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Saturday, May 4, 2024

Ramblings on iron and steel

In the last few weeks I have stumbled on various little bits during Wikipedia edits that I thought were worthy of airing! One of them was a re-realization of the boon and the curse of iron and steel. It starts with something I heard a few years ago by economist Sashi Sivramkrishna and others who were following the trail of Buchanan Hamilton in Mysore (listen to the talk here) and they were apparently impressed by the impact of iron production particularly on the destruction of forests in southern India. And last week I found a Wikipedia entry that someone from Parangipettai had written as a draft and which had been left languishing. I went and ensured that it got moved from a draft version to a mainspace entry - it was on the Porto Novo Iron Works, one of the first large-scale iron smelting enterprises in India. The venture, started by a J.M. Heath, did not last long, one of the big factors being the lack of coal for smelting, and he had to make do with charcoal. In a few years, he ran out of charcoal, after depleting the forests of several districts nearby, and the factory had to move to the west coast near Calicut (Beypore). The first director general of forests Dietrich Brandis also noted the role of iron smelting in deforestation. 

Now to Josiah Heath, who is a real character and it is quite a surprise to see that the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography does not even have an entry for him, and there appears to be no available photograph of him (at least online). Heath sent out skins of various animals to the Zoological Society of London and there is a species of bat named after him. More interestingly it seem the fishing cat was described based on a specimen that he sent from India - which it would appear from all likelihood to have come from the Parangipettai region - more likely Pichavaram (wonder if the species still exists there). He also collected a specimen of a Eurasian Griffon Vulture from the same region. Heath apparently was impressed by traditional ukku (better known as Wootz steel) steel-making near Salem where he was initially posted and he seems to have discovered an important factor which he patented. It involved the use of carbon and manganese and he made money initially by distributing packets of his mixture - and later made the mistake of giving its composition. The steel makers of Sheffield, England quickly started using his technique and decided not to pay him any royalty - and he died in poverty. Of course today we could ask whether he actually stole the idea from traditional Indian blacksmiths and whether it could have been patented at all in the first place or of the numerous other injustices involved in all of this. 

Herr Meves
In another Wikipedia-related iron-connection, I found a little-known ornithologist who now has a Wikipedia entry (Wilhelm Meves). Meves was a German pharmacist turned ornithologist - and he decided to treat the brown feathers of lammergeiers with hydrochloric acid and tested them for iron and found that the colour was largely due to iron oxide. He found that this coating was on the outer surface and that the inside of the feathers was largely iron free. He suggested that the birds were bathing in iron-rich waters. Meves worked in Stockholm and mostly wrote in German but some of his findings made their way into the Ibis in English - thanks to John Wolley. And it seems both T.C. Jerdon and A.O. Hume were careful readers of Meves' works. Jerdon was aware of the bleating sound of snipes being produced by air-flow induced vibrations of the outermost tail feather. And Hume even repeated Meves' chemical analysis on his lammergeier specimens from Shimla and confirmed the presence of iron. Hume however noted that neither he nor any of his "intelligent native sportsmen" had ever seen a lammergeier bathe in water and suggested that the red staining may be derived from the blood of dead animals. Hume's original text (emphasis mine):

In the Ibis for 1862, it is mentioned that Herr Meves had, by a simple chemical test, ascertained the red colouring in this bird’s feathers, as also the rustiness observable at times in the feathers of the common Crane, (Grus Cinerea) to be due to a superficial deposit of oxide of iron ; as also, that the colouring matter on the eggs, arose from the same cause. Herr Meves suggested, that the stain on the feathers might be owing to the birds bathing in water containing iron in solution; but my belief is, that the Lammergeyer is a very dirty bird, (it swarms with vermin to such a degree, that cats and the like will seldom touch it when dead,) and never washes! I have been watching this bird, off and on, for the last twenty years, and I have never yet seen it bathe ; nor have I ever yet met with any one, amongst the numerous intelligent native sportsmen whom I have had to do with in the Himalayahs, who has witnessed such an operation. Certainly iron does enter into the composition of the colouring matter of the feathers, (I have tested it myself) as also into the red colouring on Neophron’s and kite’s eggs, but my idea is, that in both cases the iron is derived from the blood, and not from any ferruginous streams. Many birds, notably the grey goose and the common teal, very often have the feathers of the lower parts strongly tinged with rusty, and here too an oxide of iron enters into the composition of the colouring matter. How it gets there, is a question well worthy of investigation.

Anyway, it seems that India's large iron-deposits have a habit of lying in regions rich in biodiversity and ethnic diversity often on ancient tribal lands. It is little wonder that the steel industry barons are involved in disempowering tribal peoples or paying governments to water down environmental laws. I was truly surprised by the amount of work from around the world on related topics.

Someday I ought to visit Parangipettai and Pichavaram! 

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