As a colony, the states were not permitted by the King of England to make products that would compete with the industries in England. So while England’s Industrial Revolution had begun around 1760 (centered in the Severn Valley of Wales), these same technologies that gave England its supremacy in the world at that time were not put to use here until after the Revolutionary War and after the cottage industries became insufficient to meet the needs of the growing population.
The first cottage industry to make the transition was textiles. But the first marked changes came with advances in iron making: iron provided the means to build industry and to build the railroads.
Early iron making here in the 1700s was done using charcoal furnaces. While larger than the even earlier “bloomerys” they were limited in the amount and quality of iron that could be produced. Iron plantations, such the Durham Furnace in nearby Bucks county, produced batches of iron that was cast into items to meet the domestic needs of the early population: such as nails, hinges, cooking pots & utensils, and stoves. Eastern Pennsylvania was rich in iron ore, timber and limestone: the raw materials needed to operate charcoal furnaces. However, once a furnace had exhausted its supply of timber to make charcoal, the operation had to move to another location. Much of Pennsylvania’s virgin timber fell to the early iron industry.
A second driver for moving beyond charcoal-based iron furnaces was the quality of the iron, which was of insufficient quality to make rails – and rails were needed to move the expanding population west and to move materials needed for the expanding population.
The Welsh had already moved from charcoal to mineral fuels; ie coal, and had invented a means of converting bituminous coal to coke for iron making. However, there was no bituninous coal east of the Susquehanna River. It wasn’t until the 1830s that the Welsh perfected a means of using hard coal to make iron. The first commercial application of the technology was here in America, at Biery’s Port in 1840.
Hazard and White, who built the Delaware and Lehigh Canal system and owned the anthracite mines near Mauch Chunk, along with other charcoal furnace owners along the Schykill & Susquehanna Rivers, began experimenting in the 1830s with anthracite coal-fired furnaces, but with limited technical success, and no commercial success.
In 1839, Hazard and White visited Wales to meet with the man who owned the patent for using hard coal to make iron, George Crane. They left with a contract for David Thomas, who worked with Crane on building an anthracite furnace based on the patent, to build them an anthracite iron furnace. The site selected was Lock 36 on the Lehigh Canal, just above Biery’s Port. The site provided water power sufficient to run blowing engines needed to supply pressurized air to the furnaces, critical for the use of anthracite coal. The site also was surrounded by iron ore fields and limestone. Locating the works on the canal assured easy access to haul in coal and to ship out iron. The technical and commercial success of this venture marked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in America.