Metal Bulletin Centenary: The birth of Metal Bulletin

This first part in ten decade-long episodes in the life of Metal Bulletin is a short one – 1913-1919.

This first part in ten decade-long episodes in the life of Metal Bulletin is a short one – 1913-1919.

But since this encompasses the First World War (WWI), it is justifiable. Looking back at the start of the period from today, some major mental adjustments need to be made.

It was a smaller, simpler world then, with most of the major metals coming from fewer countries and with fewer end-uses (lead is an exception). On the other hand, many of the combinations that led to the giant corporations of today has yet to take place, so the number of names to make the news was proportionally larger. There was no commerce in many of today’s minor metals.

At the start of the period, most steel in the UK was made by the open-hearth method, while the continent favoured the Thomas process; aluminium had not overtaken copper in the tonnage of world production; more than half the countries that today make up world production of most of the major metals were not yet producing; Europe was a jigsaw of fiercely independent states; in the absence of appropriate legislation, cartels were rife; Russia and China were, to a large extent, self-contained empires; and the tensions that led to the WWI had only begun fermenting a couple of years previously.

On the world stage, the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 after years of struggle with the terrain and tropical diseases and the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 were major events.

Wars always accelerate technical development, and WWI was no exception. The quest for higher-performing steels boosted consumption of many alloying elements, especially nickel, while the need for greater productivity in machining spawned a new family of tool steels.

Brass was the principal metal for cartridge and shell casings. A lot of these were lost, but very many more were recycled or recovered as scrap, especially after hostilities ended. Contrary to what might be expected today, aerial combat produced only modest demand for aluminium, as the crankcases of the aero engines; wings and fuselages consisted of fabric stretched over wooden frameworks.

The birth of Metal Bulletin
In early 1913, a somewhat irascible journalist called Lawrence Howard Quin was working for the Ironmonger magazine in London. He covered metal prices as they interested that title, which is to say UK wholesale prices of items like galvanized sheets, zinc sheets, copper tubes and brass strip. He went to his editor to suggest he branch out into covering events and prices in the worldwide metal markets, most obviously the London Metal Exchange.

His editor was not interested, so despite being in his forties with two teenage daughters at home, he resigned to set up on his own with a new newsletter covering this field. Nevertheless, for quite a few years, some reports were still parochial. Pig iron prices were largely based on material from Cleveland in northeast England, while steel scrap reports were routinely limited to the Lancashire and South Wales markets.

The four LME metals – copper, tin, lead and zinc – were the backbone of the non-ferrous coverage. Minor metals and ferro-alloys were covered, but aluminium, nickel and non-ferrous scrap very little. Steel reports featured tinplate, galvanized sheets, pig iron, semis and scrap.

Quin had a handicap in the form of a contract of employment barring him from writing for a journal competing with the Ironmonger for two years after leaving. So, on May 8, 1913, he started a subscription newsletter, Quin’s Metal Market Letters, of four pages once a week (moving to twice-weekly on the outbreak of war in August 1914).

With the establishment of the Gestetner cyclograph factory in London in 1906, it was natural for the Letters to be produced by typing on a Gestetner stencil. By 1914, he was able also to produce the first edition of the annual ‘Quin’s Metal Handbook and Statistics’, an advertisement-bearing title which continued unchanged in pocket book format for the next 51 years. At 3/- (about £12.65 [$20.3] today) it was good value.

As soon as his period of purdah was over, he launched The Metal Bulletin as an advertisement-carrying twice-weekly journal, appearing on Tuesdays and Fridays. However, the first advertisements did not appear until August. A year’s subscription was two guineas (£2.2s.0d. or £2.10) in the UK and three guineas overseas.

At this time, he was a one-man editor and business manager, though Arthur Cohen was listed as publisher. The corporate identity of the business was The Metal Information Bureau Ltd. Metal prices in the UK in WWI were officially government-controlled, but LME trading continued apart from the first couple of months of the war.

The first year in the life of the new business was tough, and the second was tougher. Although there was a positive result for the year, it was all taken in a special tax, which decreed any increase in profit in the first year of the 1914-18 war to be excess wartime profits, regardless of whether the business was a start-up.

This “excess profits tax” continued until well after the end of the war. To rub salt in the wound, Quin was, like his successors in the Second World War (WWII), consulted by the government and the armed services on metal issues affecting the conduct of the war, without there being any suggestion he was paid for this.

At one time Quin drafted in his elder daughter to type subscribers’ envelopes, a grinding twice-weekly task even at the modest subscription levels of the time. Production of the journal was via a printer and continued throughout the war, despite shortages of paper and postal disruptions.

A curious omission from the pages of Metal Bulletin in April 1917 is any direct mention of the entry of the USA into the war following significant loss of US lives through German submarine sinkings of passenger vessels. On the other hand the regular flow of business information from Germany is rather surprising. The USA was also routinely shipping key metals like nickel and tungsten directly or indirectly to Germany, though the British blockade stopped some of this.

With the coming of peace a healthy growth resumed. A notice at the end of this period said that Metal Bulletin had moved to larger offices for the third time in three years, though the previous move merely involved taking more rooms at its East India Avenue address.

In 1919, Quin brought in help in the shape of his son-in-law FB Rice-Oxley, an ex-army Oxford graduate, who later became company secretary. In 1920, after five years of inflation, the UK subscription was raised to three guineas.

In the same year two further journalistic recruitments followed: Harry G Cordero, also an ex-serviceman, with linguistic abilities; and a 16 year-old Leslie Tarring. All these surnames permeate the next 67 years of the story.

The market environment
The proportionate division of space in early issues of Metal Bulletin is instructive. Copper gets prime position and most space, then tin, spelter (zinc) and lead. Aluminium and nickel are often not mentioned at all. Looking back over a century we are bound to be struck by the language and attitudes of the time. The language mostly appears stilted (though Quin could be blunt when he wanted to) and the attitudes UK-centric.

However, the message about how and why markets were rising or falling was broadly the same as it is today. And the old publisher’s dictum that “names make news” was equally respected. Most importantly, the belief was evident from day one that the independence of Quin’s Metal Market Letters and then The Metal Bulletin qualified them to tell their readers where prices stood in the more obscure markets.

Another characteristic of Metal Bulletin that was apparent from the start of the Metal Market Letters was international distribution. This despite the fact that WWI restricted overseas sales (though not as drastically as later in WWII). It was in response to international postal difficulties at this time that a special airmail edition of the journal on lightweight paper was introduced; it continued for some 70 years.

Quin’s means of contact with sources and readers were limited to face-to-face meetings, letters, cables, telegrams and telephone calls. Copy was typed, sent to the printer (at 5pm on the eve of publication), set in Linotype, proofed, printed and posted for next morning delivery, at least to major UK cities.

This system prevailed until the 1980s, though by then printing and delivering a larger circulation took 24 hours at best. The Reuters ticker tape, a key element in newspaper offices, was still a decade away in the future. However, the service of prompt notification of price changes began in 1916 by telephone, telegram and cable.

In the below table, the modern equivalents of the sterling prices of metals on May 8, 1915, have been calculated by first adjusting from long tons to metric and then using a sterling inflation factor and converting the modern sterling price to dollars at today’s exchange. Many other methodologies could have been used.

Trevor Tarring

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