David Thomas (1794-1882)
David Thomas (1794-1882) of the Crane Iron Co, Pennsylvannia, Anthracite iron pioneer
1794 Born on the 3rd of November, 1794, the son of David and Jane Thomas, of Tyllwyd Farm, in the parish of Cadoxton-juxta-Neath, in the county of Glamorgan, South Wales. He was one of a family of four children, one son and three daughters.
He went to school at nearby Alltwen and at Neath, and worked on his father's farm before going into the iron industry.
1812 Started working for Neath Abbey Iron Co.
By 1817 he was erecting pumping engines for the company in Cornwall.
1817? - 1839 Superintendent of Ynyscedwyn Ironworks
1820 Started experimental smelting of local iron ore using local anthracite instead of coke. A breakthrough came with the adoption of hot blast for the furnace.
1837 February 5th. First blast furnace to be successfully fuelled by anthracite blown to smelt iron ore. The result was an easy method to produce anthracite iron, which revolutionized industry in the Swansea Valley. This type of iron had been patented by Edward Martin of Morriston, Wales in 1804.
In May of that year, an American visitor Solomon White Roberts came to see the furnace. Subsequently (late 1838), David Thomas signed a contract to to build an anthracite-fuelled blast furnace in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, to take advantage of the ready availability of anthracite there.
1839 Thomas and his family emigrated to Pennsylvania and blew in the first furnace in July 1840.
1854 Founded the Thomas Iron Company of Hokendauqua, which became the largest producer of anthracite pig iron in the USA
Thomas's iron works was extremely successful, even though the iron industry in the rest of the Lehigh Valley had begun to decline.
Thomas Iron Co. and the Lehigh Crane Iron Co. were two separate firms on opposite sides of the Lehigh River in which David Thomas was involved.
1839 The Lehigh Crane Iron Company was incorporated, and in 1872 the name was changed to the Crane Iron Co. By that time the community was no longer known as Craneville, but as Catasauqua; Thomas had named both his company and the town in which he founded it after George Crane, his former employer in Wales.
Iron produced at the Crane Iron Company was used in a number of products, many of which were made elsewhere in Catasauqua. The neighbouring company of John Fritz's Iron Foundry used Crane iron to build the first American-made cast-iron construction columns, while the nearby Davies and Thomas Foundry turned Crane iron into pipes and tunnel tubes. Among the still-existing structures which were created using Crane iron are the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels in New York City.
Thomas's industry helped the small town to become quite prosperous, and he himself became a wealthy landowner.
1882 June 20th. Died. He with his wife Elizabeth, and generations of their descendants are all buried in the Thomas family vault, an underground mausoleum at Fairview Cemetery in West Catasauqua. The Thomas family mansion, located on Second Street in Catasauqua, is still standing, though its interior has since been divided into apartments
In his own words
'THE STORY OF A GREAT DISCOVERY.-There is living at Catasauqua, Pa., in a hearty old age, the man who discovered how to use anthracite coal in the manufacture of iron. His name is David Thomas, and the story of his discovery he thus narrates:-
"One winter night, in the old country, I sat with Mr. Crane, a brother superintendent of a blast furnace, over a grate fire of hard coal. We had talked of the recent invention of the hot blast, just patented by Mr. Neilson, a Scotchman, and our conversations had carried us pretty well along into the evening. The fire had burned low, and we were about to separate, when I picked up the bellows and began to blow it. "You will put that fire out," said Mr. Crane. As he spoke it flashed over me that if my bellows gave a hot blast it would bring the grate full of coal to a bright glow, and, with the thought, there came like an inspiration upon me that the hot blast was all that was needed to utilise the rich beds of anthracite under our feet for making iron. I dropped the bellows and gave utterance to my thoughts. Mr. Crane smiled, then grew attentive, and as I went on thinking out my theory, as I spoke he became interested. When I concluded we grasped hands over the dead coals in our anthracite fire, and separated. Little sleep we got that night. To me it was one of restless anxiety. When I read an account of the night before the execution of a condemned men, I always think of my night with my new idea. The next day I posted up to Scotland, and on my return I brought with me the plans of a hot-blast furnace, which we at once proceeded to build for the purpose of making iron with anthracite coal. It was a great success, and attracted capital to the development of the anthracite coal beds of Wales and the attention of the scientific world. Before that for our furnaces we had bought coke from the distant bituminous coalfields, thereby increasing the cost of our product over establishments more favourably situated. The very tails underneath our feet were filled with rich deposits of anthracite, and the discovery of means to utilise it was like a mine of gold to the country around. Our experiment was a success. Of course the scientific discussion carried on in the papers in that :a country provoked satisfaction in America, and the few scientific journals published here took up the matter, and thereby the iron-workers of this great region came to know of its great value. They were then using charcoal and coke. At once they set to work on my plan. It resulted in great a losses to the capital invested and many eases of financial failure and bankruptcy. The Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company watched these experiments with ardent hope of success, for they saw what a great advantage to them must result in carrying to perfection in this country what we had perfected in Wales. They waited and hoped in vain, and finally concluded to send for Mr. Crane or me. Their representative visited me, in the person of Erskine Hazard, of Philadelphia. I had often thought of coming to America, asked my wife was strongly in favour of it, so we received Mr. Hazard’s propositions with favour. Terms were fixed upon ; it was arranged that my expenses out would be paid, and that if I did not wish to stay after five years I was to be sent back with may family at their expence. I arrived early in the fall of 1839, and, Catasauqua being selected as the place to build the first furnace, I at once set to work. The population, which at that time was only that of a hamlet, was composed entirely of Germans, and my greatest difficulty was to get skilled labour. I picked up an old countryman here and there, and on the 4th of July, 1840, I started the first blast, and on that day made the first iron. There is the furnace, sir, just below my house. It was in blast ever since until within a few days. The success was so complete, as shown. By the work turned out over the following six or eight months, that another was started, which I built in 1842. I built the third in 1846, and the fourth. and fifth in 1849. For forty years we have averaged 40,000 tons of iron a year from these furnaces, or 1,600,000 tons in the aggregate. Then furnaces sprung up all over the anthracite region. The way to utilise the hard coal in the manufacture of iron was the only thing needed to completely develop the great mineral wealth of the country, and, this fact being recognised, there was no lack of money to take the preliminary steps. San Francisco Bulletin."'
Contemporary accounts following the successful production of anthracite-smelted iron at Ynyscedwyn give credit only to George Crane, while it is clear that both Thomas and Crane were together responsible.
On the other hand, long after the event, David Thomas credits himself with the success. Curiously, he refers to 'Mr. Crane, a brother superintendent of a blast furnace'. In fact Mr Crane was the ironmaster, while David Thomas was employed as his superintendent.
There could surely have been no antagonism between the two, as Crane recommended Thomas to help the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company develop the American industry, the venture being known as Lehigh Crane Iron Company.
Perhaps the most telling information comes from an archive of Mr Thomas's papers. We learn of eleven letters from George Crane to David Thomas in the USA, which reveal that, contrary to the accounts written by descendants of Mr Thomas, Crane did play a major role in the technical achievement of anthracite smelting. Also, he continued to supply Thomas with technical and business advice during the construction of the Catasauqua furnace.
In reality, the picture is far more complicated. David Thomas and George Crane were indeed the first to achieve commercial success with the anthracite smelting process, although others had previously had some encouraging results. In fact large scale smelting was underway in the USA before David Thomas's first furnace was commissioned there, but his furnace proved to be a lasting success, thanks to his intimate knowledge of the finer points of the design of furnaces and of their ancillary systems. For a thorough account of the history of smelting with anthracite, and a deeper exploration of the facts and myths surrounding the events, see 'Discovery of the Process for Making Anthracite Iron'. It is pointed out in that source that in turning to Crane and Thomas, 'they were bargaining for the mechanical skill to make the process work as well as for the process itself'.
Sources of Information
- The Red Dragon magazine - David Thomas, The Father of the Anthracite Iron Trade, by Ed. Roberts, Westfield, Neath, 1882
- Leeds Mercury, 25th September 1879
-  The Lemelson Center website - David Thomas webpage
- The Hopkin Thomas Project: 'Discovery of the Process for Making Anthracite Iron' by W. Ross Yates, Lehigh University, originally published in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, XCVIII (1974), 206-223
- The Brecon Forest Tramroads by Stephen Hughes, published in 1990 by the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales