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British Industrial History

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Abraham Darby (1678-1717)

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Abraham Darby (1678-1717) was the first of that name of three generations of an English Quaker family that was key to the development of the Industrial Revolution.

1678 April 14th. Abraham was born at Old Farm Lodge, Wrens Nest, near Dudley, Worcestershire, the older child and only son of John Darby (d. 1725), farmer and nailer, and his wife, Ann, née Baylies. He was descended from nobility, his grandmother Jane having been an illegitimate child of Edward Sutton, 5th Baron Dudley.

Darby was apprenticed in Birmingham to a malt mill maker, then moved to Bristol, where he became a partner in the Baptist Mills Brass Works. The Bristol brass industry employed immigrants from the Netherlands, but in developing new techniques for casting metal pots, Darby seems to have been assisted only by British staff. Certainly there is no indication that any Dutch employees moved from there with him in 1709.

1699 Just out of his apprenticeship, on 18 September 1699, Darby married Mary Sargeant (1678–1718), the daughter of a linen yarn bleacher. They had ten children, four surviving into adulthood: Abraham Darby (1711-1763), Mary (who married Richard Ford, a partner in the iron foundry at Coalbrookdale), Edmund (1712–1757), and Ann.

Shadrach Fox and Lawrence Wellington leased the ironworks at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire but subsequently the furnace there was damaged in an explosion.

1708 The furnace at Coalbrookdale was sublet to Abraham Darby, a Bristol brass and iron founder and ironmonger. Darby was interested in smelting iron for casting without the use of charcoal. He rebuilt the furnace.

At the time, the normal way of producing iron was the "bloomery method," in which small batches of iron ore were placed in pans, covered with charcoal, then blown with a bellows. Charcoal was one of the few fuels that could reach the required temperature to smelt iron (about 1500°C); and as the iron industry grew and chopped down entire forests to produce iron, it became increasingly expensive. The iron industry as a whole was continually moving to new locations in an effort to maintain access to charcoal production.

1709 Darby introduced coke as a smelting fuel. This had been tried in the past with little success, but Darby's supply of coal was fairly sulphur-free, and to everyone's surprise, worked. Better yet, he found that the coke would burn in piles, whereas charcoal would only burn in thin sheets. By piling the coke and ore into a large container, he could process considerably more ore in the same time. Coalbrookdale has been claimed as the home of the world's first coke-fired blast furnace; this is not strictly correct, but it was the first in Europe to operate successfully for more than a few years.

The use of the blast furnace dramatically lowered the price of ironmaking, not only because coal was fairly common around the Midlands, but also because it allowed for much larger furnaces. Other ironmasters soon followed Darby's lead but found that the process was not so easy to adapt. It was later learned that Darby's coal supply, from Cumbria, just happened to have a lower than normal sulphur content, which was key to producing quality iron. Ironmasters slowly adapted the blast furnace process with the introduction of various types of flux that cleaned out the impurities in the coal, and by the mid-1700s iron production had shot up.

1711 Abraham Darby rented part of Madeley Court, Madeley, Shropshire.

1717 May 5th / March 8th. Darby died at Madeley Court leaving his son Abraham Darby (1711-1763) too young as yet to take over the business.

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