The weirdest academic controversy of 2023
The strange case of "Black metallurgists and the making of the Industrial Revolution"
One really cool thing about the Industrial Revolution is the extent to which different inventions across disparate areas played into each other.
Incredible progress was made on steam engines by Thomas Newcomen in 1712 and James Watt in 1764, and eventually steam engines would be used to power railroads, generating huge improvements in transportation time. But there’s no railroad without a lot of rails, and that doesn’t happen without a lot of iron. And, apparently, iron at large scale isn’t possible if you need to rely on charcoal to turn pig iron into cast iron.
Luckily, in 1783, an Englishman named Peter Onions was granted a patent for the “puddling process,” a way of turning pig iron into cast iron without using charcoal. Then the very next year, another English inventor named Henry Cort got a different patent for an even better version of the puddling process.
And this is where we get to one of the weirdest academic controversies I’ve ever seen play out: the case of Henry Cort versus enslaved Jamaican metallurgists.