From iron into steel
In the 1850s, Dowlais ironworks began the process of transforming itself in response to the evolving demands of the industrial age. The key development was in the shift to steel production – which would enable Dowlais to enhance its position at the leading edge of technological innovation.
Iron had been central to the Industrial Revolution, but once the mass production of steel was developed it was soon superseded as the engineer’s material of choice. Henry Bessemer made the initial breakthrough in 1856, when he developed the first inexpensive process for the mass production of steel from molten pig iron.
As ever, Dowlais was keen to adopt new methods and became the first British company to acquire a licence to produce steel using the Bessemer process in 1856. However, it was to take the best part of a decade of experimentation at Dowlais, under the guidance of William Menelaus, before a truly industrialised method for the production of steel was perfected.
Prior to its introduction, steel had been around 10 times more expensive than iron – making it far too expensive for use in railways, bridges or the frameworks of buildings. After the industrialisation of the Bessemer process, steel and wrought iron soon became similarly priced and most manufacturers quickly turned to steel. In 1871, Dowlais produced almost 26,000 tons of Bessemer steel; by 1884, it was producing more than 118,000 tons.
With steel production supplanting iron, Dowlais continued to grow through the second half of the century and, in 1888, built a second steelworks in South Wales, this time in Cardiff. The company had successfully evolved its business and entered the 20th century as one of the largest ironworks in the world.