afterwards through a series of pipes into an air-vessel of a cylindrical form, and ten feet diameter by forty feet in length, consequently containing upwards of 3141 cubic feet of hot air. From this an equable continuous blast was sent into the furnace.
I have now related the principal objects I observed within the Low Moor foundery; besides which preparations were going forward for casting huge cauldrons, and various parts of the machinery of the West India sugar-mills. The models of the cauldrons were first built in brick, and then plastered over with cement.
I saw a cylinder, forty inches diameter, belonging to a steam engine, fixed in a lathe ready for boring. The cutting instrument consisted of an inner cylinder with mortices, into which the blades were placed as required : the latter were merely plates of iron with a bevilled edge.
I saw the beam of an engine, weighing three tons, also fixed in a lathe; and, notwithstanding its vast weight, revolving on a point which entered only three-quarters of an inch, with as much ease as if it had been a peg-top : the point was, however, an extremely obtuse cone.
Out of doors the clanging din of hammers was incessant, as red-hot bolts were being riveted in the boilers, whose plates had been previously cast within the building.
I observed that all the sand used for the casting-beds was prepared by grinding sandstone. This is performed by a large cast-iron roller, moved round on a circumference plated with iron, by a couple of horses pulling at a lever fixed at the centre of the roller.
I regret I had not an opportunity of taking more than an extremely cursory view of the excellent arrangements for the economy of water by means of various reservoirs, to which, after being expended, it is pumped back again for the use of the engines. As the drainage of the Moor is not considerable, without the greatest care, the supply would be very precarious; as it is, there is sufficient. In one of the small reservoirs out-of-doors, containing water from the engines very warm, what might be called hot, were a parcel of ducks rioting in smoke, and apparently highly delighted.
Besides the water for the steam-engines, a supply is obtained to turn various water-wheels : one moves the large lathe for heavy bodies, another propels the waggon-loads of ore up the inclined plane and pitches them into the furnaces : sundry others are also required for minor contrivances.