Historical Markers
First Steel Historical Marker
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First Steel

Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
PA 56 in Johnstown, opposite steel mill

Dedication Date:
March 4, 1947

Behind the Marker

Portrait of William Kelly
William Kelly
Old timers in Johnstown never tired of the story of crazy William Kelly and his fireworks. In 1857 Kelly came to the Cambria Iron works, promising to make steel by blowing cold air through red hot, molten iron. This was quite a suggestion since everyone knew that making steel required lots of coal, time, skill - and money. Kelly, a bankrupt and cast-iron pot maker from Kentucky, believed his patented "air boiling" process could make steel from iron and air alone, and he came to Cambria to prove it.

One day in 1857, as 200 workers standing in the mill yard looked on, he sent a terrific blast of air through the liquid metal and blew the entire molten mass into the sky. Crazy Kelly's fireworks! It took a delightfully long time for the sparks to fall to the ground. Kelly took to hammering away at the hot metal chunks as they landed! At the time, no one knew that he hoped to find nuggets of steel.

Image of the converter
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A Kelly converter on display at the Smithsonian Institution, circa 1960.
If his "air boiling" experiments were never the success he hoped for, he was at least at the right place. For Cambria Iron employed a number of truly gifted iron and steel men. Hired by the mill's Philadelphia moneymen, Daniel J. Morrell in the early 1850s had moved across the mountains to get the operation running. For decades Morrell would run markerJohnstown like a medieval fiefdom - he was variously mill boss, mayor, two-term Congressman, and much else - for thirty years until his death.

Arriving at Cambria three years before Kelly, markerJohn Fritz and set about making its rolling mill into the world's best. His "three-high" mill transformed the rolling of rails, and not coincidently the building of railroads, across the country. After departing in 1860 Fritz went on to transform markerBethlehem Iron into a world-class armor-plate producer.

Another top figure at Cambria was Captain William Jones marker Bill Jones.Passed over for a promotion at Cambria, Jones in 1873 took up markerAndrew Carnegie's summons to Pittsburgh, taking with him not only his own considerable skills and driving temperament, but also the best of Cambria's Bessemer crew. Some say Cambria never really recovered from the loss of Fritz and Jones.
Image of the Kelly Converter, 1860s.
Illustration of an early Kelly converter from the Cambria Iron Works.

Today many Americans still learn that it was William Kelly who invented the Bessemer process. But in truth, Kelly was little more than a promising backwoods inventor with a keen eye for publicity. Kelly's own account appeared in James Swank's pioneering History of the Manufacture of Iron in All Ages (1892). Then in the early twentieth century, American boosters sought an American origin for an invention that changed the world. Two popular writers - Herbert Casson in The Romance of Steel (1907) and John Newton Boucher in William Kelly: A True History of the So-Called Bessemer Process (1924) - spread the word that William Kelly was the "authentic" American inventor of the Bessemer process, even though no modern historian has found evidence to support the story. Kelly did gain a key U.S. patent on the concept of blowing air through molten iron, and it was among the set of patents that licensed the first dozen or so Bessemer mills in the country. His early experiments in Kentucky were unsuccessful, and his episodic trials at Cambria suggestive at best.

When Cambria established its own Bessemer steel mill in 1871, the fifth successful one in the country, it licensed the set of Bessemer-Kelly patents just like everyone else. An eyewitness from the early Cambria days described Kelly's own converters as "indescribably primitive." The surviving Kelly converter now at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., was made abroad to Bessemer's design.
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