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James Pickering Dovel Essay, Research Paper

James Pickering Dovel

Historians have called Sloss Furnace a perfect example of the New South. The Civil War awakened southern men to the industrial potential of Alabama. It became an arsenal of the Deep South with a significant number of foundries and rolling mills. During Reconstruction and the early Modern Era, a number of prominent southern men wanted to build an Alabama based on industry and commerce. Sloss Furnace represents an embodiment of the spirit and will of the New South. The men who dominated American industry from the 1880s to the 1920s were men that were “larger-than-life” and James Pickering Dovel was one of these men. He is a perfect example of northern expertise brought to Birmingham to build southern industry. He was a self-made, self-educated genius and “a quintessential capitalist that applied genius to making money, but has also become an inspiration to people concerned with environmental issues.” Dovel’s contribution to Birmingham elevated Sloss Furnace to a world prototype in the iron industry and provided a forerunner to waste management and recycling.

James Pickering Dovel was born on December 26, 1868, in Pickering, Ohio, to Virginia native Alexander Hamilton Dovel and Elizabeth Pickering Dovel. He was raised on a family farm and was educated in grammar schools near his farm. He aspired to become a lawyer, but his father’s disabilities at home prompted James to take responsibility of the family at a young age keeping him from attending secondary school. The only additional education he received was a fundamental law course read under the direction of Thomas H. Dolson of Lancaster, Ohio. Dovel married Irea Ora Ricketts at Pickering, Ohio, on September 8, 1891. Six children resulted in their marriage: Joy Ricketts (1894), Glen P. (1897), Drusilla May (1899), James St. Real (1908), and Jack (1912). A business transfer prompted Dovel to move his family to Birmingham, Alabama, where his last two boys were born. In 1922 after being widowed, Dovel married Marie Katherine McLoughlin at Atlanta, Georgia. This union lasted until Dovel’s death in Birmingham on July 30, 1948.

The late 1890’s brought change for the J.P. Dovel family. After difficulties earning a living as a farmer, Dovel was forced to change his occupation to provide for his growing family. This change meant a shift from agriculture to urban industry. The concept of engineering was not alien to J.P. Dovel. At a young age a high degree of mechanical intellect was already apparent. Dovel invented and patented a corn-harvesting machine at 17. This design was still in use for over 60 years after its first production. The first employment of Dovel was at Columbus Steam Boiler and Heater Company. The first job was at Columbus Steam Boiler and Heater Company. It began with a salary of nine dollars a week. Soon after he devised an idea for higher boiler efficiency. After a week on the job, Dovel was promoted to Foreman with increased pay. After employment for two years with the Ohio company, Dovel began a series of fundamental jobs that gave him the training and knowledge of engineering without the classroom experience.

While still in Ohio, Dovel was employed by Hocking Valley Railroad Company as a Superintendent of Structural Shop where he supervised the building of blast furnaces and steel mills. He also worked for Rarig Engineering Company and Jeffrey Manufacturing Company and Portsmouth Foundry and Machine Company in the division of blast furnace construction. Woodward Iron Company of Alabama contracted Portsmouth to build a furnace that Dovel was to supervise. Thus, in 1904 Dovel moved his family south to Birmingham. These jobs primed Dovel for what historians say was the most productive time of his engineering career.

In the following year, Dovel became superintendent of the Birmingham Engineering Company. He began working for Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Company. Dovel contributed to literally everything at the furnace besides the furnaces themselves. Sloss was already an efficient operation; all raw materials needed for iron making were located within a one-mile radius of the foundry. However, these raw materials, such as Warrior coal, were of lower grade than the superior Northern coal of Dovel’s experience. Immediately after starting at SSSIC, Dovel began plans for prolongation of the stacks and the recycling of any resources unused after the initial process. The first of many inventions of Dovel’s was a furnace cooling system. It worked the same way as modern nuclear plants work today in the 21st century. A series of pipes around the stack circulate water to absorb heat in order to prolong the life of the stack’s brick lined inner walls. The water then was pumped through sprinklers to a cooling pond and was sent to 20-foot wooden baffles that also allowed the water to aerate and cool. After the cooling process the water was returned to the water tank high overlooking Birmingham on the premises.

Dovel also invented a system for cleaning the emissions of an iron furnace that actually worked. Although he did this to save money by creating an alternate source of fuel, he inspires us because this fuel was created by what had been waste products. Not only that, he invented a system of washing ore before it was put into the furnace. He also designed a new system of organizing raw materials to feed the furnace through a system of railcars and two levels of tracks.

The first step of cleaning the gas was the trapping it into the furnace. Dovel invented a double trap door where one could load the furnace of coke and iron ore and all other raw materials without loosing valuable unused gas that escaped from the furnace. In the past, there had been many efforts to save and reuse the gas, but the problem existed in the extremely high amounts of dust and pyroplastics in the gas. After the gas was saved it was sent through Dovel’s gas-washing system. After traveling through a system of brushes and water sprays, the dust and particulate could be washed out of the gas. Workers could then easily draw off the mud collected at the bottom of these long vessels.

Using this dust-free gas, Dovel could seal up fireboxes of boilers and produce steam by a continuous jet of burning gas in the firebox. The gas could also be pumped into brick lined stoves called checkers and lit on fire. This fire would superheat the brick lining of the stove. The gas could then be shut off allowing fresh air to be pumped into the boxes. This would superheat the air to 1600 degrees Fahrenheit and diffusion would then force the air into the bottom of the furnace to stoke the fire. This ingenious use of what was a “waste material” from the furnace inspired the furnace to become a major recycler of by-products. Sloss developed over 120 products made from the waste products of the iron making process. J.P. Dovel was the impetus behind the direction of this company.

Although not a native southerner, James Pickering Dovel means as much, if not more, to Birmingham and the world’s iron industry than anyone else. His progressive efforts helped create Alabama as a center of industry and dispelled the nation’s perception of disorder and disarray in the South. Through his ingenious and clever innovations, the life and spirit of Alabama was forever affected. He deserves to be called a hero of Alabama.

by Larry Montgomery

Works Cited

Lewis, W. David. 1994. Sloss Furnaces and the rise of the Birmingham district: an industrial epic. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Neely, Dr. Richard, history professor.

Interview by author, 28 June, 2000, Birmingham.

The Southerner. New Orleans: Southern Editors Association [1944.]

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