Power for Ironfounding

Illus: Examples of belt-driven machinery at Falkirk ironworks during the First World War.

Most of the works had their own coal powered steam boilers which produced the necessary rotary motion to overhead shafts to which drive belts or ropes could be attached for individual machines such as pillar drills or grinding stones.  The operation and maintenance of this machinery required specialists.  Even then there were breakdowns and the occasional explosion.

By the end of the 19th century most new plant was built to be worked by electricity.  When the enamelling department was added to Falkirk Ironworks in 1897 it had a gas-producing plant, with a holder capable of supplying gas to two large engines, and for driving the various machinery and the dynamo for electric lighting purposes, as also for driving the Blackman and other fans.  The chimney was 150ft in height and became a landmark which could be seen from all parts of the surrounding district.

The Dock Foundry opened in 1900 with its own engine house containing a 12-inch cylinder steam engine for driving line shafting for blowers, lathe, drilling machines and so on.  The year before that Dorrator Foundry had opened with a 80hp engine.   As the 20th century progressed the works converted to electrical power derived from a local power station.

In 1922 the Callendar Iron Co substituted electric power for steam power throughout its works. Smaller foundries found it harder to make the switch, or even to maintain their initial equipment. Broomside Foundry was a good example of this. In the 1920s the electricity supply at the Broomside Foundry was from a steam boiler nicknamed “Nellie”. If there was a delay in producing an order on time, the excuse used was that “Nellie was sick.” The machines were driven by pulley wheels and belts. One long shaft stretched along from the dressing shop, through the fitting shop and on the other side of a corrugated metal wall to the grinding/polishing area. Belts went through the wall to drive the wheels. On top of Nellie there was a rope cable attached to a steam whistle and in the winter, when snow fell, it was not unknown for a build-up of snow to set off Nellie’s whistle. Sometimes this would happen in the night and the local policeman would call out one of the workmen to fix it. There was little money to spend on the buildings and the roofs constantly leaked. After a night’s rain, before the machinery was started up, the engineer would shout “Stand clear.” He then threw the motor switch. The hollows where the pulley wheels on the main shaft ran would be full of water and, as the wheels and belts picked up speed, the water sprayed all over the place. When light switches broke they were not replaced. The blacksmith, for example, had to remove the light bulb at the end of the working day to put the light out. Putting it in the next day was not easy in the dark.

To read the next section, dealing with equipment, click here.

G.B. Bailey, 2021