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Le Creusot 1
he sky is blue, very blue, and full of sunshine. The train has just passed Montchanin. 2 Over there, in front of us, a black, opaque cloud rises, seeming to rise straight out of the ground, obscuring the bright azure of the day, a heavy, motionless cloud. It’s the smoke from [le] Creusot. As you get nearer, you can discern it. A hundred giant chimneys belching serpents of smoke into the air, smaller ones panting and spitting out vapour breaths; it all merges, spreads out and lingers, covering the town, filling the streets, hiding the sky, extinguishing the sun. It’s almost dark now. A coal dust flies about, pricks the eyes, stains the skin, spatters the linen. The houses are black, like they’ve been rubbed in soot, the paving stones are black, the window panes are powdered with coal dust. The odour from the chimneys, of tar, of oil, floats in the air, contracting the throat, oppressing the chest, and sometimes there’s the bitter taste of iron, of the forges, of burning metal, of burning hell, which stops you breathing and makes you raise your eyes in search of pure air, fresh air, the clean and healthy air of the great firmament; but instead, hovering above is the thick dark cloud, and flashing close by you, tiny facets of coal which fly about. This is le Creusot. A deafening and continuous noise makes the ground tremble, a noise made up of thousands of noises, a noise intermittently broken up by a tremendous blast, a shock that shakes the entire town. We enter the factory of Messrs Schneider. 3 What enchantment! This is the kingdom of Iron, where His Majesty Fire reigns!
The fire! you see it everywhere. Immense buildings aligned as far as the eye can see, as tall as mountains and full of different types of machine that turn, fall, rise up again, cross, shake, whirr, whistle, grate and shout. And all toiling with fire. Here there are braziers, over there jets of flame, further on blocks of burning iron come and go, out of the furnaces and into the gearwheels, coming out and going back in again hundreds of times, changing shape, but always red. The voracious machines eat this fire, this glaring iron, they crush it, cut it, saw it, flatten it, spin it, twist it, make locomotives from it, ships, cannons, thousands of diverse things, some as fine as an artist’s engravings, some like the monstrous works of giants, complicated things, delicate things, brutal things, powerful things. Let’s try to describe it, to understand it. We enter on the right, under a vast gallery where four enormous machines work. They slowly turn their wheels, pistons and rods. What do they do? Nothing, except blow air into the tall furnaces where the molten metal boils. They are the monstrous lungs of the colossal retorts that we are going to see. They breathe, nothing else; they bring to life and assimilate the monsters. And here are the retorts: there are two of them at either end of another gallery, big in girth, paunchy, roaring and spitting such jets of flame that your eyes are blinded and skin burnt from a hundred metres away, and you are made to pant like in a steam room. You could compare it to a furious volcano. The fire which exits the mouth is white, unbearable on the eyes and projected with an indescribable force and noise. Inside there the steel boils, Bessemer steel from which railways are made. 4 A strong, handsome, young and serious man capped in a big black felt hat, attentively watches this frightful blast. He is seated in front of a wheel similar to the wheel of a ship and sometimes he turns it in the same way as pilots do. Immediately the fury of the retort increases, it spits out a storm of flames, this is because the chief caster has just further increased the monstrous currant of air which runs through it. And, still like a captain, the man constantly raises to his eyes a pair of binoculars to check the colour of the fire. He makes a gesture; a tip-truck advances and pours other metals into the raging brazier. The caster continues to observe the nuances in colour of the furious flames, looking for indications, then, suddenly turning another little wheel, he makes the formidable vat rock. It turns over slowly,
spitting out a terrifying jet of sparks as high as the gallery ceiling; and it pours delicately, like an elephant striving to be graceful, a few drops of a blazing liquid into a smelting receptacle held out to it, then it redresses itself, roaring all the while. A man carries this fire away. It is only now that a red ingot is placed under a steam-propelled hammer. The hammer strikes and crushes the burning metal, making it as thin as a sheet of paper, then it is immediately cooled in water. It is seized with a pair of tongs and broken; then the foreman examines the grain before giving the order: ‘Pour it!’ The retort is immediately turned over anew and, like a servant filling up glasses around a table, it pours out a blazing cascade of steel which is carried away at the sides in a series of smelting receptacles placed round about it. It seems to move in a natural way, very simply, as if it was a living being. In order to stir these fantastic engines, to get them to do their work, to get them going, to make them rise, fall, and redress themselves, to make them turn and pivot, all that’s needed is to push levers no thicker than canes, to press buttons like those of electric doorbells. An energy, a strange spirit seems to look down upon them, to govern the weighty yet easy movements of these surprising devices. We leave, faces roasted, eyes bloodshot. Now we come across two brick towers in the open air, too tall to place under a roof. An unbearable heat is released from them. A man, armed with an iron lever, strikes them at the base, making a kind of coating fall away, then he digs more deeply. And soon a glimmer appears, a clear point. Two blows later and a stream, a torrent of fire bursts forth, running into channels dug in the ground, going, coming, always flowing. It’s the cast iron, the molten pig iron. This frightful river takes your breath away, you flee, entering into tall buildings where locomotives, heavy machinery and battleships are made. You can no longer make anything out, you don’t know anything anymore, you lose your head. It’s a labyrinth of moving cranks, wheels, belts and gears. At every step you find yourself in front of some monster working on iron, be it glowing red or dark. Here there are saws which divide up sheets of metal as wide as a body; over there pointed tools bore into blocks of cast iron, piercing them as easily as a needle does cloth; further on another machine cuts out strips of steel like a pair of
scissors cutting a sheet of paper. Everything works at the same time, but with different movements, a fantastic population of disagreeable and rumbling beasts. And everywhere you see fire, under the hammers, in the furnaces, fire everywhere, and everywhere fire. And always a formidable and regular din dominates the tumult of wheels, boilers, anvils, mechanisms of all sorts, making the ground tremble. It is the big [ore-crushing] stamp of [le] Creusot at work. It is at the end of a huge building which contains ten or twelve others. They all beat down periodically on an incandescent block, throwing up a shower of sparks, flattening it little by little, rolling it into a curved or straight or flat shape, according to the will of the men. The big one weighs a hundred thousand kilos and it falls, bearing down like a mountain, upon a piece of red steel still bigger than itself. With each impact a storm of fire gushes out on all sides, and you can see the thickness of this mass that the monster works upon diminishing. It rises and falls ceaselessly with a gracious facility, manipulated by a man who gently pulls upon a fragile lever; and it makes you think of those tales of bygone days which talk of terrifying animals being tamed by children. We enter the gallery of the rolling mills. It is an even stranger spectacle. Red serpents running along the ground, some as thin as pieces of string, some as big as cables. Here they are like immeasurable earthworms, and there like frightful boas. For here iron wires are made, and there rails for trains. Men, their eyes covered by wire gauze, their hands, arms and legs in leather, are forever throwing pieces of burning iron into the mouths of machines. The machine seizes it, pulls it, lengthens it, pulls it some more, releases it, takes it up again, always thinning it out. The iron twists around like a wounded snake, seeming to fight, but it yields, it is lengthened some more, always getting longer as it is released and taken up again by the steel jaws. Here are the rails. Powerless to resist, the reddened, opaque and squared mass of Bessemer is stretched out by the efforts of the mechanics and, in a few seconds, becomes a rail. A gigantic saw cuts it down to its right length and others endlessly follow after it, nothing stops or slows down the formidable work. Finally, we leave, we have ourselves become blackened like stokers, exhausted, our sight extinguished. And above our heads stretches out the thick cloud of carbon and the smoke which rises up to the heights of the sky.
Oh! for some flowers, a meadow, a stream and some grass where you can lie down without thought and without another noise about you save the babbling of the water or the crow of a cock in the distance!
Notes Appendix Index
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