1918 19th Century On the Land Electricity Iron Sands to Steel Think Big
Iron Sands to Steel

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The Saga of New Zealand Steel

Iron has long been regarded as a key element in industrial development. New Zealand is well endowed with deposits of ironsands along the western beaches of both main islands, but many attempts to establish an iron and steel industry foundered on the high titanium content of the ore. Overseas expertise proved useless and it was the ingenuity and resourcefulness of New Zealand scientists and engineers that eventually solved a unique local problem and established a successful industry.

If there is any part of the story of technology development in New Zealand that deserves to be described as a saga, it must be steel making. Repeated attempts were made over a long period to develop a viable process using New Zealand raw materials. The technology finally adopted had been first proposed nearly half a century earlier by J.E.L. Cull and described in the New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology in 1918. The significance of Cull’s experiments can only be properly appreciated against a background of the many efforts to reap the riches of the bountiful deposits of ironsands on the North Island’s west coast.

The Importance of Iron and Steel

Today when plastics, aluminum and concrete have prominence as structural materials, it is not easy to appreciate the singular importance of iron and steel in the nineteenth century. The production of these materials was associated with industrial maturity, which probably accounts for the fervour of New Zealand attempts to establish its own industry. Along with cotton milling and the use of steam power it was to the forefront in the technological revolution which made Britain the first of the industrial powers.

The Saga Begins

Within two years of the first indication that iron deposits existed, the New Zealand Company’s Surveyor for Taranaki, Frederick Alonzo Carrington, had sent a quantity of iron sand to England for testing.--

 So began the saga of attempts to capitalise on an apparently abundant and readily available source of iron. Many more samples of sand would be sent to iron makers in Europe, North America and Australia. Smelting trials were to be carried out in New Zealand, with swords and other products being displayed at exhibitions.

The Taranaki Provincial government in 1858 as well as the New Zealand General Assembly in 1873 and 1914 would offer bonuses and incentives to investors willing to build iron works. At least four companies were established prior to the First World War–

  • Pioneer Steel Works at New Plymouth (1869),
  • New Zealand Titanic Iron and Steel Company at Te Henui Beach, New Plymouth (1873),
  • New Zealand Iron and Steel Company at Onehunga (1883) and
  • New Zealand Iron Ore Smelting and Manufacturing Company at New Plymouth (1914).

All were eventually abandoned because they failed to overcome technical problems associated with smelting New Zealand iron sands.

Lengthy Persistence

Some early industrialists displayed tremendous perseverance, confident that New Zealand would become the ’Britain of the South’. Notable among these was Cornish iron founder John Perry, who applied himself to the task at New Plymouth between 1843 and 1868. Another was armourer Edward Metcalfe Smith (later Member of the House of Representatives for Taranaki), who displayed great persistence and enterprise between 1868 and 1901.

Julius Vogel was one of the many who lost money in an ironsand smelting venture. During a debate in the correspondence columns of the New Zealand Times in 1876 when he was Premier of the Colony, he told the Times readers that the expert advice he had received was that iron could not be profitably made from ironsand. Nevertheless people kept trying.--

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Chronology