Well, it wouldn't be the dumbest thing Pittsburgh ever did for its sports teams: That distinction goes to the construction of Heinz Field. And obviously, without a tough-sounding name, Pittsburgh's local football team might get a reputation as a squad without the ability to defend the run or protect the quarterback.
Come to think of it, maybe "Ironers" wouldn't be such a bad name after all.
Of course, even if Pittsburgh was still an "iron city" when the Steelers were named (in a 1940 contest designed to inspire fan interest), they'd probably have been called the Puddlers. That name doesn't exactly inspire fear in the hearts of opposing defenses either, I suppose, but it's more precise.
Before I continue, a brief lesson in metallurgy for New Economy types. In nature, iron usually appears in combination with oxygen (rust, in a sense, is iron's natural state) and other impurities called silicas. When the ore is smelted, the oxygen is burned off at temperatures above 800 degrees, leaving mostly iron behind. Usually, the iron has to be hammered and heated to get rid of impurities, but once that is done you have what's known as "wrought iron" -- a metal that is malleable at high temperatures, but very strong when cold. Wrought iron can be made into horseshoes, fence railing, Rick Santorum's brainpan -- anything that needs to be hard, dense and unyielding.
Often the metal was "puddled" -- put into furnaces where puddlers would manipulate gobs of the stuff with long rods called "rambles" poking into the oven. Carefully ignoring the Freudian implications of what they were doing, puddlers would heat the iron through until it was pure enough to be worked by blacksmiths.
Steel, by contrast, is a more refined form of iron requiring temperatures three times higher than those used to make iron: "Pig iron" -- so named because the molds it used to be poured into reminded someone of pigs -- would be poured into yet another furnace. There, even more impurities were burned out, making the metal both stronger and less brittle. Other metals could be added in to give the metal different properties.
Pittsburgh's iron industry got off to a rocky start. The first blast furnace, which converts iron ore into iron, was established by one George Anschutz in what was later known as Shadyside back in 1793. But Anschutz went out of business in a single year, and not even because of rents on Walnut Street: There simply wasn't enough good high-quality iron ore nearby to serve local customers, and no means of shipping iron cheaply.
Still as the city grew, ironworking became a bustling Pittsburgh business: The city's key location at the headwaters of the Ohio made it a natural place for frontiersfolk to buy goods before venturing into the wild, and its access to the rivers made shipping ore easy. Within a decade of Anschutz's failure, the city had a burgeoning crop of ironworks. As early as 1816, visitors were writing that "a hovering cloud of vapor obscures the view." But up until the 1870s, writes historian Leland Baldwin, "Pittsburgh's role was that of ironworker and ironmonger." Pittsburgh earned its reputation as "Hell with the lid taken off" in 1868 -- but while we associate the famous description with steel making, it actually predates the steel industry by several years.
The guy we have to thank for that industry, of course, is Andrew Carnegie, along with his business associates.
Carnegie got his start in the iron business, building bridges and rails for the train tracks that were spreading across the country. But on an 1872 trip to England, he saw the Bessemer steel-making process, which could convert several tons of pig iron to steel in less than half an hour. Steel was less prone to wear and tear -- a steel rail lasted a dozen times as long as an iron rail -- and the cheap Bessemer process stood to make Carnegie a mint. The following year, he began work on what would be known as the Edgar Thomson Works, named after an officer of Carnegie's biggest client, the Pennsylvania Railroad. (Carnegie knew as much about sucking up as he did about steel.)
Later, Bessemers would be partially supplanted by open-hearth furnaces, which took longer to make steel but, unlike the Bessemers, could accept ore of widely varying quality.
Pittsburgh didn't exactly pioneer the new technologies. As Sara Killikelly wrote in History of Pittsburgh, "Ten years after its introduction into the United States, the Bessemer process of steel making was introduced into the Pittsburgh District." As the old saying goes, everything comes to Pittsburgh 10 years late -- even the steel industry that made us famous. But our ready access to hot-burning coal helped us make up for lost time. By 1902, the city was making one-third of the country's open-hearth steel. In just 30 years, the city had undergone a searing conversion of its own -- from the Iron City to the Steel City.
Our football team, however, continues to disappoint.