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Tradition and Innovation in the History of Iron Making

Review: Tradition and Innovation in the History of Iron Making. Pande, Girija and Jan af Gejierstam (Ed.) 2002. Nainital:PAHAR. Pp. 443. Price Rs. 1000/- (US $60)
by D.P. Agrawal & Pankaj Goyal

Posted 7/22/03

The history of iron stretches back a few millennia and its use has greatly influenced the course of human civilization. Iron has several intrinsic merits over copper, hence it eventually replaced bronze, but not because it was any harder than the latter. The first quality of iron is its sheer abundance. By an ‘iron catastrophe’ it probably melted and sank to the core of the Earth early in the history of this planet, becoming the planet’s dominant element. On heating iron has the capacity to change crystalline form (from a body-centred cubic to a face-centred cubic lattice), which allows it to be quenched into hard steel, endowing it with special structural and aesthetic qualities. The last important quality of iron is that it accepts carbon and other materials into an interstitial solution.

In this volume the issues related to the dynamic interrelationship between man and nature, technology and culture, iron and society are addressed at length by a multi-disciplinary group of archaeologists, metallurgists, anthropologists, geologists and economic-historians from India, Sweden, Wales, Bhutan and the United States. The main value of the book lies in covering the whole gamut of iron technology from the close of the II millennium BC to recent times. Its value perhaps lies more in the late historical accounts of iron technology. Thus it’s a harmonious blend of prehistory, ethnography and history of iron technology in Indian and Europe. The book also focuses on the dichotomy of the traditional eco-friendly technologies and modern industrialization.

The cream of the book is the Foreword by S. Bhattacharya. He provides an intellectual perspective to the issues addressed in the book. He very aptly describes the conference as “an unusual interdisciplinary exercise where scholars of different backgrounds and nationality get together to present their ideas on a research area…. This book is a rare example of inter-disciplinary scholarly enterprise.” In fact, the title of the book Tradition and Innovation in the History of Iron-making: An Indo-European Perspective itself was suggested by Bhattacharya.

Bhattacharya defines the core issues as follows:

  • What makes such a transition from traditional techniques to modern technology difficult in some societies and easier in other ones?
  • What accounts for the success of innovations in Western Europe, chiefly Sweden in this book, while in another society, such as India, innovations of analogous kind were not generated internally or rapidly internalised from outside?
  • Whereas we find a fairly high level of technique of iron production in India from ancient times, what caused iron production to stagnate and how to account for the growing technological distance between Sweden and India from the early modern period often called the “proto-industrial” phase in Europe?

Bhattacharya asks why do technical innovations which are rational face resistance from the traditional artisan or worker? An old village Lohar (blacksmith) of tribal origin gave this answer: When asked why he preferred the traditional leather bellows to the modern blower machine he said, “This new machine will win in the end, but it will blow my family away.” What he meant was that while he worked on the anvil, his wife and children used to work on the bellows (simply by stepping on and off a lever to deflate and inflate the bellows); this collective labour keeping the family together would become redundant if the mechanical blower was used instead.

Bhattacharya wonders, did this village Lohar reveal values and attitudes typical of a “culture of backwardness” and an irrational response to a more efficient technique? Is there just one economic rationality based on input-output accounting or are there different orders of rationality? If economic accounting of costs and output bypasses the totality of the human situation, is it an adequate measuring rod? Such questions are implicitly raised in many of the papers in this book addressing the issue of failure of technological developments in India.

Bhattacharya reports that engineers and geologists reported how their effort to introduce the mechanical fan in place of the traditional bellows and steam-powered automatic hammer failed because of the native artisans’ rejection of these improved machines. The reasons for that rejection were not attitudinal or ‘cultural’. The real reasons were: (a) the disruption of the family unit as a result of the innovations, (b) the disruption of the link of inter-dependence between two social groups, the Agarias (smelters who made the iron blooms) and the Lohars; (c) the problems caused by the concentration of many production units in one place to make the use of the mechanical blower cost effective; (d) finally, the new machines were expensive imported ones beyond the reach of the limited resources of the artisans and therefore made the entry of a machine owner inevitable. Bhattacharya suggested that the consequent separation of the iron workers from the ownership and control of the means of production was possibly a reason for their resistance to the innovation.

Jan af Geijerstam and Girija Pande’s papers on Kumaun iron works in this book provide excellent examples of institutional innovation, by way of reorganising production and consequently relationships between workers, managers, experts, owners, etc.

Now, how to account for it? One sort of answer to the question would be that there was a disjuncture in cultural continuity due to foreign invasions and alien rule unsympathetic to Hindu arts and science, etc. But this kind of explanation, popular with those who are content to extol the great past, does not suffice: why was this alleged amnesia massively evident in branches of science other than medicine, astronomy and mathematics, and why did not amnesia delete from memory the Dharmasastras and the ritual prescriptions and proscriptions which sat heavily on the Hindu mind?

D.D. Kosambi thought that the technological stagnation (which arguably is a consequence of delinking of technology of craft operations from scientific knowledge of their rationale) was to be attributed to the caste system: “the low caste status of the (artisan) practitioners and the contempt for science on the part of their betters, prevented full development as in the West.” It is for experts in ancient India to tell us how well-founded this explanation is, but prima facie Bhattacharya thinks that it is a reasonable explanation.

Lets us now turn to the detailed contents of the book.

The volume opens with two specially written notes, the foreword by Prof. Savyasachi Bhattacharya and Introduction by Prof. Deepak Kumar and Mritunjay Kumar. This edited book has five different sections, which contains 25 articles by well-known scholars.

The first section, “Ancient Iron and Steel and the Inception of New Technologies” discusses the inception of iron making both in India and Sweden in 5 articles. The second section, “Interdependence and Change on the Verge of Industrialism” includes 6 articles, discussing the late pre-industrial and the early industrial period. The third section, “Traditional Iron Making; Transition and Survival” contains 5 articles that deal with traditional iron making in India. Section 4, “Twentieth Century Change and Restructuring” is a small section comprising 4 articles and deals with twentieth century change and restructuring of the iron and steel industry. The last section of the volume, “Sweden and Kumaun: An Introduction in Historical Context” covers the basic theme of iron in 5 articles.

This book includes forty-four illustrations including some very rare historical pictures, maps and graphs. The book contains a number of tables showing data related to the ancient iron industry. The book is divided into five sections.

Section I

The first section looks into the development of traditional methods of iron making in India and Sweden and also the various theories associated with this stage. In the first article D.P. Agrawal and Kharakwal have discussed the different stages of technological development of iron technology. It is an endeavour to understand the issues relating to the commencement, development and dissemination of iron technology. The essay formulates the main outstanding issues of iron technology in India:

  • If iron technology is indigenous to India what and where are the technological stages?
  • Where are the early examples of the production of the accidental iron during copper smelting?
  • Did we use meteoritic iron in India?
  • Why cast iron making was so late in India. What are the stages of steel making? Was there an ornamental stage of iron use in India too when it was valued as a precious metal.
  • What are the developmental stages of making Wootz iron and how extensive was its use.
  • In what way iron contributed to the socio-economic processes associated with the second urbanisation.
  • When does iron effectively replace bronze and stone?
  • What role Central Himalayas played in providing iron and its technology to the Ganga Valley?
  • Did early iron technology come with some Indo-Aryan groups?
  • How are the multiple foci of early Iron technology related to each other, if at all?
  • What is the absolute chronological framework of early Iron Age based on calibrated radiocarbon and TL dates? Now that AMS dating is going to be available at the Institute of Physics at Bhuvaneshwar, we should be able to date the actual iron artefacts and slag so that there is no ambiguity about relating the age of an iron artefact and the date based on charcoal.

The second article, “The Inception of Iron and Steel Making in India” by Bhanu Prakash refutes the stand taken by scholars like Lahiri and Chakrabarti who talk about the use of iron even during the early Bronze Age but fail to prove the same. Prakash refers to the use of AyasHiranya in Rigveda and Lohavid and Dhatuvid in later literature and also mentions Agni and Havankunda, which were used in processing of iron. According to him the process of steel making, its forging technology and heat treatment were definitely developed in India while other countries were producing only copper and bronze weapons or weapons made of wrought iron.

The third brief article, “Iron and Steel in Ancient India” by Friedrich Toussaint tries to look into the early iron making in India.

In the next article, “Some Aspects of Iron Working in Antiquity vis-à-vis Central Himalayas” M.P. Joshi portrays the traditional iron working practices in the Central Himalayas. His own perception is that “although central Himalayas had great potential, iron working could not have gained momentum here until seventh century AD. This was until the time when iron was used on a large scale in the making of non-utilitarian items like small and colossal votive tridents, clamps for bending stone slabs in the construction of temples and forts etc.” The last article of the first section discusses the various techniques and processes in Sweden as they evolved during the first two millennia.

Section II

In the first article of this section the authors have compared the organizational structures of the iron industries of Sweden and Britain, both of which employed different strategies for the production of iron. The author also suggests that the differences between the two countries were responsible for the different modes of acquisition and dissemination of the technological information.

In the next article, Thelma Lowe argues at length the role of VOC (Veerenidge Oost-Indische Compagine) in maintaining a standard of intra and inter Asian trade, especially in the case of India and Sweden. According to Lowe both Indians and Swedes benefited from the VOC’s global trade and generated wealth all along the network of transactions.

The article by Ishrat Alam is a study of iron manufacturing in Golconda in India under the direction of Dutch East India Company. Ishrat Alam describes the role of this Company in various aspects of iron, steel, nail and cannon ball manufacturing and in their export to South-East Asia and Persia during the seventeenth century. The Dutch East India Company had established nail-making centres at Ponnepilly, Nagaluancha, Rammellepatnam, Narsapore and Palicot. However, iron manufacturing in Golconda relied mostly on craftsmanship and had little to do with the technological innovations.

Maria Nissar in her article gives a brief description about the Swedish iron and steel industry and also describes its development through the ages. According to her this development can be divided in to six different phases. Each phase was known for some special features, but together these phases provide a chronological development of the Swedish industry. The developments of new technology like blast furnace, German technical influences, immigration, and foreign capital were some of the important features that helped tremendously in its growth and prosperity.

The article, “Iron Making in Kumaun: a Study of Kumaun Iron Works“, written by Girija Pande is a study of the iron making practices in Kumaun and how the pre-colonial and colonial structures influenced their needs and practices. Pande quotes Hearsay:

“The Gorkhas are not aware of the resources of the country, they now hold in Garhwal. There are rich copper mines, iron in great abundance. Tari, hemp and marts and yards of fir innumerable, sufficient to supply all the navy of England…. If the country was given back to the former rajah a great flow of commerce would take place, highly beneficial to the Great Britain and British commodities would, by the Rootwal, passes of Neetee, Mana, Juari and Tucklakote find their way into Tartary and even in China.”

Uttarakhand has an old tradition in iron metallurgy. The rich natural resources of Kumaun were at the top of the British agenda. Therefore after an elaborate survey, they started the iron works, but due to fuel crisis, mismanagement and the initial setback of market for the finished product, the government ordered to close it. In the process they also destroyed the social fabric of the Himalayas. This in turn resulted in the collapse of the highly developed traditional iron technology and the rural economy of the land.

The last article of the second section raises crucial questions about technology transfer, the interdependence between technological changes and cultural/social conditions and the issue of power and subordination. This article by Geijerstam also gives the chronology of iron making in Kumaun in 5 phases. Precisely because of its lack of success, this story of the Kumaun Iron Works is important. The inability to achieve full scale and steady production pinpoints obstacles to development and highlights conflicts. It helps us paint part of the picture forming the background of today’s world. Geijerstam presents a true picture of the colonial mindset, which failed to match with the true sprit of the technology transfer in the real sense.

Section III

The third section begins with the article “Studying India’s Indigenous Iron Industry: Looking for an Alternative Approach” by Smriti Kumar. It is an analytical study. Kumar believes that research in this field is more Eurocentric. He divides the existing literature on the indigenous iron and steel industry of India into 4 categories; (1) Archaeological studies based on evidence of the early use of iron and iron making in India; (2) Historical studies based on eighteenth and early nineteenth century; (3) Metallurgical and theoretical studies based on historical evidence and on the specimens of early Indian iron and steel; (4) Some experiments aimed at rejuvenating and re-correcting the earliest system of knowledge. Kumar also talks about the vertical and horizontal expansion of the craft technique. It’s a very perceptive and thought provoking essay emphasizing the significance of the transition of the tribal Jharkhand craft of the nomadic Asur iron smelters to Koth-Saal workshop. Thus this paper is really an effort to draw attention of scholars to an important area of research in India, which has been only inadequately studied so far.

The article by Vibha Tripathi is very critical of the modern means of producing iron and steel, which are expensive, less eco-friendly and rendering people unemployed. Tripathi looks into the iron and steel making practices of ancient India and also attempts to identify methods and mechanisms to make them economically viable in the modern age. The author believes that the old ways of iron and steel production technique could be modified by a slight alteration. Similarly a group of scientists from National Metallurgical Laboratory, Jamshedpur, tries to show how the ancient methods could be made viable in present scenario. According to Vibha Tripathi, it is never too late to rethink and review our policies for social, cultural and ecological well being of all. It would not only benefit the cultural and physical ecology, but also reinvent our cultural heritage with a glorious past.

The next essay is an attempt to represent the critical analysis of the performance of ancient iron making process. The successful operation of the primitive iron-making furnace is directly related to CO/CO2 ratio in the reduction zone and the size and porosity of iron ore lumps.

R.M.Nayal & Nilanjan have tried to study the tribal population engaged in iron manufacturing so that possible methods could be devised to rehabilitate and re-employ the tribal people. This will save the traditional iron smelters from becoming jobless, or from being diverted to seasonal employment and from being driven into destitution and social anomie.

In the last article of this section, Raghubir Chand describes the diffusion of Indian iron making practices to Bhutan. It may safely be assumed that the pre-industrial smelters of Assam might have supplied iron to build the castle in Bhutan. Barshongpas – the inhabitants of village Bershog in Khaling gewoj of Trashigang Dzonkhag of eastern Bhutan are even today involved in the iron ore extraction and smelting in Bhutan.

Section IV

The first article of the fourth section is “The Recent Restructuring of the Swedish Steel Industry” by Orvar Nyquist. The article is about the Swedish iron and steel industry and the changes it witnessed in post Second World War scenario. Orvar Nyquist writes that these changes in 50 years or so almost re-structured the iron making process in Sweden. The iron and steel industry of Sweden underwent two restructurings: (1) 1978-1982 and (2) 1986-1991. This involved the transfer of state ownership to private as well as the formation of Joint Stock Company. The author also writes about the negative influence of politics and unions on these industries.

A.K. Lahiri in his article traces the historical developments in iron and steel industry in India with a view to find out the factors that resulted in its stunted growth. The iron and steel technology followed the world trend but the growth rate of capacity and production all along had been low. The author says that scarce capital and non-availability of foreign exchange were partly responsible for it. The other important factors were (1) time and cost overrun, (2) low growth of steel consuming industries, and (3) non-availability of indigenous technology.

In the last article of the fourth section Edstrom and Seetharaman provide a review of the Swedish methods evolved during the 70’s for the production of hot metal using ore concentrates and cheap coal. The new technologies developed during this period were furnace in ELRED, flash smelting in INRED and plasma technology in PLASMASMELT. Of these processes, the PLASMASMELT method was expected to have the lowest capital investment and to allow optimal use of energy. ELRED was expected to be adaptable in countries with cheap fossil fuels and high electricity prices. This paper gives a hint of what may come in future.

Section V

The first article in the last section attempts to introduce Sweden and its rich flora and fauna. In this article Jan af Geijerstam argues that the easy availability of iron ore, favourable climatic conditions, good labour-capital relationship and good education of the Swedish people helped in making industrial life a success. The second article in this section by Shekhar Pathak, tries to introduce the geography and history of Uttaranchal region in some detail. Ajay Rawat in the article “Managing Forests in Kumaun Himalaya” describes the colonial forest policy and people’s protest against it.

Gabriel Bladh gives an interesting account of the role of forests in iron making in Sweden in his article “Wood Fuel for the Mines and for Charcoal: The Exploitation of the Bergslange Area during the Period 1500-1900“. According to the author access to forest for wood fuel for the mines and charcoal became a necessary requirement for the mining industry in the central mining and ironworks area of mid-Sweden, i.e. the Bergslagen region. In the last article of the volume, Per Hilding describes the constraints and business linkage between India and Sweden. The author also illustrates the dynamics of business relations by taking the case of Sivakasi match factory.

To sum, in this book the authors have tried to highlight some of the issues in the history of iron making which appear to be significant in the context of economic development/regression. The book is very ambitious in trying to cover multiple facets of iron industry, the Indian tribal tradition, the traditional iron technology of Uttaranchal, the growth of iron technology in Sweden, early history of the British attempts to start iron works in Kumaun. The value of the book lies in covering the whole spectrum of issues related to the history of iron technology, its relevance today, the conflict between modernization and traditional technologies etc. At times the essays give an impression of being an odd eclectic assortment of writings that don’t seem to gel together. The editors could perhaps work a bit harder to produce a more integrated version by weaving them into a cohesive narrative.

All told, this is a valuable book on various aspects of iron technology and a must for all those interested in History of Science & Technology, as also in the issues of eco-friendly development in the Third World. The organizers of the symposium owe our gratitude for bringing out such a valuable compendium on the history of iron technology.