February 2007


France and the Industrial Revolution (Part 2)

By F. Habashi

Monument to Eugène Schneider I

Steel Production and the Napoleonic Wars

When France declared war on Austria and Prussia (April 20, 1792) and on Britain and Holland (February 1, 1793), it sparked an age of war which lasted, with two brief interruptions, until November 1815 when Napoleon was exiled to the island of Saint Helena. This war regime reached a climax between 1806 and 1811 when Napoleon attempted to exclude British trade from the continent; Britain counteracted by depriving the continent of all trade that did not pass through British ports. However, due to the annexation of Belgium, coal output increased greatly, which helped the iron industry in France.

Le Creusot and the Schneider family

A variety of work was undertaken at Le Creusot, especially the casting of pipes for the Compagnie de Gaz de Paris. Financial difficulties, however, forced the sale of the company in 1818 to a local coal owner, who then sold it in 1826 to a company formed by two Englishmen. The new owners brought in puddling furnaces for the conversion of cast iron to wrought iron, as well as a team of English workers. It was at this time that the ironworks became known as "La Forge Anglaise du Creusot." The company prospered for some time; however, it eventually went bankrupt in 1833.

In 1836, the Forge at Le Creusot was purchased by Adolphe and Eugène Schneider. They came from Bidestroff, a small village in Lorraine about 50 kilometres northeast of Nancy. The Schneider brothers hired François Bourdon, who had gained experience in the construction of ships and ship engines in New York and Liverpool, and who, with James Nasmyth, had invented the steam hammer. Adolphe Schneider died accidentally in 1845, leaving Eugène in command.

Eugène Schneider

Eugène Schneider expanded the ironworks; it was equipped with 15 blast furnaces, 600 coke ovens, and 130 puddling furnaces. In 1838, he purchased the glassworks that had closed a few years earlier and converted it into a château for his residence. In the same year, he produced the first French locomotive and the next year, the first steamship. The great expansion of the wrought ironmaking capacity at Le Creusot coincided with Henry Bessemer’s patenting of his converter for the production of mild steel in 1856, which superseded wrought iron. He signed a licensing agreement with Bessemer in 1862, but delayed its use until 1870 because of the newly commissioned puddling plant, the unsuitability of the local phosphoric ores for the Bessemer process, and the high royalties demanded by Bessemer. He was the first to use the Bessemer process in France. In 1867, Schneider also took out a licence for the Siemens-Martin open-hearth process and brought this into use. The works supplied large quantities of war material to the French armies during the Crimean War (1853-1856) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871).

Henri Schneider

In 1875, Henri Schneider (1840-1898), son of Eugène, took charge after the death of his father. In 1876, he built a massive hammer (called Marteau Pilon) 21 metres high, weighing 545 tonnes, with 500 tonnes of hammer power. For many years, it was the largest steam hammer in the world.

In 1878, Sidney G. Thomas (1850-1885) and Percy C. Gilchrist (1851-1915) patented their basic steelmaking process; Henri Schneider saw the numerous possibilities of this new technology for dealing with the phosphoric ores of Lorraine. His team of metallurgists, which included Floris Osmond (1849-1912), reported in 1885 the existence of allotropic forms of iron, and took a new look at iron carbide formation. By combining microscopy and thermal analysis as a means for studying the structure of steel, he pioneered investigations into the complicated relationship between iron and carbon, which largely determines the properties of steel and how it behaves when heated and cooled. He published Théorie cellulaire des propriétés de l’acier in 1894.

Henri Schneider moved Le Creusot away from tonnage steel production into alloy steel, special steels, and armour plate. He was remarkable in his concern for the well-being of his labour force, and his reign was a time of social calm.

Eugène Schneider II

Henri’s son, Eugène Schneider II (1868–1942), drove the company into new fields such as the manufacture of water tube boilers, steam turbines, fast torpedo boats, heavy electrical generators and motors, heavy machine tools, heavy diesel engines built under licences, and stainless steels.

Charles Schneider

Charles Schneider (1898–1960) took over in 1942. He designed and built the “Train à Grande Vitesse.” Steel pressure vessels for nuclear reactors and the petrochemical industries exemplify Le Creusot’s capacity for demanding work.

The end of the dynasty

The Schneiders took over a bankrupt firm and ran it remarkably successfully for a century and a half. They made the first French locomotive in 1838, the first steamship in 1839, the 75-millimetre field gun used in World War I, the ironwork of the Pont Alexandre III, and the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris. They fabricated 5,000 locomotives between 1838 and 1934.

After World War II, however, they fell into disgrace and their manufacturing empire collapsed, as a result of their collaboration with the Germans. The château now accommodates a permanent exhibition opened in 1974. It gives an account of the development of Le Creusot, from the days of William Wilkinson to the time of the “Train à Grande Vitesse,” with models of steam engines, railway locomotives, and other products. It houses a museum dedicated to the iron and steel industry, with oil paintings of various Schneiders and their forges, and examples of local glass work. Cannons in remarkable numbers and varieties stand on the terraces of the château. The “Marteau Pilon” was dismantled in 1931 and given to the town as a monument in 1969.


Although there were laws in Britain against the emigration of artisans and the exportation of machinery, it was practically impossible to prevent profitable inventions from becoming known. Skilled workers were tempted by the prospects of high wages and promotion to move to countries where they knew their skills would be at a premium. The Industrial Revolution reached France through the Wilkinsons, the iron masters from England, at least half a century after its beginning in England. France imported the first steam engine on the continent in 1779, to help pump the Paris water supply from the Seine, and constructed the first blast furnace using coke in 1785. Replacing charcoal by coke in blast furnaces resulted in increased production of iron and consequently increased armament manufacture.

In other European countries on the continent, the situation was not much different. Friedrich the Great of Prussia sent Freiherr von Stein to England in 1786 and in 1789, invited William Wilkinson to introduce the coke blast furnace at Tarnowitz in Silesia after its annexation; the furnace began operation in 1791. Belgium followed in 1823, Austria in 1828, and the Ruhr District in 1850. The first steel produced in France by the Bessemer process began at Le Creusot, the major steel plant in France in 1870.

Suggested readings

Anonymous (1977). Histoire du Fer. Musée du Fer, Nancy, France.

Derry, T.K. and Williams, T.I. (1960). A short history of technology. New York: Dover Publications.

Habashi, F. (2005). Mining, metallurgy, and the Industrial Revolution - Part 1. CIM Bulletin, Directory Issue, p. 61-63 (Part 2, 1089, p. 80-82).

Moine, J.-M. (1989). Les Barons du Fer. France: Presses Universitaires de Nancy.

Roy, J.-A. (1962). Histoire de la Famille Schneider et du Creusot. Paris: Marcel Riviere.

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