The Many Applications of Cast Iron – Part Two: Structures

In our most recent post concerning cast iron, we looked at its many uses in a home and farm setting. Cast iron remains the best option in a number of everyday uses from skillets, to wood-burning stoves, to cast iron hand-operated water pumps. However, these are not the types of uses people associated with the iron being cast at a large scale iron foundry like Faircast. When people think of a foundry, they are typically thinking of larger, industrial uses, or uses in machinery, and architecture.  They also think of structural cast iron applications.

Perhaps the most common use of cast iron is the humble pipe. Whether moving water, oil, or gases of various kinds, the cast iron pipe has played an integral part in the infrastructure of civilization since the Industrial Revolution. Cast iron pipes remain versatile enough to be found in a modern factory and durable enough to still be fulfilling their purpose for over three hundred years. The latter is exemplified in the exotic fountains of Versailles, France. The visible fountains may be in the form of Greek gods like Neptune and Apollo, or a roaring dragon, or beautifully intricate patterns. Beneath the surface though, these works of art are fed by simple cast iron piping.

In a factory, or in various machines that make use of cast iron the flow of fluid, whether coolant, lubricants, or fluids with other purposes, the flow needs to be regulated. As such, iron foundries may produce cast iron for valves of various kinds, from butterfly and gate valves for the simple starting and stopping of flow to ball and globe valves that allow for throttling the flow to the desired rate. Cast iron provides more than sufficient stability for fluids under pressures as high as 250psi. This, as well as its longevity and relatively low cost compared to other materials, are what have made cast-iron a go-to solution for moving fluids since it was first invented.

Iron has also been used in structures of many kinds. People first started to use cast iron in structures in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Among the first structural applications was in bridges. As early as 1779 The Iron Bridge was completed in Coalbrookdale, England by Abraham Darby III. England, in fact, was an early adopter of the cast-iron bridge and even today many can be found across the English landscape.

Other structural uses of cast iron, of course, include the venerable iron beam and iron girder. Prior to the use of cast iron, most buildings were made either of timber, brick, or stone. The latter two are harder to shape and adapt to different purposes and timber of course burns. Cast iron supports allowed for easy to make, shape, and transport customized materials that wouldn’t burn. There could still be plenty of wood throughout a building but the presence of iron supports meant that even if the wood caught fire it was far less likely that the entire building would come down.

In the United States, one of the cities that still bears the marks of the early popularity of cast iron’s use as a building material is Philadelphia. The USA was just beginning to come into its own at the advent of the Industrial Revolution and Philly, like the young nation’s other cities, grew and developed along with it. As a port city, Philadelphia was a major center for commerce and manufacturing. That meant the merchants and manufacturers there needed large buildings capable of supporting massive amounts of equipment and well as innovative (at the time) features such as large glass windows that would show both new products and the manufacturing process. Cast iron supports were found to be ideal for these tasks. As such, buildings making extensive use of cast iron for structural applications sprung up everywhere in the port town.

Structural applications of cast iron spread around the country from there, often literally. Given the local demand, it made sense that Philly would develop its own iron foundries. Those foundries provided structural cast iron for buildings as far away as New Orleans. They even produced a lighthouse made of cast iron that was shipped all the way to Florida.

As you can see, cast iron has many and often unexpected uses, which will keep iron foundries like Faircast busy for years to come. In part three of our series on the various uses of cast iron, we’ll move from the practical to the stylistic, focusing on the metal’s many decorative applications.

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