People of Steel: Henry Bessemer

Infographic with photo of Henry Bessemer. "Bessemer Process produced a ore pure steel by blowing air across the molten pig iron to burn off impurities." and "Bessemer held over 129 British patents covering the iron, brass, steel, and glass industries."Henry Bessemer

(significant steel working years mid-1850s through 1880s)

Henry Bessemer’s main contribution to the steel industry was the Bessemer Converter and the Bessemer Method, which allowed for even better quality steel at a lower price, but without his other inventions, the world may not have graphite pencils, cheap gold paint, forgery proof documents, polished diamonds, or a solar furnace. In all, Henry Bessemer holds 129 British patents.

One of Bessemer’s first inventions taught him the valuable lesson of getting the patent before telling others about his ideas. At the age of 17, Bessemer was working in the British Stamp Office.  He created a machine for embossing, rather than ink-stamping, official documents. His fiancé suggested using moveable dates, rather than creating new stamps for every day. His supervisor presented the idea to the Stamp Office and took credit, leaving Bessemer bitter and very careful with his future ideas.

Bessemer’s next inventions included a machine that created brass dust, allowing for gold paint to be made for about 1/40th the cost that the monopoly of German producers was selling it. After his brassworks years, he turned his focus to steel production.

During the Crimean War, Bessemer invented an elongated, powder-propelled artillery shell that should have been faster and more accurate than the military was currently using. After he presented this to military leaders, he was told that the cast iron cannons of the time would shatter under the blast of the powder ignition. This focused Bessemer toward creating stronger steel for better cannons.

While Bessemer convalesced from a severe bout of sea sickness, he realized that he did not have to get a hotter furnace to allow himself to skim off more slag as is the puddling method, but that by introducing cold air, the oxygen would case impurities to burn off. Bessemer underestimated the violence of this reaction, however, and his first attempt ended up burning off half the building roof.  But it worked.

Bessemer patented and licensed his method and converter, but other ironworkers were unable to recreate the premium steel he was getting out of his furnaces. Unbeknownst to him, he was using iron ores with very low phosphorus levels. While it worked well for him, the output from iron ore from other areas of the country contained more phosphorus and sulfur and the Bessemer method did not remove those impurities. The original metal coming out of those foundries was brittle. The universal ability to use the method would not be realized until the later contributions of Sidney Gilchrist Thomas. Bessemer decided to harness the better-quality ore sources and operated his own ironworks and became a very wealthy man.  Bessemer’s method allowed for steel railroad rails that lasted longer than the earlier, lighter iron rails, lifespans of 18 years as opposed to two years under light use.

Bessemer’s method was used for nearly one hundred years before being fully overtaken by the electric arc furnaces and the basic oxygen method of today. He was knighted for his various works but remained bitter about his Stamp Office snub until his death.

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