The Steam Hammers Of The Industrial Age

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Standing proudly at the entrance to the French industrial town of Le Creusot, in the region of Bourgogne in the eastern part of the country, is a colossal Creusot steam hammer built more than a century ago. Being a former mining town whose economy is now dominated by multi-national metallurgical companies, the steam hammer is Le Creusot’s main attraction.

The steam hammer defined the industrial age. It is a massive machine that can deliver powerful blows to iron ingots and give them large shapes that was previously impossible using manual power and hand-held hammers. The possibility of using steam to drive a hammer was first suggested by James Watt, whose invention, the Watt steam engine, drove the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. James Watt filed a patent in 1784, but it wasn’t until 1840 that the first working steam hammer was built to meet the needs of forging increasingly large iron or steel components.

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Steam hammer used for forging steel at the Midvale Steel Company, c. 1905. Photo credit: explorepahistory.com

It appears that the steam hammer was reinvented independently by two different but contemporary engineers—one Scottish, James Nasmyth (1808–1890), and the other French, François Bourdon (1797–1865). Both came up with the idea in the same year, 1839, and both were trying to solve the same problem of forging shafts and cranks for the increasingly large steam engines used in locomotives and paddle boats. When both came to learn about each other’s work, a dispute arose over who had invented the machine. Bourdon had built the first working machine, but Nasmyth claimed it was built from a copy of his design.

Bourdon’s first steam hammer, the first in the world, was built in 1840 for the Schneider & Co. works at Le Creusot. It weighed 2,500 kilograms and lifted to 2 meters. Schneider & Co. built 110 steam hammers between 1843 and 1867 with different sizes and strike rates, but trending towards ever larger machines to handle the demands of large cannon, engine shafts and armor plate.

Eventually, the Schneiders decided that they needed a hammer of colossal proportions, and the Creusot steam hammer was built in 1877. With the ability to deliver a blow of up to 100 tons, the Creusot hammer was the largest and most powerful in the world, and it remained so for fourteen years until the United States built an even bigger hammer capable of delivering a 125-ton blow. Its design was copied, after purchasing the appropriate patent rights, from the Creusot hammer at Le Creusot.

Eventually hydraulic and mechanical presses made the great steam hammers of the industrial age obsolete. A modern hydraulic forging press can apply force of about 80,000 tons, compared to only 100 tons by the Creusot hammer.

Many of these steam hammers today stand as monuments in their original spot—the factory around them having crumbled away a long time ago. Others were relocated to public parks. A large Nasmyth & Wilson steam hammer stands in the campus of the University of Bolton, in Bolton, England, and a smaller steam hammer in Wigan Pier. Another English hammer of the 1860s stands in a park in Sandviken, Sweden, and an 1856 Nasmyth hammer is displayed inside the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.,

The Creusot steam hammer in Le Creusot is the biggest example, and the largest of its kind in the world. It was disassembled in 1969 and rebuilt in the town‘s public square. With few remaining rivals, the hammer was named a ‘Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark’ by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1981.

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The Creusot steam hammer in Le Creusot, France. Photo credit: Christophe.Finot/Wikimedia

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A Nasmyth & Wilson steam hammer at the University of Bolton. This steam hammer was used in the Atlas Forge in Bolton, when the foundry closed, it was donated to the then Institute of Technology. Photo credit: www.bolton.org.uk

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A steam hammer stands at Brightside, England. Photo credit: www.sheffieldhistory.co.uk

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A steam hammer in Björneborgs, Sweden. Photo credit: Janee/Wikimedia

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A Nasmyth Steam Hammer at the M54 Services, in Telford, England. Photo credit: martin_vmorris/Flickr

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A small steam hammer at North Woolwich, London, England. Photo credit: shirokazan/Flickr

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Steam Powered Hammer seen near Wigan Pier, England. Photo credit: Pimlico Badger/Wikimedia

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A steam hammer at Sandviken, Sweden. Photo credit: Calle Eklund/Wikimedia

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40-foot tall steam hammer, used in the Michigan copper district circa 1900, in the collection of the Western Museum of Mining & Industry, Colorado Springs, Colorado. Photo credit: Plazak/Wikimedia

Sources: Wikipedia / ASME.org

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