Abstract: A Techno-Political-Economic-Legal-Environmental History of the Taconite Industry

Jeffrey T. Manuel


The taconite industry is an elaborate complex of mining, shipping, and processing facilities that turn a flint-like rock into iron-rich pellets used as inputs for the iron and steel industry. The industry emerged in the mid-twentieth century and replaced the older "natural" iron ore mining operations in the Lake Superior iron-mining district. Focusing on Edward W. Davis, an engineer who coordinated early taconite research, and the Reserve Mining Company, a joint venture that produced taconite for Armco and Republic Steel from the 1950s to the 1980s, this paper argues that the physical principle of magnetism and an argument about the rapid depletion of natural iron ore were essential to Davis's innovations and the development of the Reserve Mining Company. Additionally, the central role of magnetism and the ore depletion argument in Reserve Mining's development led to unusual consequences, including the decline of natural ore operations and a shift away from mining in areas near non-magnetic ore bodies. Focusing on these essential but often overlooked elements within the history of one firm, this paper considers how material objects, physical properties, and ideas are enlisted during the innovation process and offers an example of how materials and ideas can shape industrial development.