|The Secret of Everyday Things|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|Fascinating conversations with Uncle Paul reveal the mysteries behind the dyeing and weaving of cloth, the lighting and heating of homes, the processing involved in bringing oil, coffee, tea, spices, and other foodstuffs to the table, and the power of water in all its manifestations. Excellent as follow-on to The Story Book of Science. Ages 11-14 |
F all substances iron displays the greatest power of
resistance; and it is this property that makes it the
most useful of all our metals. All sorts of tools are
made of it, and without it our industries would come to
an immediate standstill."
"Yes, I see that iron is very useful," said Jules.
"But perhaps you do not see how useful it is. Reflect a
moment and you will perceive that iron has had
something to do with nearly everything in the house you
live in. And at the very outset, in order that the
house may be built, there is need of stone from the
quarries, where picks and crowbars and chisels and
hammers are in constant use, all these being, as you
know, made of iron or steel. The beams and joists of
the framework come from trees felled by the woodman's
axe; and these timbers are squared and shaped, fitted
and adjusted with the help of various carpenter's
tools, all made of the metal we are considering. Hardly
a single one of our articles of furniture would be
practically possible without this metal: we need the
saw for cutting the log into boards, the plane and the
draw-knife for smoothing the surface, the auger and the
bit for boring the holes that are to receive the wooden
pegs which hold the parts together.
 "Our daily sustenance entails the use of iron in an
almost equal degree: it calls for the spade, the hoe,
and the rake for working the garden which gives us our
vegetables, and the plowshare for the heavy work of the
field which furnishes us with bread.
"In the clothes we wear, too, we are hardly less
dependent upon this indispensable substance. Of it are
made the shears that clip the wool from the sheep's
back, and of it also are made the carding- and
spinning- and weaving-machines that convert the wool
into cloth. Our most delicate fabrics, our ribbons and
laces, require the aid of this metal in their
manufacture; and, finally, is not the needle used in
every stitch that is sewed, the needle so fine and
sharp-pointed that nothing else could take its place?"
"It is plain enough," said Marie, "that iron is of the
utmost importance to us, though we usually give it very
little thought. It is so common that we make no account
of it, in spite of the immense service it renders us."
"I should like to know how iron is obtained," Claire
interposed, "if Uncle Paul will tell us."
"Iron ore," he explained, "is a yellow or reddish stone
of very unpromising appearance, with no resemblance to
the metal so familiar to us. The furnace in which it is
worked is a sort of high tower, swollen toward the
base, tapering at the two ends, and measuring at least
ten meters, sometimes twenty, in height. Through the
upper door or mouth of the furnace is poured coal by
the cart-load, with fragments of ore, and when once
lighted the furnace burns uninterruptedly, day and
night, until the
 masonry succumbs to the intensity of the heat. Workmen
are continually piling on fuel and ore as fast as there
is any subsidence in the burning mass, while other
workmen at the base of the furnace watch the melting of
the ore. Enormous blowing-machines inject a continuous
stream of air into the lower part of the furnace by a
great tube, through which this current passes, not as
a gentle breeze, but as a veritable tornado, raging and
howling with an uproar that is fairly deafening. If one
takes a peep into the furnace from the opening by which
the tube enters a sort of white-hot inferno dazzles the
eye. Here stones melt like butter, and iron, separating
from the impurities mingled with it, falls in glowing
drops into a reservoir or trough at the base of the
furnace. When the trough is full a passage is opened by
the removal of the clay stopper that closed it, and the
liquid metal runs in a fiery stream into channels
prepared for it in the ground.
"The metal thus obtained is impure iron and is known as
cast-iron. It is run into molds to make stoves, grates,
pots, and kettles, chimney-plates, water-pipes, and
countless other objects. Although of great hardness,
cast-iron is brittle: it breaks easily when sharply
"One day," said Emile, "a stove-cover broke into three
pieces just from falling on the floor."
"It is well to bear in mind," his uncle observed, "that
all our cast-iron implements are more or less fragile,
and that it takes but a blow or a fall to break them."
 "Then," remarked Claire, "cast-iron won't do for making
anything that must resist violent shocks—hammers,
"No, cast-iron is worthless for tools that are subject
to rough handling; pure iron alone has the necessary
resisting power. To purify cast-iron and convert it
into wrought-iron, the workers heat it in still another
furnace; and when it has become quite red and soft it
is hammered with a block weighing some thousands of
kilograms, and which is raised by machinery and then
falls with all its weight. At each blow from this
enormous hammer what is not iron escapes from the rest
and runs off in a sweat of fire.
"After this hammering the mass is grasped between two
cylinders, one above the other, turning in opposite
direction. Dragged along by this powerful
wringing-machine and flattened out by the irresistible
pressure, it becomes in a very short time a uniform bar
of iron. Shears next take hold of the bar and cut it up
into pieces of equal length."
"What! Are there shears that can cut iron bars?"
"Yes, my child; in those wonderful factories where
human invention is brought to bear on the working of
iron there are shears that without the least appearance
of effort cut clean through a bar of iron with each
snip, no matter if the bar be as big around as a man's
leg. With our scissors we could not more easily cut a
"But such shears cannot be operated by hand?"
"Nor are the two blades moved at the same time.
 While one of them remains at rest on a support, the
other goes up and down as calmly and noiselessly as you
please, cutting with each downward stroke the bar of
iron offered it by a workman."
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