David Thomas papers1839-1843
David Thomas (1794-1882) was a Pennsylvania iron manufacturer who introduced into the United States the use of anthracite coal in the manufacture of pig iron. The papers consist of twenty-eight letters received by Thomas between May 1839 and 1842. They contain important new information on one of the textbook examples of nineteenth century technology transfer.
- Thomas, David, 1794-1882 (Person)
David Thomas (1794-1882) was a Pennsylvania iron manufacturer who introduced into the United States the use of anthracite coal in the manufacture of pig iron.
Thomas was born on November 3, 1794, at Tyllwyd, Glamorganshire, Wales. He began working at the Neath Abbey iron works in 1812 and in 1817 was made general superintendent of the Yniscedwyn Iron Works, which was acquired by George Crane (1784-1846) in 1820. The two men conducted extensive experiments to use the local anthracite coal to smelt iron, but without success. In 1836 they learned of the hot-blast invented by James B. Neilson (1792-1865) in Scotland. Crane received a British patent for hot-blast smelting with anthracite on September 28, 1836, and a successful furnace was blown in at Yniscedwyn in February 1837.
In May 1837 the American engineer, Solomon White Roberts (1811-1882), visited the works as the agent for the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company and the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad Company. Josiah White (1781-1850), Erskine Hazard (1790-1865), and others associated with the LC&N resolved to adopt the process in America, and Hazard went to Wales in 1838 and induced Thomas to emigrate. The Lehigh Crane Iron Company was incorporated in Pennsylvania on January 10, 1839. Thomas ordered most of the machinery for the new works in Britain before embarking for America in May 1839. The Crane Iron Works at Catasauqua, Pennsylvania, began production on July 4, 1840.
Although not the first to manufacture iron with anthracite coal in the United States, Thomas inaugurated the era of higher and larger furnaces and more powerful blast machinery. In 1854, Thomas, his sons, and other business associates organized the Thomas Iron Company across the Lehigh River in Hokendauqua, and Thomas resigned as superintendent of the Crane Company on July 1, 1856. He died in Catasauqua on June 20, 1882.
Scope and Contents
The papers consist of twenty-eight letters received by David Thomas (1794-1882) between May 1839 and 1842. They contain important new information on one of the textbook examples of nineteenth century technology transfer.
The most important items are the eleven letters sent by George Crane (1784-1846) to David Thomas after his emigration. These show that, contrary to the accounts given in memoirs by Thomas' descendants, Crane played a major role in the technical achievement of anthracite smelting. Crane continued to supply Thomas with technical and business advice during the construction of the Catasauqua furnace. Crane also discusses the operation of his own iron-works and the increasingly unsuccessful attempt to enforce his patent rights. Crane also gives his low opinion of several other Welsh ironmasters working in the U.S., including Benjamin Perry, who blew in the Pioneer Furnace at Pottsville, Pennsylvania, before the completion of the Crane works. The letters also confirm that Thomas provided Perry with important advice, enabling the Pioneer Furnace to beat his own for the honor of first successful anthracite hot-blast in America.
There are also seventeen letters sent to Thomas by his elderly mother, cousins and friends in Wales, which contain primarily family news. However, several contain extensive descriptions of the general economic stagnation and hardship, particularly in South Wales. A number of the letters seek Thomas' help emigrating to America and finding work.
There is also a small initialed dinner ticket to a Temperance Celebration at the Crane Works, May 5, 1843.
No restrictions on access; this collection is open for research.
- Thomas, David, 1794-1882 (Person)
Finding Aid & Administrative Information
- David Thomas papers
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- 2021: Ashley Williams