Retrotechtacular: Forging Of Chain By Smiths

drop-forgingAh, the days when men were men and people died of asbestos related illnesses in their 30s. Let this video take you back to the ancient times when chains were forged by hand, destructively tested using wooden capstans, and sent off to furnish the ships of the line, way back in the year 1940.

The video is something of an advertisement for the Netherton iron works, located in the English midlands. Founded sometime in the mid 19th century, it appears the tooling and machinery didn’t change much the hundred years before this was filmed.

The chain begins as a gigantic mass of wrought iron bars brought in from a forge. These bars are stockpiled, then sent through chain shears that cut them into manageable lengths a foot or so long. The next scene would probably look the same in 1940 as 1840, with gangs of men taking one of the bars, heating it in a forge, beating it on an anvil, and threading it through the last link in the chain they worked on. This isn’t the satisfying machinations of industrial automata you’d see on How It’s Made. No, this is hard manual labor.

Whether through simple quality control or an edict from the crown, the completed chains are tested, or more specifically, proofed. Yard long samples are tested to their failure point, and entire chains are proofed to their carrying capacity in 15 fathom ( 90 feet) long lengths. These chains are then examined link by link, stamped and certified, and sent off to mines, factories, tramp steamers, and battleships.

Although the Netherton iron works no longer exists, it did boast a few claims to fame in its day. It manufactured the anchors and chain for both the Titanic and Lusitania. Of course, such a large-scale production of wrought chain in such an archaic method would be impossible today; today, every wrought iron foundry has been shuttered for decades. If you’ve ever wondered how such massive things were made with a minimal amount of machinery, though, there you go.

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

36 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Forging Of Chain By Smiths

    1. ‘Skilled’ hardly even touches the reality of it all… you wouldn’t believe it could be done by human hands (and a few steam powered tools) unless you’ve witnessed the like with your own eyes..

      1. I took a blacksmithing course a few years back and I hand-forged a 3-link chain from plain 1/4″ bar stock using only hand tools and forge welding techniques. Mine was of poor quality (being a noob), but the instructor hammered out a couple of links that would have done a great job back in the 1700’s. It’s impressive what you can do with the right tools and human muscle.

        1. Good for you for keeping it going! I’m no good at forge-welding myself, but fortunately I haven’t needed it for most of my projects. People talk like this is a dead practice… Being an amateur smith myself, I was pretty pleased to see this come up. Some may look at smithing as only suitable as an art form today, but it’s a fairly vibrant community for such a “primitive” industrial practice.

          As a woodworker, I know that tools are expensive, and I figure I’ve saved myself nearly $300 just from two of the tools – an axe and an adze – that I have made myself. Beyond just the $$ savings and the satisfaction of making your own tools, there’s the familiarity with the material that comes from working it. People today might call it “getting to know the medium” or even “befriending it” (blech!), but you do come to an understanding of it, a respect for it, and an appreciation of being able to bend it to your service. Forgive me for waxing religious, but this – to me – is a perfect example of man subjecting nature to himself, in a very direct way (as opposed to the idea that that means humans have the right to walk all over creation and destroy it). I think that’s what hackerspace’s do, in their own way, though at a slightly more distant point in the process. :) I’m certainly not a power-tool hater – I’ve got my share of them – but there’s something about working wood and metal with just hammer and chisel, fire and tongs, that can’t be compared with.

          And the things that are made by smiths often are quite beautiful. Not that my wood tools are particularly beautiful: no, they are actually somewhat crude compared to others’, but impressive to those who have never done it themselves. I would encourage you to check it out for yourselves. There are plenty of blacksmithing societies with “smithing spaces” throughout the US and the world. And it’s not difficult even to get a setup in your own backyard (if you have one). Check out ABANA or other smith societies and find a place near you!

          Find a blacksmithing society near you under the “affiliate web sites” section here:

          1. I’ve done a little smithing before and just recently have decided to get back into it. Last week I bought a blower (Champion #400), swage block, anvil and a leg vice to get me started. But I have to build a shed first to house that lot and all my other (more modern) metalworking tools.

            One reason for this is to have a hobby that doesn’t involve computers (or even electricity), I’m still well into embedded processors but need to get off my arse and away from the computer screen a bit.

          2. Sounds like you’re on your way to a very nice setup. It’s worth the advance investment to have all the tools ready to hand. I’m fortunate to live near a society where I can use their equipment, since I rent a small property with no place for a forge (I could do gas, but gas is expensive).

            Mind sharing where you picked up the leg vise? Those can be hard to come by (I assume you are referring to a metal one, and not the carpentry leg vise). Thanks!

          3. I searched eBay etc for tools and found almost nothing. What I did find was nowhere near me and “local pickup”, as you know the weight of this stuff I guess you can figure why they don’t want to mail it :)

            Yes it’s a proper leg vice, in a nutshell I found all the gear at a local wreckers, he had THREE leg vices and all sorts of stuff, apparently he wants to set up a museum and he only needs one of he was/is willing to sell the rest. Not cheap ($2000 for the four main items plus a few tongs etc) but it’s not like there’s a lot of this stuff around.

            Some photos and a short spiel on my blog , scroll down to “Sat 3 May” entry.

            BTW this is in Australia so unless you are as well the actual location will be of little use to you but I can reveal it via email if you want to know.


          4. LOL, thanks for the info, but no, I live in the USA. Sounds like you got a real steal on some of those items. A decent anvil typically runs $900+ (USD, but that’s pretty close to AUD), and the swage blocks go for a few hundred (though I’ve seen them below $100 on rare occasions). Not sure what the fan goes for, but extra tongs aren’t cheap, and I’m sure those leg vises are costly anymore. Good luck!

    1. PPE is for pussies. At least, back then it was. Like I said, I bet those guys burnt out fast. Nice to have a large pool of cheap, expendable labor…and no OSHA/H&S looking over your shoulder.

      Why, when I was a lad, we had to pay t’ mill owner for the privilege of comin’ to work!

    1. a fathom is equal to 6 feet, which is the average height of a human, or generally assumed as such. it makes sense for sailors to use it as a measurement of depth, because to can’t very well walk ashore if you can’t touch bottom. and yes, i know the ships were too big to get that close, which is why you have smaller vessels aboard that can. but you don’t just crash that “rowboat” into the sand/rocks.

    2. Units are arbitrary. Meters are no more logical than smoots or parsecs. The only benefit of metric is relative consistency in use. That can be done with any base units.

      From now on I’m going to express lengths in centiyards, weight in millitons, and automotive speeds in kiloyards per deciday.

      1. That all seems fine, it’s generally perceived as important that your units and your counting system have the same base. That said, I’ve read that various attempts have been made to decimalise time, unsuccessfully.

        1. There is some saying for IT people along the lines of
          Binary when you have to
          Hex because you want to
          Octal when you get to
          Decimal only on your fingers and paychecks

        2. Time is already decimalized. It’s counted in seconds.

          The minute and hour are simply convenience units that are approved for use along the offical SI units, just like the Celsius and the liter and the bar, none of which actually belong to the metric system where the offical units are the Kelvin, cubic meter, and Pascal.

          1. Not really.

            The second is the only measure of time offically recognized by the metric system, so to make things comparable the US customary units should only recognize inches or feet etc.

            Minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, they’re really equivalent to fortnights and furlongs in principle as far as the SI is concerned. You may use them, but offically they don’t exist.

          2. Seconds are counted in units of 10, which is why you have milliseconds. There’s nothing called a milliminute as they’re counted in 60’s and require seconds to be counted in 60’s. Seconds however are not required by themselves to be counted in 60’s.

      2. Meters have many many things going for them.

        a meter is roughly the lenght of a pendulum with a half-period of 1 second under standard gravity, making it easily reproducible with extremely simple tools everywhere, and fairly accurate with the knowledge of your latitude.

        a meter is roughly 1/40,000th of the circumference of the earth, making it compatible with the gradian system that divides a circle into 400 parts to make surveying calculations easy becuse it effectively decimalizes right angles.

        a meter is roughly the stride lenght of an adult man, again useful in surveying and finding your way around with maps. Human bodyparts and movements are meters in size. A leg is a meter in lenght, an outstretched arm with fingers makes a meter. You breathe a cubic meter of air per hour while walking etc. etc.

        The meter is no coincidence, although the people using it may not have understood fully why all the useful lenghts like the yard or cubit or meter seem to converge towards the same size or fractions thereof. It seems to tie in to some fundamental property or geometry of the earth and its mass and gravity.

        1. All units are logically scalable by tens. 1000 feet is a real thing, just like 1000 meters(there’s just no nickname for it). In the context of how fathoms were used, meters would be no more logical.

  1. I think that the factory was up to date for 1940 – it certainly wasn’t 19th century machinery (except for the hammers). The really big difference compared to today is electronics; back then there no way of automating that manufacturing process with any reliability. Also, quality control and certification was part of the system even then, because peoples lives depended on those chains working as intended.

    1. I think back then, your reputation was what Quality Control was based on. Reputation was everything: if you made junk, nobody would buy it (though I may be thinking of a slightly earlier period, than this video).
      Nowadays, QC ensures you just meet the minimum state/federal/international regulations and satisfy the fine print legal & marketing put out. Nowadays, nearly everyone makes junk. So as long as you meet regulations and the fine print, people will buy.

      1. For most things quality probably did just mean keeping your reputation, but not for everything – where equipment for mines or equipment for the royal navy were concerned for example. The UK navy dockyards invented and practiced industrial scale mass production way before anyone else.
        And as for today six sigma, for example, is a bit more aggressive than ‘that’s good enough to scrape through’. I think that a lot of companies are, in fact, pretty aggressive in their quality standards and often succeed in silencing the bean counters.

  2. Long before the 16:9 and 4:3 ratio of screen sizes and their attendant and persistent distorting there was the 18 fps and 24 fps problem. We have a warped sense of motion in the viewing of this valuable historic footage. I could only watch a little. Maybe download and watch with VLC to slow it down. Proper handling before uploading is best.

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