Sunday, February 20, 2011

Fall of France, 9: Manpower, Part 5

It snowed out in Burnaby so hard Thursday that the RCMP closed the roads. But our deliveries still got through. I know that I'm dissing on those fat cat executives when I imagine them as the kind of people who've never had to drive on snow-slick roads instead of taking a snow day.

On the road up to Simon Fraser University: Snow Day for reals!

But it's a fact. The performance of skills in our society often happens invisibly, at places and times where no-one else is around to see it, because no-one who is not there has what it takes to be there. If there's an upside to being ruled by technocrats, it is that hopefully they've done a little of this work in their time, and have some sense of how hard it is.

I'm not saying that as a truck driver, by the way, because I'm not a driver. I do hear their complaints a great deal when working as a shipper/receiver, and I certainly feel that there have been places and times when my contribution wasn't appreciated, but I that's true of everyone. That's why for this installment I'm going to drill down on a building where skills have been invisibly performed since 1898, and outside which there have frequently been unemployed people wishing that they were inside exercising those skills. And since I'm a male blogger writing about technology, I will have some enormous machine tools.

Sheffield Forgemasters works, Brightside, Sheffield, U.K.

The plant above is actually older than 1898. It's just that this was the year that it got its first forging press, a 2500 ton steam intensifier run press that signified the final triumph of the press over the hammer in forging very large steel ingots into very large useful objects.

Now, here's the thing. If you've read David Landes' Unbound Prometheus, (and be it acknowledged that I'm picking on a very good book that I haven't reread in a very long time, so I might be talking out of my arse here) you get a distinct impression of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries as one of continuous upwards and onwards progress in the iron and steel industry, at the very cutting edge of the Industrial Revolution. First there was Abraham Darby's business in coke-fired blast furnaces that made cast iron pieces from the 1710s, culminating with the iron bridge over the Severn built by his grandson. Then Benjamin Huntsmen invented steel at Sheffield (of course not, but that's almost as crude as the story that Smiles tells), then the triumphs of Bessemer, Gilchrist and Thomas at making steel in the ladle. Finally, Siemens took the final step in regenerating waste heat and creating the open hearth furnace. After that we get the alloy steels, but that would require acknowledging that technological innovation continued into the British Edwardian, and that doesn't neatly fit our account.

Read more deeply, and you learn interesting things. That's true at a technical level (I personally recommend the American Steel Society's textbook if you have access to a research library), but also an economic one. The 1930s numbers of Engineering has a section in each issue listing the going prices on local markets of bars, angles, and plates) throughout Britain for buyers interested in getting large quantities of standardised commodities at the lowest possible price. This isn't high tech! It's a commodity market!

And this shouldn't be surprising. Britain's exports in 1913 consisted of almost one third coal and 25% cotton textile pieces by value in 1913 according to Garside (141). He notes the not-quite commensurable fact that British iron and steel held almost 36% of the world market in the same year. This is ridiculous, because with the exception of coal, British industry was earning its way by importing commodities and re-exporting them as slightly higher-grade commodities. (Yes, Britain has domestic iron ore deposits. No, it's not a good idea to mine them.) This isn't a criticism of a business model. On the contrary, it is an impressive demonstration of the high productivity of British Edwardian industry, and we can leave it to the economists to fight over whether it was thanks to a long-past injection of research and development effort, the low cost of food, or something else entirely. But here's the thing: as foreign competition gets more intense, you can respond by cutting costs, or by investing in production and moving up the value-added chain. The first is deflationary, putting people out of work at home in order to sustain foreign market share, which strikes me as counterproductive at best. The second implies investing in production technology.

But what happens then? Brightside.  The 2500 pound forging press that was erected at Brightside in 1898 is still running today.  Its stablemates include 5000 and 10000 pound presses that aren't much younger, and perhaps as many as 9 large presses that have been idle for some time. (That is, they were there in 1955. Who knows what has happened since?) There has been talk of putting in a 15,000 ton press in since 1949 to compete with a monster in Japan, but it's still just talk. It is a good idea in that it would allow Brightside to compete for work on the very largest projects, but the monsters still working are often idle as it is. They make some of the  largest and strongest things that our modern military-industrial complex uses, such as nuclear reactor vessels, chemical reactor tanks and the very largest gearings, drive shafts, and crankshafts, vital for high powered engines, and reduction gearing on marine and electrical generation turbines. It's a tribute to Sheffield that it has kept the business, when very country with pretensions to being a Great Power has or has had one of these presses, often built at Davies Brothers, Sheffield.

Mainly in the hectic decade of the Dreadnought race, Davies was producing forging presses for foreign steelworks as well as Brightside. There's a fine how-do-you-do. British "producer goods manufacturers" were building up foreign competition for the country's staple producers. The 1935 Census of Production doesn't have a category for forging presses (or, at least, Roskill's summary for Engineering doesn't, and  I rely on it here), but it does note that the country made £2.7 million in boot and shoemaking equipment and £12million in textile machinery and exported almost 60% of both. Just for the sake of the comparison, the gross output of the entire automotive sector in the same year was £136 million, and exports were only 12% of that. That's not good news for the textile operatives of Manchester. 

So, again, looking at Brightside, we find a very impressive publicity run in Engineering beginning in 1935. From the tone of the articles, these might have started as a response to conspiratorial stories about secret rearmaments work, triggered by the renovation of the plant in the first half of the 1930s. 

If so, the conspirators were right. These old forging presses are not untouched legacies of the Dreadnought era. They have been massively refurbished in the early 1930s, and one of them was moved from Openshaw to Brightside. English Steel, Brightside, wants the world to know that its new presses could make gears for Australian steel rolling mills and  Canadian nickel mines and dynamoes for enormous electrical generating plants, and these are.. interesting facts.Yet, reading between the lines, it is hard to see Brightside's new ability to pour, forge, and lathe 250 ton ingots of high grade heat-treated alloy steel as anything but provision made for making the latest battleships. And, indeed, the Admiralty had subsidised the renovation for exactly this purpose, if I'm recalling Gordon on interwar procurement correctly.

Now, about those lathes; imagine, if you will, a working cradle that can run a 250 ton half-finished piece of steel back and forth under a blade. That's one heck of a gear, and, as I've already noted, one of the things that Brightside did was finish gears for enormous machines. It did not, however, make them. That was done up the road at the Huddlesfield works of David Brown. If you're a WWII technical geek like me, or have just followed this blog for a while, you'll have noted that David Brown Engineering is the home of the Merritt-Brown transmission that went into the Churchill, Cromwell, and later British tanks and made some difference at the operational as well as purely technical level. (If you're wondering why other countries could make heavy tanks without the Merritt-Brown, note that Tiger also used a Merritt-Brown, although for some reason I can't access the "Tiger Information Center" to link to the top discussion of the subject.) 

Yes, so what? The new armour that the forging press was invented to work is often called "cemented" armour. There are descriptions of "cemented armour" out there. They're rather old-fashioned, in that you need quantum chemistry to grasp what's really going on, but they are not wrong when they tell you that steel plate is put in contact with a source of carbon which diffuses through the surface layers of the plate and makes it "harder." They omit mentioning that cementation breaks down at the higher temperatures experienced within engines or gun barrels, but it's not obvious why this would be important, so it's all good. 

There are, however, related chemical "hardenings" technique that don't: carbonitriding and nitriding. I won't belabour you with the clues that lead me to believe that the NCA belt armour of the King George V battleships was, in fact, treated in this manner rather than cemented. It's speculative. We know that these techniques came into general use at the most advanced steelworking facilities in the 1930s, adoption being delayed by the great cost and care required to apply them. We know in particular that it was widely used in the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, because this was acknowledged in articles informing the world that R.R. was taking deliveries of nitrided crankshafts made --and by made, I mean, in part, forged-- at ...Brightside! (We also know from some great articles originally published in the wartime German technical press that Rolls-Royce's use of the technique went much further than just the crankshafts.)

Some of the new technologies developed during World War II are very well known today. They became common knowledge during the war, and were described in enormous detail for all the nerds of the era who just could not get enough of oil coolers, airscrews and (early) radar. Others, however, are cloaked in a partial secrecy. It's like my not being able to get a clear idea of how many forging presses there were/are at Brightside. Lots of people have written about the subject over the years, but somehow they resist comprehensive counts and descriptions, presumably because there's always something or other going on there that's secret. I throw this up because while I know a great deal about the Merritt-Brown transmission, one industrial technique that would have made it far more practical than anything else would be, of course, nitriding. I know that nitrided gears began appearing in heavy machinery offered in the civilian market by 1947, so it seems reasonable to conclude that it was actually being used in wartime tanks. I just don't know. (Rounding out my list of things that might have been improved by nitriding, I'll note the extraordinary ballistic performance of the 17 pounder antitank gun.)

Oh, and about those presses, one more time. I've mentioned that they've been renovated, I just haven't mentioned how. The thing about big forging operations is that you only get so many upsettings before the ingot has cooled too far, and it has to go back into the heating furnaces. So it vastly increases working speed and economy if you can get faster and more precise control of the forging presses. When I first look in at the Brightside presses at the peak of the dreadnought revolution, the original steam intensifier technology has just been put to the side by the introduction of Hele-Shaw-Becham variable-flow hydraulic motors, just recently proved in the turrets of the new dreadnoughts. The 1930s renovation introduces better feedback-controlled motors, the metadyne having been specifically rejected. All blah-blah, I know, but we are at the cutting edge of automated control here, on our way to the Eureka moment when John von Neumann realised that half the world's wartime engineers working across a vast range of disciplines had actually all been busy inventing "computers."

How do I pull all this together? I've talked about two mills deep in the West Shire, a Special Area of high unemployment and blighted hopes, where fathers have to sell their children for medical experimentation when the mill closes. They're not quite at the heart of the problem, but they're surely part of it. But I have also talked about two highly advanced plants, where research and development is the hope of tomorrow. The thing is, they're the same! When the mill shuts down to put proto-computers into the machine tools or introduce nitriding processes, people are left unemployed. What happens to those people? 

When you see that exports of textile machinery are outrunning exports of textile pieces, the instinct is to forbid the export of "producer goods." It is interesting to note that Brightside was a fairly safe seat for Labour. It went Conservative in 1931 due to vote-splitting, but has been solid for Labour since 1935. And Labour's position, crazy as it might sound, is that it's good to give foreigners steady jobs and raise them out of poverty.

But there's more to the logic. Avner Offer suggests that one of the keys to the successes of Edwardian British textile workers is masked by the idea of mass production. It was, in fact, their ability to produce a specified type of yarn from a wide range of input cottons that allowed them to outcompete foreign workers who apparently had all the advantages. It was, in other words, skills. The men and women idled when Brightside or Huddlesfield went down were of the same breed. They could function in factories that were being constantly turned upside down by ever escalating Admiralty and War Office technical demands because they were adaptable. It was their skills that made it possible for these firms to bet on the future.

That's why, in the end, their employers accepted the costs of keeping them on UI rather than encouraging their departure for more promising parts of the world. Is this exploitation? I can see a case being made, insofar as these men might be able to make more money in Buffalo. But then, Sheffield Forgemasters is working today. That's more than you can say about most factories in Buffalo. We can also see why no-one would be very happy to see the Army come by and sign up all the promising young men in Brightside in the middle of a trade slump --including, in the long run, the army itself! Paying them a little on the side to join the Territorial Army and play with AA guns might be a different matter, though.

So do we have structural unemployment in Brightside in the early 30s? Sure: but what I've identified here is structural unemployment in the industry. It's not workers being retrained, but rather plants being retooled. It's also an illustration that it's really hard to see the future. As far as peacetime markets for Brightside products are concerned, the plant was retooling to make nuclear reactors; something that few, if any at the firm, suspected in 1932.

Papers on Forging Presses:

Engineering: 13 April, 1934, pp. omitted; 1 June 1934, pp. omitted; 22 June, 1934, 713; February 1, 1935, 112ff; 15 Feb 1935, 161--64
: J. A. Sanders on and J. G. Frith, "A REview of the Application and Design of Heavy Forging Presses," Journal of the Institute of Iron and Steel 161 (1949): 231--46.
H. Stern and Cmdr J. I. T. Green, "Performance of Forging Presses," Proceedings of the INstitute of Mechanical Engineers 175 (1961): 577--92.
W. H. Alvey, "A Modern Heavy Forging Plant," J. Inst. Iron and Steel 161 (1949): 114--38.

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