Roger Hudson on a photograph taken in the Krupp works, Essen in 1861, signalling the arrival of a new industrial force in Europe.
A length of white-hot metal is manoeuvred under the largest steam hammer in the Krupp works at Essen, in 1861. This is the Schmiedhammer Fritz, named after Alfred Krupp’s son and symbolic not only of a new industrial force arrived in the Ruhr but of a new determination within Prussia to create a commanding place for itself within Europe.
In 1851 Krupp’s stand at Britain’s Great Exhibition was a sensation: not only was there a six-pounder cast-steel cannon, something entirely new, but there was also a solid steel ingot weighing 2,000 kilos. Before this, steel had only been produced in modest quantities. Just as important was his introduction of a non-weld railway tyre, because they, together with rails, axles and springs, were to provide the cash flow that paid for armaments research and development. In 1854 there was a Krupp 12-pounder at the Paris Exhibition, which impressed Napoleon III, though not his generals. It was not until Wilhelm I became ruler of Prussia in 1861 that Krupp’s cannons began to be taken seriously. Wilhelm had been aware of a changing balance following the French victory over Austria in Italy in 1859, which brought Austria’s position as the leading German power into question. That year he visited the Krupp works and an order for 312 steel cannon for his army soon followed, as did an expansion of conscription. Here were two ingredients for the unification of Germany; the third was the appointment of Bismarck as chief minister in 1862.
Krupp guns played little part in Germany’s conflict with Denmark in 1864, while their performance in the Seven Weeks War against Austria in 1866 was patchy. There was too much phosphorus in German iron ore for Krupp’s new Bessemer converters to produce good steel from it and there were defects in the design of the company’s breech block, after which Krupp suffered a nervous collapse. Yet enough of the Prussian high command remained faithful to the Kanonenkönig (the Cannon King), the defect in the breeches was cured and he eventually replaced pre-1866 guns with 400 new ones at no charge. When the Franco- Prussian War came in 1870 the French brass muzzle-loaders were no match for them, while Krupp heavy mortars smashed the fortifications at Metz and Sedan.
The steam hammer, which allowed much larger objects to be forged than with the traditional tilt hammer, was one of Britain’s many gifts to the world during the first heroic stage of the Industrial Revolution. James Nasmyth, one of a generation of outstanding mechanical engineers trained in the London workshops of Henry Maudslay, drew up the first designs for one in 1840, but a deft piece of French industrial espionage meant the first to be built was at the Schneider ironworks at Le Creusot. The manager there had been shown Nasmyth’s drawings on a visit to his works in Manchester and then produced his own derived from them. After Nasmyth saw the French machine in 1842, he came home and built his own. He marketed it more successfully than the French did and by 1856 he could retire. He had designed it so that a paddle-shaft for Brunel’s ship, the SS Great Britain, could be forged, only for Brunel eventually to opt for screw-propulsion rather than paddle wheels.