Hall of Fame Class of 2012

John B. Tytus

John Butler Tytus earned his place in the AMM Steel Hall of Fame for his invention of the first workable wide-strip continuous rolling process for making steel. Tytus was a rising executive at American Rolling Mill Co.—later known as Armco, the forerunner of AK Steel Corp.—when his introduction of the wide-strip continuous rolling mill at the company’s new works at Ashland, Ky., in 1924 revolutionized the manufacturing of steel and gave the industry the ability to serve the fast-growing automobile assembly sector with flat-rolled sheet.

Like many inventors, Tytus took what he had learned as a child and applied it to another industry. Born in Middletown, Ohio, in 1875, Tytus grew up in the pulp and paper industry. His father owned a corrugated box mill in the Miami River Valley, and young Tytus grew up among the papermakers in his father’s mill. He was particularly fascinated with the Fourdrinier paper machine, which was the heart of the family’s mill. Named for the 18th Century Frenchman who invented it, the Fourdrinier has been the mainstay of papermaking since its introduction in the 19th Century. The machine lays down a layer of water and a layer of fiber on a rapidly moving screen that allows much of the water layer to evaporate, then winds the thickened fiber onto a roll.

When Tytus was 14, the family sent him to a preparatory school in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., which prepared him for admission to Yale University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 1897. Tytus returned to Middletown and went to work in the family box mill, but his father died soon after and the mill was sold in order to settle the estate.

Tytus went to work for a bridge builder in nearby Dayton, and worked there until 1904, when he took a position as a spare hand at American Rolling Mill in Middletown. Shortly after Tytus joined American Rolling Mill, the company began a decade-long experiment with making sheet steel for automobile bodies. Henry Ford’s inauguration of the moving assembly line at his plant in Highland Park, Mich., in 1914 put new pressure on steelmakers to provide steel that could be easily fashioned into auto chassis and bodies.

Titus quickly worked his way up the ranks at American Rolling Mill. In 1906, he moved to the company’s facility in nearby Zanesville as superintendent, and three years later moved back to Middletown to help plan and start up the East Side mill. Initially, the East Side operation was slated to house a special department for rolling high-quality sheet. Tytus, who had documented 22 separate steps in which hand labor was needed to make sheet, always remembered how the Fourdrinier machines made paper rolls and he vowed that the job of rolling sheet steel would be automated.

The advent after 1910 of new, larger transformers allowed steel mills and other heavy manufacturers to install motors rated as high as 5,000 horsepower. This quantum leap in electric power availability meant that machinery could be built and installed to roll steel in a continuous strip. However, the onset of World War I delayed Tytus’ idea for installing machinery to automatically roll steel, but when American Rolling Mill president George M. Verity unveiled plans in 1921 to build a new rolling mill at the company’s Ashland Works, he asked Tytus to design the mill with continuous mill equipment. It was a $10-million gamble on the steelmaker’s part, but the potential rewards were correspondingly high: America was to go automobile-crazy in the 1920s, and a steel company that could supply sheet made on a continuous mill stood to make a fortune.

“The biggest job,” Tytus said, “was to get up the nerve to recommend the enormous expenditure required to test the idea. The best-informed men in the industry had by now conceded that what we were trying to do was possible if one had the nerve and the money.”
Construction of the Ashland mill got under way in fall 1922, and more than 100 men from Middletown transferred to Kentucky to help design, build and start up the new mill. The Tytus invention consisted of a series of mills or roll stands in tandem that reduced a 4-inch-thick hot slab from the blooming mill into a thin sheet. Several stands were linked together in a lengthy assembly line that created sheets of steel, not unlike how the Fourdrinier made sheets of paper.

Testing on the new continuous mill began in January 1924, and by February the mill was rolling 9,000 tons of sheet steel per month—the old rolls were equipped to handle just 500 to 600 tons of steel per month—and within three years the Ashland mill was rolling 40,000 tons of sheet steel per month. Iron Age called the continuous mill at Ashland “epoch-making.”

By 1940, steelmakers had spent half a billion dollars to build 26 similar continuous rolling mills in the United States. The cost of high-quality sheet steel—$135 per ton in the early 1920s—dropped to $60. Continuously milled sheet steel helped the United States win World War II and meet the postwar demand boom for automobiles, refrigerators and other consumer durables.

American Rolling Mill showed its appreciation to the English major from Yale by naming Tytus vice president in 1927, and the American Iron and Steel Institute awarded the inventor of the continuous rolling mill the Gary Memorial Award for his landmark contribution to the iron and steel industry.

Tytus died of a heart attack on June 2, 1944, at the age of 68, “the unsung hero of the streamlined age.” 

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