Bessemer, Henry

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Henry Bessemer

Born January 19, 1813

Charlton, England

Died March 15, 1898

London, England

British engineer, inventor

"I had an immense advantage over many others dealing with the problem of reducing the cost of making steel inasmuch as I had no fixed ideas derived from long-established practice to control and bias my mind, and did not suffer from the general belief that whatever is, is right."

Henry Bessemer devised a quicker, more efficient way of making steel, which led to steel replacing cast iron as the metal of preference in making railroad tracks, military weapons, and structures like bridges and skyscrapers. His invention, the Bessemer furnace, or converter, enormously raised the annual production of steel in England and helped move along the Industrial Revolution, a period of fast-paced economic change that began in Great Britain in the middle of the eighteenth century. One of the first to adopt Bessemer's steelmaking process wholeheartedly was American industrialist Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919; see entry), who built a world-class fortune as a result.

Bessemer is best known for his improved method of making steel, but he was a prolific inventor in other areas as well. For example, he developed a way to turn powdery graphite into lead pencils, and he invented a method of producing glittering gold-colored paint made from powdered bronze. He also invented a machine to turn cane sugar into liquid in order to refine it (remove impurities or unwanted material).

Childhood and youth

Henry Bessemer was born in the small town of Charlton, England, in 1813. When he was not in school, he spent time in his father's type foundry, a company that makes moveable type from metal for printing presses. Henry's father was a metallurgist (one who works with metals, refining them for various uses). He had succeeded by discovering that by adding other metals to the molten (liquefied) lead, his typefaces were harder and would not wear down as quickly after being repeatedly pressed against paper in printing presses. Even as a boy, Henry showed signs of being highly inventive. In particular, he developed a way of making three-dimensional copies in metal of artwork, such as sculptures, and everyday objects, such as flowers and leaves. When he was seventeen, Bessemer left home for London, England, where he set up his own business selling decorative metal objects.

Stamping out forgery

One of Bessemer's first inventions was praised and accepted by the British government because it solved the problem of document forgery, or illegally falsifying an official document, which was a common occurrence in England at the time. The government offices had a practice of stamping important papers, such as property deeds, to identify them as legal; unfortunately, the stamps they used were easily copied. Realizing that the government was losing significant revenue because of this problem, Bessemer invented a machine that would actually press the stamp into the paper of the document, making it more difficult to forge. An official of the Stamp Office studied Bessemer's idea for a few days and returned with a job offer: Instead of paying Bessemer for his idea, he offered him a job as superintendent of stamps.

Bessemer was thrilled. He was just twenty-one, and here was a secure government job that would give him an income sufficient to marry the girl he had been dating for two years. Excited, he took the news to his fiancée and explained his idea. She was happy at the prospect of marriage, but had a question about Bessemer's idea: Couldn't the government solve the forgery problem simply by imprinting the date on stamps?

Bessemer, somewhat embarrassed that his fiancée had so quickly come up with a simpler solution to the govern-ment's problem, felt obligated to present this new idea when he returned to the Stamp Office to start work. As it turned out, the Stamp Office liked the new idea even better; but the solution made Bessemer's services as superintendent of stamps unnecessary.

Bessemer tried for years to collect a fee from the government for the imprinting idea—after all, the government was able to collect much more revenue by preventing people from transferring old stamps—but no money was forthcoming. Bessemer had learned a basic lesson of inventors: for some people, coming up with ideas is easy, but making money from ideas is much harder.

Despite many later successes, Bessemer never got over his experience at the Stamp Office. Forty-six years later, long famous for his steelmaking process, he complained about his treatment in a letter to the Times of London. In response to his complaint, the government offered to make him a knight, entitled to be called Sir Henry Bessemer. He closely guarded his later inventions—or made sure he was protected by patents before revealing them. A patent guarantees an inventor the exclusive right to earn money from an invention, either by manufacturing an object, or using a process, or selling the rights to someone else, over a specified period of time.

Gold paint

In 1840 a printer and friend of Bessemer's, Thomas de la Rue (1793–1866; best known today for his printed playing cards), suggested that Bessemer think about a way to make gold-colored paint. It had long been the style to paint certain decorative objects, such as picture frames, so that they appeared to be made of gold. Of course, using actual gold would have been much too expensive, so the metallic effect was achieved by mixing into paint a powder made of bronze.

Bessemer discovered that the powder, which was made exclusively in Germany, was also extremely expensive. (German manufacturers had learned the technique of making the powder from those in China and Japan and had kept it secret to maintain their monopoly, or exclusive ownership, of the product.) Bessemer designed a machine to make the powder fairly inexpensively. Before long he was manufacturing the powder and selling it at one-eighth the price charged by the German manufacturers.

Stung by his experience at the Stamp Office, Bessemer and his family kept the gold paint process secret for thirty-five years, allowing no one to even see the machines.

Bessemer's gold paint was his first major monetary success, and his profits allowed for the establishment of his own brass foundry in London.

Artillery shells and the origin of the Bessemer process

One of Bessemer's greatest inventions was an outgrowth of the Crimean War (1853–56), in which England battled with Russia over control of the eastern Mediterranean region. Bessemer was led to develop an improved way of manufacturing steel as a result of a problem with British cannons made of cast iron. The accuracy of cannons could be improved by carving spiral-shaped grooves inside the cannon barrel, which caused the cannon balls to spin. But this process, called rifling, created another problem: in order to work, shells had to fit snugly inside the barrel, which created significant pressure against the barrel when the shells were fired. The cannon barrels were made of cast iron, which was brittle and prone to exploding, often killing the gun crew.

Welcome to Bessemer!

At least ten towns in the United States are named after Henry Bessemer, including three in Pennsylvania alone. The others are:

The solution was to use steel instead of cast iron. Both cast iron and steel are produced from iron ore, which naturally is mixed with atoms of carbon. The characteristics of the metal differ according to the percentage of carbon (it ranges from a high of around 4 percent to under 1 percent). Steel has low carbon content, and making steel requires heating a basic form of iron, called pig iron, to a high temperature so that carbon (and some other impurities, such as sulfur) mixed in

with the iron burns off. The result is steel, a metal that is strong, like cast iron, but not as brittle, thanks to the reduced carbon content. But as desirable as steel was for making cannon barrels, it was also very expensive to produce. Reducing the carbon content required heating a basic form of iron to an extremely high temperature, which took a significant amount of fuel (such as coal) and time. Moreover, using traditional methods, steel was produced in relatively small batches. Bessemer set about looking for ways to reduce the cost of making steel on a large scale, with the goal of substituting steel for cast iron in British cannons.

The Bessemer process

In 1856 Bessemer discovered a new process whereby steel could be made much more easily, much less expensively, and in much greater quantities. He was experimenting on a small quantity of molten (liquefied) iron when he discovered that some of it had turned into steel after oxygen was blown across the surface (done in order to raise the temperature of the molten iron). Bessemer realized that by exposing the iron to more oxygen, impurities (mostly carbon) would burn off, leaving molten steel.

Bessemer built on this idea by constructing a furnace with a hole through which oxygen could be forced into the molten iron. The oxygen bubbled through the furnace, burning off the impurities. It was a one-step process that could produce steel at ten times the rate of the previous process, and in much greater quantities. The special furnaces came to be called Bessemer converters. Instead of producing fifty pounds of steel at a time, Bessemer could produce sixty thousand pounds. Although others were also working on a steelmaking process, notably William Kelly (1811–1888) of the United States, Bessemer was the first to make steelmaking a profitable business.

Bessemer's invention came at the very time when the demand for a strong and durable metal, like steel, was increasing dramatically. Railroads greatly preferred steel over iron for rails, and shipbuilding and armaments were also rapidly expanding markets for steel. Within a decade, the Bessemer process accounted for all but a small fraction of the steel manufactured in England.

Bessemer and the Industrial Revolution

Bessemer had made two fortunes by the time he was fifty-three: one for gold paint and the other for steel. Along the way, he also developed new techniques for refining sugarcane and compressing powdery graphite into pencils. He also developed a telescope, a solar furnace, and equipment for polishing diamonds. However, it was his steel process that pushed the Industrial Revolution forward to make the manufacturing world what it is today. Economical steel found a wide range of uses, ranging from the girders that support skyscrapers, to many parts of automobiles and other vehicles, up to and including aircraft carriers. Steel's strength, relative light weight, and ability to be pressed into large, thin sheets made it an ideal material for a huge variety of products. It is hard to imagine the advance of the Industrial Revolution without steel.

Bessemer, widely respected and at last rewarded by the British government for his suggestion on stamps, retired a wealthy man at age fifty-six. He died in London, England, at age eighty-five on March 15, 1898.

For More Information


Bessemer, Henry. Sir Henry Bessemer, F.R.S.: An Autobiography. London, England: Offices of Engineering, 1905; reprinted by the Institute of Metals, 1989.

Bolton, Sarah Knowles. Lives of Poor Boys Who Became Famous. New York: T. Y. Crowell and Co., 1885.

Burn, Duncan. The Economic History of Steelmaking, 1867–1939. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1961.


Stone, Joseph K. "Early Advocates of the Use of Oxygen in Steelmaking." Steel Times International, June 2002, p. 43.

Web Sites

Hart-Davis, Adam. "Henry Bessemer, Man of Steel." Science and TechnologyOn-Line. (accessed on February 13, 2003).