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The History of American Steel Manufacturing

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In the early 1900’s, United States Steel Corporation was the first company in the world to reach a billion-dollar market cap. Over the following decades, half of the world's steel was produced by American steel mills throughout World War II, solidifying the steel industry as the foundation of the national US economy.

To understand how steel itself surpassed its material value and became a national symbol and a cultural currency, we want to examine the rich history of steel manufacturing and the emergence of the first US steel companies.

Steel Manufacturing Throughout History

Since the 1800s, the US steel industry has been at the forefront of technological and manufacturing advancements. The initial switch from charcoal to coke in ore smelting followed by the adoption of the Bessemer process caused a proliferation of integrated steel mills.

Almost a century later, the introduction of open-hearth furnaces provided a solid foundation for the American steel industry to thrive. Just in time for its golden age in the 1940s and 1950s, large integrated mills were replaced with specialty and mini-mills, and iron ore with steel and iron stock.

Alas, the rise was short-lived and the increased post-war modernization pushed the industry into a steady decline. War-torn Japan and Europe needed to rebuild and were both eager to adopt emerging technologies. This gave them a competitive advantage over American steel manufacturers who were reluctant to get on board.

The hesitance was related to the replacement of open-hearth furnaces with continuous casters that we still use nowadays. Along with the basic oxygen furnaces, continuous casters made the entire steelmaking process significantly more efficient by reducing the required manpower and amounts of energy used.

Finally, the reason the industry continued to decline lies in the fact that we now produce most of the steel from recycled scrap instead of from iron ore.

First American Steel Companies

Steel supply played an essential role in the expansion of American urban infrastructure, including bridges, railroads, factories, cars, and household appliances. With upwards of 100 steel production and supply facilities across the nation, the industry supports the livelihood of roughly one million Americans. But how did the first steel companies come about?

In the early 1900s, Andrew Carnegie and Charles M. Schwab of Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Steel Company together with Elbert H. Gary of Chicago-based Federal Steel Company came to an idea to join their companies into what later became the United States Steel Corporation. Aided by J. P. Morgan, they merged with National Steel, National Tube, American Steel and Wire, American Steel Hoop, American Sheet Steel, American Tinplate, American Bridge, as well as with Lake Superior Consolidated Iron Mines.

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What emerged was the biggest steel corporation America has seen. As a result, market stabilization and numerous agreements on cooperative pricing were achieved.

Today, U.S. Steel remains the biggest American steel producer but only 30% of its business still focuses on steel. By acquiring Marathon Oil Company and Texas Oil & Gas Corp. in the 1980s, U.S. Steel expanded its interests towards the oil and gas industry. Eventually, the corporation further diversified its portfolio by investing in transportation, construction, mining, real estate, and chemicals.

History of Scrap Metal Recycling

Even though historical records of recovering and repurposing scrap metal as a raw material date as far back as to 400 BC, recycling of these materials was likely practiced long before. Some of the oldest evidence archaeologists have uncovered suggests that early Romans used to melt down old bronze coins and jewelry and repurpose them as statues, weapons, and other items that either had higher monetary value or were scarce during times of distress.

Based on the lack of physical waste found on archaeological sites, it proves that throughout history, it is during these times of distress when scrap recycling flourishes. This was particularly seen during World War II due to the tremendous shortage of raw materials. As the demand for weapons and other supplies grew, repurposing of metal became a necessity.

During this time, campaigns touted that the donation of raw materials was intrinsically tied to the chances of victory. Thus, scrap recycling quickly became associated with patriotism and collecting those materials was seen as a way to help the troops and keep morale high throughout the war.

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Today, steel is the most recycled material in the world. Emerging improved steel grades are manufactured with the aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions while improving performance, affordability, and safety. Recycled or Less-Than-Prime© steel continues to keep our infrastructure afloat and our environment safe.

If you are interested in finding out more about our LTP (Less-Than-Prime©) and Prime Steel offering or would like to request a quote, one of our representatives will be happy to assist you! Call us at 800.839.4766 or message us here.