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Corrugated iron was produced by accident at the Spencer Iron Works

Posted in Engineering, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Trade on Tuesday, 30 April 2013

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This edited article about John Spencer originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 237 published on 30 July 1966.

Corrugated iron, picture, image, illustration

John Spencer seeing the accidentally sheet of metal which gave him an idea which revolutionised the building trade, by John Millar Watt

In the 1840s, railways were spreading rapidly across England. The Spencer Iron Works in Birmingham was making rails for a new line to run between London and Worcester via Oxford. In those days, rails were shaped rather like a broad upside-down “U”.

One day, a sheet of metal serving as a protection for men working on the rail – making machine, worked loose and was pulled into the machine. It emerged thoroughly crunched into a series of waves. The workmen cast it aside, put up a new sheet and got on with the job.

John Spencer, master of the ironworks, was walking round the works, checking that everything was running smoothly, when he saw the spoiled sheet. He picked it up.

Instead of flopping about as a thin sheet of metal normally would, it remained straight and rigid. Spencer stared at it. He stood it up and leaned his weight on it. It did not bend.

Spencer stood still for several minutes. Here was a marvellous new process which actually increased the strength of metal sheets! The sheets would be cheap to produce, easy to transport. They would revolutionise the building industry . . .

Spencer obtained a patent and started manufacturing corrugated sheets, and other iron masters soon followed his example. The sheets were made from wrought or puddled iron.

They were corrugated in the black (raw) state and were then galvanised by dipping in an open bath of molten zinc, to prevent corrosion or rusting. In the early days of the process, the output was small, and the cost higher than John Spencer had anticipated, but the quality was excellent and showed great promise.

In 1860, the corrugating of steel sheets became a commercial proposition, but they were produced only in heavy gauges, and it was not until 30 years later that light gauges were successfully achieved.

By 1891, the total production of corrugated metal exceeded 200,000 tons, 75 per cent of which was exported. The sheets were used for roofing, siding, fume-ducts and culverts, etc. Some of this sheeting is still in use, although it was fixed in place more than 60 years ago.

Nowadays, cardboard, aluminium, plastics and most malleable materials may be corrugated to increase their strength – and all because of that incident at the Spencer works in 1843.

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