November 2006


France and the Industrial Revolution (Part 2)

By F. Habashi


The Industrial Revolution began in England when coke replaced charcoal in the blast furnace in 1709, which resulted in a great expansion of the industry. France, however, did not respond rapidly to this development. It already possessed, among other things, Diderot’s (1751-1772) great Encyclopedia, the first comprehensive treatise on technology. French scientist René Antoine Ferchault, Sieur de Réaumur (1683-1757), pictured left, wrote L’art de Convertir le Fer Forgé en Acier et l’Art d’Adoucir le Fer Fondu (the Art of Converting Forged Iron into Steel and the Art of Rendering Cast Iron Ductile) in 1722 in which he laid the foundation for the French study of steel. Another book by de Réaumur, entitled Nouvel Art d’Adoucir le Fer Fondu, was published posthumously by the French Academy of Sciences in 1762. In these books, de Réaumur was the first to take a scientific view of the nature of iron and steel.

Lavoisier’s (1743-1794) impact on agriculture, public finance, and chemistry shows that the French surpassed the British in awareness of the usefulness of men of science. It was only after France was defeated in the Seven Years War (1756-1763)1 that it realized its weakness in knowledge of ferrous metallurgy, and that a reform of the industry should be undertaken.

 Early iron production in France

The first important ironworks in France can be traced back to Jean-Martin de Wendel (1665-1737) who married a girl from a rich family in Lorraine, and in 1704, used his wife’s money to buy the iron forge in Hayange from the king of France. This small town was situated in the valley of the Fensch River. Wendel became maître de forges and the seigneur d’Hayange. In 1709, he demanded the cession of another ruined Hayange forge whose owner had failed to pay feudal dues to him; by 1711, he had acquired this forge. Wendel also bought territory, and above all, woodland, which he needed in order to supply charcoal to the forges. The family started armament manufacturing for the royal artillery works in Thionville at a time when there was a great demand for it, as a consequence of the War of Spanish Succession (1701- 1714)2. By 1720, he was operating five furnaces.

Charles de Wendel

When Jean-Martin de Wendel died in 1737, his eldest son, Charles de Wendel (1708-1784), pictured right, inherited the works. Two years later, he married the daughter of the king’s receiver of finances in Lorraine. As with his father, there was a dynastic link to the fiscal bureaucracy of the ancient regime. He benefited from the expansion of war-time demand for armour during the Seven Years War. Charles expanded the ironworks further and bought substantial tracts of land to prospect for ore and also to secure the necessary supply of charcoal. The locals, however, complained about deforestation and the pollution of the Fensch River, which led to the periodic death of fish. Constrained in Hayange, Charles de Wendel bought another forge in eastern Lorraine, at Sainte-Fontaine on the river Merle, from the duke of Lorraine. By this time, his forges were producing 1,370 tonnes of iron annually. In 1779, he obtained a contract to supply the French navy with cannon balls.

Ignace de Wendel

When Charles de Wendel died in 1784, his eldest son, Ignace de Wendel (1741-1796), had already established his reputation as a metallurgist and had a substantial political patronage. He was trained at the Royal Artillery School, fought in the French army, and in 1772, married the daughter of the president of the parliament at Metz, which allowed him to buy a stake in the arsenal of Charleville on the Meuse. Ignace was aware that France’s industry was backwards in relation to those of other European powers, that it was humiliated in the Seven Years War, and later, financially exhausted by the War of American Independence.

In 1757, just after the outbreak of the Seven Years War, finance inspector Daniel-Charles Trudaine sent Gabriel Jars (1732-1769), an engineer and a graduate of École des Ponts et Chaussée in Paris, to research the iron ore mines and the forges of Bohemia, Hungary, Tyrol, and Saxony. Jars was supposed to reorganize iron production in France on the basis of his observation. After visiting central Europe, he was sent to England in 1764, one year after the end of hostilities. Upon his return, he promoted the use of coke in blast furnaces. He wrote Voyages Metallurgiques in three volumes, which were published between 1774 and 1777 after his sudden death.

In 1769, Ignace de Wendel opened the first French blast furnace using coke in Hayange in collaboration with Jars, however, the operation was unsuccessful. In 1779, the French government sent de Wendel to inspect a foundry in Indret, at the mouth of the Loire, that was intended to supply material for the manufacture of royal armaments. The minister of the navy, Antoine de Sartine, wanted these works to become an English-style factory. He invited William Wilkinson, an ironmaster following in the footsteps of his famous brother John Wilkinson (1728-1805), who was the first businessman in England to exploit Abraham Darby’s coke smelting process on a large scale. He was also one of the first to use a James Watt steam engine (1775) instead of a water wheel to work the bellows of his furnaces. His technological and industrial successes were legendary. Wendel, who managed the negotiations with Wilkinson, concluded that new blast furnaces using coke needed to be built.

Le Creusot

View of the forge at Le Creusot

In 1779, King Louis XVI decreed that a Royal Foundry for the production of cannons was to be constructed at Le Creusot in Burgundy where the mining and mineral industry was known since the early sixteenth century. The Royal Foundry was to be constructed “to smelt iron ore with coke, following the English method, to be put into practice by Monsieur William Wilkinson.”

William Wilkinson went to Le Creusot as the consultant engineer responsible for the design of the blast furnaces, the foundry, and the cannon-boring machinery. Pierre Touffaire, an engineer from the Navy, directed the actual building work while Ignace de Wendel was the king’s representative on the management team. Four blast furnaces using coke were constructed in addition to other necessary equipment. Coke was produced at the Forges de Mesvrin under the direction of chemist Guyton de Morveau (1737-1816).

By 1785, the plant was producing 5,000 tonnes of iron annually— a considerably large amount at that time. The transfer of the Manufacture Royale de Cristaux (Royal Crystal Works), belonging to Queen Marie Antoinette, from Sèvres to Le Creusot in 1786, and the completion in 1793 of the Canal du Centre, starting from Chalon-sur- Saône and passing near Le Creusot, was an important factor in the growth of the town. But the production was quite expensive, and when there was a demand for cannons, it was cheaper to import pig iron from England than to do the smelting in Le Creusot.

Ignace de Wendel was a victim of the increasingly desperate state of royal finances. The money promised by the king to the Manufacture des Fonderies Royales never materialized. In 1789, Finance Minister Necker was reminded of the money owed by the king. Necker refused to pay, reasoning that the state should not get involved in private industry. Without state support, however, the French industry was in a precarious position. The reality behind Necker’s statement was the bankruptcy of the old regime. During the Revolution, production was suspended, the plant was confiscated, and Louis XVI was sent to the guillotine in 1789.

Steel production and the French Revolution

During the Revolution, the army of the Republic was short of iron because of the conflicts with the iron-supplying countries. The Comité de Salut Public recruited scientists to help accelerate the production of military hardware. Gaspard Monge (1746-1818), pictured right, professor of mathematics in Paris, eagerly embraced the doctrines of the revolution and advocated utilizing science for the defence of the republic. He was interested in metallurgy in addition to his wide range of mathematical and scientific activities, because his wife, whom he had married in 1777, had a forge. While deeply involved in teaching at École Royale du Génie at Mézières, he organized the setting up of a chemistry laboratory there. In collaboration with Berthollet and Vandermonde, he published Mémoire sur le fer considéré dans ses differens états métalliques in 1786. In this work, he clearly established the relation between iron, carbon, and steel. He was sent by the French Academy of Sciences, together with Lavoisier, Berthollet, Fourcroy, and Vandermonde, to visit the plant at Le Creusot. 

In 1792, Monge became the Minister of Marine and a member of the Committee of Public Safety. In 1794, he published the comprehensive work Description de l’art de fabriquer les canons, in which he recommended the use of sand in casting. In 1812, French metallurgist Jean Henri Hassenfratz (1755-1827), pictured left, professor at École Polytechnique, wrote a comprehensive work on ferrous metallurgy in four volumes.

1 The Seven Years War is the name given to the final phase in the century-long struggle between France and Great Britain for dominance in North America. In reality, a state of war had existed in North America since 1754. The war was of significance as the two great powers fought on land and sea in nearly all parts of the world, invested huge amounts of material and men in this conflict to the point that they both emerged exhausted from it, that the balance of power was tipped irretrievably in Britain’s favour, and the Canadians were conquered and annexed to the British Empire. In Canada, it is simply called the War of the Conquest.

2 Forges Saint-Maurice in Quebec operated from 1733 to 1883 with a charcoal furnace. From 1743 to 1760, it was owned by King Louis XV. Before that period, it was in private hands, and after the conquest, it was operated by the British.

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