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Iron and fire

Pioneering experiences with iron at Fábrica Real de Ferro de Ipanema left lessons about bold approaches

Léo RamosThe famous blast furnaces built by Varnhagen can still be seen at the historic siteLéo Ramos

Separated by centuries, two governing officials encouraged the same project and ran into the same obstacles. “I’m forced to propose an iron mill. Not having one brings irreparable damages and complete perdition. Iron could be made here at a much more moderate price. We are paying huge sums to buy iron from foreigners,” wrote Rodrigo de Meneses in his Exposição sobre o estado de decadência da capitania de Minas Gerais (Exposition on the decline of the captaincy of Minas Gerais). Meneses was governor of that captaincy at the time, in 1780. “Iron is the biggest problem in our economy. We are hampered by not having the equipment to exploit this wealth, which is immobilized,” said Getúlio Vargas in a 1931 speech. It was not until 1946, when Companhia Siderúrgica Nacional was created, that both situations would, at last, be “taken care of.”

In the meantime, Brazil took important steps forward in the mass production of iron, but many historians have preferred to disparage those efforts as “fiascos.” There were three enterprises, all begun in 1810. Two were in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais—the Fábrica Morro do Pilar, directed by Manoel Ferreira da Câmara, featuring South America’s first blast furnace for producing iron; and Fábrica Patriótica, in Congonhas do Campo, headed by Baron Eschwege, a young but experienced German metallurgist. Paradoxically, the most ambitious attempt was made, not in the region of the Minas ore deposits, but at Ipanema on “Araçoiaba hill,” near the town of Sorocaba, in São Paulo State.

074-079_Ironworks_202Lemaître, 1821“The Fábrica Real de Ferro Ipanema was the recipient of the largest industrial investment ever made by Portugal in Brazil. It was a sophisticated iron and steel complex that attracted international attention in those days, although it had not reached the anticipated production levels. To therefore call it a “fiasco” was an historical mistake,” says Fernando Landgraf, professor at the Polytechnical School of the University of São Paulo (Poli-USP) and CEO of the São Paulo Institute for Technological Research (IPT). The mill, the key component of the plan to modernize the colony outlined by Dom João VI, was built by a team of Swedish metalworkers led by Carl Hedberg.

Swedish assistance
“The contract with the Swedes provided that, in addition to constructing the buildings and furnaces for the factory, they would teach the Luso-Brazilians the art of metallurgy in both theory and practice. To do that, they agreed to bring a library of the best books on iron and steel technology to Brazil. Ipanema thus obtained a collection of 24 important titles,” the professor says. Until last year, it wasn’t known for sure whether the books really had arrived in Brazil. The revelation came in an unusual message written in Swedish. A group of researchers who were studying objects collected from the Ipanema historical site by archeologist Margarida Andreatta of the USP Museum of Archeology and Ethnology and was looking for more information about Hedberg on the Internet, happened upon a mention of the name of the metallurgist on the website maintained by a steel industry historian from Sweden.

“The text, which we couldn’t understand, ended with the name ‘Hedberg’ and a question mark. I consulted a Swedish company to get someone to translate it. It was a question: ‘Does anyone know the whereabouts of Carl Hedberg?’ We knew: he had come to Brazil to build the iron mill and was buried in a Protestant cemetery in Rio de Janeiro,” Landgraf recalls. “But we didn’t even think about the library,” he says. The connection was made when the researcher came across a new edition of the book Subsídios para a história do Ypanema (Contributions to the history of Ypanema),written in 1858 by Senator Nicolau Vergueiro. “In it was a copy of the 1821 inventory taken of the factory’s property, including a list of 24 books. The library had existed but had disappeared.” It was the first collection of specialized books on iron and steelmaking that had been brought to Brazil.

The mysterious Swede on the Internet was retired engineer Sven-Gunnar Sporback, so passionate about iron and steel that he was living next to an old blast furnace. After having his question about Hedberg answered, Sporback reported that he had eight of the titles from the Ipanema library, but in different editions than those that were lost.  He sent them to Landgraf, who then donated them to the Rare Books Library at Poli-USP. “The books tell a little of the history of the Ipanema factory, which was very important in the history of the industry in Brazil.”

Léo RamosFactory for knives and other non-ballistic weaponsLéo Ramos

“Ipanema is also connected with a text that introduced in Brazil the application of scientific methodology to analysis of the technology: the Memória econômica e metalúrgica sobre a Fábrica de Ferro de Ypanema  (Economic and metallurgical account of the Ypanema iron mill), an 1820 report written by José Bonifácio shortly after he returned to Brazil that contained criticisms, based on scientific knowledge, of the architecture of the blast furnaces at Ipanema that he had inspected alongside his brother, Martim Francisco,” says the researcher. “The rast (ramp), or upper support of the crucible, is too low and not slim enough, since it is positioned at a 45 degree angle. The charge accumulates there, still in its raw state, and cools around the edges. Later it precipitates as a mass into the crucible and arrives at the tuyère, where the winds are unpredictable and cannot penetrate it in order to smelt it properly and gradually. The internal structure of the furnaces and forges have inherent defects that unless first corrected, will never allow the factory to produce good products,” Bonifácio wrote.

“Bonifácio’s observations reveal that, in the midst of the ‘backwardness’ of the colony there was one Luso-Brazilian who was qualified to make negative comments about the complex construction of blast furnaces at the level of the knowledge stored in the up-to-date Swedish books on metallurgy that were in the library,” Landgraf observes. At the same time, the observations by the Patriarch of Independence show that well-established methods had been applied in a peculiar way here, evidence that the structural conditions of Brazil at the time did not yet permit the kind of boldness that permitted use of the most advanced technologies, given the shortage of skilled workers who could handle the modern requirements. Only a very few people were capable of making make use of a library on sophisticated metallurgy like the one Ipanema had.

Reformist movement
That lag was due to the fact that Ipanema, like Bonifácio, was the product of the enlightened reformism that was in vogue at the seat of the empire and that financed research and studies on mining in the principal iron-producing centers of Europe, in order to attempt to bring Portugal into step with the Industrial Revolution. This did not mean that the imported solutions introduced by those enlightened persons could be applied directly to the realities of both the metropolis and the colony. The choice of iron smelting, seen by Lisbon as the best way to drag the kingdom out of its technologically backward state, did not facilitate the process.

Léo RamosFaçade of the former administration building and home of the Ipanema directorLéo Ramos

Iron production technology was in its infancy in countries that had already adopted industrialization and had more skilled workers. Furthermore, even in those countries the smelting of ore was based on empirical experiments that produced many errors and few successes. It was foolhardy to try to recover the lost time quickly. To that end, José Bonifácio was appointed Superintendent of Mines by the kingdom of Portugal, and his brother Martim Francisco assumed a similar post in São Paulo, where it is not surprising that his first task was precisely to investigate that so-called “Araçoiaba hill.”

Since 1799, with a permit from the metropolis, attempts had been made to install an iron smelter in a land said to be rich in iron ore. Well-trained eyes immediately perceived the potential of the place. In addition to ore deposits, the region was surrounded by thick forests that were essential for production of charcoal, fuel for the ovens. Or, more precisely, blast furnaces, then a symbol of modernity and high productivity. But they were difficult to construct, requiring specialized personnel and a complicated uninterrupted—months-long—operation. It was a daring undertaking in a colony.

In Portugal, they experimented with the use of blast furnaces at Ferraria de Foz d’Alge, but there they could call on the experience of Prussian metallurgists, among them the young Eschwege, along with the German Frederico Varnhagen, who was sent to Brazil to help Martim Francisco in his work. The Prussian Eschwege, 20, immediately started to plan the new iron mill, which initially was to have three small ovens whose output of iron would be used to build the longed-for blast furnaces. But for that purpose, they needed a team that was up to the task. When they decided to adopt modernization via metallurgy, the Portuguese realized that they would have to import labor from regions experienced in management of the new furnaces. Varnhagen asked the kingdom to supply other Germans to help him.

Personal filesAn 1814 watercolor of Ipanema, painted at the request of Hedberg by Dankwarts, a Swede, showing the Ipanema damPersonal files

In 1806, the loss of Prussia to Napoleon in a veiled dispute against the Portuguese made any negotiations to obtain German technicians impossible. Lisbon then turned to Sweden, a country whose tradition in metallurgy Bonifácio was personally familiar with. In 1809, the Crown reached an agreement with Carl Hedberg, a Swede with solid experience in the construction and management of blast furnaces. But they forgot to notify Varnhagen, who believed himself to be the appointed director of the new undertaking. The rivalry between the Prussian and the Swede began far from Brazil. Oddly, the choice of Hedberg displeased his fellow-countryman in Brazil, Swedish consul Albert Kantzow.

Energetic arrivals
“A few days ago, a ship arrived with 14 Swedish smelters. They are energetic young men, experts in Swedish metallurgy. Their leader, Hedberg, said he had owned his own metals mill and lost his fortune in it. Nature furnishes everything this enterprise needs to benefit this country and be extremely toxic to Swedish metallurgy. The arrival of these compatriots of mine has profoundly disappointed me. I am honored to be Swedish and the losses my country is suffering have affected me more than did my own losses,” the diplomat wrote in 1810, distressed to see Swedish methods in Luso-Brazilian hands. Hedberg, however, did not demonstrate Scandinavian efficiency. It took him 14 months to start building the factory, meanwhile receiving a salary from the Portuguese since the date he signed the contract.

On his tail was Varnhagen, technical representative of the Ipanema shareholders. For three years he harassed Hedberg, demanding that construction begin on the blast furnaces. “The Swede’s plan was similar to that of Varnhagen: start production with direct-reduction furnaces to make the iron needed to manufacture the blast furnaces and finery forges,” says historian Paulo Eduardo Araújo, a member of Landgraf’s team. That didn’t prevent the German from criticizing; he described the small amount of steel that was produced as “fragile and of poor quality.” “A company that has barely started working cannot turn out good products. What surprises me is that any importance is given to all that idle talk. The meager skills of director Hedberg are combined with intrigue, and nothing good can be expected to come of it,” Varnhagen wrote to his friend Eschwege.

In 1814, Hedberg, unable to produce the promised annual quantities of “refined iron,” i.e., between 480 and 600 tons, was finally dismissed. “Despite the criticisms from Varnhagen that were repeated by the historians, the metallurgical expertise of the Swedish director is undeniable. The decision to dismiss him was a move in which intrigue, politics, and a dose of mistakes in Hedberg’s management played a role,” says Landgraf. Varnhagen was appointed to replace him and take over the operation. Between 1815 and 1918, he finally built the blast furnaces, but their output never exceeded 30 tons a year, well below the anticipated 600 tons. And so in 1820, it was the German’s turn to become a target. “There were excesses. Bonifácio, in his Memoria, makes not only technical criticisms but insinuations directly aimed at Varnhagen, who was accused of being a troublemaker, ignorant about iron metallurgy, and a poor manager,” Araújo says.

In 1821, Varnhagen resigned from Ipanema, alleging health problems. “He was a professional who specialized in recommending technical and production management solutions, but he wasn’t a scholar like Eschwege, or even Bonifácio,” the historian says. The changes he implemented at Ipanema were remarkable and were recognized internationally for effectiveness and technological modernity. An example of his technical creativity was the use of hydraulic power at a time when the English steam engine was still a curiosity. Another remarkable example of his “practical vision” was the solution he found to solve the problem that had haunted the builders of blast furnaces: finding a refractory material to line the furnaces that could endure high temperatures.

The available alternative, to import industrial tiles from England, was economically unfeasible. It was a crucial question: without good refractory tiles it is impossible to make the blast furnaces work. Superintendent Câmara, of Minas do Pilar, hailed for building the first blast furnace, saw his furnace develop cracks because the proper materials weren’t used. Varnhagen found beside the factory a kind of sandstone that he thought could be used as refractory material. “With great success: until it shut down in 1895, Ipanema never needed to import materials to line the furnaces. Professor Eliane Dal Lima, of the Geosciences Institute at USP (IG-USP), is studying Varnhagen’s discovery in order to identify its properties.” And so the pressure on the German to resign seems strange.

Princesa Isabel CollectionThe factory as photographed by J.W. Durski in 1884Princesa Isabel Collection

“It was for political reasons, because of disagreements with Bonifácio who may have envied Varnhagen, feeling superior to him. The Portuguese Empire knew how to invest in the formation of a group of “enlightened” men but did not bother to establish the means for them to work free of political issues. They were always worried about losing their jobs with the change of an office,” Araújo notes. And so when the potential of the Minas iron mills demonstrated their superiority, the São Paulo plant was neglected, inherited by posterity as a costly and disastrous experiment. This is contrary to what was said about it in its day, when it was mentioned in foreign technical publications with admiration and as a “tourist stop” for travelers such as Debret, Saint-Hilaire, and Spix and Martius.

“Ipanema was an effective attempt to introduce modern iron and steel production to Portuguese America. It was a large and sophisticated metallurgical complex, highly verticalized. Out of necessity it concentrated at a single site the diversity of knowledge and polytechnic competencies that, in European metallurgy, was dispersed among multiple manufacturing plants,” Araújo observes. The factory was a pioneer producer of iron on a large scale in South America.  The historian notes that it was certainly a prototype that functioned well despite the difficulties it encountered, given the state of the art in colonial Brazil.

When analyzed in technological terms, there was little difference between what was produced at the São Paulo factory and in Europe. But the incorrect or incomplete use of that knowledge because of the shortage of qualified personnel prevented a sophisticated project like Ipanema from succeeding fully. “Among the workers there is no one who has ever worked with a blast furnace, which means that operations are very imperfect,” Varnhagen observed. He had always warned of the need to find better workers. The slaves who worked at the factory are further evidence of “misplaced ideas,” with the continued presence of archaic structures used to implement technological innovations of the first order, generating a mismatch of skills and preventing the country from making effective progress despite the investments. The same criticism as made in 1780, cited above, was the same phantom that shadowed Vargas centuries later: “lack of equipment.” The contrast in degree between the scientific knowledge and the possibilities for its application continues, to some extent, to be an obstacle to Brazil’s technological development.

An undertaking like Ipanema would not be seen until much later, when Companhia Siderúrgica Nacional was founded. Is there any similarity between the two projects? “Boldness,” Araújo answers.