The Archive’s files on electrification of the steel industry contain information primarily from the first third of the twentieth century, when some of the most significant historical advances in the field were made. The topics covered include: steel-industry electrification, at Bethlehem/Lackawanna in 1930, electrical power and equipment, electrical drives in 1929, electric vs. steam drives, drive motors for rolling mills, engine vs. motor drives for blooming mills, automatic DC motor starters, automatic control systems, early electric lighting, steel-mill lighting problems, electric induction roll heaters, Lane-Fox electric distribution systems, distributing transformers, General Electric motors and generators, and Westinghouse motors and regulators.
Analysis: The period 1900-1920 witnessed a remarkable revolution in a key aspect of steel technology, for during that relatively short time span, electricity rose from a nearly unused and controversial form of energy to become the dominant motive force in the manufacture of steel. By the early 1920’s, displacement of the reciprocating steam engine by the electric drive motor in U.S. steel mills was virtually complete, and steel had become the catalyst for electrification in other industries.
Events at Carnegie Steel Company prior to the turn of the century foretold what was to come. In 1882, electric-arc lighting was installed at Edgar Thomson Works. In 1891-92, DC motors were used to handle ingots at the plant’s blooming mill and were installed to operate cranes at the Homestead Works, where they also were used starting in 1893 to drive table rolls. The next advance of note occurred in 1905, when DC motors were purchased to drive the main rolls at Edgar Thomson’s rail mill, initiating a period in which the advantages of electrification were to become widely recognized.
Power costs proved to be about two-thirds those for comparable steam engines, and repair and maintenance costs about one-tenth. There were no standby losses or time lost waiting for boiler pressures to build. Engine torque was uniform over an entire revolution and could be more easily controlled. More efficient mill layouts were possible, improving worker safety and increasing both mill output and product quality.
The foremost impetus to electrification came in 1907-08 with the startup of United States Steel Corporation’s Gary Steelworks, the first major integrated steel plant to be designed and built around the concept of electrification. From initial reversing tests at the plant’s universal mill in 1907, motors were used on its blooming, slabbing, and billet mills, as well as on its sheared plate, universal skelp, structural, and sheet-bar mills. In 1908, motors with a combined 24 thousand horsepower were installed at the plant’s rail mill, helping to make Gary one of the most technologically advanced steel complexes of its time.
Between 1906 and 1916, the yearly installation of electrical horsepower at U.S. steel plants increased tenfold, from 48 thousand to 480 thousand. By 1920, many of the aims of electrification had been accomplished. Steel plants had greatly reduced much of the physical effort their operations once required. High-speed production had become a reality, and greater operating flexibility and mechanical reliability had been achieved.