Sir Henry Bessemer

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Sir Henry Bessemer


English Inventor and Engineer

The early manufacture of steel in England is invariably discussed with one of the nineteenth-century's greatest inventors: Sir Henry Bessemer. Born on Jan. 19, 1813 in Charlton, Hertfordshire, England, Bessemer showed great promise early in his youth. According to his account of his life in An Autobiography (1905), he was interested in mechanical and chemical processes as early as his seventh year. He recalled making his first machine, a contraption that produced small, white pipeclay bricks for model making. Since his father was a type-founder, Bessemer also had early access to molten metals, which he used for a variety of experimental castings. In his autobiography he mentions walking around the English countryside with a favorite dog, picking up lumps of clay, and molding them into different shapes. Later, at home, he would make molds from the shapes and cast them into type metal.

By the time he was 17 years of age, he was familiar with all sorts of metal works, including foundries, large melting furnaces, and the combination of various metals to produce alloys. At this time his father decided to move the family business to London, a move that delighted the young Bessemer, who claims he never tired of walking the interesting streets full of shops, galleries, and squares.

During the ensuing years he patented numerous inventions that brought him both wealth and fame. Among them were the movable stamps for dating deeds and other important documents, the manufacture of "gold" powder from brass, and an advanced design of sugarcane-crushing machines. Much of his income was generated by the artistic decor of the times, in which gilding and heavy, florid trims were popular. The powdered brass was used in paints to produce the "gold" look that was so prevalent in this era.

Although he is credited with numerous developments during and after the Crimean War (1853-56), his work with metals in that era was one of the achievements that spread the Industrial Revolution from Europe to the rest of the world. The war effort inspired him to work on producing a stronger type of iron that would withstand greater pressures and temperatures. When he found that the excess oxygen he was using in his furnace seemed to remove the carbon from the pre-heated iron pigs he was using, he carried purification further by blowing air through the melted cast iron, rendering it hotter and easier to pour.

Although Bessemer is credited with being the first to mass-produce steel, there were many others who contributed ideas, adaptations, and advanced methods of removing impurities from pig iron. These included William Kelly (1811-1888), an American who conceived of and developed—independently but concurrently with Bessemer—the same purification process used by Bessemer; Robert Forester Mushet, and Goran Goransson. Their improvements resulted in a revolution of the construction industry and provided low-cost steel to replace the perishable iron formerly used on railroads and other basic industries.

Bessemer's work led to the open-hearth process in the late 1860s, which eventually replaced much of the original furnace operations. However, even in his later years (he was still working at age 70), Bessemer went on discovering and developing new processes and machinery. He is credited with building the first solar furnace as well as an astronomical telescope. The latter was not for public use but for his own entertainment. Also, the prestige that London enjoys today as a world center for diamonds is due in part to the set of machines designed by Bessemer for polishing the valuable stones.

The British government honored Bessemer with a knighthood in 1879 and a fellowship in the Royal Society. He died in London on March 15, 1898.


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Sir Henry Bessemer

The English inventor Sir Henry Bessemer (1813-1898) was a pioneer in the manufacture of inexpensive steel through his development of the steelmaking process which bears his name.

Henry Bessemer was born Jan. 19, 1813, in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. He left school to work for his father, a typefounder. In 1830 Bessemer set up his own business in London for producing art-metals, fusible alloys, and bronze powder. He was a prolific inventor, both before and after his key contribution to the iron and steel industries. He invented machines for composing type and for working graphite for pencils; at age 20 he was an exhibitor at the Royal Academy.

Fixed Converter

In 1854, following the rejection of an artillery invention, Bessemer sought an iron tougher than any then available and experimentally fused blister steel with pig iron. Apparently it was during these trials that he noted the effect of air in removing carbon from iron, a process essential for its conversion to steel. In 1855 he successfully produced a low-grade steel from molten pig iron in a side-blown fixed converter without any external source of heat. Bessemer patented the process in 1856 and described it in a paper, "Manufacture of Malleable Iron and Steel without Fuel." Attracted by the promise of economy in time, labor, and fuel, many wrought-iron producers tried the process; all reported total failure to produce any useful material.

Bessemer, dumbfounded and discredited, sought both cause and cure. The principal causes were twofold: the "blow" left the metal full of oxygen, and typical British pig irons were phosphorus-rich. Both led to brittleness in forging. The former fault was recognized and cured by Robert Forester Mushet, while Bessemer's Swedish licensee, G. Göransson, established that phosphorus was the other trouble, but no immediate cure was forthcoming.

Tilting Converter

Bessemer and his associates set up a steelworks in Sheffield in 1858, using phosphorus-free ore from Sweden and one part of England. There the familiar bottom blown tilting converter, in which the air blast supports the molten metal, was introduced in 1860, but Bessemer was unable to raise much new support among ironmasters. By 1879, when Gilchrist and Thomas showed that phosphorus could be removed by using basic instead of acidic furnace linings and fluxes, the open-hearth steelmaking process, with its ability to accept cold scrap in the charge, had become established in Britain. Thus British steelmakers have never greatly utilized either acid or basic Bessemer plants; much of Europe and America, with their then less-developed iron industries, widely adopted the basic Bessemer process. In the United States part of the Bessemer process had been patented by William Kelly, and dual licenses were needed for its operation there. Any personal connection between these two men in their inventions seems most unlikely. Despite its initial drawbacks, the process made Bessemer a millionaire. Today Bessemer steelmaking is rapidly giving way to various oxygen steelmaking methods.

Bessemer was knighted in 1879; he died in London on March 15, 1898.

Further Reading

The major work on Bessemer is his autobiography, Sir Henry Bessemer: An Autobiography (1905). W. H. Chaloner, People and Industries (1963), includes a chapter on Bessemer. The metallurgical background is in J. C. Carr and W. Taplin, History of the British Steel Industry (1962).

Additional Sources

Bessemer, Henry, Sir, Sir Henry Bessemer, F.R.S.: an autobiography, with a concluding chapter, London; Brookfield, VT., USA: Institute of Metals, 1989. □

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Bessemer, Sir Henry (1813–98). Bessemer distinguished himself as a professional inventor responsible for many ingenious ideas. By far his most successful invention was the process which bears his name for making steel—previously an expensive material in short supply—available in bulk. Invented in 1856, the process involved blowing air through molten cast iron so that it combined with excess carbon in the melt to produce mild steel in substantial quantities. This caused a brief but spectacular display while the reaction took place. Steel from ‘Bessemer converters’ came to be used extensively in railway lines, ship plate, and forgings for large guns. Despite the occurrence of technical problems in its early development, the process was widely adopted in iron- and steelworks in Britain and elsewhere during the following decades. The invention secured public recognition and many honours for Bessemer, including a knighthood in 1879.

R. Angus Buchanan

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