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Technology in Australia 1788-1988Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
Table of Contents

Chapter 12

I The First Half Century - The Initial Struggle

II The Second Fifty Years - The Start Of Expansion

III The Third Fifty Years - Federation And The First World War
i General Conditions
ii Some Early Innovative Approaches
iii Concrete Pipes
iv Cement-fibre Pipes
v Concrete Products
vi The Birth of the Iron and Steel Industry

IV The Fourth Period - Second World War To The Present



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The Birth of the Iron and Steel Industry

Apart from the establishment of numerous iron foundries around the middle of the nineteenth century and the somewhat abortive early attempts at iron smelting in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania, the iron and steel industry in Australia started in 1875 at a site near Lithgow, NSW, some 150 km west of Sydney. James Rutherford, an American by birth, had connections with the early transport company, Cobb and Co., and could provide some capital towards an establishment, the rest being supplied by residents of Bathurst. Nearby there were supplies of needed raw material, iron ore, limestone, coal and water together with a rail linkage with Sydney; seemingly all the ingredients for a successful iron making venture.

It is as well to divert at this stage to review briefly the state of iron and steel technology overseas. Before 1856, when Bessemer announced his new steelmaking converter process, blast furnace iron or pig iron was being converted to malleable iron by Cort's puddling process, which removed excess silicon, carbon and much of the phosphorus and sulphur, and converted the material from a brittle to a more ductile product. The malleable iron was made into steel by diffusion of carbon into the iron in the solid but heated state; the 'cemented' bars thus produced were melted in small crucible batches and cast producing a very high cost product (around 60 a ton). The Bessemer blowing of air through molten pig iron produced steel but was only satisfactory with high grade iron ores low in phosphorus which were uncommon in Britain. It was only in 1878 that Sidney Thomas showed the need to use basic or high lime slags to remove phosphorus and then the process was only viable if a basic lining were used in the converter. Thus a time of important new technologies and changes overseas was the background against which the modest attempts in Australia should be viewed.

Lithgow works

The Eskbank Ironworks Co. of Lithgow laid the foundation for their first blast furnace in 1876, a small structure 16.5 m high and 3.6 m diameter at the bosch or widest part and using hot blast through tuyeres. The first casts of pig iron were of satisfactory quality and all told about 200 tonnes were produced in 1876, but at a cost rather higher than expected. An important early decision was to expand in the future to a fully integrated iron and steel making and rolling works, a situation that was not necessarily common overseas at this time.

Thus six puddling furnaces and a 450 mm rolling mill to produce rails were next installed, which must have seemed a good commercial proposition at the time on account of the tremendous expansion of rail tracks throughout the Colony and tram tracks in major cities. Railway mileage increased from some 1280 km in 1870 to 21,500 km by the early 1900s and by the latter period many old wrought iron rails were being replaced with the new steel rails. The works additions were completed in 1878 and rails for tramways in Sydney were supplied so that these, together with train rails, became the main products produced. In the ten years to 1884, some 16,000 tonnes of product were sold for revenue of about 200,000. The Eskbank Works, however, struggled to obtain profitability under adverse conditions, which included under capitalization, excessive transport costs and being too far from the market place. It also lacked any tariff protection against imports.

In 1883 William Sandford arrived in Australia from Bristol as an associate of the British company John Lysaght Ltd., with the aim of helping in the establishment of the wire netting works of Lysaght Bros., situated on the Parramatta River. Incidentally Mr. John Lysaght had already visited Australia in 1879, became dissatisfied with selling in the Colony through merchants, and decided to set up a central selling agency in Melbourne as a subsidiary of John Lysaght Ltd.; it was named Victoria Galvanized Iron and Wire Company. The wire netting factory, however, was run by two sons of Mr. Lysaght and operated as a quite separate business that was subsequently brought out by Gibbs Bright, after the death of son St. John and later was acquired by BHP.

Organisations in Australian Science at Work - Eskbank Ironworks Co.; Gibbs Bright; John Lysaght Ltd; Lysaght Bros. & Co. Pty Ltd; Victoria Galvanized Iron and Wire Company

People in Bright Sparcs - Lysaght, John; Rutherford, James; Sandford, W.

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© 1988 Print Edition pages 868 - 870, Online Edition 2000
Published by Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre, using the Web Academic Resource Publisher