Henry Bessemer - process for the manufacture of steel
Sir Henry Bessemer
(January 19, 1813 – March 15, 1898), English engineer and inventor. Bessemer's name is chiefly known in connection with the Bessemer process for the manufacture of steel.
Henry Bessemer's father, Anthony, was born in London, but moved to Paris when he was 21 years old. He was an inventor who while he was engaged by the Paris Mint, made a machine for making medallions that could produce steel dies from a larger model. He became a member of the French Academy of Science, for his improvements to the optical microscope, when he was only 26. He was forced to leave Paris by the French Revolution of 1848, and returned to Britain. There he invented a process for making gold chains, which was successful, and enabled him to buy a small estate in the village of Charlton, near Hitchin in Hertfordshire.
The invention from which he made his first fortune was a series of six steam-powered machines for making very fine brass powder which was used as a 'gold' paint. As he relates in his Autobiography, he examined the gold paint made in Nuremberg and was the only source at the time. He then copied and improved the product and made it capable of being made on a simple production line. Each employee knew only his part of the process, so secrecy was assured. It was a closely guarded secret, with only a few trusted employees and members of his immediate family involved. It was a widely used alternative to a patent, and such trade secrets are still used today. The profits from sale of the paint allowed him to pursue his other inventions.
Bessemer patented a method for making a continuous ribbon of plate glass, in 1848, but it was not commercially successful.(see his Autobiography Chapter 8). However, he gained experience in design of furnaces, which was to be of great use for his new steel-making process.
On August 24, 1856 Bessemer first described the process to a meeting of the British Association in Cheltenham which he titled "The Manufacture of Iron Without Fuel." It was published in full in The Times. Many industries were constrained by the lack of steel, being reliant on cast iron and wrought iron alone. Examples include railway structures such as bridges and tracks, where the treacherous nature of cast iron was keenly felt by many engineers and designers. There had been many accidents when cast iron beams collapsed suddenly, such as the Dee bridge disaster of May 1847.
Though this process is no longer commercially used, at the time of its invention it was of enormous industrial importance because it lowered the cost of production of steel, leading to steel being widely substituted for other substances which were inferior but previously cheaper. Bessemer's attention was drawn to the problem of steel manufacture in the course of an attempt to improve the construction of guns.
Though five firms applied without delay for licences to work under his patents, success did not at once attend his efforts; indeed, after several ironmasters had put the process to practical trial and failed to get good results, it was in danger of being thrust aside and entirely forgotten. Its author, however, instead of being discouraged by this lack of success, continued his experiments, and in two years was able to turn out a product, the quality of which was not inferior to that yielded by the older methods. But when he now tried to induce makers to take up his improved system, he met with general rebuffs, and finally was driven to undertake the exploitation of the process himself.
To exploit the process, he erected steelworks in Sheffield, on ground purchased with the help of friends, and began to manufacture steel. At first the output was insignificant, but gradually the magnitude of the operations was enlarged until the competition became effective, and steel traders generally became aware that the firm of Henry Bessemer & Co. was underselling them to the extent of $20 a ton. This argument to the pocket quickly had its effect, and licences were applied for in such numbers that, in royalties for the use of his process, Bessemer received a sum in all considerably exceeding a million pound sterling.
Bessemer converter, Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield, England (2002)
Of course, patents of such obvious value did not escape criticism, and invalidity was freely urged against them on various grounds. But Bessemer was fortunate enough to maintain them intact without litigation, though he found it advisable to buy up the rights of one patentee, while in another case he was freed from anxiety by the patent being allowed to lapse in 1859 through non-payment of fees. At the outset he had found great difficulty in making steel by his process; in his first licenses to the trade iron alone was mentioned.
Experiments he made with South Wales iron were failures because the product was devoid of malleability; Mr Göransson, a Swedish ironmaster, using the purer charcoal pig iron of that country, was the first to make good steel by the process, and even he was successful only after many attempts. His results prompted Bessemer to try the purer iron, obtained from Cumberland hematite, but even with this he did not meet with much success, until Robert Forester Mushet showed that the addition of a certain quantity of spiegeleisen had the effect of removing the difficulties.
Whether or not Mushet's patents could have been sustained, the value of his procedure was shown by its general adoption in conjunction with the Bessemer method of conversion. At the same time it is only fair to say that whatever may have been the conveniences of Mushet's plan, it was not absolutely essential; this Bessemer proved in 1865, by exhibiting a series of samples of steel made by his own process alone.
In 1866, Bessemer provided finance for Zerah Colburn, the American locomotive engineer and journalist, to start a new weekly engineering newspaper called Engineering, and based in Bedford Street, London. It was not until many years later that the name of Colburn's benefactor was revealed. Prior to the launch of Engineering, Colburn, through the pages of The Engineer, had given support to Bessemer's work on steel and steelmaking.
Among Bessemer's numerous other inventions were movable dies for embossed stamps, and a screw extruder for more efficiently extracting sugar from sugar cane.
An unlikely and ultimately unsuccessful invention was a mechanism added to a ship which was to save her passengers from the miseries of mal de mer. This last had her saloon mounted in such a way as to be free to swing relatively to the boat herself, and the idea was that this saloon should always be maintained steady and level, no matter how rough the sea. For this purpose hydraulic mechanism of Bessemer's design was arranged under the control of an attendant, whose duty it was to keep watch on a spirit-level, and counteract by proper manipulation of the apparatus any deviation from the horizontal that might manifest itself on the floor of the saloon owing to the rolling of the vessel. An experimental steamship, called Bessemer, was built on this plan in 1875 and put on the cross-Channel service to Calais, but the mechanism of the swinging saloon was not found effective in practice and was removed, the ship being converted to a freighter which soon later was lost in a gale.
Bessemer also obtained a patent in 1857 for the casting of metal between contrarotating rollers - a forerunner of today's continuous casting processes and remarkably, Bessemer's original idea has been implemented in the direct continuous casting of steel strip.
He was a prolific inventor, and held at least 129 patents which spanned the interval of time from 1838 to 1883. They concerned four main areas: manufacture of iron and steel; of glass; of sugar; and of cannon and other ordnance.
His autobiography describes all of his inventions, some in great detail as one might expect from such an innovative man. It is also a very readable book which relates many amusing incidents in his long and fruitful career.
He was married in 1834 when he was 21 years old. He had (at least) two sons. One of them, also called Henry, added a last chapter to his father's autobiography. His family has continued to live in England but has mostly spread to Australia.
Later years and death
Bessemer died in March 1898 in Denmark Hill, London.
Honours and legacy
Henry Bessemer was Knighted on June 26, 1879, and in the same year was made a fellow of the Royal Society. Sheffield's Kelham Island Industrial Heritage Museum, maintains an early example of a Bessemer Converter for public viewing.
* Sir Henry Bessemer F.R.S An Autobiography (1889) ISBN 0901462497
* PR Lewis, Disaster on the Dee: Robert Stephenson's Nemesis of 1847, Tempus Publishing (2007) ISBN 978 0 7524 4266 2
* Bessemer process
* Bessemer, Alabama
* Dee bridge disaster
* SS Bessemer Victory
* William Kelly
1. ^ Chapter 20 The Bessemer Saloon Steam-ship
* Bessemer's autobiography
* This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
* Robert Mushet
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