Sir Henry Bessemer (January
19, 1813 – March 15, 1898) was an English engineer and inventor.
Bessemer's name is chiefly known
in connection with the Bessemer
for the manufacture of steel
Henry Bessemer's father, Anthony, was born in London, but moved to
Paris when he was 21 years old. He was an inventor who while he was
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
, for his improvements to the optical microscope,
when he was only 26. He was forced to leave Paris by the French Revolution of 1848
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.
Bessemer worked on the problem of manufacturing cheap steel for the
purposes of ordinance production from 1850 to 1855 when he patented
his method. On August 24, 1856 Bessemer first described the process
to a meeting of the British
in Cheltenham which he titled "The Manufacture of
Iron Without Fuel." It was published in full in The Times.
The Bessemer process
oxygen in air blown through molten pig iron to burn off the
impurities and thus create steel.
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.
been many accidents when cast iron beams collapsed suddenly, such
as the Dee bridge
disaster of May 1847 and later failures such as the Wooton 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.
iron structures were much more reliable with very few
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
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. Mr 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.
results prompted Bessemer to try a purer iron obtained from
Cumberland hematite, but even with
this he had only limited success until Robert Forester Mushet, who had
carried out thousands of experiments at Darkhill, in the Forest of Dean, showed that adding an exact amount of carbon and manganese, in the
form of spiegeleisen, improved the
quality of the finished product, increasing its
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, on ground purchased with the help of friends, 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 $20 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
Bessemer converter, Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield, England
Of course, patents of such obvious value did not escape criticism,
and invalidity was freely urged against them on various grounds.
But Bessemer was fortunate enough to maintain them intact without
, though he found it advisable
to buy up the rights of one patentee, while in the case of Robert
Forester Mushet, was freed from anxiety by the patent being allowed
to lapse in 1859 through non-payment of fees.
Mushet's procedure was not absolutely essential and Bessemer proved
this in 1865 by exhibiting a series of steel samples made using his
process alone, but the value of Mushet's procedure was shown by its
near universal adoption in conjunction with the Bessemer Process.
Whether or not Mushet's patents could have been sustained is not
known, but in 1866 Robert Mushet's 16 year old daughter travelled
to London alone to confront Henry Bessemer at his offices, arguing
that Bessemer's success was based on the results of her father’s
work. Bessemer decided to pay Mushet an annual pension of £300, a
very considerable sum, which he paid for 25 years; and it is
possible that this was done with a view to keeping the Mushets from
In 1866, Bessemer also provided finance for Zerah Colburn
American locomotive engineer and journalist, to start a new weekly
engineering newspaper called Engineering
, and based in
Bedford Street, London. It was not until many years later that the
name of Colburn's benefactor was revealed. Prior to the launch of
, Colburn, through the pages of The
, had given support to Bessemer's work on steel and
Bessemer was a prolific inventor and held at least 129 patents,
spanning from 1838 to 1883. They were chiefly concerned with
manufacturing in five areas; iron, steel, glass, sugar, and cannons
or other ordnance.
His autobiography describes all of his inventions, some in great
detail, as one might expect from such an innovative man. It is also
a very readable book which relates many amusing incidents in his
long and fruitful career.
Among Bessemer's numerous other inventions were movable dies for
, and a screw extruder
for more efficiently extracting sugar from sugar cane.
After suffering from seasickness
1868, he designed the SS
(also called the "Bessemer Saloon"), a passenger
steamship with a cabin on gimbals
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..
Bessemer also obtained a patent in 1857 for the casting of metal
between contrarotating rollers - a forerunner of today's continuous casting
remarkably, Bessemer's original idea has been implemented in the
direct continuous casting of steel strip.
Later years and death
died in March 1898 in Denmark Hill, London.
buried in West
London SE27, where he has good company with
influential Victorians such as Sir Henry
, Sir Henry Doulton
Baron de Reuters
also being buried
within the same cemetery.
Honours and legacy
Henry Bessemer was Knighted
on June 26,
1879, and in the same year was made a fellow of the Royal Society
.Sheffield's Kelham Island
Industrial Heritage Museum, maintains an early example of a
Bessemer Converter for public viewing. He has also had a
Street named after him in the town Hitchin (Bessemer
Close) bordering the village of Ickleford in 1995, and has a road named Bessemer Way in
Rotherham 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