The Apprentice

Londonderry Township’s John Fritz made long-lasting contributions to both the railroads and the Navy.



United States employers have grown lukewarm about apprenticeships. Academic programs that include on-the-job learning fell 40 percent between 2003 and 2013, according to the U.S. Labor Department. Something about not wanting to encourage unions or train workers for others, according to the Wall Street Journal.

So, let’s remember John Fritz, a Chester County farm boy who, in 1838, began working with a local blacksmith and became a pioneer in the iron-and-steel industry. “It was the ‘three-high roll’ invented by Mr. Fritz, when he was only 33 years old,” reported the Philadelphia North American in 1913, “that made possible the building of the great railroads that span America from the Atlantic to the Pacific.” 

The newspaper forgot to mention that Fritz also developed the armor plate that made up the “Great White Fleet” that Theodore Roosevelt sent around the world in 1907.

Born in Londonderry Township, Fritz was the eldest of seven. His parents were poor farmers and, in the way of those who struggle for a living, seem to have been rather Spartan with each other. In 1861, when Fritz’s younger brother burst in to tell his mother that he had enlisted in the Union Army, Mary Meharg Fritz turned to her son and said, “Well, my boy, never let me hear that they shot you in the back.”

Fritz was generous in his autobiography, describing his father, George, as “a man of high standards … particular and exacting” and his mother as “a true Christian woman.” Nevertheless, he got out at age 16, moving to Parkesburg in 1838 to learn blacksmith and machine work.

In Parkesburg, Fritz began his career with grunt work—chipping, caulking and riveting boilers. But his responsibilities grew and, in Fritz’s second year, he was assigned to “iron” a large, wooden horse-drawn wagon—that is, to line it with iron plate so that it could be used for heavy-duty purposes. The deadline was short and the shop under-equipped. Plus, Fritz’s employer was ill and could only give directions. “We succeeded in doing the work, and the boss said it was a very creditable piece of workmanship,” he later recalled. “When my boss got well, he and I ran the large fire, doing the best and heaviest work.”

In his spare time, Fritz created a small sideline business of his own, converting flintlock muskets to percussion. “There was no other gunsmith nearer than Lancaster or Philadelphia, [so] I had something  like a monopoly,” he wrote. “I did all the work by myself and at night, when other
people were having a good time or were sleeping. Saturday night was my harvest time, as I could work all night.”

In 1843, Fritz moved on to Moore & Hooven, a new iron foundry in Norristown. He was put to work helping mechanics erect boilers and soon became a full mechanic himself. After not too much time, Fritz was maintaining all of the machinery. The owners passed over several senior men to promote him. 

In 1849, Fritz took a pay cut—from $1,000 a year to $650—to supervise the building of a new foundry at Safe Harbor on the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County. “The knowledge gained will much more than compensate for the difference in salary,” he explained to his boss at the time. 

Apparently so. In moving to Safe Harbor, Fritz broadened what had been only a local reputation for competence in both the operating and construction of iron mills. Over the next several years, he also supervised construction of a blast furnace on the Schuylkill near Conshohocken and another foundry at Catasauqua. 

I

n 1854, John Fritz’s by-now-sizable network produced an offer to be general superintendent of the Cambria Iron Works at Johnstown. A forerunner of Bethlehem Steel, Cambria was then just two years old.  Neither the town nor the ironworks amounted to much. But there was an abundant supply of iron ore; the Pennsylvania Railroad had just reached town; and Cambria had a contract to make rails for the nation’s growing railroad
network. Most rails were then imported from Wales.

“I can truly say [Johnstown] was the most unattractive place I had ever been in,” wrote Fritz, recalling streets made of equal parts clay and “organic matter”—a Victorian’s delicate term for animal droppings. “Cows, hogs and dogs, all ran at large; the dogs would get after the pigs, they would squeal, the cows would bawl, the dogs would bark and fight. I should have been amused if I had not been there to stay.”

Worse, the plant was unfinished, and what was there was all wrong. The metal produced was inferior and, when rolled, the rails split and cracked. Fritz changed the temperature of the metal. He tried turning the rail around and running it through the rollers a second time. There was some improvement, but nothing fit for multi-ton locomotives to run over. “It was now evident that my worst fears were going to be fully realized,” he wrote. “We must have some better iron.”

Cambria’s owners had opened the mill with the understanding that iron could be produced for $6 per ton. Fritz was telling them that the number would be higher. For a while, things looked iffy, but the mill owners eventually consented. Better iron arrived and was blended with the rest. But the rails still split. “The strong iron in the top and bottom would bear more heat than the puddled iron in the center of the rail,” reported Fritz. 

What was needed, he decided, was to send the rails on an instant second pass through the rollers, before they cooled.

The mill formed rails by running hot, malleable iron between two rollers—one on top of the other—which pressed them into the desired shape. A second pass would require picking up each rail and carrying it back to the starting point—a laborious and time-consuming process. “I had now fully made up my mind that there was but one thing to do,” wrote Fritz.

What was needed, he told the owners, was a three-high roll: three rolls—one on top of the other—turning together, plus a system of elevators to quickly move the rails up for their second pass. This would work because the two feeds rolled in opposite directions.

It was a hard sell. The two-roll system was standard; a three-roll had never been done. Fritz was asking cost-conscious owners to tear down a new mill and build another. When word got out, leading iron-makers called it a “wild experiment.” Fritz’s old boss in Norristown told him, “If this is a failure, your reputation is ruined for life.” 

Even the millworkers thought him crazy. But he got what he wanted and, in July 1857, the first rail went through without a hitch. “You can judge what my feelings were as I looked upon that perfect and first rail ever made on a three-high mill,” recalled Fritz. 

In its first month, the mill turned out 30,000 tons of rails—more than twice what it had produced in the entire year prior. The three-high roll was
soon standard at every U.S. mill—just in time to fuel a 10-year construction boom that more than tripled trackage.

The three-high would have been a career-maker for many. But Fritz was only 35. Over the next couple of decades, he would introduce the Bessemer process to the U.S. and build the Bethlehem Iron Company plant, later Bethlehem Steel.

By the 1890s, the steel business had changed. Andrew Carnegie had consolidated much of the steel industry at Pittsburgh and was undercutting competitors on the cost of rails. The business had become unprofitable. Fritz proposed that Bethlehem go in a new direction: making armor plate for the U.S. Navy’s new steel warships.

Rails brought less than $40 per ton; battleship armor, more than $400 per ton. But, again, there was opposition. It was a lot of money. Again, Fritz was warned of the effect of failure on his reputation. “For a time, the situation seemed hopeless. Had it been manly, I would have given up the whole matter,” he wrote. “But the condition of the country was such, it was apparent to my mind that a good forge and armor-plate plant was indispensable.”

Without a modern navy or heavy guns for coastal defense, recalled Fritz, the country was defenseless—“a disgraceful condition for a great nation.”

Most ships of the time were plated with compound (double layer) armor, but the era’s new guns could punch right through it. Fritz proposed Harveyized nickel steel. Nickel makes steel tougher and harder. Harveyizing (named for its inventor) further toughens the surface by heating it with charcoal, then hammering it. “There are two things in the construction of armor plate that must be reckoned on,” said Fritz. “First, the face must be hard, so as to break the point of the shot; second, the back must be strong in order to resist the force of the blow, without breaking.”

Fritz got his plant. But by the time it was partly built, the whispering from Bethlehem’s compound-steel competitor that a solid plate could never perform had gotten so intense that Navy bureaucrats demanded a test. They got it in July 1892, when the Navy set up a 21,000-pound plate—six-by-eight feet and 10 inches thick—next to a compound plate of similar dimensions at its Annapolis, Md., proving ground.

Fritz was at home when his wife received the telegram. He asked her to read it. “Compound … something, knocked to smithereens,” she read, stumped by some of the terminology. “Solid steel plate stood the test.”

Bethlehem armor went on the first U.S. battleships: the U.S.S. Texas, the U.S.S. Oregon and the U.S.S. Maine. The latter blew up from an internal explosion—not gunfire—in Havana Harbor in 1898.

Fritz’s accomplishments were so many that, on his 80th birthday in 1902, he was the first recipient of the John Fritz Medal. It is still awarded annually for “outstanding scientific or industrial achievements” by the American Association of Engineering Societies.

“After the smoke of battle has cleared away and the history of the steel industry in this country comes to be written,” said Charles Schwab, president of Bethlehem Steel in 1911, “there is one name that will shine brighter than that of any president of any corporation, and that name is
John Fritz.”

Not a bad legacy at all for a onetime blacksmith’s apprentice.

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