steel industry, the business of processing iron ore into steel, which in its simplest form is an iron-carbon alloy, and in some cases, turning that metal into partially finished products or recycling scrap metal into steel. The steel industry grew out of the need for stronger and more easily produced metals. Technological advances in steelmaking during the last half of the 19th cent. played a key role in creating modern economies dependent on rails, automobiles, girders, bridges, and a variety of other steel products.
Iron working can be traced as far back as 3,500 B.C. in Armenia. The Bessemer process, created independently by Henry Bessemer in England and William Kelly in the United States during the 1850s, allowed the mass production of low-cost steel; the open-hearth process, first introduced in the United States in 1888, made it easier to use domestic iron ores. By the 1880s, the growing demand for steel rails made the United States the world's largest producer. The open-hearth process dominated the steel industry between 1910 and 1960, when it converted to the basic-oxygen process, which produces steel faster, and the electric-arc furnace process, which makes it easier to produce alloys such as stainless steel and to recycle scrap steel.
After World War II, the U.S. steel industry faced increased competition from Japanese and European producers, who rebuilt and modernized their industries. Later, many Third World countries, such as Brazil, built their own steel industries, and large U.S. steelmakers faced increased competition from smaller, nonunion mills ("mini-mills") that recycle scrap steel. The U.S. produced about half of the world's steel in 1945; in 1999 it was the second largest producer, with 12% of the world market, behind China and ahead of Japan and Russia.
Since the 1970s, growing competition and the increasing availability of alternative materials, such as plastic, slowed steel industry growth; employment in the U.S. steel industry dropped from 2.5 million in 1974 to to less than a million in 1998. Global production stood at 773 million tons in 1997, down from 786 million tons in 1988. U.S. steel production has remained constant since the 1970s at about 100 million tons, but 50% of that total is now produced by mini-mill companies. An increase in U.S. demand during the 1990s was largely met by imports, which now account for from about a fifth to a quarter of all steel used annually in the United States. The old-line U.S. steelmakers, losing market share and with higher wage, health, and retirement costs, experienced a string of bankruptcies beginning in the late 1990s, leading to industry and union pressure for protective tariffs, which were imposed by President George W. Bush in 2002 on most steel from non-NAFTA industrialized nations. Later reduced, the tariffs were found in 2003 to be illegal under World Trade Organization rules, and President Bush reversed the tariffs.
See W. Hogan, The Economic History of Iron and Steel in the United States (4 vol., 1971); R. Hudson, The International Steel Industry (1989); C. Moore, Steelmaking (1991); R. S. Ahlbrandt, R. J. Fruehan, and F. Gairratani, The Renaissance of American Steel (1996).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.