The Saga of New Zealand Steel
Belief in the fundamental importance of an iron and steel industry continued unabated into the twentieth century. In 1914 the ironsands theme was addressed in a parliamentary debate on the provision of bounties for successful metal production. Opposition leader Joseph Ward stated that there was no "subject in connection with the industries of this country of wider importance to the people than that dealing with the iron and steel industry." To the politicians, the provision of jobs was also important. Introducing the bill that led to the 1914 Iron and Steel Industries Act, Minister of Mines William Fraser argued that it "would mean the employment of a very large number of persons."
The Last Blast-furnace Attempt
With the inducement of bounties, and despite the lack of success of earlier attempts, J. A. Hesketh conducted a number of experiments into blast-furnace smelting at New Plymouth, between 1914 and 1919, for the New Zealand Iron Ore Smelting and Manufacturing Company. Using briquettes of concentrated sand and finely pulverised coal bound with sodium silicate, he was eventually able to produce five tons per day of high-silicon pig iron but noted that "titaniferous accretions built up in the hearth and gradually prevented tapping." These problems proved insurmountable and Hesketh’s experiments effectively spelled the end of blast-furnace trials with New Zealand ironsand.
Cull & Jenkinson’s Aborted Commercial Venture
There was an attempt to build on Cull’s experimental findings in 1915. At a stage when S. H. Jenkinson would have been completing his design of the Ab locomotive, one A.D. Bayfield applied to the General Manager of the Railways Department for Jenkinson’s services "for the purpose of acting as engineer and carrying out a joint idea of himself and Mr Cull of the Public Works Department dealing with the electrical treatment of the sands of Taranaki…". Bayfield sought that Jenkinson be granted leave without salary for fifteen to eighteen months and justified what he admitted was an unusual request on national grounds and the importance of the establishing of the Iron and Steel Industry in this country and as recognised by Parliament last session by the passing of a Bill for that purpose."
The proposal did not proceed further because the possibility existed at that time of a big development of the Parapara limonite iron ore near Takaka, using a blast furnace
Electric Furnace Trial
At last, in 1921, an electric furnace was tried. Twenty tons of New Plymouth ironsands were shipped to the Darlington Steel Works in England where metallurgist F.W. Harbord conducted smelting trials. From these he produced a ton of pig iron using 5000 kilowatt-hours of power, ascertaining that the small quantities of titanium that passed into the pig iron and steel had no detrimental effect on their quality. Apparently unaware of Cull’s work, he concluded that electric smelting would depend on the availability of very cheap electricity..
In the years leading up to the Second World War, any attempt at producing metal from New Zealand ironsand seemed doomed to failure, but the motivation for a domestic industry remained. Overseas trade was being reduced by foreign restrictions on the import of primary products. If market expansion were checked, progress would depend on domestic manufacturing, for which iron and steel production would be a key industry. Furthermore, British rearmament programmes were making it difficult to obtain steel for New Zealand public works. Despite Broken Hill Proprietary’s continuing supply from Australia, persistent shortages fuelled government support for a New Zealand industry.
An Iron and Steel Commission
Endorsing the establishment of an Iron and Steel Commission in 1937, Minister of Industries and Commerce Dan Sullivan argued that, "In most countries … the exploitation of coal and iron resources has provided the basis upon which subsequent industrial development has been built." He echoed earlier opinions that New Zealand had abundant raw materials, the development of which "might well provide the foundation for a considerable expansion of manufacturing industry." Two years later, he pointed out that the establishment of an iron and steel industry would mean that approximately 2000 workers would be directly engaged in production, either in the steel plant or in supplying the necessary raw materials of domestic origin. This number would in turn provide a considerable amount of further, indirect employment.
During the saga a key question for the politicans was ownership of the industry. In both the 1914 and 1938 Parliamentary debates, the party on the Treasury benches opted for the promotion measure most appropriate to its philosophy, i.e. state control in 1938, incentives for private industry in 1914.
However, the political debate did not touch on the most vital factor, the lack of a suitable technology arising from the titanium content of the sands. This proved to be a major obstacle despite the availability of raw materials and risk capital.