Sir Henry Bessemer FRS. 1813 -1898
In 1956 the Iron and Steel Institute celebrated the centenary of Bessemer's revolutionary steelmaking process (the patent was applied for on 22 September 1856). There were a series of lectures delivered at the Institute and papers were reproduced in the June 1956 issue of the Journal of the Iron and Steel Institute. One of the papers delivered by James Mitchell, C.B.E. has been adapted and is reproduced below.
Numbers throughout the manuscript are hyperlinked to the appropriate References at the bottom of the page.
The Bessemer Centenary Lecture was delivered at the Royal Institution, Albemarle Street, London, W.l, on the evening of Tuesday, 15th May, 1956.
Mr. Mitchell, Past-President of The Iron and Steel Institute, is a Director of Stewarts and Lloyds Ltd.
"Those who like to amuse themselves with historical parallels may reflect that in modern history the great dividing lines have occurred round about the middle of the calendar centuries and not at their beginnings. It is in the 40's and 50's of each century that the great decisions have been reached which have sent western civilisation off on a new tack. New men and new ideas get control in the 40's and 50's and for a few decades work out the new pattern."
Today we mark the centenary of Bessemer's invention of 1856, although perhaps
not a little perturbed with the reverberations of the atomic discovery, which
rolled round the world in 1945!
Bessemer certainly "sent western civilisation off on a new tack," and this thought should focus our attention on the ways in which it would appear to be desirable that we should let our thoughts travel on this particular occasion. Not only must we remember the man, but we should consider the nature of his contribution to human progress and have some regard for the change of course which this has produced in the evolution of civilisation.
WITHOUT DETRACTING from our tribute to the inventor, it is surely right that
we should have a full appreciation of the significance of th invention. It is
this consideration more perhaps than any other which makes the controversies
of one hundred years ago, with which Bessemer's name has been inevitably linked,
seem so relatively unimportant. The world was given its new material of construction
on the production of which, ultimately, a great industry was based, and there
is little doubt that, whatever contributions may have been made by those whose
names were associated in greater or lesser degree with Bessemer's, he was the
real accoucheur of the infant industry which grew to strident manhood in such
a short period of time. We shall return to the personal side of our subject
later, but meantime let us think in rather more detail of the significance attached
to the ability to provide virtually unlimited quantities of what we know to-day
as mild steel.
The engineer of one hundred years ago could make a casting from the available relatively brittle and non-malleable pig iron; the bridge-builder or shipbuilder could make a bridge or a ship with malleable iron, whilst the cutler or the instrument maker could make tools, cutlery, or instruments from the appropriate commercial form of steel, but there were at least two all-important limitations on these activities
-the methods of producing malleable iron and steel were not only relatively costly but were also such that an increase of production on a major scale was impracticable. The Bessemer process of steel production, therefore, not only provided less costly materials for existing uses but made possible an unlimited expansion of production.
These advantages accrued to a civilisation which was at the point of expanding
rapidly in engineering, railways, and shipbuilding: in fact, in all these activities
which today depend on the steel industry for their raw materials and which,
incidentally, we take for granted. Gustave Eiffel designed the first lattice
iron bridge for a French railway in 1855, the forerunner of many others not
only in France but all over the world. The railway boom in this country was
but 10-15 years old, whilst the development of the great open spaces of the
American continent was only awaiting the production of sufficient material for
the railways, which were to span its distances. Perhaps we should pause at this
point also to notice that in the matter of the actual rails, the high replacement
cost of the short-lived malleable-iron rail was reduced by the better working
characteristics of the new less costly material, so that not only development
but maintenance was effected. The Queen Elizabeth was implicit in the first
steel ship ever built in 1863, whilst, whatever we may think of their aesthetic
value, skyscrapers and the elaborate concrete constructions of today only became
possible when steel became cheap and plentiful.
This is but a mere verbal outline of some of the direct consequences of the introduction of mild steel. Many writers and thinkers have attempted to express the indirect consequences, but it seems well nigh impossible to do justice to these, without verging on apparent hyperbole. It was an American commentator 2 who said:
" .the Bessemer invention takes rank with the great events which have changed the face of society since the Middle Ages. The invention of printing, the construction of the magnetic compass, the discovery of America and the introduction of the steam engine are the only capital events in modern history which belong to the same category as the Bessemer Process."
It has also been pointed out that many of the indirect consequences of Bessemer's discovery were far-reaching, although not always apparent on the surface. One writer draws attention to the reduction in the cost of construction of railways 3> which :
" .was so greatly lessened as to permit of their extension to the most distant regions, and the cost of transportation was brought so low as to bring into the markets of the world perishable products which were formerly excluded from them . The first striking result of the cheapening in the cost of production in transportation of food products was felt in Greet Britain which is now impelled to import two thirds of its consumption The profitable raising of wheat became practically impossible .."
Another author 4 points out that
" ..The farmers and cattle breeders of Great Britain found themselves brought into competition with regions, the very existence of which they had scarcely heard of before."
The importance and significance of the product which Bessemer's discovery made
possible are therefore of the first order and the widest applicability. The
story of how Bessemer became interested in ferrous materials and their properties,
in the first instance, is well known. He had invented a rotating projectile,
the propulsion of which in the required direction for the required distances
proved too much for the cast-iron cannon of that day. As has happened on other
occasions, the engineer was awaiting the next advance of the metallurgist. The
engineer in this case was not prepared to do the waiting, and Bessemer regarded
the need for better material for ordnance as a personal challenge. That he acted
with celerity may be seen from a look at dates. Tests on his rotating projectile
took place in France in December 1854, and on 10th January 1855 we find in the
records of the Patent Office Bessemer's first application for "Improvements
in the Manufacture of Iron and Steel"
- characteristic of the energy and promptitude with which, throughout a long life, he attacked a multitude of problems. There followed about eighteen months of intense experimental activity, and on 11th August 1856 at a British Association Meeting at Cheltenham, Bessemer read a paper on "The Manufacture of Iron without Fuel." It was a provocative title, and, bearing in mind the limited technical practices of the day, it described a startling technique the proposal to blow cold air through molten iron and finish up with material hotter than that with which one started and with a ductile and malleable product instead of a hard brittle one must have come as a considerable shock to the ironmasters and engineers of 1856.
Not a few people went to the meeting to scoff and remained, if not to pray, at least to praise. It was this underestimate of the importance, which, indirectly, led to the publication in full of this historic paper in The Times newspaper.
Their correspondent at the British Association Meeting confessed to Bessemer that, largely owing to the jocular comments he had heard before the reading, he had not taken as full a report as he wished. If Bessemer would lend him a copy he promised that it would appear in full in The Times. 5 This it did in the issue of 14th August, 1856, thus ensuring to that journal what, in the light of after-events and in the slang of to-day, would be called a 'scoop.' If a journalist of that day was impressed to this extent by the change in the atmosphere during the meeting, how great must that have been?
There are two main themes running all through the paper: the production of malleable iron which was much better than anything then known and the achievement of the high temperature necessary to melt this without extraneous heat. These, together with the method, were the burden of Bessemer's disclosure. The description of the apparatus reads like a patent specification, from which it may well have been taken-there is a wealth of meticulous detail. The advantages of the product over wrought iron are dealt with in, what for the ironmasters of the day, must have seemed minatory terms -freedom from slag, unlimited size, no hard spots, better rolling properties and so forth.
The reader of the paper today is immediately struck with the awareness of the
lines on which the method must, and indeed did, ultimately develop. Practically
all the important matters having a bearing either on the product or the process
are mentioned. It is stated that, whilst primarily the method produces fluid
malleable iron which can be cast and worked, free from all the deficiencies
of the puddled iron of the day, the possibility of a range of material of varying
carbon content, from traces to cast-iron proportions, is clearly indicated.
The ability to produce large masses of any quality for engineering work is specially
noted, whilst the economic advantages of the largest-scale production possible
is recognised, as is the need to have all operations of a series in what to-day
is called an integrated plant, properly balanced.
The recovery of iron pellets from the slag or from the converter ejections is recommended, and the use of scrap, even down to the thrifty use of waste-heat methods of preheating it, is clearly described. All these aspects of almost universal applicability were appreciated by one whose experience of the iron industry was of months', rather than of years', duration, and at a time when the steel industry, as we know it today, was as yet hardly born! This paper was indeed the charter on which it was founded, and the completeness of its statement of general principles is a major tribute to Bessemer's perspicacity and prescience.
Some of the explanations advanced in giving a very graphic description of the blow may not stand up to modern metallurgical theory, but there is no doubt that he had a fairly clear idea, in general terms, of what happened when iron was blown down to steel.
Coming down to a more mundane plane, there remains one other outstanding feature of the paper - its claim to be regarded as a very fine effort in salesmanship. Proof of this, if proof were necessary, comes from the numbers of licences which were taken up within a few weeks of the meeting. Five separate firms in widely dispersed areas took up licences to make iron by the new process from their own available pig-iron supplies. They paid, in all, £27,000.6 There was at least one other who attempted to operate the process without this formality. In all cases, however, the results were the same. The first halcyon flush of enthusiasm was over and, in each case, to quote Bessemer himself, " . . . . the results of the trials were most disastrous." 7 Brittle when cold, unworkable when hot, the metal produced showed no resemblance to the sample bars which Bessemer had made in his trial furnace and which he had exhibited with such justifiable pride at the British Association Meeting. Bessemer, like that other unfortunate in the Shakespeare Sonnets, was
"The painful warrior, famoused for fight,
After a thousand victories, once foiled,
Is from the book of honour razed quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he toiled."
This setback was the prelude to two to three years of hard and unrewarding labour. In fact, it took rather longer to define the limits of the process than it had taken to evolve it in the first place. The composition of the pig iron was an obvious starting point, and from there Bessemer set out on his quest. It is perhaps difficult for us, used as we are to analysis figures obtained in a matter of minutes, to appreciate the time which such an investigation would take one hundred years ago, especially when the actual cause of the trouble was unknown. The analytical efforts of a well-known Professor of Chemistry, 8 at last made it clear that phosphorus was one of the impurities, which accounted for the unsatisfactory nature of the product and the apparent failure of the process. This discovery was followed by a futile experimental campaign designed to remove phosphorus: blowing gases (hydrogen, methane, etc.) through the metal was tried, as was the use of fluxes. The advocates of the ultra-scientific approach to technical problems will find a considerable amount of ammunition against empiricism in the efforts of Bessemer at this time. In the end the problem was left to be solved twenty years later by the genius of Sidney Gilchrist Thomas, and Bessemer turned his attention to the production of Low-phosphorus irons as a starting point.
Whilst engaged in the quest for low-phosphorus and low-sulphur British iron,
Bessemer decided to import a quantity of Swedish charcoal pig iron, which was
known to be low in these elements. He had obviously two ends in view: (i) to
confirm that phosphorus was the element he must remove, and (ii) to re-assure
himself that he had in fact a practicable process and that he was not chasing
some mirage which had led him into a particularly baffling and unprofitable
desert. The Swedish iron when it arrived fulfilled both these ends; the metal
was successfully converted into pure soft malleable iron and also into steel
of various degrees of hardness. This last phrase calls for special remark. It
is true that in his paper Bessemer foresaw the possibility of making a wide
range of iron-carbon alloys, but this is the first note that he had in fact
done so. From this point onwards, the emphasis is on steel rather than on iron.
It is doubtful if at this stage, at least, Bessemer appreciated how far the
success of these tests rested upon the relatively high manganese content of
the Swedish iron. This not only made the direct production of steels of varying
carbon content possible, but avoided failure due to red-shortness when the metal
was blown down to 'soft malleable iron.' If, in fact, he had made the low-phosphorus
trials with an iron low in manganese he might well rave had to wait a still
longer time before emitting the well-justified whoop of triumph with which he
saluted the results of the Swedish-iron trials. 9
If it had happened that he had received supplies of low-phosphorus British iron,
low in manganese, before the Swedish deliveries, these, when they came, would
have underlined the importance of manganese, although the fact that the Swedish
iron was 'charcoal' iron night well have drawn yet another red herring across
There was certainly an element of good fortune in the circumstances which led to the purchase of the original experimental iron from a London ironfounder who sent him ".... grey Blaenavon iron which he was then using in his business, and which I accepted simply as pig iron, without ever suspecting that pig iron from other sources was so different, and would give such contrary results."10
Bessemer in several places in his writings notes the advantages accruing from
his comparative ignorance of metallurgy. There is no doubt that this is true
as far as the initial approach to his problem was concerned, but it is just
as certain that even a small modicum of the then available knowledge would,
in the later stages, have eliminated months of doubt and uncertainty, e.g. the
reason for the non-removal of phosphorus was pointed out by Gruner 11
of Paris as early as 1857.
To say, as we must, that in some degree Bessemer owed something to others is not to detract in any way from the magnitude of his own contribution. This would seem to be an appropriate point at which to consider what Bessemer owed to two others whose names should be remembered at this Centenary time -Goran Frederick Goransson and Robert F. Mushet.
Goransson was a leading Swedish ironmaster who had bought part of the Swedish Bessemer patent in June 1857. He was supplied with plant, converter, and blowing engine by Bessemer, but had great trouble in achieving successful operation. He finally scrapped the converter supplied and erected a fixed vessel of the same kind as that used in Bessemer's original experiments. After many disappointments and failures relating to the quantity and pressure of air supply, successful operation was achieved on 19th July 1858.12The practice adopted was to obtain varying grades of steel by stopping blowing at the required carbon. As the metal was high in manganese no final addition was required. The only difficulty was to know when to stop. Goransson himself stated that Professor Eggertz's carbon test, the practice of which, in thousands of steelworks laboratories at a later date was to become the starting point of many a steelworks metallurgical career, finally solved the difficulty. This test was developed about 1861 and was first described in 1862,13 and was no doubt evolved to meet the requirements of the process. The only way to determine the approximate carbon content until its introduction, was to forge droplets from the converter. Goransson 14 sent some of his steel to this country and it was successfully worked up into various products -a welcome contribution to morale, if nothing else, at a time when things were not going smoothly on the Bessemer home front. It would seem that, at this point, Bessemer, with Swedish iron as raw material, could make steel of varying qualities, but that the results were irregular. Goransson, without doubt, contributed the all-important 'know-how' of this control. There is evidence that in September 1858, when Goransson visited London, Bessemer was granulating his blown metal, sorting it out into carbon qualities, and remelting it in crucibles- a practice which would remove many of the economic advantages of the process. An entry for June 18th 1859 in the diary of W. D. Allen, Bessemer's brother-in-law, states 15 " First made steel direct." There is little doubt that this short entry epitomises the important contribution which Goransson made to the development of the Bessemer process. But the success on Swedish methods and materials was a limited one: it was merely a confirmation that the process should, with certain not very widely available raw materials, make soft malleable iron or varying grades of steel.
The real problem was to make good malleable iron from British pig iron even if low in phosphorus, made with what at that time was termed mineral fuel. There is no doubt that Mushet knew the answer to this before Bessemer did. Within a few weeks of the Cheltenham meeting, Mushet made iron ductile when hot from red-short blown metal by remelting it with spiegel. He applied for a patent on 22nd September 1856, the complete specification being filed in March 1857. During this time Bessemer was in dire trouble looking frantically for cause and cure of both the defects in his product. It is known that, on hearing of Mushet's success, he visited him several times. Mushet, however, felt himself bound in honour to others-a great misfortune not only for Bessemer, but, as Mushet acknowledged later, for himself.16
So far as Bessemer was concerned, the failure to link their efforts led to
a lost year or two and much anxiety and expense, but in Mushet's
case he undoubtedly lost a wonderful opportunity of financial gain and a larger share of posterity's laurels than he has in fact received.
To say, however, that Mushet knew of the vital beneficial effect of manganese before Bessemer is not to say that Bessemer was necessarily directly indebted to Mushet for the ultimate success of the process. Bessemer himself claims that his attention was first directed to manganese as the key to his trouble by reading the supplement to Dr. Ure's "Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures and Mining."'17 This described how Heath many years before had turned indifferent into good-quality iron by the use of manganese. Bessemer immediately commenced experiments. This must have been late in 1856 or early in 1857. He claims that these experiments with manganese were made about a month before any one of Mushet's patents were published or could be known to the world. As Mushet's successful addition of spiegel was only two weeks after the Cheltenham paper, it is certain that he was before Bessemer with a solution for eliminating red-shortness. Bessemer's complete story on manganese in steelmaking, however, certainly justifies his position that Mushet had no legal claim on him. Mushet's patent had been allowed to lapse and the use of manganese was already known in crucible steelmaking practice: Bessemer's position was that Mushet's patent had "pointed out to me some rights which I already possessed."18 It was with this in mind that, when asked, he came to Mushet's financial assistance, when that gentleman was in monetary difficulties: later, he paid him an annuity of £300. It is pleasing to note also, from the Institute's records, that Bessemer was a cordial supporter of the proposal to award Mushet the Bessemer Medal in 1876.19
The limitation on the use of spiegel was soon realised: it was only in making higher-carbon products that it could be employed, and Bessemer later went so far as to say that some of the reports of unsatisfactory Bessemer steel which delayed its adoption for some purposes were due to its use. The low manganese/carbon ratio led to high carbon content in steels where a low carbon was desirable, e.g. in ship plates. The story of how Bessemer took active steps to obtain high manganese-carbon material, known to us today as ferromanganese, is one of the many interesting sidelights of metallurgical history with which he was associated.
Bessemer claimed repeatedly that owing to pressure from friends, he had described his process when it was proven scientifically but not commercially. We have seen that the all-important step from the experimental results, described at Cheltenham, to commercial practicability took at least two years.
Whatever may have been the doubts and difficulties associated with the metallurgy of the process, there never was any question about the suitability of the plant which Bessemer designed for it. His mechanical genius had full scope and flowered prolifically: he not only developed the pneumatic idea, but he handed over a literally complete operating practice, which has stood the test of time. There have been, naturally, variations in engineering techniques - electrical, hydraulic, and mechanical, which have been applied to later operations, but in essentials the units at work today differ but little from those which Bessemer designed one hundred years ago.
Before describing the rapid expansion of the process subsequent to 1859, we can look with profit, I think, at the birth of the original idea and its growth. Bessemer wrote 20 that the object he set himself
" .was to produce a metal having characteristics comparable with those of wrought iron or steel and yet capable of being run into a mould or ingot in a fluid condition."
The first experiments in this direction were based on the general idea of dilution.
Having fused pig iron in a coal-fired reverberatory furnace, he introduced bars
of blister steel. The high temperature necessary for the fusion of large proportions
of steel in the bath was obtained by increasing the relative fire grate to hearth
area and by introducing additional air through openings in the fire bridge.
He claims that some of the samples of metal which he produced were, after annealing,
of extremely fine grain and great strength. There seems little doubt that had
he continued with these experiments, what ten years later became known as the
Siemens-Martin process would have been developed at that time.
The train of incidents by which Bessemer was deflected from his original open-hearth attack to pneumatic purification of the metal is by no means clear. Bessemer himself claims 21 that in melting down pig iron in his reverberatory furnace what were apparently some pieces of iron were left on the bank and, even with increased air, remained in situ. Later still, having failed to melt them, he discovered that they were in fact shells of decarburized iron. This led him to infer that the end he had in view could be achieved by the use of air blast on hot metal. From this conclusion followed experiments in a crucible with a single tuyere, and these, in their turn, led to further experiments with what were in fact rudimentary forms of stationary converters, He finally succeeded in producing an ingot about 6 cwt in weight and 10 in. square of purified iron which was malleable, and this, to use his own words, 22 was " . . . . the first born of the many thousands of the square ingots that now come into existence every day."
Bessemer's brother-in-law, W. D. Allen, gives a slightly different account
of these early events during the interesting reminiscences with which he acknowledged
the award to himself of the Bessemer Medal in 1890.
23 According to his account, they had failed to
melt some iron because of poor draught in the furnace. A small quantity was,
however, melted at the bottom, and Bessemer suggested that "the nozzle
be put in, to try and convert that which was melted." In a few minutes
"the whole pig was in a beautiful fluid condition." Now the apparent
contradictions in the recollections of two elderly gentlemen forty or more years
later may not seem of very great importance, especially as in the event itself
things could not very well have gone better, but there are two reasons why we
must examine them. In the first place as I suggested earlier, Bessemers' original
idea was obviously to improve the strength of the iron mass by dilution with
a stronger material: the process with which he finally finished up bears no
relation whatever to this principle. Further, it is not clear, apart from the
incident of the unfused shells, at what point he switched to the general principle
of purification by oxidation. This may be an early illustration of the practice,
still in vogue in many quarters, of providing a fortuitous empirical result
with an appropriate theory, after the event. It would have been pleasing to
suggest that purification by air blast with its wonderful directness and simplicity
was characteristic of the Bessemer method of approach to any problem, as many
of his earlier patents exhibited these features, but, in this, the most important
invention of his life, there would seem to have been some element of luck in
the way in which he stumbled on the fundamental principles and applied them
to this process.
The second reason why this aspect is of some importance relates to what one might call the Kelly controversy. It is generally agreed now that Kelly, an ironmaker in the Southern States of America, was using an air blast to refine pig iron some six or seven years before Bessemer was even interested in ferrous metallurgy. Iron plates made by Kelly's 'air boiling' process had been in use for some time, although the process ultimately had been abandoned. What Kelly did not achieve, in the first instance, was the liquefaction of the purified iron, and there is no doubt that it was only after he patented his air-blast method, subsequent to Bessemer's American patent, that he set out to get a liquid product. On the other hand, Bessemer's claim, at least for his American patent, excludes injecting streams of air for the purpose of refining iron, "that being a process known and used before." It would appear, from what little impartial evidence there is, that Kelly was concerned in the first instance with improving the method of making refined iron and malleable iron, whilst Bessemer's intention was to substitute a better ultimate product than that obtained by the puddling process. Bessemer's skill in engineering and plant design meant that, personally, he was able to develop practical apparatus for commercial production much earlier than Kelly and his associates, and had this field protected by patents.
It is at this point that another figure who made a major contribution to Bessemer practice comes upon the scene-Alexander Lyman Holley. A consulting engineer, already well established, he was sent to England in the early days of the American Civil War (1862) to study improved materials for armaments. He immediately acquired a licence for Bessemer's American patent and, on his return, proceeded to install a plant. In the meantime, the Kelly interests with a strong patent position, made stronger by acquiring Mushet's American patent on the use of spiegel, were also going into production. After two to three years of patent dispute (neither party being able apparently, in the American patent tangle, to make steel without infringing the rights of the other), they came together in a fusion of interests, and the pneumatic process in America finally started production about 1866. Whatever may be the merits or de merits of Kelly's claims, it is significant that it has never been known by any other name in America than the Bessemer process, as Carnegie once remarked, no one doubted that "Bessemer invented Bessemer." From 1866 onwards the development of the process was phenomenal, and the American practice rapidly achieved a pre-eminence in speed of working and output rates compared with those obtaining in Europe.
We have already seen that Bessemer had established all the essential mechanical
plant items of his process, but the Americans, and particularly Holley, modified
and improved these to secure high output and fast operating times-an early example
of the beneficial results to be obtained from the study of what our American
friends to-day have taught us to call ' logistics.'
The engineer who was chiefly responsible for these changes was Holley, and one is tempted to linger for a moment on the work and character of this fine man, who well deserves a place in our Bessemer Centenary Celebrations. He was an early example of that type of technologist, the need for which is being realised more and more today: his educational training embraced a degree in the humanities from Yale and an engineering apprenticeship in various spheres. He combined culture and technical skill, while he was endowed with a quite unusual personal charm. Before his early death at the age of 50, he had made a major contribution to the introduction and development of Bessemer process engineering. The Bessemer Medal, recognizing these achievements, was awarded posthumously in 1882.
For the reasons just given, the process was already well established in Europe
before the American practice matured, but this did not take place without hard
work on the part of Bessemer and his friends. Following the solution of the
problems set by the disasters experienced in 1856, the process had to be virtually
re-introduced. Bessemer read a paper 24
in May 1859 to the Institution of Civil Engineers on the "Manufacture of
Iron and Steel," and this represented the revised version of the Cheltenham
paper, in so far that it brought matters up to date and indicated that all was
now in train for successful commercial production. It was a lucid statement
of the advantages of the new method, and was obviously directed at a wide range
of potential licensees.
It was not to be wondered at that the ironmasters, in view of their experience on the first attempt, were somewhat reluctant to take further risks, even although they did not lose the £27,000 they had paid for licences in 1856-Bessemer and his partners bought the rights back for, in all, £5500 more than they had been paid for them. This comforting piece of capital appreciation, however, did not remove the incredulity engendered by the earlier debacle, and the resumption of the use of the process and the recruitment of new licensees was a slow business.
As far as the steelmakers were concerned, no one of the Sheffield companies
would adopt the process unless on monopoly terms, which Bessemer was determined
not to concede. He adopted 'war-into-the-enemy-camp' tactics and decided to
build a steel works of his own in Sheffield. This he did, and, in addition to
competing with the established Sheffield steelmakers in tool steels and similar
products, the works made a large variety of products for various uses, with
a view to demonstrating the applicability of Bessemer steel. The facilities
the works provided for practical demonstration did much to accelerate the adoption
of the process for steelmaking by others.
The quest for licensees was accompanied by an invasion of markets, not only those at that time sacrosanct to wrought iron but new markets for which the new material appeared to be particularly suited. A paper read to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1861 and the International Exhibition of 1862, at which Bessemer had a comprehensive display of various manufactures made from his steel, showed that real progress was being made. It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that the replacement of wrought iron by steel was either automatic or rapid. In spite of advantages in cost of production and in many other directions, there was a considerable measure of resistance to the changeover.
Broadly speaking, the engineering world was divided into two factions; those who dared and those who did not.
Some greatly daring, went so far as to be not only users of the product but financial backers of the process. The display at the International Exhibition of 1862 had so interested a group of Lancashire engineers in the financial possibilities of the process that they set out to purchase a share in the patent rights.25 Bessemer was quite ready to recover something of his earlier outlays, but would not consider any arrangement which did not leave him in complete control of the patents, so far as royalty rates and licences were concerned. In the end, after very short and amicable negotiations, he was paid £50,000 by ten members of the group for a quarter share in the proceeds of the invention. The fortunate investors, in the ensuing ten years, received something over £260,000. In these days when the technique of take-over bids appears to consist of the shuffling and reshuffling scrip, it might be of interest to record that at the dinner at which the bargain we are describing was made, each of the ten gentlemen concerned produced
" ..from the depth of his pocket a neat little roll of Bank of England notes to the value of £5,000."
Yet another note on this felicitous event: the well-known portrait of Henry Bessemer by Lehmann which hangs in The Iron and Steel Institute Council room was commissioned by Mr. Platt, the leader of the group, and his friends, and presented to Mrs. Bessemer.
Returning to the engineer users who dared-boilermakers, shipbuilders, and a reasonable number of engineers lined up with the railways in what, in all circumstances, was a rapid adoption of the material. Lancashire boilermakers were making boilers from plates of Bessemer steel in 1859, whilst shipbuilders commenced to use the material about 1863. The latter use was considerably encouraged by an early regulation of Lloyds that 20% less metal was required in ships built from steel than in those built from wrought iron. The confidence of the railways is best demonstrated when one remembers that the London and North Western Railway 26 put down a Bessemer steelmaking plant for their own use at Crewe in 1869. There were, of course, many obvious reasons for their interest and enthusiasm: railways were expanding rapidly, rail wear was a major item in maintenance cost, and their demand for material was getting beyond the available puddled-iron capacity. Bessemer himself records 27 that twenty-four days after reading the Cheltenham paper, he sent two ingots to Dowlais where they were rolled into rails. These, however, were an experiment in rolling only, and the first rails 28 laid for trial purposes under service conditions were at Camden Goods Station in May 1862.
They gave a wonderful record of service when compared with wrought iron.
Lined up with the forces of reaction- those who did not dare- -were both the War Office and the Admiralty. In the case of the War Office, many years were to pass before a single steel gun was made, whilst nineteen years after Bessemer's discovery the Chief Naval Architect of the Royal Navy read a paper 29 to the Institution of Naval Architects explaining just why there were no steel ships in the British Navy, although his potential enemies across the Channel had, at that date, three steel ships.
It certainly seems ironical that the material which was developed primarily for ordnance should be in use by almost every country in the world for that purpose except its country of origin. It is no part of our business here to sit in judgment upon individuals, but, unquestionably, the trouble with the War Office had its origin in personal views and interests.
- Bessemer interviewed, without result, the then War Minister, Mr. Sidney Herbert, 30 a fine type of English gentleman politician who was probably well used to extraneous pressures : he was the not unwilling spearpoint of Miss Florence Nightingale's attacks on the War Office and the Army Medical Services. However, in the case of Bessemer and his steel, he fell back on the time-worn practice of consulting his technical advisers. In this, both he and Bessemer were less than lucky. The official concerned was Superintendent of the Royal Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal. In the early days of Bessemer's experiments on steel development, the officer who filled this post became a Bessemer steel enthusiast and, in fact, was responsible for convincing Sir John Brown and Company in Sheffield that they should install the Bessemer process: he himself made a similar recommendation with respect to Woolwich. Unfortunately, in 1859, just when Bessemer was out of his troubles and when he was commencing to make ordnance for other governments, the new occupant of this office was as antagonistic to Bessemer as his predecessor was favourable, and nothing more was heard at that time of the proposal to install the Bessemer plant at Woolwich. The British Government held out until force of example from abroad and the removal of the obstructionist from his post at Woolwich cleared the way for rational action. The moral of this story, if there is one -and this may be a challenge to some people in office today -is that there should be experts to advise Her Majesty's Ministers of the responsibility and disinterestedness of their experts. As a similar moral could be drawn from Bessemer's abortive relations with the Admiralty, there is perhaps no point today in elaborating the reasons for the delay in introducing steel for naval shipbuilding in the later years of the last century.
The growth of the steel industry all over the world was rapid, as the usefulness and the relative cheapness of the new material became known. In 1865 the Siemens process was discovered and also made rapid strides. The year 1907 is perhaps an interesting one, as it was in that year that open-hearth production eclipsed that of the Bessemer process. The relative output of these two major processes is largely a result of available raw material and the existing techniques at any given time or during any given period. It would certainly be rash, in view of recent developments in basic Bessemer practice, to suggest that the relative decline in total Bessemer-steel production, as distinct from acid Bessemer-steel production, is permanent. Meantime, whatever may happen in the future, nothing can rob Bessemer of the credit for introducing a new type of material: of showing how it could be made and, more important, how it could be used. He was the creator of a new age.
To Bessemer then, as an individual, we turn to discover, if we can, what manner
of man this was, the result of whose labours did so much to assist in the material
development of the world and so largely colour all our lives. He has been included,
and rightly, as a member of a great succession, stretching through mythology
to technical history. About sixty years ago a contemporary technical writer
31 placed his name with
those of Tubal Cain, Hephaestus, Dud Dudley, Huntsman, and Cort.
Tubal Cain, the earliest recorded 'artificer in brass and iron' ; Hephaestus, the god of the smithy fire; Dud Dudley, who replaced the use of a rapidly diminishing charcoal with that of the then plenteous pit coal; Huntsman, who founded the modern Sheffield high-carbon steel trade; and Cort, the inventor of the puddling process. Surely Bessemer, as the inventor who gave to the world the first steel as we understand the term today, does indeed take his place with these legendary figures.
But not only was he in a great line of succession, he was a great man in an
age of great men. His contemporaries in many walks of life were giants in their
own spheres. The great Victorians a short time ago passed through a period of
partial eclipse, but once again it is being realised that Thackeray and Dickens
in literature, Ruskin in art and criticism, Florence Nightingale in nursing
reforms, Faraday in science, and many others were indeed major revelations of
the heights to which the human spirit can raise men in worthy causes. In such
a time and in such a company lived Henry Bessemer.
Born in 1813, the early years in the life of this founder of a modern industry were pastoral. His parents settled on a small estate at Charlton, Hertfordshire-only 33 miles from London - but under the transport arrangements of the day, an isolated rural community. Under a long since vanished social code, young Bessemer was saluted respectfully by the villagers as 'Master Henry,' 32 which suggests, as his father had his works in the village, that the new industrial feudalism was already on the way. This rural background did not, as it might well have done, suppress a strong bias in the youth towards things mechanical. Indeed, it encouraged it, for his father's works, associated with type founding, together with a well-equipped workshop provided for Bessemer's own activities, gave ample means, after his schooldays were over, for self-education and the development of his natural bent. When at last the family moved to London, when Bessemer was seventeen, he went as a country-bred boy but with characteristics and powers stirring within him which bore no relation to country pursuits. At this early age he was conscious that nature had endowed him with an inventive turn of mind and with a full share of perseverance, these gifts being supported by a sanguine temperament and boundless energy. The fertility of his genius was soon to manifest itself, and its results run like a highly coloured thread through what might otherwise have been the orthodox life pattern of a successful Victorian businessman.
Married at 21, Bessemer had homes successively at Northampton Square, St. Pancras, Highgate, and finally Denmark Hill -rising in scale and environment with rising fortune. Early in his career, in the delightful expression of the time, he became what was known as a 'warm' man, and, throughout a long life, he followed his inventive star. He lived until he was 85, his wife having predeceased him by a little under a year. He had honours showered upon him from all over the world, not only by rulers and governments but by learned and professional societies of all kinds. In the United States new towns and cities were given his name.
We, as an institute, remember him today as one 4 of our founders; as our second
President, and as the donor of the Bessemer Medal endowment - a continual reminder
of his interest in our aims and purposes. But one cannot bring a person to life
by a mere chronicle of dates, events, and social environment: the more we can
learn of the characteristics and achievements of a person, the less important
do these seem.
Bessemer's outstanding characteristic was a passion for invention: this, and not a mere material ambition, was the inner dynamic which drove him forward. He could not hear of any problem without experiencing an urge to evolve a solution for it: he could not see an existing method without an immediate impulse to improve upon it. There was in him an overmastering sense of the ineffectualness of many of the current ways of doing things, and an overwhelming confidence that he, personally, could find a better way of doing them. There is one incident which shows not only how over-powering this urge could be but how acutely conscious he was of it. In 1856 when the early defects of the steel process became apparent, following the failure of the various licensees to make it work, it was clear that a prolonged and probably very expensive campaign was in prospect. There was no doubt in Bessemer's mind that it must be carried out certainly that it must go on until a solution was found, and that he must pay for it. It is recorded that he set aside a trust fund 33 of £10,000 for his wife's benefit before committing his remaining resources to the great quest-prudent perhaps, an indication of his marital thoughtfulness, but, above all, an admission of his realisation of how completely he would become absorbed financially and otherwise in the pursuit of his ultimate aim. His demon would drive him.
The diversity of the subjects to which Bessemer directed his inventive efforts is amazing, but, before looking more closely at the details, this would seem a convenient point at which to note two interesting ideas which had more than passing importance in his personal life. Incidentally, they were the only two of the many proliferations of his inventiveness which he shrouded with the cloak of personal secrecy rather than with the dubious protective shield of the Patent Office.
The first related to a means of preventing the fraudulent use of government stamps on legal documents 34-a practice which, at that time, was costing the Government about £100,000 per annum. The stamps were being removed from old and useless parchment deeds and stuck on new documents. Bessemer's idea was that a stamp might be made which would be impossible to transfer from one deed to another, and also that it should be impracticable to make from the stamp a die which would be capable of reproducing it. He achieved this by making a stamp with a series of fine perforations. So impressed were the Stamp Office with the idea that they proposed to adopt it, and to appoint him Superintendent of Stamps at a salary of £600 to £800 per annum- -a consummation which might well, had it matured, have altered the course of history. Bessemer was explaining his system to the young lady to whom he was engaged to be married when she cut through his description of the elaborations of his scheme with the suggestion that the same end could be achieved by merely having a movable date on the die to perforate the stamps. When this variation was suggested to Somerset House they accepted it, and the need for a Superintendent of Stamps disappeared. This apparently disastrous feminine incursion into what probably even Bessemer, in the atmosphere of the time, regarded as a masculine preserve, had a pleasing if belated consequence : forty-five years later he was knighted for this service to H.M. Government. In view of his wife's part in the matter, it was surely appropriate that she should become Lady Bessemer, a view of the situation which Sir Henry himself shared.
The second idea which was retained as a business secret and never patented was a method which Bessemer evolved for the manufacture of bronze powder or what is more loosely known, even to-day, as 'gold paint.' He discovered that this powder was being sold at what seemed to him a fabulous price and that all the material available was made in Germany. He immediately set about finding a method of manufacture which would give a cheaper product. In this he succeeded and, taking advantage of existing prices, the business proved immensely profitable. So much so, that he achieved not only a comfortable income from it for many years to come but also a sufficiency of ready money to carry on the various experimental campaigns which his inventive mind was continually evolving. The year in which he commenced this manufacture was 1843.
Reverting to the ideas which Bessemer patented throughout his long life, these
were not only extraordinarily diverse in method but covered a wide range of
activities. One might describe his path to fame and fortune as paved with patent
specifications: there were well over 100 of these, and it was estimated that
he had paid £10,000 fees. They related to such varied subjects as ornamental
castings, which included an anticipation of electrodep6sition; imitation Utrecht
velvet and various other artistic activities; the manufacture of glass, manufacture
of sugar, and improvements in ordnance; then came the iron and steel group ;
and finally those relating to his famous attempt to conquer seasickness- -the
Bessemer Saloon. In his later years he interested himself in the construction
of a solar furnace, a diamond-polishing machine, and a mirror-grinding machine.
Only the iron and steel patents could be described as really profitable, but
to describe the financial return from them in these terms is perhaps a meiosis.
Financial return seemed to come to Bessemer readily. The business acumen, which he evinced in all his dealings, was characteristic. He never studied a problem out of its financial context, although not necessarily for his own personal gain. It is this combination of ingenuity--early in his career he was known as "the ingenious Mr. Bessemer "-and business capacity which distinguished him from so many other technically gifted but inept business men. Yet reading of his financial successes, one is never tempted to apply to his activities the derogatory word 'greed.' His rewards were but his deserts. In this connection, one might quote the summing up of an American author 35
"Bessemer presented that new and engaging figure-an inventor who was also shrewd and who could keep his secrets locked in his own bosom, who reaped financial rewards, and who, unlike the familiar plodder at retorts and cauldrons, was rich, well dressed, already the possessor of a luxurious home. No greedy capitalist- the traditional ogre in the life story of most inventors- stood at Besscmer's elbow, grudgingly supplying money and decarnping with the accomplished work."
There would have seemed to have been so much of Bessemer, the inventor, apart
altogether from the inventor of the Bessemer steel process, that it is difficult
to believe that, even with his abounding energy, there was much time for other
activities. Whilst his interests and his friendships were largely interrelated
with his business connections, there must have been Henry Bessemer, the man.
One has often thought that the personal sartorial and other appendages of the
male in Victorian times made it rather easy for the ineffectual and the down-right
pass themselves off as having something of a presence and of being something of a person. On the other hand, when character, dignity, and integrity are, in fact, present in full measure, the real sensation of presence and power follow naturally, as they did with Henry Bessemer. He may appear to have been rather intolerant of any encroachment on his rights and position: this is manifested in the belligerence with which he attacked various antagonistic interests in the early days of the steel process, and was at that time an invaluable characteristic, but there was a counterbalancing generosity. As an instance, on another Centenary Celebration I had occasion to quote the kindly and generous words with which Bessemer greeted the news of Thomas's successful solution 36of the phosphorus problem. There are, too, good reasons to suppose that his hidden generosities, affecting and benefiting many lives were on an extensive scale. The portraits available and the records of those who knew him confirm these various qualities. It is, of course, not remarkable that a person of his genius and with such characteristics should achieve outstanding distinction as a person, but the kindliness and warm friendly look of the brown eyes of the portraits enrich and mellow the whole picture.
The brief glimpses of his home life which have been vouchsafed to us suggest that it was indeed a place to which the protagonist from more strenuous spheres could return for rest and invigoration: his wife and three children were at hand to provide these. His marriage was ideally happy and his home bore testimony to the artistic good taste of the partners. The courtesies of a more courteous age were observed between them in the day-to-day contacts. Their normal mode of life was unostentatious, and the household, when alone, was essentially homely in the best sense of the term. At a later stage when major-activities were somewhat reduced, it is not surprising to know that his attention was absorbed in introducing domestic improvements in his own and the homes of his children. He must have been, in fact, an early exponent of the modern practice of 'do-it-yourself.'
Bessemer the man was brilliant in the world of invention, formidable in that of business, and homely and kindly in the family circle. The dust of controversies which all major new discoveries stir up has now settled, and perhaps we might close this survey of his work and life with some words of Andrew Carnegie's, 37 than whom no one had more personal reason for gratitude to him and was continually expressing it:
Rest easy, ' Great King of Steel,' and smile on-all attempts to rob you of immortality and of the gratitude of the world."
"Roaring Century" , 1946, London, Hamish Hamilton.
2 ABRAHAM S. HEWITT: Journal of the Iron & Steel Institute, 1890, No 2 p.89
3 ERNEST F. LANGE: "Bessemer, Goransson & Mushet," p31-32: 1913, Manchester Literary & Philosophical Society.
4 R. W. RAYMOND: " Holley Memorial Volume," p.134: 1884, Institute of Mining Engineers.
5,6,7,8,9,&10 SIR HENRY BESSEMER: F.R.S. : "An Autobiography," 1905, London, "Engineering".
11 Bulletin de l'Industrie Minerale, vol.11, p.199.
12 SVEN FORNANDER: Private communication.
13 Jernkontorets Annaler, 1862, p.49-58.
14 & 15 ERNEST F. LANGE : loc.cit.,p.14 & 15.
16 FRED OSBORN: "The Story of the Mushets," p.55: 1952, London, Thos. Nelson and Sons Ltd.
17 & 18 SIR HENRY BESSEMER : loc.cit.,p.280
19 F. M. OSBORN: loc.cit.,p.83.
20, 21 & 22 SIR HENRY BESSEMER: loc. cit., p.138.
23 Journal Iron Steel Institute.,1890, No.1 p.16
24 Journal Institute Civil Engineering., 1859
25,26,27,28,29&30 SIR HENRY BESSEMER: loc.cit.
31 Cassiers Magazine
32,33 & 34 SIR HENRY BESSEMER: loc.cit.
35 BURTON J. HENDRICK: "The Life of Andrew Carnegie," pp.134-135 : 1933 London. Heinemann.
36 J. MITCHELL: Journal Iron and Steel Institute., 1950, vol. 165, p.5.
37 BURTON J. HENDRICK : loc.cit., p.145
Know what "loc. cit" means? No, neither did I. So I looked it up .............................it means " In the place cited" (Latin "loco citato").
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