People of Steel: Siemens and Martin

People of Steel: Infographic showing pictures of William Siemens and Pierre-Emile Martin and their respective inventions.

Carl Wilhem Siemens & Pierre-Èmile Martin

(significant steel contributions 1850s-1865)

Our past couple of People of Steel posts focused on Bessemer with his crucible method of steelmaking and those who contributed to making higher-quality steel with it. This week, we switch to the developers of regenerative open hearth steelmaking, German-turned-British citizen William Siemens and Frenchman Pierre-Émile Martin.

The Siemens-Martin method of steelmaking was not as fast as the Bessemer method, but it produced much larger batches and could produce higher, more sustained temperatures for a more controlled melt. This allowed for purer alloys to be made. Siemens, and his younger brother Friedrich, experimented and patented a regenerative method of capturing the heat escaping the process and used it to heat the air supplying the furnace, making the process more efficient and allowing for higher temperatures. The first experimented using the process for glassmaking and then applied it to steelmaking. Martin licensed the patent and began using it with scrap metals and pig iron, not just iron ore, patenting his own developments beyond the Siemens’ work. Siemens launched a protracted challenge to Martin’s patents, leaving Martin in poverty. Eventually, the two compromised leading to the method being called the Siemens-Martin method.

William Siemens, born Karl Wilhelm Siemens in Prussia, began his education first in commerce, so he could work in his uncle’s bank, later switching to engineering under his older brother Werner’s guidance, and finally to chemistry and physics backed by his uncle. He began his career as an engineer at a steam engine foundry, but he was determined to sell Werner’s electroplating process. Combining his banking, engineering, and chemistry background, he first sold the process in Hamburg and then went to London. Having success in London, he returned to Germany and completed his studies before returning to London to be an inventor. He became successful after inventing and selling a water meter before working on the regenerative open hearth furnace.

After marrying and becoming a British citizen, William Siemens continued to act as an English agent for his brother Werner’s firm. He began working in telegraphy, created his own firm, and manufactured and conducted electrical testing of electric cables. His firm laid the first direct electrical cable from Britain to the United States. After this success, he switched to working in electrical lighting and electric traction, inventing arc lights and an electric railway.

Although destitute, Pierre-Émile Martin was knighted by France and later named an Officer of the Legion of Honor and awarded the Iron and Steel Institute’s Bessemer Gold Medal for his work.

Read previous People of Steel blog posts here.