Henry Bessemer

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Henry Bessemer
Henry Bessemer 1890s2.jpg
Henry Bessemer

(1813-01-19)19 January 1813
Died15 March 1898(1898-03-15) (aged 85)
London, England
Nationality English
Citizenship British
Occupationengineer and inventor
Known forDevelopment of the Bessemer process for the manufacture of steel.
Awards Albert Medal (1872)
Henry Bessemer signature.PNG

Sir Henry Bessemer FRS (19 January 1813 – 15 March 1898) was an English inventor, whose steel-making process would become the most important technique for making steel in the nineteenth century for almost one hundred years from 1856 to 1950. [2] [3] He also played a significant role in establishing the town of Sheffield as a major industrial centre. [4]

Fellow of the Royal Society Elected Fellow of the Royal Society, including Honorary, Foreign and Royal Fellows

Fellowship of the Royal Society is an award granted to individuals that the Royal Society of London judges to have made a 'substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science, and medical science'.

Bessemer process converter

The Bessemer process was the first inexpensive industrial process for the mass production of steel from molten pig iron before the development of the open hearth furnace. The key principle is removal of impurities from the iron by oxidation with air being blown through the molten iron. The oxidation also raises the temperature of the iron mass and keeps it molten.

Steel alloy made by combining iron and other elements

Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon, and sometimes other elements. Because of its high tensile strength and low cost, it is a major component used in buildings, infrastructure, tools, ships, automobiles, machines, appliances, and weapons.


Bessemer had been trying to reduce the cost of steel-making for military ordnance, and developed his system for blowing air through molten pig iron to remove the impurities. This made steel easier, quicker and cheaper to manufacture, and revolutionized structural engineering. One of the most significant innovators of the Second Industrial Revolution, Bessemer also made over 100 other inventions in the fields of iron, steel and glass. Unlike most inventors, he managed to bring his own projects to fruition and profited financially from their success.

The Second Industrial Revolution, also known as the Technological Revolution, was a phase of rapid industrialization from the late 19th century into the early 20th century. The First Industrial Revolution, which ended in the middle of 19th century, was punctuated by a slowdown in important inventions before the Second Industrial Revolution in 1870. Though a number of its characteristic events can be traced to earlier innovations in manufacturing, such as the establishment of a machine tool industry, the development of methods for manufacturing interchangeable parts and the invention of the Bessemer Process to produce steel, the Second Industrial Revolution is generally dated between 1870 and 1914.

Father: Anthony Bessemer

Bessemer's father, Anthony, was born in London into a Huguenot family, but moved to Paris when he was 21 years old. He was an inventor who, while engaged by the Paris Mint, made a machine for making medallions that could produce steel dies from a larger model. He became a member of the French Academy of Science, [5] for his improvements to the optical microscope when he was 26. He was forced to leave Paris by the French Revolution, and returned to Britain. There he invented a process for making gold chains, which was successful, and enabled him to buy a small estate in the village of Charlton, near Hitchin in Hertfordshire, where Henry was born. [6] [7] According to Bessemer he was given his name by his godfather Henry Caslon, who employed his father as a punchcutter. [8] [9]

Anthony Bessemer was a British engineer and industrialist, who spent large portions of his life in the Netherlands and France before returning to live in London and Hertfordshire. His son was Sir Henry Bessemer, the inventor of the Bessemer process for steel manufacture.

French Revolution Revolution in France, 1789 to 1798

The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France and its colonies beginning in 1789. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, catalyzed violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon who brought many of its principles to areas he conquered in Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution profoundly altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history.

Charlton is a hamlet in Hertfordshire, England, close to the town of Hitchin but retaining its separate identity. It has a population of less than fifty. It is in the ward of Hitchin Priory.

Early inventions

The invention from which Bessemer made his first fortune was a series of six steam-powered machines for making bronze powder, used in the manufacture of gold paint. As he relates in his autobiography, [10] he examined the bronze powder made in Nuremberg which was the only place where it was made at the time. He then copied and improved the product and made it capable of being made on a simple production line. It was an early example of reverse engineering where a product is analysed, and then reconstituted. The process was kept secret, with only members of his immediate family having access to the factory. It was a widely used alternative to a patent, and such trade secrets are still used today. The Nuremberg powder, which was made by hand, retailed in London for £5 12s per pound and he eventually reduced the price to half a crown £ – 2 / 6, or about 1/40th. [11] The profits from sale of the paint allowed him to pursue his other inventions.

Nuremberg Place in Bavaria, Germany

Nuremberg is the second-largest city of the German federal state of Bavaria after its capital Munich, and its 511,628 (2016) inhabitants make it the 14th largest city in Germany. On the Pegnitz River and the Rhine–Main–Danube Canal, it lies in the Bavarian administrative region of Middle Franconia, and is the largest city and the unofficial capital of Franconia. Nuremberg forms a continuous conurbation with the neighbouring cities of Fürth, Erlangen and Schwabach with a total population of 787,976 (2016), while the larger Nuremberg Metropolitan Region has approximately 3.5 million inhabitants. The city lies about 170 kilometres (110 mi) north of Munich. It is the largest city in the East Franconian dialect area.

Reverse engineering, also called back engineering, is the process by which a man-made object is deconstructed to reveal its designs, architecture, or to extract knowledge from the object; similar to scientific research, the only difference being that scientific research is about a natural phenomenon.

A trade secret is a type of intellectual property in the form of a formula, practice, process, design, instrument, pattern, commercial method, or compilation of information that is not generally known or reasonably ascertainable by others, and by which a person or company can obtain an economic advantage over competitors. In some jurisdictions, such secrets are referred to as confidential information.

Bessemer patented a method for making a continuous ribbon of plate glass in 1848, but it was not commercially successful (see his autobiography, chapter 8). He gained experience in designing furnaces, which was to be of great use for his new steel-making process.

Plate glass any glass made in flat sheets

Plate glass, flat glass or sheet glass is a type of glass, initially produced in plane form, commonly used for windows, glass doors, transparent walls, and windscreens. For modern architectural and automotive applications, the flat glass is sometimes bent after production of the plane sheet. Flat glass stands in contrast to container glass and glass fibre.

Bessemer process

Bessemer converter ConverterB.jpg
Bessemer converter

Henry Bessemer worked on the problem of manufacturing cheap steel for ordnance production from 1850 to 1855 when he patented his method. [12]

On 24 August 1856 Bessemer first described the process to a meeting of the British Association in Cheltenham which he titled "The Manufacture of Iron Without Fuel." It was published in full in The Times . The Bessemer process involved using oxygen in air blown through molten pig iron to burn off the impurities and thus create steel. [13] James Nasmyth had been working on a similar idea for some time prior to this. A reluctant patentor, and in this instance still working through some problems in his method, Nasmyth abandoned the project after hearing Bessemer at the meeting. Bessemer acknowledged the efforts of Nasmyth by offering him a one-third share of the value of his patent. Nasmyth turned it down as he was about to retire. [14]

Bessemer converter, Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield, England (2010) Bessemer 5180.JPG
Bessemer converter, Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield, England (2010)

Many industries were constrained by the lack of steel, being reliant on cast iron and wrought iron alone. Examples include railway structures such as bridges and tracks, where the treacherous nature of cast iron was keenly felt by many engineers and designers. There had been many accidents when cast iron beams collapsed suddenly, such as the Dee Bridge disaster of May 1847, the Wootton bridge collapse and the Bull bridge accident of 1860. The problem recurred at the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879, and failures continued until all cast iron under-bridges were replaced by steel structures. Wrought iron structures were much more reliable with very few failures.

Though this process is no longer commercially used, at the time of its invention it was of enormous industrial importance because it lowered the cost of production steel, leading to steel being widely substituted for cast iron. Bessemer's attention was drawn to the problem of steel manufacture in the course of an attempt to improve the construction of guns.


Bessemer licensed the patent for his process to five ironmasters, but from the outset, the companies had great difficulty producing good quality steel. [15] Mr Göran Fredrik Göransson, a Swedish ironmaster, using the purer charcoal pig iron of that country, was the first to make good steel by the process, but only after many attempts. His results prompted Bessemer to try a purer iron obtained from Cumberland hematite, but even with this he had only limited success because the quantity of carbon was difficult to control. Robert Forester Mushet had carried out thousands of experiments at Darkhill Ironworks, in the Forest of Dean, and had shown that the quantity of carbon could be controlled by removing almost all of it from the iron and then adding an exact amount of carbon and manganese, in the form of spiegeleisen. This improved the quality of the finished product and increased its malleability. [16] [17] [18]

When Bessemer tried to induce makers to take up his improved system, he met with general rebuffs and was eventually driven to undertake the exploitation of the process himself. He erected steelworks in Sheffield in a business partnership with others, such as W & J Galloway & Sons, and began to manufacture steel. At first the output was insignificant, but gradually the magnitude of the operations was enlarged until the competition became effective, and steel traders generally became aware that the firm of Henry Bessemer & Co. was underselling them to the extent of UK£10-£15 a ton. This argument to the pocket quickly had its effect, and licences were applied for in such numbers that, in royalties for the use of his process, Bessemer received a sum in all considerably exceeding a million pounds sterling.

However Mushet received nothing and by 1866 was destitute and in ill-health. In that year his 16-year-old daughter, Mary, travelled to London alone, to confront Bessemer at his offices, arguing that his success was based on the results of her father’s work. [10] Bessemer decided to pay Mushet an annual pension of £300, a very considerable sum, which he paid for over 20 years; possibly with a view to keeping the Mushets from legal action. [10]

W M Lord has said with regard to this success that "Sir Henry Bessemer was somewhat exceptional. He had developed his process from an idea to a practical reality in his own lifetime and he was sufficiently of a businessman to have profited by it. In so many cases, inventions were not developed quickly and the plums went to other persons than the inventors." [14]

Other inventions

Drawing of Bessemer by Leslie Ward in Vanity Fair, 6 November 1880 Portrait of 'Steel' (4671260).jpg
Drawing of Bessemer by Leslie Ward in Vanity Fair, 6 November 1880

Bessemer was a prolific inventor and held at least 129 patents, spanning from 1838 to 1883. These included military ordnance, movable dies for embossed postage stamps, a screw extruder to extract sugar from sugar cane, and others in the fields of iron, steel and glass. These are described in some detail in his autobiography.

After suffering from seasickness in 1868, he designed the SS Bessemer (also called the "Bessemer Saloon"), a passenger steamship with a cabin on gimbals designed to stay level, however rough the sea, to save her passengers from seasickness. The mechanism – hydraulics controlled by a steersman watching a spirit level – worked in model form and in a trial version built in his garden in Denmark Hill, London. However, it never received a proper seagoing test as, when the ship demolished part of the Calais pier on her maiden voyage, investor confidence was lost and the ship was scrapped. [19]

Bessemer also obtained a patent in 1857 for the casting of metal between contrarotating rollers – a forerunner of today's continuous casting processes and remarkably, Bessemer's original idea has been implemented in the direct continuous casting of steel strip.


Headstone of Sir Henry Bessemer, West Norwood cemetery WNC Bessemer.JPG
Headstone of Sir Henry Bessemer, West Norwood cemetery

Bessemer died in March 1898 at Denmark Hill, London. He is buried in West Norwood cemetery, London SE27. Other influential Victorians such as Sir Henry Tate, Sir Henry Doulton and Baron de Reuters are buried in the same cemetery.

Honours and legacy

Bessemer was knighted by Queen Victoria for his contribution to science on 26 June 1879, and in the same year was made a fellow of the Royal Society. [20] An Honorary Membership was conferred on Bessemer by the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland in 1891. [21] In 1895, he was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. [22] Sheffield's Kelham Island Industrial Heritage Museum maintains an early example of a Bessemer Converter for public viewing. A street was named after him in the town of Hitchin (Bessemer Close) bordering the village of Ickleford in 1995, and Bessemer Way in Rotherham is so named in his honour. In 2009, the public house "The Fountain" in Sheffield city centre was renamed "The Bessemer" in homage to Henry Bessemer, who had a huge impact on the Steel City's development. In Workington, Cumbria, the local Wetherspoons pub is now named after him. In 2002 the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3) was established from mergers encompassing historical organisations including the Iron and Steel Institute, of which Bessemer was President from 1871-73; the latter organisation instituted the Bessemer Gold Medal under his tenure and IOM3 still recognises Bessemer's legacy with an annual award of the medal for outstanding services to the steel industry; recent recipients include Indira Samarasekera. In 2003 Bessemer was named among the top 10 technological innovators in Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 . That a man who did so much for industrial development did not receive higher recognition from his own government was a source of deep regret for English engineers, who alluded to the fact that in the United States, where the Bessemer process found much use, eight cities or towns bore his name. [23]

See also


  1. Coincidentally, on the same page of the London Gazette there is the knighting of Thomas Bouch who the following December became wordwide infamous as the designer and railway engineer of the Tay Bridge.

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  14. 1 2 Lord 1945.
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