Sir Henry Bessemer's Presentation

This report of the Cheltenham meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science is reproduced from The Times for Thursday, 14th August 1856

.Sir Henry Bessemer F.R.S. 1813 - 1898




Mr. H. Bessemer read the following paper at the British Association on Monday last:-

"The manufacture of iron in this country has attained such an important position that any improvement in this branch of our national industry cannot fail to be a source of general interest, and will, I trust, be a sufficient excuse for the present brief, and, I fear, imperfect paper. I may mention that for the last two years my attention has been almost exclusively directed to the manufacture of malleable iron and steel, in which, however, I had made but little progress until within the last eight or nine months. The constant pulling down and rebuilding of furnaces, and the toil of daily experiments with large charges of iron, had already begun to exhaust my stock of patience; hut the numerous observations I had made during this very unpromising period all tended to confirm an entirely new view of the subject, which at that time forced itself upon my attention-viz., that I could produce a much more intense heat without any furnace or fuel than could he obtained by either of the modifications I had used, and consequently that I should not only avoid the injurious action of mineral fuel on the iron under operation, but that I should at the same time avoid also the expense of the fuel.

Some preliminary trials were made on from 10 lb. to 20 lb. of iron, and; although the process was fraught with considerable difficulty, it exhibited such unmistakeable signs of success as to induce me at once to put up an apparatus capable of converting about 7 cwt. of crude pig iron into malleable iron in 30 minutes. With such masses of metal to operate on, the difficulties which beset the small laboratory experiments of 10 lb. entirely disappeared. On this new field of inquiry I set out with the assumption that crude iron contains about 5 per cent. of carbon; that carbon cannot exist at a white heat in the presence of oxygen without uniting therewith and producing combustion; that such combustion would proceed with a rapidity dependent on the amount of surface of carbon exposed; and, lastly, that the temperature which the metal would acquire would be also dependent on the rapidity with which the oxygen and carbon were made to combine, and consequently that it was only necessary to bring the oxygen and carbon together in such a manner that a vast surface should he exposed to their mutual action, in order to produce a temperature hitherto unattainable in our largest furnaces.

With a view of testing practically this theory, I constructed a cylindrical vessel of three feet in diameter and five feet in height, somewhat like an ordinary cupola furnace, the interior of which is lined with fire bricks, and at about two inches from the bottom of it I insert five tuyere pipes, the nozzles of which are formed of well-burned fire clay, the orifice of each tuyere being about three-eighths of an inch in diameter; they are so put into the brick lining (from the outer side) as to admit of their removal and renewal in a few minutes when they are worn out. At one side of the vessel, about half way up from the bottom, there is a hole made for running in the crude metal, and on the opposite side there is a tap-hole stopped with loam, by means of which the iron is run out at the end of the process. In practice this converting vessel may be made of any convenient size, but I prefer that it should not hold less than one, or more than five tons, of fluid iron at each charge. The vessel should be placed so near to the discharge hole of the blast furnace as to allow the iron to flow along a gutter into it; a small blast cylinder will be required, capable of compressing air to about 8 lb. or 10 lb. to the square inch. A communication having been made between it and the tuyeres before named, the converting vessel will be in a condition to commence work; it will, however, on the occasion of its first being used after relining with firebricks be necessary to make a fire in the interior with a few baskets of coke, so as to dry the brickwork and heat up the vessel for the first operation, after which the fire is to be all carefully raked out at the tapping hole, which is again to be made good with loam.
The vessel will then be in readiness to commence work, and may be so continued without any use of fuel until the brick lining in the course of time becomes worn away and a new lining is required. I have before mentioned that the tuyeres are situated nearly close to the bottom of the vessel; the fluid metal will therefore rise some 18 inches or 2 feet above them. It is therefore necessary, in order to prevent the metal from entering the tuyere holes, to turn on the blast before allowing the fluid crude iron to run into the vessel from the blast furnace. This having been done, and the fluid iron run in, a rapid boiling up of the metal will be heard going on within the vessel, the metal being tossed violently about and dashed from side to side, shaking the vessel by the force with which it moves, from the throat of the converting vessel. Flame will then immediately issue, accompanied by a few bright sparks. This state of things will continue for about 15 or 20 minutes, during which time the oxygen in the atmospheric air combines with the carbon contained in the iron, producing carbonic acid gas, and at the same time evolving a powerful heat. Now, as this heat is generated in the interior of, and is diffusive in innumerable fiery bubbles through, the whole fluid mass, the metal absorbs the greater part of it, and its temperature becomes immensely increased, and by the expiration of the 15 or 20 minutes before named that part of the carbon which appears mechanically mixed and diffused through the crude iron has been entirely consumed. The temperature, however, is so high that the chemically combined carbon now begins to separate from the metal, as is at once indicated by an immense increase in the volume of flame rushing out of the throat of the vessel. The metal in the vessel now rises several inches above its natural level, and a light frothy slag makes its appearance, and is thrown out in large foam-like masses. This violent eruption of cinder generally lasts about five or six minutes, when all further appearance of it ceases, a steady and powerful flame replacing the shower of sparks and cinder which always accompanies the boil.

The rapid union of carbon and oxygen which thus takes place adds still further to the temperature of the metal, while the diminished quantity of carbon present allows a part of the oxygen to combine with the iron, which undergoes combustion and is converted into an oxide. At the excessive temperature that the metal has now, acquired, the oxide as soon as formed undergoes fusion, and forms a powerful solvent of those earthy bases that are associated with the iron. The violent ebullition which is going on mixes most intimately the scoria and metal, every part of which is thus brought in contact with the fluid oxide, which will thus wash and cleanse the metal most thoroughly from the silica and other earthy bases which are combined with the crude iron while the sulphur and other volatile matters which cling so tenaciously to iron at ordinary temperatures are driven off, the sulphur combining with the oxygen and forming sulphurous acid gas.

The loss in weight of crude iron during its conversion into an ingot of malleable iron was found on a mean of four experiments to be l2.5 per cent., to which will have to be added the loss of metal in the finishing rolls. This will make the entire loss probably not less than 18 per cent., instead of about 28 per cent., which is the loss on the present system. A large portion of this metal is, however, recoverable by treating with carbonaceous gases the rich oxides thrown out of the furnace during the boil. These slags are found to contain innumerable small grains of metallic iron, which are mechanically held in suspension in the slags, and may be easily recovered. I have before mentioned that after the boil has taken place a steady and powerful flame succeeds, which continues without any change for about 10 minutes, when it rapidly falls off. As soon as this diminution of flame is apparent the workman will know that the process is completed, and that the crude iron has been converted into pure malleable iron, which he will form into ingots of any suitable size and shape by simply opening the tap-hole of the converting vessel and allowing the fluid malleable iron to flow into the iron ingot moulds placed there to receive it. The masses of iron thus formed will be perfectly free from any admixture of cinder, oxide, or other extraneous matters, and will be far more pure and in a forwarder state of manufacture than a pile formed of ordinary puddle bars. And thus it will be seen that by a single process, requiring no manipulation or particular skill, and with only one workman, from three to five tons of crude iron passes into the condition of several piles of malleable iron in from 30 to 35 minutes, with the expenditure of about one-third part of the blast now used in a finery furnace with an equal charge of iron, and with the consumption no other fuel than is contained in the crude iron.

To those who "are best acquainted with the nature of fluid iron it may be a matter of surprise that a blast of cold air forced into melted crude iron is capable of raising its temperature to such a 'degree as to retain it in a perfect state of fluidity after it has lost all its carbon, and is in the condition of malleable iron, which in the highest heat of our forges only becomes softened into a pasty mass. But such is the excessive temperature that I am enabled to arrive at with a properly shaped converting vessel and a judicious distribution of the blast that I am enabled not only to retain the fluidity of the metal, but to create so much surplus heat as to re-melt the crop ends, ingot runners, and other scrap that is made throughout the process, and thus bring them without labour or fuel into ingots of a quality equal to the rest of the charge of new metal.

For this purpose a small arched chamber is formed immediately over the throat of the converting vessel, somewhat like the tunnel head of the blast furnace. This chamber has two or more openings on the sides of it, and its floor is made to slope downwards to the throat. As soon as a charge of fluid malleable iron has been drawn off from the connecting vessel the workman will take the scrap intended to be worked into the next charge and proceed to introduce the several pieces into the small chamber, piling them up around the opening of the throat. When this is done he will run in his charge of crude metal, and again commence the process. By the time the boil commences, the bar ends or other scrap will have acquired a white heat, and by the time it is over most of them will have been melted and run down into the charge. Any pieces, however, that remain may then be pushed in by the workman, and by the time the process is completed, they will all be melted, and ultimately combined with the rest of the charge, so that all scrap iron, whether cast or malleable, may thus be used up without any loss or expense.

As an example of the power that iron has of generating heat in this process I may mention a circumstance that occurred to me during my experiments: I was trying how small a set of tuyeres could he used; but the size chosen proved to be too small, and after blowing into the metal for one hour and three-quarters I could not get up heat enough with them to bring on the boil. The experiment was therefore discontinued, during which time two-thirds of the metal solidified and the rest was run off. A larger set of tuyere pipes were then put in, and a fresh charge of fluid iron run into the vessel, which had the effect of entirely remelting the former charge, and when the whole was tapped out it exhibited as usual that intense and dazzling brightness peculiar to the electric light.

"To persons conversant with the manufacture of iron it will be at once apparent that the ingots of malleable metal which I have described will have no hard or steely parts, such as is found in puddled iron, requiring a great amount of rolling to blend them with the general mass, nor will such ingots require an excess of rolling to expel cinder from the interior of the mass since none can exist in the ingot, which is pure and perfectly homogeneous throughout, and hence requires only as much rolling as is necessary for the development of fibre; it therefore follows that, instead of forming a merchant bar or rail by the union of a number of separate pieces welded together it will be far more simple and less expensive to make several bars or rails from a single ingot; doubtless this would have been done long ago had not the whole process been limited by the size of the ball which the puddler could make.

The facility which the new process affords of making large masses will enable the manufacturer to produce bars that on the old mode of working it was impossible to obtain; while, at the same time, it admits of the use of some powerful machinery whereby a great deal of labour will be saved, and the process be greatly expedited. I merely mention this fact in passing, as it is not my intention at the present moment to enter upon any details of the improvements I have made in this department of the manufacture, because the patents which I have obtained or them are not yet specified. Before, however, dismissing this branch of the subject, I wish to call the attention of the meeting to some of the peculiarities which distinguish cast-steel from all other forms of iron, namely, the perfect homogeneous character of the metal, the entire absence of sand-cracks or flaws, and its greater cohesive force and elasticity as compared with the blister-steel from which it is made, qualities which it derives solely from its fusion and formation into ingots, all of which properties malleable iron acquires in like manner by its fusion and formation into ingots in the new process. Nor must it be forgotten that no amount of rolling will give to blister-steel (although formed of rolled bars) the same homogeneous character that cast-steel acquires by a mere extension of the ingot to some 10 to 12 times its original length.

"One of the most important facts connected with the new system of manufacturing malleable iron is that all the iron so produced will be of that quality known as charcoal iron, not that any charcoal is used in its manufacture, but because the whole of the processes following the smelting of it are conducted entirely without contact with or the use of any mineral fuel; the iron resulting therefrom will, in consequence, be perfectly free from those injurious properties which that description of fuel never fails to impart to iron that is brought under its influence. At the same time, this system of manufacturing malleable iron offers extraordinary facility for making large shafts, cranks, and other heavy masses; it will be obvious that any weight of metal that can be founded in ordinary cast-iron by the means at present at our disposal may also be founded in molten malleable iron, and be wrought into the forms and shapes required, provided that we increase the size and power of our machinery to the extent necessary to deal with such large masses of metal. A few minutes reflection will show the great anomaly presented by the scale on which the consecutive processes of iron-making are at present carried on. The little furnaces originally used for smelting ore have from time to time
increased in size, until they have assumed colossal proportions, and are made to operate on 200 or 300 tons of materials at a time, giving out 10 tons of fluid metal at a single run. The manufacturer has thus gone on increasing the size of his smelting furnaces, and adapting to their use the blast apparatus of the requisite proportions, and has, by this means, lessened the cost of production in every way; his large furnaces require a great deal less labour to produce a given weight of iron than would have been required to produce it with a dozen furnaces and in like manner he diminishes his cost of fuel blast and repairs, while he insures a uniformity in the result that never could have been arrived at by the use of a multiplicity of small furnaces.While the manufacturer has shown himself fully alive to these advantages, he has still been under the necessity of leaving the succeeding operations to be carried out on a scale wholly at variance with the principles he has found so advantageous in the smelting department.

It is true that hitherto no better method was known than the puddling process, in which from 400 to 500 weight of iron is all that can be operated upon at a time, and even this small quantity is divided into homeopathic doses of some 70 lb. or 80 lb., each of which is moulded and fashioned by human labour, carefully watched and tended in the furnace, and removed therefrom one at a time, to be carefully manipulated and squeezed into form. When we consider the vast extent of the manufacture, and the gigantic scale on which the early stages of the progress is conducted, it is astonishing that no effort should have been made to raise the after processes somewhat nearer to a level commensurate with the preceding ones, and thus rescue the trade from the trammels which have so long surrounded it.

"Before concluding these remarks I beg to call your attention to an important fact connected with the new process, which affords peculiar facilities for the manufacture of cast-steel.

"At that stage of the process immediately following the boil the whole of the crude iron has passed into the condition of cast-steel of ordinary quality; by the continuation of the process the steel so produced gradually loses its small remaining portion of carbon, and passes successively from hard to soft steel, and from soft steel to steely iron, and eventually to very soft iron; hence at a certain period of the process any quality of metal may be obtained; there is one in particular, which by way of distinction I call semi-steel, being in hardness about midway between ordinary cast-steel and soft malleable iron. This metal possesses the advantage of much greater tensile strength than soft iron; it is also more elastic, and does not readily take a permanent set, while it is much harder, and is not worn or indented so easily as soft iron; at the same time it is not so brittle or hard to work as ordinary cast steel. These qualities render it eminently well adapted to purposes where lightness and strength are specially required, or where there is much wear, as in the case of railway bars, which from their softness and lamellar texture soon become destroyed. The cost of semi-steel will be a fraction less than iron, because the loss of metal that takes place by oxidation in the converting vessel is about 2 per cent less than it is with iron; but, as it is a little more difficult to roll, its cost per ton may fairly be considered to be the same as iron; but, as its tensile strength is some 30 or 40 per cent greater than bar iron, it follows that for most purposes a much less weight of metal may be used, so that taken in that way the semi-steel will form a much cheaper metal than any that we are at present acquainted with.

"In conclusion, allow me to observe that the facts which I have had the honour of bringing before the meeting have not been elicited from mere laboratory experiments, but have been the result of working on a scale nearly twice as great as is pursued in our largest iron works, the experimental apparatus doing 7 cwt. in 30 minutes, while the ordinary puddling furnace makes only 4.5 cwt. in two hours, which is made into six separate balls, while the ingots or blooms are smooth even prisms, 10 inches square by 30 inches in length, weighing about equal to 10 ordinary puddle balls.

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