The work of Abraham Darby is considered by many to be the cornerstone of the Industrial Revolution. His development of the coke-burning blast furnace in 1709 made possible the mass production of commercial grade iron. It, along with later improvements made by others, led to the evolution of the iron and steel industries, and the many industries they spawned in turn-- aircraft, automobiles, shipbuilding, and construction.
Darby was born near Dudley, Worcestershire, England in 1678. The iron industry at this time was hampered by its inability to produce sustained amounts of heat at high temperatures necessary for continuous smelting operations. In the seventeenth century, charcoal was the leading fuel for stoking (feeding) furnaces. As demand for iron grew, so did the demand for charcoal. This drove the price for charcoal higher. Also, soft charcoal was incapable of physically supporting large amounts of iron ore inside the furnaces.
Darby had been employed in the copper-smelting industry in Bristol, England, where coke was used as fuel. Coke is a derivative of coal, produced by heating the coal and removing the sulfur and combustible impurities. Coke delivers a hotter, more sustained heat without flame. Coke became central to Darby's smelting process. When he established his Bristol Iron Works Company in 1708, he wisely chose the village of Coalbrookdale, in the upper Severn River valley in the west of England, where coal and coke were readily available.
Darby's first iron products were primarily small implements and cooking utensils. His business was greatly bolstered by an order from Thomas Newcomen for 6t (5.4t) cylinders for his steam powered mine-pumping engines. The engines, in turn, proved to be useful in the blast furnace industry.
Darby managed to keep the coking process within his family. His son, Abraham Darby II, continued making the Newcomen cylinders well after Darby's death on March 8, 1717. By 1758, 100 of the cylinders had been delivered by the Darby foundry.
Darby's grandson, Abraham Darby III, incorporated iron in construction when he collaborated with architect John Wilkinson on the Severn River bridge at Iron Bridge in 1779. Well after Abraham III's death in 1791, the Darby foundry was commissioned by Richard Trevithick in 1802 to produce the first locomotive engine, which required a high-pressure steam boiler.
The area around Coalbrookdale grew into an iron-producing district. In time, however, it became a victim of its own success, succumbing to the depletion of its coal reserves, pollution, and changing markets; however, the iron and steelmaking industries of North America, and Asia can trace their origins to Coalbrookdale and Abraham Darby.