Hall of Fame Inaugural Class

Henry Bessemer

 

Sir Henry Bessemer’s discovery of a method to blow air through molten pig iron to remove impurities and make steel revolutionized iron and steelmaking in the mid-19th century. The introduction of the Bessemer process in 1856 spread from England and the Continent to the rapidly industrializing United States, where it laid the foundation on which the American steel industry was built. 
    
“The death of Sir Henry Bessemer,” The New York Times wrote in 1898, “removes one of the great benefactors of mankind. We cannot say that, even yet, we have begun to apprehend all the results of the invention which was announced forty-two years ago. But that it is of immense importance to the future of the human race has long since passed beyond dispute.” 

Blowing air into molten iron ore created steel that was strong, flexible and malleable enough to be shaped in to ingots, blooms, and rods. Abram S. Hewitt, whose Pennsylvania firm was the first to implement a pear-shaped Bessemer converter in the U.S., compared the introduction of the Bessemer process to “the invention of printing, the construction of the magnetic compass, the discovery of America and the introduction of the steam engine.” 

Henry Bessemer was born in Hertfordshire, England in January 1813, the son of an engineer. Bessemer’s father, Anthony, had been an inventor in both France and England, and made a fortune thanks to his invention of a process for making gold chains. 

Henry Bessemer grew up in a household that encouraged tinkering, and by the time he was in his 20s, Bessemer had built a steam-powered machine for making brass powder, which was commonly used at the time as a gold paint. He experimented with powdered graphite for the manufacture of lead pencils, the formula for which he sold to a friend who made a fortune out of it, and in the later 1840s, Bessemer patented a method for making a continuous ribbon of plate glass. Although the plate glass process never proved profitable, it gave Bessemer experience in working with furnace designs. 

In the 1850s, Great Britain fought in the Crimean War, and the Ministry of War was interested in new processes for the manufacture of iron and steel for armaments. Foundries in Great Britain and Wales had made pig iron since the 1700s, typically by heating low-phosphorous ore from Wales and then removing oxygen. Beehive furnaces dotted the Welsh and Midlands countryside during the first half of the 19th century. 

In the early 1850s, Bessemer worked on the design of a converter that allowed oxygen to be blown over molten iron. The converter, mounted on bearings,could swivel and teem or pour the molten steel into buckets and ingots for casting into other shapes and forms. Bessemer unveiled the technology and converter in 1856 and over the next 20 years, steel made using the Bessemer process gradually displaced cast iron. 

The implementation of the process was not without a struggle, however. The grade of iron used was critical. When the Bessemer process first arrived in North America, operators typically fed the converters with ore from New York and Pennsylvania. The high-phosphorous ore from the East was not well-suited to the Bessemer process, and often required the addition of carbon and manganese to make the steel malleable. 

Serendipity also played a major role in spurring the quick adoption of the Bessemer converter in the United States. About the time Bessemer was pioneering his new steelmaking process in England, the federal government in Washington was completing construction of a navigation canal connecting Lakes Superior and Huron at Sault Ste. Marie. When completed, the Soo Canal opened up the abundant resources of low-phosphorous iron ore on the Marquette Iron Range in Michigan’s isolated Upper Peninsula.
 
A second serendipitous event occurred in the years immediately following the Civil War. Bessemer had originally designed his converter to be fueled with charcoal, but by the late 1860s, much of the forest cover east of the Appalachian Mountains and south of the Great Lakes had been cut for fuel or cleared to open land for agricultural production. 

And, as it turn out,the siting of an iron-producing region at the confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio Rivers at Pittsburgh proved to be a boon for the Bessemer converter. In the 1870s, the Connellsville seam of low-sulfur coking coal located 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh created the perfect fuel for the converter. Michigan iron ore shipped down the Great Lakes to Lake Erie ports and then transported by rail to Pittsburgh to be transformed into steel in Bessemer furnaces combined to serve as the cradle of the American steel industry. 

Bessemer spent the rest of his long life filing some 130 patents covering inventions from movable dies for embossed title stamps to a screw extruder for extracting sugar from cane. He was knighted in 1879 and soon after was made a fellow of the Royal Society. In 1895, Bessemer was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

Sir Henry Bessemer died in London in March 1898 and is buried in the City’s West Norwood cemetery.

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