The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 78
Chapter II. — Preparing for War.—the Making Armour Plates.—the Building of a Battleship
Preparing for War.—the Making Armour Plates.—the Building of a Battleship.
The bulk of Sheffield's toilers, to the number of 23,200, are engaged in the great metallic and engineering trades that to-day make the city England's great steel centre. There are volumes that have been said, and still volumes unsaid, in regard to its potential industrial wonders—wonders that are materialised in a mass of blinding furnaces, lathes, steam hammers, casting pits, and monster hydraulic presses. In the making of armour plates and guns, Sheffield is one of the world's largest centres. For the production of the fabulous amount of war material that every year is hurried off to the great shipbuilding yards, it has been found necessary to lay down immense costly plants, and erect machines beside which the stature of the human unit is dwarfed to insignificance. The scale on which these mechanical monsters arc designed is something that belongs to the titanic. When one speaks of armour plate rollers weighing sixty tons, or the capacity of a hydraulic press as 14,000 tons, it is impossible to picture what the material evidence of such things represent.
These modern appliances and plant of the great works are capable of producing and handling blocks or ingots of steel weighing up to fifty, sixty, or seventy tons, or even more. The area the premises cover varies from twenty-five to fifty or sixty acres, whilst there are in some cases large areas held for the requirements of the future. Plant and appliances are represented by the bewildering array of machinery gathered into great buildings and linked up, organised, and run continuously on a system that only a century of toil and invention could devise. The conglomeration of gas furnaces, lathes, hammers and presses, fed for the most part by 50, 100, and 150 electric overhead cranes, tempts one to think of the fabulous. Such is the force of this tremendous inspiring reality.
Each works has its own network of railways, with direct communication to the main lines. It possesses a full equipment of locomotives, and, in some cases, rolling stock. The traffic through the great works never ceases. The accumulation of industry and the amount of specialised thought that they present discloses a capacity on the part of mankind intermixed with many anomalies. All his forces appear to be focussed there into a stupendous effort, and that effort is production. Both night and day gather to its demand with ceaseless fires and the thunder of tireless machines. Sheffield is the temple of the great Iron God of Industry. There is neither worship nor thanksgiving—only a mighty coming and going of toilers, under lurid skies and smoke, to the call of the white, dazzling stream of steel.
An early impression that suddenly assails one on entering the yard of a big works is the tremendous vitality concentrated in such an industry. A vista of retorts, travelling cranes, and other apparatus, overshadowed by long, lank shafts, vomiting smoke and fire and steam, falls into perspective. The world, for you, is transformed into a great arena, throbbing and panting with dominant energies. The eye hovers be- page 21 [unclear: een] a sea of black, irregular roots [unclear: d] wide, grimy spaces filled with men [unclear: d] locomotives, or horses dragging a [unclear: ssive] block of steel that one day [unclear: d] emerge into a great gun or a mon-[unclear: er] marine crank. Every human unit, [unclear: ety] and sweating, maybe, is the ex-[unclear: ssion] of a pent-up energy beside which [unclear: e] clamour of the machines can offer [unclear: n] distraction.
A theory was once propounded that [unclear: e] universe was an experiment in crea-[unclear: n], and it had gathered so much force [unclear: d] impetus since the dawn of time [unclear: nt] it had passed beyond the divine [unclear: ntrol]. It would seem that on plunging [unclear: o] the heart of a great steel works [unclear: nt] its piles of machinery had rushed [unclear: m] the power of man, and that he, [unclear: erless] at the might of his own crea [unclear: n], was being drawn into a vortex [unclear: ere] destruction was ultimate. The in-[unclear: idual] self seems hopelessly overpower-[unclear: d] before all the force that casts, [unclear: eezes], rolls and pounds into shape [unclear: e] livid, molten ingots. The blinding [unclear: t] and blaze of fires, the leaping, daz-[unclear: ag] clouds of steam, conspire with sug-[unclear: tive] perspectives looming through [unclear: e] smoke to trick the imagination. The [unclear: tole] scene partakes of the force of [unclear: e] fantastic proceeding. The senses [unclear: gger] beneath bewildering noises and [unclear: irements]. But illusions have no chance [unclear: fore] that grim, blatant reality. The [unclear: ture] of men's disordered machines en-[unclear: phing] him in destruction pales, and [unclear: n] of a mass of fitful impression there [unclear: lowly] emerges the realisation of a [unclear: tvellously] complex scheme of labour, [unclear: n] which the genius of order is trium-[unclear: ant].
In the processes by which, after [unclear: nths] of labour, a great gun or an arm-[unclear: ir] plate is produced, involves some of [unclear: the] most spectacular processes in modern [unclear: industry]. The initial process of casting, [unclear: ay], a seventy ton ingot is a fiery ordeal for both workers and watchers. For twelve hours the great furnace has been in a flood of fire in order to bring the metal to the requisite molten state. By the use of blue spectacles it is possible to obtain a peep of the boiling inferno within. A moment or two is sufficient to make the beads of perspiration start, and one retreats conscious of a darkness, in the atmosphere, whi'st the memory of a livid white flood, boiling and bubbling like the surface of a planet in eruption, swims before the eyes.
A travelling overhead electric crane, reaching across the full width of the building, suddenly glides over the pit beside the furnace, and lowers the mould into position. The latter is an immense affair, strapped together by thick bands of steel. Half a dozen men, naked to the waist, appear as the crane glides forward again, bearing this time a monster ladle or bucket that is to be used to convey the seventy tons of glowing metal from the furnace to the mould. A long trough is swung into position between the furnace and the ladle. The men already drip with perspiration. "If they didn't sweat," said a workman," the heat would burn them up."
The foreman suddenly appears with a long crowbar, and commences to pound a hole in the furnace wall just above the trough. The workmen steady the ladle with long poles, and the anticipation that has long filled the watcher is transformed to a vivid expectancy. Showers of red hot ashes begin to fly from the point of the crowbar. Every thud strikes into one's heart and brain, but still the psychological moment does not arrive. The monotony of this slow, deliberate process of penetration becomes maddening. Minutes of suspense seem to separate the blow. Each stroke is charged with tremendous excitement. Suddenly there is a shout, the crowbar drops with a crash. The moment of realisation comes with a page 22 violent upheaval of red dust and ashes, and in a flash, a yellow flood leaps out in a blinding spurt and tumbles headlong into the great ladle. One is tremendously dazzled by the flood as it falls, hissing, roaring, suckling and laughing, with the exultant frenzy of fire. Showers of sparks rush up and burst into hundreds of fiery atoms. A great cloud of vapour curls out of the ladle, and bulges into the blackened girders of the roof as they are caught with a vivid reflection. Like a flood of lava, the thick, hot flood rises in the mould, torn with desperate sputterings and gurgles that tremble through the long vista of the foundry. The workmen stand as near as they dare, black and ragged. The sweat runs channels down their grimy faces. The great ladle slowly fills, and the cloud of sparks grows less.
The colour of the metal changes. There is a shout. The long trough tips up on end, and from the gaping wound in the furnace, the slag gushes redly out. Only to be lost amongst the dust and ashes of the pit below. Out of the gloom overhead an arm of steel descends, and in a trice the ladle with its molten mass is hoisted clear and swung like a baby over the mould itself. At a touch from the foreman a valve under the ladle is liberated, and the metal spills steadily into the gaping mouth of the mould. So the monster ingot grows apace, brimming to the very edge of the walls that shape it.
The process which follows brings into operation all the marvellous powers of the hydraulic press that can develop a pressure from 10,000 to 14,000 tons per square inch. The hydraulic press is virtually an evolution from the steam hammer. Where on the one hand there are noises and blows that shake the very earth with a tremendous force of impact, on the other there is only a black monster moving noiselessly to the touch of a lever with hardly a vibration in all its marvellous silent exhibition of forec. It reaches high into the roof, combining with a pair of immense cranes an array of forces before which the resistance of that solid seventy tons of glowing metal appears to be no more than if it were butter itself. The mass of metal is drawn out of the furnace at white heat and swung gently under the jaws of the waiting monster. It betrays nothing of its nature or purpose. A man touches a lever and the press glides softly down wards. It kisses the white hot metal without a sound. Nothing happens, only the press does not stop. Great black splinters suddenly start off the sides of the ingot, blacken and fall. One is thrilled to the marrow to see the solid steel shrinking before the eyes, going down gradually before that noiseless marvellous force. It is one of the most remarkable mechanical developments of the nineteenth century. Neither nature nor man has ever achieved before a thing that secures without fuss or sound such crushing invincible power.
The fury of a volcano, the bursting of a meteor, the blowing up of a battleship, all present forms of intense force. There is force, too, in the Lusitania's turbines, in Niagara, or the omnipotent rush of the avalanche; but with all these things there are disturbances and violence. The hydraulic press will pulverise tons of steel without so much as a tremor. Its embrace is irresistible, its slow silent force stupendous.
In the rolling of the rough shaped plate which follows is one of the finest spectacular sights in the works. The plate is drawn from the furnace white and glowing. The cranes drop it exactly into position on the floor of the rolling mill. The latter is made up of a series of small cylinders. At a touch from a lever they revolve, and the mass is shot along and thrust into the jaws of the main rollers themselves. With an im-page break page 23
[unclear: ense] rumble that makes the ground [unclear: rate], the rollers seize the glowing [unclear: nss], and in a flash it is banged through [unclear: n] the other side, flattened a little by [unclear: th] colossal pressure. The plate is [unclear: ssed] backwards and forwards through [unclear: he] massive sixty ton rollers by Tevers-[unclear: g] the mill each time. As it passes [unclear: through], piles of wet brushwood are [unclear: rown] on to the red hot surface to en-[unclear: ble] the scale on the surface of the [unclear: etal] to be got rid of. Immediately [unclear: e] brushwood reaches the rollers there [unclear: s] a sound like the bursting of a dozen [unclear: eam] pipes. Flames shoot up twenty [unclear: r] thirty feet above the mill, and one is [unclear: azzled] by a blinding effusion of sparks, [unclear: e], and clouds of steam. The violence [unclear: f] the display is astounding. After all that fierce uprushing of fire and water, [unclear: e] rapid is the combustion that only the [unclear: ickened] plate remains to tell of it. [unclear: But] a curious result has been effected [unclear: As] a rake is passed over the plate the [unclear: ale] conies away freely, leaving only [unclear: the] smooth surface to speak for the [unclear: power] and efficiency of the machine.
The armour plate mill is another of [unclear: sw] giants that the dominant thought of [unclear: lustry] has produced. Inspired by [unclear: great] engines its thunders shake not [unclear: aly] the earth, but teach far down into [unclear: the] depths of the social fabric itself. It [unclear: is] animated by the same spirit that [unclear: rtually] dominates all Sheffield. That [unclear: prit] is the Demon of War.
So far the processes described have [unclear: een] the casting of the ingot and the [unclear: olling] of the plate. They are merely [unclear: he] preliminaries to a long series by [unclear: which] the plate passed over acres of [unclear: prounds], through numerous departments [unclear: is] order that it may be bent, rounded, [unclear: ored], planed, cut, drilled, ground, and [unclear: finally] tempered so hard that a punch hit [unclear: by] a sledge hammer will not leave so such as a mark on its surface. Thus it [unclear: is] after months of labour, representing [unclear: a] vast expenditure of human energy, of thought, of natural resources, of money, that it emerges at last from the great black works, a finished product to be but one small constituent part in the mass of a big battleship.
Beside armour plates, the processes which represent largely the energy, thought, and human activities of Sheffield's thousands of workers are just as involved in the production of guns. Monster twelve-inch guns, over fifty feet long, that cost thousands of pounds sterling—in the making, too, of the giant engines that are to drive the fighting machine on its mission of death and destruction.
One small constituent part in a battleship! All this life, thought, science and labour concentrated upon a single armour plate!—the mind staggers to think of that and realise there are thousands of parts to a battleship. Think of the steel, iron, copper, and brass that goes to the multiplicity of its being. One can dimly picture something of the enormous resources, the energies and the activities demanded from millions of civilised mankind for the construction and maintenance of England's Navy alone. The might of ancient Egypt or Persia, "the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome" can offer no such tremendous example or achievement. No nation on earth has over shown so much constructive thought applied with such breadth, cohesion, ingenuity or remorseless deliberation as that which actuates the great Naval Powers of the day. All Europe seems to be convulsed with a Titanic thought of war. The minds of the nations run to "'Dreadnoughts." Let it be realised for a moment what a farreaching influence of national thought the construction of a single Dreadnought is. Thousands of tons of iron and copper have to be mined, transported, smelted, transformed, cast, rolled, tempered, planed, bent and shaped to ponderous ribs, plates, armour belts, barbettes, page 24 shields, guns, torpedoes, tubes, engines, boilers funnels and other such things. Hundreds of thousands of minds are alone required to think out, plan and produce those outstanding elements. Let it be realised at the same time that there are armies of men and women working with the same intensity and feverish haste in the production of clothing, electrical appliances and machinery, in creating, making and testing the galaxy of destructive forces known as ammunition, shell, and torpedo. Let it also be realised the processes involved, the minds employed on searchlights, range-finders, telephones, wireless telegraphy, and other highly specialised inventions that all determine the art of war. Lastly, let us think of the multitude of men, who are splendidly trained, equipped an dsea are splendidly trained, equipped and seachine the dread of other nations. How many people, when they talk of building Dreadnoughts, realise how far-reaching, how remarkably incisive into the very roots of national thought this mighty symbol of war is. There is no other production of modern ages that demands so much national effort, that commands so wide a range of individual minds, that permeates the whole social and industrial fabric of a nation as this great black battleship. And for what? In order that one day she may belch tire and destruction upon other men and nations, to be herself, perchance, torn by the convulsive rending death agony of the torpedo, or with bursting boilers and frantic meeting of bow and stem in midair, to plunge with her hundreds of souls, her fabulous wealth of construction, beneath the boiling, foaming sea—wasted, ruined, spent!
The big Sheffield works usually take a day to explore, and their magnitude may perhaps be gauged if one takes the excellent up-to-date premises of Messrs Vickers, Son and Maxim. They cover 65 acres, and employ on an average 4000 hands. Cammed and Co. are another his toric firm who employ from 3000 to 4000 hands on an area of 32 acres; also Thomas Firth and Son, with 2000 hands and 40 acres. There are many others, not omitting John Brown and Co., who built the Mauretania. Most of the larger works have their own ship-building yards on either the east or west coast, and their head offices in London.
One cannot escape or ignore the potent fact that in the production of war material all the big works depend largely upon the British Admiralty for existence. A certain process of cause and effect, too, can be traced out in the op position to a policy of naval retrenchment, when one begins to look into the Boards of Directors or examine the share lists. Under the present commercial competitive basis of industry, and where works are in the hands of a number of private individuals in the guise of a public company, one can understand why any action on the part of a Government which results in a depreciation of share dividends produces unpopularity. The morality of the thing is another question which cannot be dealt with here, however much one would like to differentiate between the actual standard required for England's naval supremacy on the one hand, and the keenness of certain commercial classes on the other to do business and make dividends at the expense of the nation.
In recent years one has heard a good deal in regard to the backwardness of England's industries in comparison with those of Germany and America. There is much talk still of the hidebound conservatism of both the average English employer and worker in recognising the possibilities of inventions, and a regard for old methods that was almost hopeless for new. In numbers of the older factories, the condition of things give some colour to such pessimistic assertions. One page 25 [unclear: nds] them badly laid out, dark, dirty [unclear: and] very little ventilation. The machin-[unclear: y] and appliances are quite in keeping [unclear: ith] the surroundings. In England, the [unclear: sentiment] which attaches itself to the [unclear: itique] is national. In Sheffield one finds [unclear: evidence] of such sentiment in the dirty [unclear: cumulations] that have done duty for [unclear: years]. But all that, with some of its [unclear: glaring] records of heavy industrial mor[unclear: ality], of scant wages, and other injus[unclear: tices] to the mass of its humanity, dimin[unclear: ishes] steadily. Even within the last five [unclear: years], Sheffield's big works have under-[unclear: gone] great changes. Old plant has been [unclear: swept] away and "scrapped" with almost [unclear: ruthless] vigour. New machines have [unclear: been] obtained, and the manufacturers, [unclear: when] necessary, have not been afraid to [unclear: go] abroad for them. Better, brighter, [unclear: and] larger works have sprung up, bringing not only the example of modern in[unclear: genuity], to contrast with the old, but far [unclear: healthier] conditions for the workers. The latter are at last being recognised as of [unclear: vital] importance, not so much to the workers. But to England's industrial efficiency itself. It is commonsense that [unclear: clean] houses, good food, and sanitary conditions of labour are essential to any standard at all of industrial efficiency. The effect of the newer premises on the appearance of the workmen is astonishing only by the comparison it makes with those of the older premises. On one hand, there are pale, dirty, physically defective and frequently dispirited bodies of men; on the other, an alert body of workers keenly alive to the needs of their companions.
In Sheffield, however, in common with other manufacturing centres, there are other things than big works to consider. Small concerns are a far-reaching feature in the life of the city. They exist to-day in large, though decreasing, numbers, from the fact they long preceded the advent of the big works, which increase in number every year. With the small concerns, the greatest evils of the industrial system of the Nineteenth Century were associated—evils that are revealed in overcrowding, insanitary surroundings dirt, ill-paid, underfed men, women and children, and all the consequent social horrors that resulted therefrom.
The work ahead of Sheffield to-day, work that must, be achieved for the most part by the collective action of the municipal authorities, is almost impossible to describe. But if industrial phthisis and infant mortality are to take their fangs out of the social life of the people, if the 1,796 liquor licenses of the city are to be prevented from reaping their annual toll of misery and degradation, if those wretched slums are to be no more than a black stain on the past, and the great mass of the people are to be raised from the slough of ignorance and poverty, Sheffield must both work and fight. Whether that work will be ever accomplished or what the fight for progress may entail is beyond conjecture here.
The problem seemed to gather great force, as I left Sheffield one wet, grey evening looming through smoke and rain. A line of black retorts, tanks and long shafts, were blurred against the dying day. But from the distant streets, from those channels of the life of the people themselves, a flash of lights sprang up and touched the gloomy heavens with a soft pink glow. It was a strange, glad light in the darkness, and I won-dered how many of the great army of workers down there in the rain and the smoke would see in the wet and glittering street what I saw reflected on the heavens.