Sir Henry Bessemer

The English inventor Sir Henry Bessemer (1813-1898) was a pioneer in the manufacture of inexpensive steel through his development of the steelmaking process which bears his name.

Henry Bessemer was born Jan. 19, 1813, in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. He left school to work for his father, a typefounder. In 1830 Bessemer set up his own business in London for producing art-metals, fusible alloys, and bronze powder. He was a prolific inventor, both before and after his key contribution to the iron and steel industries. He invented machines for composing type and for working graphite for pencils; at age 20 he was an exhibitor at the Royal Academy.

Fixed Converter

In 1854, following the rejection of an artillery invention, Bessemer sought an iron tougher than any then available and experimentally fused blister steel with pig iron. Apparently it was during these trials that he noted the effect of air in removing carbon from iron, a process essential for its conversion to steel. In 1855 he successfully produced a low-grade steel from molten pig iron in a side-blown fixed converter without any external source of heat. Bessemer patented the process in 1856 and described it in a paper, "Manufacture of Malleable Iron and Steel without Fuel." Attracted by the promise of economy in time, labor, and fuel, many wrought-iron producers tried the process; all reported total failure to produce any useful material.

Bessemer, dumbfounded and discredited, sought both cause and cure. The principal causes were twofold: the "blow" left the metal full of oxygen, and typical British pig irons were phosphorus-rich. Both led to brittleness in forging. The former fault was recognized and cured by Robert Forester Mushet, while Bessemer's Swedish licensee, G. Göransson, established that phosphorus was the other trouble, but no immediate cure was forthcoming.

Tilting Converter

Bessemer and his associates set up a steelworks in Sheffield in 1858, using phosphorus-free ore from Sweden and one part of England. There the familiar bottom blown tilting converter, in which the air blast supports the molten metal, was introduced in 1860, but Bessemer was unable to raise much new support among ironmasters. By 1879, when Gilchrist and Thomas showed that phosphorus could be removed by using basic instead of acidic furnace linings and fluxes, the open-hearth steelmaking process, with its ability to accept cold scrap in the charge, had become established in Britain. Thus British steelmakers have never greatly utilized either acid or basic Bessemer plants; much of Europe and America, with their then less-developed iron industries, widely adopted the basic Bessemer process. In the United States part of the Bessemer process had been patented by William Kelly, and dual licenses were needed for its operation there. Any personal connection between these two men in their inventions seems most unlikely. Despite its initial drawbacks, the process made Bessemer a millionaire. Today Bessemer steelmaking is rapidly giving way to various oxygen steelmaking methods.

Bessemer was knighted in 1879; he died in London on March 15, 1898.

Further Reading on Sir Henry Bessemer

The major work on Bessemer is his autobiography, Sir Henry Bessemer: An Autobiography (1905). W. H. Chaloner, People and Industries (1963), includes a chapter on Bessemer. The metallurgical background is in J. C. Carr and W. Taplin, History of the British Steel Industry (1962).

Additional Biography Sources

Bessemer, Henry, Sir, Sir Henry Bessemer, F.R.S.: an autobiography, with a concluding chapter, London; Brookfield, VT., USA: Institute of Metals, 1989.

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