David Thomas, son of David and Jane Thomas, of Tyllwyd Farm, was born on the 3rd of November, 1794 in the parish of Cadoxton-juxta-Neath, in the county of Glamorgan, South Wales. He was the only son of four Thomas children. Being the only son, his parents wish was to give him the best education their means would allow. He attended a school at Alltwen, Pontardawe, where he excelled and at age nine he was moved to a more advanced school at Neath. In this school he applied himself with industry and perseverance, again excelling in his education. He was disciplined in his study habits. He found pleasure in books and in acquiring knowledge and information, and was determined to do well. His schooling only allowed him to acquire a general education and it was his own perseverance that led to his later intellectual achievements.
The family farm was a small one, and all the members of the family assisted in the operations on the farm. Young David worked in this capacity for some time; but agricultural pursuits were not to his taste. His thirst for knowledge and improvement had awakened in him an ambitious feeling and in 1812, at seventeen years of age, he went to work at the Neath Abbey Iron Works. For five years he worked in the fitting shop and at the blast furnaces there, asserting his superiority and intelligence over his young co-workers. By showing a superb aptitude for the business, and gaining a vast store of experience and knowledge, he was familiarly known as "Dai Tyllwyd." In fact, he did so well that in 1817 he went to Yniscedwyn Anthracite Iron Works, in the Swansea Valley where he was made general superintendent of the blast furnaces and of the iron and coal mines. There he was known as "Dafydd Thomas y Stiwart," a somewhat more dignified title than that of "Dai Tyllwyd." Mr. Thomas remained at the Yniscedwyn Works in that position for nearly twenty-two years, working his furnaces in the most successful manner, and continually experimenting with anthracite coal as a smelting fuel. Of his various experiments Mr. Thomas used to say, "As early as 1820 I had some anthracite coal to put into the furnace with coke, in the proportion of from one part in twenty to one part in twelve; this did very well; but whenever anything went wrong with the furnace the fault was always laid on the coal; and the men became so prejudiced against it that I had to give it up. Still every year I would try some experiments with it, both in cupolas and blast furnaces. In 1825 I had a small blast furnace built with a nine foot bosh, and twenty-five foot stack. After blowing it in with coke, I introduced anthracite coal, increasing the quantity of it more and more. But the tuyers would close up, so that we had to abandon it. In 1830 I enlarged the furnace, giving it an eleven foot bosh and a forty-five foot stack. This resulted in a greater amount of success. Still the whole thing was so unprofitable that it was given up."
The invention of hot blast, by James Neilson in 1828, enabled Thomas to reach the goal of his ambition. After hearing this news Thomas hurried off to Scotland, to the Clyde Iron Works where a hot blast furnace was in operation, to see how the process worked. After careful examination he determined that the new hot blast was just what was wanted for an anthracite furnace. He returned to Yniscedwyn with a license from Neilson, and an expert mechanic who understood the construction of heating ovens. The furnace was prepared for the new blast, the heating ovens were attached to it, and on the 5th February, 1837, the furnace was blown in. The success was complete, and anthracite iron continued to be successfully and profitably made from that furnace without intermission. Anthracite iron was a new-born commodity in the commerce of the world, and David Thomas, of Yniscedwyn, was its godfather. Thomas was in the habit of telling an interesting anecdote in connection with his hearing of Neilson's invention. It appears he was in the house of George Crane one evening, then owner of the Yniscedywn Works, and who always burnt anthracite coal in the grate of his sitting room. Thomas began to blow the fire with a small pair of bellows. "Don't do that, David, or you will blow the fire out," interposed Crane. "If the air out of that bellows were only as hot as Mr. Neilson describes his hot blast to be," rejoined Thomas, "the anthracite coal in that grate would burn like pinewood." Crane exclaimed "Ah! that is the idea precisely," and this idea both recognized as one which would bear working out; and through Thomas' indomitable perseverance it succeeded.
The Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company had spent a large sum of money in building a blast furnace for the purpose of making experiments with anthracite coal as fuel. They did actually succeed in making some anthracite iron; but found the same trouble as Thomas had with his cold blast - they could not keep the furnace in blast. They were, therefore, compelled to give it up. But in the summer of 1838 the London Mining Journal conveyed to them the welcome and cheering news of Thomas' great success at Yniscedywn, and in November one of their leading directors, Mr. Hazard, crossed the ocean to witness the process, and learn all about it, with authority to bring back with him one conversant with the process of making anthracite iron. Proceeding at once to Wales, he found the Yniscedwyn furnaces in full and successful operation. Crane strongly recommended Thomas as the only man who could answer Hazard’s purpose. The result was that Thomas was offered and accepted a five year engagement to go to the United States, and see what he could do with an anthracite furnace in the Lehigh Valley.
Thomas arrived in America in June, 1839 and after a slight delay from illness proceeded to his destination, where, soon after his arrival, the Crane Iron Company of Catasauqua was organized. In the following month the construction of the first of six furnaces of the Crane Iron Company was begun. The first run of iron was made on the 4th of July, 1840, with the most encouraging success; and that furnace ran on steadily for many years. To Thomas then there is undoubtedly and justly due the credit of having built the first anthracite blast furnace in America, or any other country, which successfully fulfilled the purpose for which it was constructed.
In 1854 the Thomas Iron Company was formed, and the beautiful works at Hokendauqua commenced, situated about a mile above Catasauqua, on the Lehigh River, where six furnaces have been built. In 1855 he relinquished the superintendence of the Crane Ironworks, being succeeded by his youngest son, John Thomas, and devoted his time and interest in developing the works at Hokendauqua, which bear his honored name. In addition to his interest in the Crane and Thomas Ironworks, Mr. Thomas was also interested in the Carbon Iron Company, which had three furnaces at Perrysville, and in the large Rolling Mills at Catasauqua and Ferndale, which produce a quality of iron of which he was the president for many years. A short time before his death he withdrew from very active duties, remaining, however, a director and a large shareholder, and he was besides largely interested in collieries and iron ore mines. He was for many years President of the Catasauqua and Fogelsville Railway, as also of the Lehigh Railway. He was trustee and executive member of St.Luke's Hospital, and a trustee of Lafayette College at Easton. In 1866 he was a Republican candidate for Congress, but declining on principle to take part in the canvass he was not successful, but made a very complimentary showing. Catasauqua's progress has been identified with his life, and with almost every industry in the town he had been connected either as an adviser or an interested party. It is the outcome of his genius, spirit, determination, and progress, and when it was incorporated in 1853 he was chosen its first burgess, and continued to hold office for years. He took an active part in the material prosperity of the town, and in the religious, educational, and moral welfare of its inhabitants.
In 1840, soon after his arrival in America, he organized the first Presbyterian Church, and was an elder of it until his death. He built the Lehigh Fire Brickworks and held the position of director of the National Bank of Catasauqua. The man who occupied the most prominent and the proudest position in the records of iron manufacturers was David Thomas, of Catasauqua, unquestionably one of the largest ironmasters in the world. Thomas was a man of determined purpose, industry, fidelity, and thoroughness, of uncommon vitality and activity; and although nearly eighty-eight years of age at his death, he took, nearly to the last, a fair share in the active management of the vast interest he controlled. He was as upright and as firm on his legs as a man of sixty, and appeared to possess the wiry physique and age-defying brain which characterize many of those who live a generation longer than ordinary mortals. In the transaction of his multifarious duties he thought as little of going to Philadelphia, New York, or Pittsville, as he did of walking down to his office in Catasauqua. On May 17, 1871, Thomas was elected as the first president of the American Institute of Mining Engineers (AIME) by the 22 men who had founded the organization. In February, 1874, he attended the Ironmasters' Convention in Philadelphia, and was unanimously elected its President - a graceful and well-earned compliment. At these meetings his presence was always hailed with pleasure, and his opinions honored and appreciated. Indeed, not only in the strength of mind and body, which was husbanded by a studiously regular habit of "Early to bed and early to rise," but also in personal appearance it was difficult, whilst speaking to him, to realize the fact that he was an octogenarian. His successes in early life were not easily won, especially those for which he will be held in grateful remembrance by future generations, and he had many obstacles to overcome, which would have broken the courage of one with less fixedness of purpose and strength of character. Thomas had, through his good and exemplary life, coupled with his venerable and patriarchal age, endeared himself to all who had the pleasure of his acquaintance far and near, and both young and old delighted in giving him the respectful and affectionate title of "Father Thomas," while Mrs. Thomas equally shared in the affectionate respect shown to her husband, and was addressed as "Mother Thomas." They had been married for nearly sixty-five years. Their family consisted of David and Gwenny, both of whom died before their father, Jane, Samuel, who was President of the Thomas' Iron Company, with numerous grand and great grand children, who used to gather round the old gentleman and prattle on his knees, making him feel as happy and active as if he were twenty years of age.
Mr.Thomas was taken ill on the 20th May, 1882, his illness developing into an attack of pneumonia, which terminated fatally. His illness was painful, but throughout he bore his affliction uncomplainingly, and on the evening of the 20th June, 1882 (exactly one month from the day he was taken ill), he quietly and peacefully breathed his last. Plain in words and manner, his directions about his burial were of the simplest kind. The corpse was placed in the large hall in the house, and from one to three o'clock on Friday afternoon, 23rd June, hundreds of people passed through it to have a farewell view of the mortal remains of their old dear departed friend and benefactor. It was a sad day for Catasauqua, and will long be remembered. All works and business in the neighborhood were stopped. The funeral service was simple and plain, consisting of the singing of a hymn, the reading of selections of Scripture from Psalms and Corinthians by the pastor, prayer by Dr. Catelle, of Lafayette College, Easton, and the rendering of a favorite hymn - "My home is there." The funeral procession was the largest ever seen in Catasauqua, and was headed in the following order: the employees of the Catasauqua Manufacturing Company, three hundred men; of the Thomas Iron Company, three hundred men; and those of the Catasauqua and Fogelsville Railway, and others; then came learned, and wealthy men from abroad; then the corpse, followed by the relatives and intimate friends, until Fair View cemetery was reached, wherein, in a vault, were deposited all that remained of one greatly beloved and respected by his fellow-men. None but a great man could have commanded such universal respect.