The story of nickel is industrial romance writ by man in metal – by Charles Vincent (MACLEAN’S MAGAZINE – December 15, 1936)

THE CONSTRUCTION gang foreman looked down the cut where his crew was tackling the tough rock with heavy picks, getting ready to blast. The track layers were right on his heels, pushing the new Canadian Pacific Railway westward to bridge the continent. The foreman’s eye fell on one man.

“Hey, you !” he roared, “what’re ye standin’ there gapin’ at? Get busy with that pick.”

“Well, take a look at this slab of rock, boss; it’s kind of queer.” And so in 1883 nickel was uncovered at Sudbury.

It was a product that nobody wanted. When the first smelting yielded a metal which was curiously pale instead of copper red, and when analysis showed that this fault was due to the presence of nickel, men cursed it as a plague which they neither knew how to get rid of nor how to use in such large quantities. It was the copper content of the Sudbury ore on which they had set their hopes.

The new find seemed worthless. This year, 1936, that find put $37,000,000 into Canadian pockets. To 20.000 people in and around Sudbury it gives a direct livelihood.

To tens of thousands throughout the Dominion it means income. Even if you never saw or used an ounce of it, nickel would still have a close relation to your welfare because of the money it circulates. The buying power it creates is about $20,000,000 a year.

For the International Nickel Company, in addition to the $15,800,000 it spent this year on wages, paid out $12,500,000 for coal, lumber and other supplies, and $8,700,000 on freight, power and dividends.

In ten years it has spent more than $200,000,000. Spent it in Canada. It has developed the richest mine in the world—the Frood, containing at least 135 million tons of proven ore —enough to supply the whole world.

Nickel is one of the most important items in Canadian affairs today. Its story is one Canadians should know, for it is a story of enterprise and courage.

FIFTEEN years or so ago, at the end of the war, the nickel business was in a state of collapse, and many people thought it was finished. It is only within the past few years that the victory has been won to transform nickel from a war material to a domestic commodity of universal usefulness.

Today nickel is a world industry, weaving its lustrous pattern across the seven seas to the farthest comers of the earth. It is a sober statement of fact that there is now scarcely a phase of man’s work and manner of living which is not affected, directly or indirectly, by this shining metal from the drab rock of Sudbury hillsides.

Consider, for example, some of the things you see and use every day—your automobile, telephone, radio. Nickel, in various forms, is a vital part of each of these. In your automobile it supplies not only the flashing trim which distinguishes the modern car, but also provides the strength and durability of many mechanical parts which now permit high speed with safety and economy. To your telephone and to your radio, nickel alloys in recent years have given new clarity and better performance.

Almost every minute of the day, without leaving your house, you are relying on nickel—in the elements of the electric toaster, coffee percolator, stove and iron, and in most things that are chrome-plated.

Your milk and cream were pasteurized, and fruit, vegetables and food were stored, manufactured and delivered by equipment in which nickel figures. Your kitchen and household appliances have been modernized by its use.

Even your clothes retain their subtle shades of color because nickel alloys supplied the dyer and cleaner with containers which resist corrosion.

And when you go downtown, of course, there is nickel on every side of you—in the revolving doors and elevators and showcases of the shops you visit, at restaurant and soda fountain, in the teller’s wicket of your bank, in barber shop and beauty parlor.

You enter a great office building or a new hotel and you see nickel gleaming from architectural detail of walls and entrance grill. You pass a hospital which relies on nickel in many forms for the cleanliness apd durability of dozens of appliances in operating rooms, laboratories, kitchens and patients’ wards. You go to a movie and you are entertained by color pictures whose development was made possible by nickel alloys.

When you travel by train you will be pulled by a locomotive which probably has nickel in its mighty boiler, and in its moving parts where the stress is most severe. If you go by highway bus, it will be nickel which will give you a safe speedy trip, for the automotive industry is now by far nickel’s largest customer. And if you venture into the air, it will be in an airplane to which nickel alloys have been a boon in providing an engine and structure of maximum strength with minimum weight.

We must not, of course, suppose that nickel performs this wide variety of jobs by itself. Its great usefulness lies in its ability to alloy or combine with other metals, and here we come to some of the disguises which have hidden nickel from most people’s observation.

Apart from pure nickel, which has a number of uses, we can divide the forms of nickel into two great classes: First, the alloys or combinations of nickel with steel or iron, which are called the ferrous group; second, the alloys of nickel with copper, chromium, aluminum, zinc, and miscellaneous metals such as manganese, molybdenum, cobalt and gold, which are called the non-ferrous group.

The alloys themselves are capable of combination, and we run into such metallurgical cocktails as nickel-copper-chromium-cast-iron and nickel-chromium-molybdenum-steel. It is, therefore, not very surprising to find nickel masquerading under all sorts of names and aliases. Monel metal, an alloy of nickel and copper, is probably a pretty familiar name, but there are a thousand or two trade named nickel alloys which most of us would never recognize as representing nickel. Here are just a few of the simpler ones by way of example: Inconel, Invar, Permalloy, Elvinar, Timang, Cronite, Fehralloy.

Except for the complexity of these trade names, however, the various steps of the nickel industry are not difficult to follow. The International Nickel Company of Canada, from its mines, smelter and refineries at Sudbury, and refinery at Port Colbome, Ontario, produces the pure nickel and the nickel-copper alloys which may be regarded as the raw products of the industry.

The company sells these raw products to what may be called the intermediate consumers, who manufacture the great variety of other alloys. In Canada and the United States alone, there are something like 3,000 companies of this kind, chiefly steelmakers and iron foundries which have found in nickel the shining tool of a new industrial age.

These intermediate companies produce more than sixty varieties of nickel steels, nickel iron alloys, nickel cast iron and all the other members of the nickel family, which are then purchased by manufacturers of machinery and equipment—tire real consumers of the nickel industry. There are about 10,000 such manufacturers in Canada and the United States, and many thousands more throughout the world. They manufacture gears, laundry machines, automobile bumpers, radio tubes, aircraft engines, boilers, and all the other hundreds of products of which nickel is an ingredient.

The 1918 Collapse

I HAVE said that the nickel industry nearly died at its birth. A future for it depended on (a) discovery of an effective method of separating the copper and nickel, and (b) devising of new uses for the product and creation of a sufficient market.

Fifty-one years ago, that twin trouble seemed unconquerable. But the pioneers in the industry had courage and persistence. The metallurgical riddle of separation was answered when Colonel R. M. Thompson adopted the ingenious Orford Process, which is still in use today. The necessary market was found when experiments showed that an alloy of nickel and steel was much stronger than steel alone, and nickel-steel came into immediate demand to make armor plate for the navies of the world.

These two achievements gave the nickel industry its start, but it was a start along a single-track course, which was later to bring it again close to disaster. Its activity from 1886 to 1918 was based chiefly on demand from armament makers. With such a market, the industry had no stimulus to explore other possibilities; it was driven to no research or selling effort; its existence was dependent upon the one class of customer.

The reality of this was made sharply apparent by the Great War and its aftermath. When war broke in 1914, nickel suddenly came into urgent demand. Its possession was highly advantageous to the allied nations, and every available pound from the Sudbury district mines was commandeered. Production became a matter of national importance, and facilities for smelting and refining were expanded as fast as plants could be built. By the end of the war, Canadian production had reached a rate of 43,000 tons per year. In 1913, total production here had been only 25,000 tons.

Then came the collapse. With the armistice in November, 1918, the urgent demand—to meet which, the industry had been so enormously expanded—disappeared as quickly as it had arisen, and there was no domestic demand to take its place. By 1920, world consumption was actually back to its 1900 level. Once again, nickel was the metal that nobody wanted. The situation of the industry was quite as desperate as that faced by the men of 1883; it was, in fact, more desperate, for this time there were in jeopardy the employment of thousands of men and an investment of many millions in plant and equipment.

Of two possible courses, which would the industry follow? Would it remain as a satellite of Mars, or would it hitch its wagon to a new star? In the midst of post-war depression, with operating losses steadily mounting, the choice was not easy.

There were at that time two big producers in the industry: The International Nickel Company and the Mond Nickel Company. Upon International Nickel, as the leader, fell the chief responsibility, and the die was cast by Robert C. Stanley who became president of that company in 1922.

Mr. Stanley chose the second course. He decided that the industry must be reborn. He determined upon a bold program for his company, consisting of simultaneous efforts in three directions: First, organized research to develop new uses for nickel in the industries of peace; second, organized marketing to sell these new uses; third, rehabilitation of properties and plant to produce nickel in the required forms at minimum cost.

This program was later supplemented by corporate consolidation. At the beginning of 1929, the International Nickel Company and the Mond Nickel Company joined forces as The International Nickel Company of Canada, Limited, with majority ownership in Canada and Great Britain. This gave the industry co-ordination of management and policy in one great enterprise which now represents Canada throughout the world, normally producing and supplying the preponderant part of the world’s total consumption.

The first steps taken to carry out International Nickel’s 1922 program were the construction of experimental laboratories and the organization of a Development and Research Department. In this department Mr. Stanley gathered together the best men who could be found in various fields—the recognized leaders in metallurgy and chemistry, in iron and steel, in automotive and aircraft engineering. One expert, for example, was put in charge of Alloy Steel Development; another worked specially with the automobile industry; another was responsible for developing uses of nickel for the oil, gas and coke industries; another was given direction of a Household Division, exploring domestic uses.

No corner of the world has been too remote, no branch of industry too insignificant for this department to investigate as having a possible use for nickel. Nickel research men went to work not only with the great electrical and automobile companies but with foundry bosses and shop foremen, to carry the story of their discoveries into practical demonstrations. In countless places, wherever better materials might lie needed, these men lent their knowledge and experience to show how nickel could supply new efficiency.

The time was ripe for this. Throughout the industrial world there was an intensification of engineering activity, stimulated by the war years. Industry was looking for better materials, and responded with enthusiasm to the efforts in nickel research. In the experimental laboratories of many great enterprises—automotive, telephone, radio, electrical—men were constantly striving to find in nickel and its alloys the means of improving their products and services. The development which has taken place has thus been the work of the consumers as well as the producers of nickel. New uses have led to new demands and urged research to new achievement.

On the heels of the research workers came a sales and marketing organization which has carried the new message of nickel across the world. Technical publications describing the results of research have been distributed to possible consumers in increasing quantities. Information bureaus and selling agencies have been established in more than twenty different countries.

Persistent advertising and demonstrations have told the story to the public. The third part of the 1922 program—rehabilitation of plant and equipment—has been carried out on a huge scale. This has included the opening of the great Frood mine, one of the richest treasure chests on earth, and the construction or improvement of smelter, refineries, rolling mills, power plants and other properties.

The main work was begun in 1924, and completed in 1931 at a cost of over $52,000,000, all of which International Nickel financed without borrowing. This year further additions to plant and equipment have been made, expenditures amounting to $12,000,000.

An astounding development has resulted.

How Nickel Is Mined

WHEN International Nickel began the great program of development laid down in 1922, production of nickel had fallen from the war-time peak of 52,000 tons a year to a low of 9,000 tons in 1922. By 1925 the new industrial and domestic uses had brought it back to 41,000 tons and by 1929 it had climbed to a new high mark of 68,000 tons. In 1933, the fourth year of depression, it was still at 48,000 tons. Last year world consumption reached 80,000, and the early months of 1936 showed a substantial rate of increase.

In eight months of this year, January to August inclusive, International Nickel exported nickel to the value of $27,764,410. In any such year the amount of ore mined would make a pile 1,000 feet high, 450 feet in diameter at the base, and weighing 3,382,000 tons. And now what about the ore itself? How is it taken from the ground, smelted and refined?

The mines, of course, are the heart of the industry. There are five of them—the Frood, Creighton, Garson, Levack and Stobie, all in the district around Sudbury, Ontario.

Processing of the ore is done in two smelters, one at Copper Cliff and one at Coniston, close to the mines; and in four refineries, one near Copper Cliff, one at Port Colborne, Ontario, one at Acton, England, and one at Clydach, Wales.

The five mines contain proven bodies of ore amounting to more than 200 million tons. The Frood is the richest mine in the world, and a marvel of efficiency, with its three great shafts, its million-dollar ventilating and lighting system, its miles of electric railway half a mile and more below the surface.

Twenty-eight hundred feet down, a vast, vaulted engine room, filled with quietly humming machinery of Gargantuan proportions. Well-lighted, pleasantly aired subway arteries, miles long. Electric engines pulling long trains of ore-laden cars.

Up innumerable ladders and passages to the ore body. It is easily distinguishable as it slants down to unknown depth through the surrounding rock in a giant slice, eighty to 500 feet thick and several thousand feet long. The miners cut into the ore in small sections called stopes. which are something like the cells of a honeycomb.

As the ore is removed, the emptied stopes are filled up with ordinary rock to prevent cave-in. In a stope, the miners bore holes several feet into the ore by compressed air drills, fill the holes with dynamite and fire the dynamite by electricity. The chunks of ore are then broken underground into six-inch bits, hoisted to the surface, loaded into airs, and sent by rail to the concentrator and smelter, a few miles away.

The ore as it comes from the mine is a mixture of nickel, copper, iron, sulphur and barren rock, with a small percentage of gold, silver and platinum metals. The concentrator, smelter and the different refineries have the job of getting rid of the iron, sulphur and barren rock and delivering pure nickel, with by-products of pure copper and the precious metals.

Smelters and concentrators do the first part of the work. Acres of towering buildings. Incredible miracles being performed before the eyes by separators. Vast furnaces, tipping their rivers of molten metal. Giant pots like inverted hives, swinging through the air, gently bumping out tons of nearly pure nickel and copper, splitting the one from the other as the merged mass touches ground.

More acres of clean, quiet buildings wherein function a series of mechanical, chemical, metallurgical and electrolytical ingenuities which no layman can expect to understand, which no lay writer can hope to explain.

With its present plants and current additions, and its average run of ore, International Nickel Company is capable of producing 200 million pounds of pure nickel a year. In doing so, it would also produce as by-products, about 240 million pounds of copper (making it the largest of the Canadian copper producers), 40,000 ounces of gold, 300,000 ounces of the platinum metals, and a million and a half ounces of silver. The by-products are important, but nickel is king and practically all of its production now takes place in Ontario, at Copper Cliff and Port Colborne.

So much for the first parts of the nickel industry—getting the ore out of the ground and making it ready for use. The third part is selling it.

Huge Export Sales

WHEN WE come to sales we must realize that Canada—in spite of the new uses of nickel we find wherever we go —actually consumes only about 1.3 per cent of the nickel produced. For more than ninety-eight per cent of our nickel, we are obliged to find export markets. The two big markets—buying seventy per cent of that export—are the United States and Great Britain.

In these markets, as in all countries, there are two general classes of nickel consumers. The first class consists chiefly of steelmakers and iron foundry men, who produce the sixty or more varieties of nickel alloys developed during the last few years—nickel in combination with steel, with iron, with cast iron and with non-ferrous metals such as copper, chromium, manganese and molybdenum.

The second class consists of manufacturers of machinery and equipment of all kinds. They buy these various alloys to make everything from automobile parts and locomotive boilers to kitchen sinks and radio tubes.

Steelmakers and foundry men are the initial buyers of nickel; manufacturers and engineers are the ultimate consumers; and all of them are customers or potential customers of the International Nickel Company. They total many thousands, not only in Great Britain and the United States but throughout the world, and the selling job is to keep in touch with them, experiment with them in engineering and metallurgy, inform them of latest discoveries—sell them nickel.

We find International Nickel rolling mills, foundries and laboratories in Great Britain and the United States, to maintain close contact with the thousands of large consumers in these countries in order that the nickel which smelter and refinery have produced may be marketed in the most suitable forms. And, supplementing these, we find information bureaus and sales agencies dotting the map of the world. To our list of mines, smelters, refineries and power plants we now can add:

  • Rolling Mills—in Great Britain at Birmingham and Glasgow; in the United States at Huntingdon, West Virginia.
  • Foundries—at Bayonne, New Jersey.
  • Laboratories—at Copper Cliff, Ont., Birmingham, England, and Bayonne, New Jersey.
  • Information Bureaus -— in Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan and United States.
  • Sales Agencies—throughout the world, in twenty-four different countries.

The selling of nickel is thus an infinitely broader activity than the mere taking of orders for tonnage. It includes research into new uses, development of their practical application, and an immense educational effort.

In these three parts of the nickel business—mining, processing and marketing—we have a great panorama of industrial endeavor. Men half a mile beneath the Sudbury hillside handling the drills and mucking the ore; workers in the refinery at Port Colborne tending their whispering acres of electrolytic tanks; metallurgists in the laboratories at Birmingham and Bayonne bending over test tube and chart; engineers and sales agents in Italy or Australia or Japan—here we have a vast industrial team, united in purpose, co-ordinated in effort. Here we have effective fulfillment of one of the rich bounties which nature has bestowed upon us.

Majority Ownership

IT IS FITTING and fortunate that majority ownership of this enterprise rests within the British Empire. A tabulation of International Nickel shareholders and shares on March 1, 1936, showed that of the shareholders 35.2 per cent lived in Canada and 20 per cent in Great Britain, a total of 55.2 per cent. United States shareholders totalled 43 per cent, and residents of other countries constituted 1.8 per cent.

Of the total shares outstanding, 19.4 per cent were owned in Canada and 34.2 per cent in Great Britain, a total of 53.6 per cent; while 42.9 per cent were held in the j United States and 3.5 per cent in other countries.

It is not only in ownership, however, that Canada benefits by her nickel industry. In the first place, nickel is a factor of great importance in Canada’s balance of trade and offers an effective means of negotiating new markets for other products. In the second place, nickel means cash in Canadian pockets—millions of cash each year—not only through corporate ownership of the industry but, to even greater extent, by indirect returns such as wages, purchase of supplies, and taxes.

Nickel is an important factor in Canada’s foreign trade because virtually the whole business of this tremendous industry is export. Wheat and newsprint have long ranked as two of our principal export commodities; we export about seventy per cent of our wheat and about ninety per cent of our newsprint—but of our nickel we export more than ninety-eight per cent.

In 1929 Canada sold to foreign customers about $25,535,684 worth of nickel and its products. Even in 1933, the fourth year of depression, our foreign sales totaled some $22,795.968. During the first eight months of this year, $27,764,410 worth of nickel was exported.

The cash which the nickel industry pays to Canadians each year comes in various forms—wages and salaries, purchases of supplies, stock dividends and taxes. Their extent varies with the tide of business in different years, but an idea of their average annual total may be obtained from the fact that in the eight years from the beginning of 1928 to the end of 1935 International Nickel paid approximately $200,000,000 to Canadian employees, shareholders, railways, power companies and supply firms, and additional millions in Canadian taxes. And 99.5 per cent of all these payments as indicated by the export figures above, is obtained from foreign customers.

By the end of 1936, the company will have spent this year, in Canada, $15,800,000 for labor and salaries; $12,500,000 for materials; $8,700,000on freight, power and dividends. It will have used more than 350,000 tons of Canadian coal; 53,000,000 feet of Canadian lumber. In the timber item alone there is a year’s steady employment for 1,000 men in lumber camps. As a taxpayer, International Nickel is an important contributor to Canadian revenues.

As vast and far-flung an organization as it is, the International Nickel Company has a heart. Wherever there are mining workers there are agitators, but among the 9,000 employees in the Sudbury area and among the thousands elsewhere there are few malcontents. The management is interested in the welfare of employees of all ranks.

It maintains a school for budding miners, wherein the youth of the community can learn the trade and how to safeguard itself against accident. Hockey and curling rinks, a gymnasium, a community club, etc., are provided by the company so that good health and spirits may be encouraged.

For ill-health and injury there are hospitals and a large corps of doctors. Group insurance and a retirement pension scheme are also in effect. All this is what nickel means to Canada.


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