February 21st, 2017



Once upon a time, steel was a metal hard-won, from iron that itself might be coaxed a few drops at a time from a simple blast furnace, or extracted at great hazard through the muscle power of iron puddlers, then to be converted into small bunches of steel in crucibles that took a lot of hand labor in hot conditions to handle properly.

Then came the Bessemer converter to remove some carbon from the iron, perhaps with a proper heat of steel as the end product, the open-hearth reverberatory furnace, a scaling-up of the puddler's furnace, to obtain a more precise steeling of the iron.  To make that steel on a larger scale required greater inputs of iron, and to reduce ores in the quantities envisioned meant improvements in logistics and in blast furnace practice.

Put all these things together and you have Kenneth J. Kobus's City of Steel: How Pittsburgh Became the World's Steelmaking Capital During the Carnegie Era, our Book Review No. 4.  Mr Kobus worked in the steel mills of Pittsburgh, and was intrigued enough by what he saw to dig into archives and corporate records and put together a story of the accumulation of small advantages accompanied by occasional Aha! moments that converted steelmaking from a hot, dangerous, artisanal business to a hot, less dangerous, industrial activity.

And for all the Popular Perspective of the Gilded Age steel works being a dark, satanic place, the reality of technical change is one of providing safer working conditions in which fewer men can produce tonnages the old-time puddlers and crucible handlers would find inconceivable.  And the safer working conditions turned out to be more productive working conditions as well.  For instance, in the early Bessemer and open hearth plants, furnace tapping and ingot teeming took place in the same pit.  Rearrange the plant and put in travelling cranes to move the larger ladles, now the teeming doesn't have to stop each time a furnace is tapped.  Likewise, the early iron furnaces had to be charged by hand, one wheelbarrow at a time, through an open top.  And yes, all sorts of toxic gases came out of that open top.  Work out a skip hoist and an air lock that can handle the weight of the charge, and one hazard to the furnaceman's health is mitigated.  Then figure out how to transport molten iron from blast furnace to open hearth, rather than casting pigs to reheat in a cupola furnace before charging that iron into the converter.  Also, improve the rolling machinery, in order that achieving the final shape of the steel doesn't require strong men working in close proximity to hot steel to muscle it into shape.  One steelworker characterized the conditions as "working aside of hell ahead of time," whether with the cupolas, in the tapping and teeming pit, or alongside the rolling mills.

Thus, yes, Andrew Carnegie and his financiers made a lot of money.  But their gains coexisted with improvements in working conditions and compensation in the mills, in the quality and quantity of steel available for final consumption, and in the energy intensity of the business.  (And the improvements go on.)

In part, Pittsburgh (and the western slope of the Alleghenies generally) emerged as the center of the steel trade because of existing ironmaking technologies and nearby coal deposits, although ultimately the competitive advantage would go to a plant with a deep water port, such as near Chicago or Cleveland.  But that's a story for a different line of research.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)
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Books 18 & 19

Murder 101 (Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus, #22)Murder 101 by Faye Kellerman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I won this from Goodreads which in no way influenced my review. I’ve read this series in spurts and fits and definitely out of order over the years and I’m always leery when a detective has ‘retired’ but the author keeps telling his/her story. This one, however, didn’t need any worrying over. It was very good. Peter Decker and his wife Rina have moved to New York to be closer to their kids (of which there are several from previous marriages and adoptions etc). He has retired from the LAPD and is now working in a small upstate police force. Peter has been saddled with a newbie, Tyler McAdams who is a Harvard grad that is supposed to be going to Harvard law but joined the force to tick off his very wealthy, very unpleasant father. Tyler is an obnoxious elitist at best.

They get what seems like their normal small town crimes, stained glass windows, actual Tiffany glass, being stolen from a wealthy mausoleum. As they start investigating it, with the help of a family member (a son in law who owns a jewelry/antique store in the city and is very versed in Tiffany), they realize that the panes weren’t just stolen but also faked and replaced which leads them to the nearby five sister colleges one of which is an art school.

Soon, one art student is dead along with her partner and Decker isn’t sure that a couple panes of glass are worth killing over. As he pulls on the threads of the case, and slowly gets Tyler to act more like a human being, he learns that there might be a link to Soviet Russia and stolen art. Tyler begins to shape up as a detective just about the time things go sideways and he and Decker (along with Rina) are in serious trouble.

As long as it is, it’s still a quick and enjoyable read. The characters are fully fleshed and it’s nice to see Jewish characters involved in their faith without it being stereotypes or there merely to make a point about anti-Semitism. I have mixed feelings about the end though. However, it’s a good mystery and an enjoyable series.

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The Sleeper and the SpindleThe Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had high hopes for this illustrated fairy tale. I like Mr. Gaiman’s work on the whole but this one was just sort of there. I liked the twist at the end a lot. Maybe I’m burned out on the retold fairytale theme. So what did I like? The art is wonderful. It captures the flavor well. I like that Prince Charming has been written out and the women are self rescuing...sort of but on the other hand, I’m flat out tired of stories being rewritten to give women something to do other than being objects to rescue. Give me NEW stories with strong women and leave the fairy tales as the classics they are. I guess you’d qualify that as an unpopular opinion.

The queen, close to being married, gets word from three dwarves of a neighboring queendom where everyone has been asleep for seventy years but suddenly it’s spreading, the sleeping spell. She decides to put off her wedding and goes to investigate with the three dwarves. There are a few logic jumps, one of which it took a moment to realize he’s conflating two fairy tales here, sleeping beauty (the main retelling) and our queen was formerly Snow White. Another was how everyone could be asleep for seven decades and covered in cobwebs but food is still spoiling and maggoty. Um, yeah no.

There is a lesbian kiss but I'm not even sure I'd call it that. Yes Snow kisses Beauty but there's no romance, no nothing really. You get the sense she did it to end the curse and nothing more so if you were hoping this was a queer retelling you're going to be disappointed.

The queen is such an aloof character that I didn’t really care if she succeeded or not. It was the old woman in the tower, whom of course we all think is the evil witch who ends up being the more interesting character. Overall I’m glad I read it but I’m more glad I got it from the library. I’m more forgiving when I don’t have to pay for something.

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Book One

I'm new to this challenge so I will simply jump right in and join the fun at book number one, "Leaves of Grass" by Walt Whitman.
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