Steel was not an American invention by any means. However, it did shape the country tremendously, and the material has often been associated with the rapid industrialization of the country as well as its expansion, both in terms of infrastructure as well as production. In fact, American history and steel are so intertwined, the relationships can essentially be traced back to approximately the U.S. Civil War.
Repurposing an Old Technology
Again, steel was not new technology in the 1800s. It dated back to Europe and Arabia, easily spanning centuries of existence before it ever reached American shores with colonists and ultimately the rise of the American states. However, it was the U.S. ingenuity for mass production that made American steel prominent as well as a massive economic income engine for the country early on. Much of industrial history begins in the Great Lakes area, specifically in the combination of iron ore near Lake Superior and the deep coal mines of Pennsylvania. The two resources combined provided the fuel for American steel production on a scale nobody worldwide had ever seen before.
To understand how significant the material production growth was, from 1880 to approximately 1900, the U.S. was producing something in the neighborhood of 1.25 tons annually. That steel production then jumped to 24 million tons annually only a decade later, by 1910. Much of the exponential growth occurred because transit routes, railroad circuits, transport infrastructure like bridges and production facilities experienced massive build growth. With the means to move material, produce greater amounts of steel and then move it to markets for consumption, demand grew astronomically, driving even more steel production in turn.
War Brings Production and Then Recovery Brings More
From 1910 through 1950, obviously, the country consumed an amazing amount of steel for two war efforts . World War I and World War II in the form of heavy equipment, armor, armaments, vehicles and weapons all required sizable amounts of steel, and it was this very production engine that in both conflicts the Germans and later the Japanese ultimately dreaded with the entry of the U.S. in the wars. The country’s production capability was simply off the scale, and eventually the U.S. entry plus manpower would out-muscle both countries in their respective conflicts.
However, interestingly, steel demand and consumption did not stop or decrease after World War II. Instead, it grew further!
While the U.S. came out of both wars relatively unscathed, the rest of the developed world had been blown apart and reduced to rubble. That meant a considerable amount of infrastructure needed to be rebuilt, and steel was essential for framing and reinforcing concrete. Given that most factories in Europe and Japan had been destroyed, no other reasonable option existed but to import steel from the U.S. As a result, American steel boosted the American economy, giving a multiple meaning to the Boomer generation after World War II, and the rest of the world was literally rebuilt with it as well.
The production demands of international consumption gave work and income to well over 700,000 factory workers in the U.S. As a result, it was quite normal for by the 1960s for an average factory worker to be able to afford a home, two cars, a backyard pool and discretionary income given the very comfortable wages being paid. It wasn’t until the 1970s when this economic curve slowed down and decreased rapidly in the U.S. with uncontrolled inflation, loss of manufacturing and a first-time reduction in steel consumption.
The Beginning of the End of the Golden Era
Some 20 years later, by the end of the 1990s, American steel was reaching over 780 million tons produced annually, but it only totaled a mere single-digit 6 percent of world production. Japanese and European steel production has become well-established, and many other countries have their own factories as well. The demand for U.S. steel had long since died off, and the American industry that had lasted almost 50 years suddenly collapsed. Entire towns and communities went with the “death” of American steel, creating the era of the dying steel town by the end of the century.
Much of the decline, aside from a loss of international demand, was competition. The same countries that once bought American steel now have their own factories that apply modern technology to production. American factories had not modernized as fast enough and fell behind with slower production, lower quality, and higher costs. Ultimately, American steel was repeatedly outbid, and the impact began closing U.S. companies left and right.
Faster, Less Costly and Far More Nimble
Today, American steel production employs less than 1/7 of what it did, at approximately 150,000 factory workers today. Yet that much smaller number is producing five times the amount of steel it did four decades earlier. The companies that remain are far smaller, far more specialized in product, and rely heavily on recycled steel for production stock. In total for what is created as new steel, the U.S. is far more of an importer of new steel than a producer.
Over 100 smaller factories and facilities continue to be the mainstay of U.S. steel production under far more efficient conditions and competitive criteria. These companies take massive advantage of abundant recycled materials, and they continue to provide fulltime employment for thousands. Further, many of these facilities also diversify and handle other metal production as well, also taking full advantage of related recycling streams for low-cost fabrication material. One of the key advantages of these businesses is the use of nimble and powerful technology, such as thermal imaging for safety and quality control. These technologies from providers like Connors Industrial give existing U.S. steel companies the edge they need not just to survive but to beat out competition and continue to grow. That is the nature of American invention and re-invention.