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man of steel with a heart of gold

While the common mark of success among captains of industry is financial fortune, a notable exception may be found in William R. Jones, a man of small stature, high spirit and seemingly boundless innovation.


A natural born leader and indefatigable innovator, Jones is renowned to have contributed more to the art of steel manufacture than any other inventor in the 19th century. Born in eastern Pennsylvania in 1839, Captain Bill Jones, as he came to be called, was apprenticed to an iron company at the age of 10 and found employment as a machinist by the time he was 16.


As a Civil War volunteer, he rose from the rank of private to captain before his return to civilian life as one of the first Bessemer men at the Cambria Iron Works. Subsequently, Jones’s mechanical acumen led to his joining pioneer Bessemer plant designer Alexander Holley in New York City, who was then designing Andrew Carnegie’s Edgar Thomson Works.


As a consequence of his association with Holley, in 1875 Jones was appointed to the post of assistant superintendent at Edgar Thomson. By that time, the steel industry was ready for an innovative manager who could effectively exploit the technological opportunities that had emerged over the previous quarter century. Bill Jones was the man for the job.


A patent review reveals an astonishing array of inventions that touched virtually every aspect of steel making and rail manufacture during Jones’s 14-year tenure at Edgar Thomson. Jones’s ingenuity is evinced by his use of common materials, such as water and whitewash to solve complex industrial problems. For instance, he invented a process for densifying steel ingots by injecting water into the mold, which would transform into steam from the heat of the metal and expand, applying pressure to the mass, thereby eliminating any voids in the ingot. He also patented a process of coating molds with whitewash to facilitate the extraction of ingots.


But perhaps Jones’s most consequential invention was a vessel for the mass storage of molten iron, an innovation that revolutionized steel making by enabling continuous casting. The “Jones mixer,” as the device was and continues to be known, solved the problem of batch inconsistencies between blasts and furnaces. Before the Captain’s deceptively simple invention, each batch of iron differed, at least slightly, in heat and chemical composition.


And each batch was processed separately, inconsistencies and all. The Jones mixer solved that problem by mixing numerous batches continuously, from furnace to furnace and blast to blast, resulting in an averaging of the thermal and elemental characteristics of all the output from all the furnaces, all day long. This averaging of variables was a primitive form of what would become known, a century later, as statistical process control.


Above all else, William R. Jones was a man of principle. His reputation as a champion of fairness, diligence and comity was evinced by the 200-odd men who left The Cambria Iron Works to work for him at Edgar Thomson. He designed equipment to ensure the safety of his workers; advocated for the shortening of the workday in the name of safety and productivity; declined an equity stake in his boss’s company, preferring to be known as a worker rather than an owner; and refused to license his patents to his personal friends who were also competitors, in favor of Carnegie’s success.


Ironically, William R. Jones, Captain of Steel, was killed by scalding from a blast furnace explosion in September 1889. Today, although steel manufacture has changed greatly, the Jones Mixer is still widely used in steel shops around the world. And the man among men who invented it may not have made a fortune, but he surely made his mark.


This story first appeared in TEQ magazine, click here.

©Copyright 2007 Thomas P. Imerito/ dba Science Communications


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thomas@science-communications.com