Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 163,160 pages of information and 245,627 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Henry Bessemer

From Graces Guide
1869. Arrangement of Plant for the Bessemer Process.
1869. High Pressure Cupola Furnace.
1870.Steady Cabin for Sea-Going Vessels.
1870. Iron Architecture: Mr. Bessemer's Conservatory.
1870. High and low pressure reverbatory furnace.
1880. Casket presented to Henry Bessemer with the Freedom of the City.
Telescope structure for Bessemer made by W. and J. Galloway and Sons in 1881

Henry Bessemer (1813-1898), was a British engineer, prolific inventor, and entrpreneur. Bessemer's name is chiefly known in connection with the Bessemer process for the manufacture of malleable iron and steel at greatly reduced cost. See Bessemer Process.

He held at least 129 patents which spanned the period from 1838 to 1883. They concerned four main areas: manufacture of iron and steel; of glass; of sugar; and of cannon and other ordnance.

1813 January 19th. Henry was born at Charlton, near Hitchin, Hertfordshire, son of Anthony Bessemer and his wife Elizabeth (c.1772-1830)

He grew up surrounded by his father's type-metal business which he carried on in conjunction with Henry Caslon (1786-1850)); Henry showed a great mechanical aptitude

1830 He moved to London when his father moved his business type foundry there

He tried several businesses including card-embossing and die-making

1834 Married Anne Allen when he was 21 years old. They had a daughter, Elizabeth, and two sons. One of them, also called Henry, added a last chapter to his father's autobiography; the other was named Alfred.

1838 He made improvements in the processing of Plumbago used for making the lead in pencils, by reconstituting the waste dust from the process

Involved in developing the type composing machine of James Young.

Bessemer developed a process for pressing Utrecht Velvet

'Gold' or bronze powder used for decorative purposes came to Besssmer's attention. It was then imported, mainly from Germany, and he saw it as a very profitable product, given the low cost of the material, and he embarked on experiments to determine a way of producing it with minimal labour. He succeeded, and realised that it would be pointless trying to patent it, so he decided to embark on producing it himself. He designed all the machinery, and had the components built in different factories, so that only he would have the full picture. For his factory, he sought land with a large house in an isolated area, which, surprisingly from today's standpoint, was in the then-quiet London suburb of St. Pancras. The house was the old Baxter House, with ample land for his factory and his later gunnery experiments. Secrecy was essential, and was maintained for many years. The venture was very lucrative.

See below for more information on his numerous inventions.

1847 Article describing Bessemer's proposals for reducing the aerodynamic and rolling resistance of trains. The accepted figure for rolling stock rolling resistance was constant, typically 8.5 to 10 lbs per ton, and he noted that the air resistance increased according to the square of the velocity. To reduce air resistance, he proposed closing the gap between carriages with flexible coverings, and avoiding carrying roof luggage. For reduced rolling resistance and reduced shock he proposed the use of half-axles with a central coupling, and wheels which were loose on the axles but with springs to constrain axial movement.[2]

1849 Developed an improved process for extracting sugar from sugar-cane, using a press rather than rollers.

1849 'A most useful invention, which will effect a great saving of expense and time in the polishing of plate-glass, has lately been patented by Mr. H. Bessemer, the inventor of the gold paint. At the glass works it is usual to fix the rough plate to a slab by means of plaster of Paris, and having polished one side, the process is repeated for the other. At one factory alone there expended 1000l. a year in plaster Paris, and a loss is occasioned now and then by breakage in removing the plates from the plaster. Mr. Bessemer's plan is to have a metal, or slate table, perforated with small holes ; underneath is an iron box, and in connexion therewith a small air pump ; the glass being laid on the table is instantly fixed thereto, by exhausting the air from underneath it by means of the pump and readily removed by allowing the entrance of air into the box means of a small tap.'[3]

Experiments in manufacturing sheet glass. He sold the rights to the process to Chance Brothers and Co. He also developed a process for manufacturing optical glass.

1851 Award at the 1851 Great Exhibition. See details at 1851 Great Exhibition: Reports of the Juries: Class VI.

1854 Patent concerning guns

Bessemer's attention was drawn to the problem of steel manufacture in the course of an attempt to improve the construction of guns.

1856 Having melted 700 lb of iron in a stationary converter at Baxter House, Bessemer felt confident enough to deliver his famous paper, 'On the Manufacture of Iron and Steel without Fuel', before the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting at Cheltenham on 11 August 1856. His paper was reprinted in The Times on 14 August.

Galloways of Manchester were first to sign up for a licence to produce.

1856 August 27th. Dowlais Ironworks represented by trustees H. A. Bruce and George Clark were granted a licence to produce

Licence to produce granted to Smith Dixon of the Govan Iron Works

Licence granted to Butterley Co to produce

Thomas Brown of the Ebbw Vale Ironworks with his consulting engineer Charles May tried to buy the patent rights outright but was rejected

Someone who did take an interest in the chemistry of the Bessemer process was the metallurgist Robert Forester Mushet. Shortly after the meeting at Cheltenham, Mushet was apparently visited at his home in the Forest of Dean by the manager of the Ebbw Vale Iron Co, who brought with him samples of defective Bessemer metal. Mushet immediately recognized that it was ‘burnt’ and soon remelted it with additions of a ‘triple compound’ of iron-carbon-manganese (known as spiegeleisen), which increased the carbon content and corrected the over-oxidation

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 of steel, leading to steel being widely substituted for other substances which were inferior but previously cheaper.

Five firms applied without delay for licences to work under his patents, success did not at once attend his efforts; indeed, after several ironmasters had put the process to practical trial and failed to get good results, it was in danger of being thrust aside and entirely forgotten. Its author, however, instead of being discouraged by this lack of success, continued his experiments, and in two years was able to turn out a product, the quality of which was not inferior to that yielded by the older methods. But when he now tried to induce makers to take up his improved system, he met with general rebuffs, and finally was driven to undertake the exploitation of the process himself.

In 1858 he opened the Bessemer Steel Works in Carlisle Street, Sheffield, partnered by William Galloway, the Manchester engineer, Robert Longsdon, and William Daniel Allen, and began to manufacture steel. At first the quantity 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 and 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 £1 million.

Patents of such 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 litigation, though he found it advisable to buy up the rights of one patentee, while in another case he was freed from anxiety by the patent being allowed to lapse in 1859 through non-payment of fees. At the outset he had found great difficulty in making steel by his process; in his first licenses to the trade iron alone was mentioned.

Experiments he made with South Wales iron were failures because the product was devoid of malleability; Mr Göransson, a Swedish ironmaster, using the purer charcoal pig iron of that country, was the first to make good steel by the process, and even he was successful only after many attempts. His results prompted Bessemer to try the purer iron, obtained from Cumberland hematite, but even with this he did not meet with much success, until Robert Forester Mushet showed that the addition of a certain quantity of spiegeleisen had the effect of removing the difficulties.

Whether or not Mushet's patents could have been sustained, the value of his procedure was shown by its general adoption in conjunction with the Bessemer method of conversion. At the same time it is only fair to say that whatever may have been the conveniences of Mushet's plan, it was not absolutely essential; this Bessemer proved in 1865, by exhibiting a series of samples of steel made by his own process alone.

Sheffield's Kelham Island Museum has an early example of a Bessemer Converter on display.

1859 Bessemer persuaded Colonel Eardley Wilmot, in charge of the foundry at Woolwich Arsenal, that steel was a suitable material for heavy ordnance; but Wilmot was shortly afterwards replaced and the Secretary for War, Sidney Herbert, on Armstrong's advice, rejected the material as unsuitable for guns[4]; Bessemer believed this reflected Armstrong's protection of his company's interests in manufacturing coiled hoop guns[5]

1861 Henry Bessemer, Steel Works, Carlisle Street, Sheffield.[6]

In 1866, Bessemer provided finance for Zerah Colburn, the American locomotive engineer and journalist, to start a new weekly engineering newspaper called Engineering, 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 Engineering, Colburn, through the pages of The Engineer, had given support to Bessemer's work on steel and steelmaking.

1879 Henry Bessemer was Knighted on June 26th, and in the same year was made a fellow of the Royal Society.

1897 His wife Ann died at the age of 84.[7]

Bessemer died on 15 March 1898 in Denmark Hill, London and was buried in West Norwood Cemetery

Other Inventions and Developments

Bessemer invented many new processes and machines. Some of these were developed following approaches from friends and from other businessmen. Painstaking deveelopment work was undertaken, principally at Baxter House.

The invention from which he made his fortune was a series of six steam-powered machines for making very fine brass powder which was used in 'gold' paint. It was treated highly secretly, with only a few trusted employees and members of his immediate family allowed to operate it. This money allowed him to pursue his other inventions.

Among Bessemer's numerous other inventions were movable dies for embossed stamps, and a screw extruder for more efficiently extracting sugar from sugar cane.

Bessemer patented a method for making a continuous ribbon of sheet glass, in 1848. Prototype equipment was tested at Baxter House and demonstrated to Robert Lucas Chance, who immediately bought the patent.

Another promising invention was a mechanism added to a ship which was to save her passengers from the miseries of mal de mer. This ship had her saloon mounted in such a way as to be free to swing relative to the boat's hull, and the idea was that this saloon should always be maintained steady and level, no matter how rough the sea. For this purpose hydraulic mechanism of Bessemer's design was arranged under the control of an attendant, whose duty it was to keep watch on a spirit-level, and counteract by proper manipulation of the apparatus any deviation from the horizontal that might manifest itself on the floor of the saloon owing to the rolling of the vessel. A boat, called the 'Bessemer', was built on this plan in 1875 and put on the cross-Channel service to Calais, but the mechanism of the swinging saloon was not found effective in practice and was ultimately removed. *See Image 1870.

Bessemer also obtained a patent in 1857 for the casting of metal between contra-rotating 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.


'Sir Henry Bessemer, F.R.S. an Autobiography, with a concluding chapter' was first published by 'Engineering' in 1905.

This provides a fascinating first-hand account of his various schemes and inventions. A noteworthy aspect is the extent to which he tackled problems from first principles, never limiting himself to simply refining existing processes.

Bessemer's Telescope

Bessemer set out to construct his own observatory at Denmark Hill, having a fully-steerable 50-inch reflecting telescope of sophisticated design. The main structure of the instrument, weighing 11-12 tons, was made by W. and J. Galloway and Sons of Manchester (see photo). The telescope rotated on a massive concrete foundation, while the upper part of the 50 ft diameter circular building rotated on its own bearings, powered by a turbine. Tilting of the tube was effected by a pair of hydraulic rams whose rods acted on friction wheels (serving the role of racks and pinions, but with the aim of giving smoother action.[8]. The mirror and other parts were made in the workshop constructed adjacent to the observatory, under the guidance of George Calver. The telescope never came into use, and the fate of the 50-inch mirror is not known. A separate 30-inch mirror for solar work was reground by Calver with the intention of re-using it in the same tube.[9]. The 50-inch mirror was to be of a new type invented by Bessemer, made of thin glass, but it was unsatisfactory.[10] Photo of the telescope here.

1898 Obituary [11]

HENRY BESSEMER was born on 19th January 1813 in the hamlet of Charlton, near Hitchin.

Whilst still a youth at home he was always constructing model machines, including in 1830 what is believed to be the first screw-propeller, which differed from modern screws in having an entire thread; the boat to which it was applied was propelled across a pond by means of a weight suspended from a string passing over the mast-head and wound round the screw shaft.

On 4th March 1830 his father removed to London, where he made a great reputation as a type founder in partnership with Mr. Henry Caslon.

In 1832 he devised a method of impressing stamps upon deeds, which was practically proof against forgery; although it was eagerly adopted promptly by the inland revenue department, the inventor was practically ignored; and it was not till after forty-six years' delay that he received the tardy honour of a knighthood on 26th June 1879.

In 1833 he exhibited a plaster model of a church at the Academy then held in Somerset House.

Among his early inventions was one for the production of the so-called Utrecht or stamped velvet, for which he made both the designs and the embossing stamps; one of the designs was subsequently selected for furnishing one or more of the state rooms in Windsor Castle.

About 1838-40 he invented machinery for the manufacture of bronze powder, which was carried on as a successful and lucrative business for more than twenty years.

Other inventions came in about the following order. A means of consolidating Plumbago dust into a solid block for the manufacture of pencil leads, which is still in regular use. Type-casting machinery, 8th March 1838, in which he introduced a force pump for driving the metal into the mould, is believed to be the first that was devised for the purpose, and in conjunction with type-composing machinery which he subsequently invented is now used in a modified form for the linotype process.

In the manufacture of glass, 30th July 1846, be made what is believed to be the first trial of liquid rolling through rolls kept cool by water circulation, whereby a strip of plate-glass was rolled about 4 feet wide and 70 feet long, which however, spreading over the floor of the building, cracked all to pieces in cooling before it could be further dealt with; a cutter was afterwards added for cutting it off in lengths convenient for annealing as it left the rolls.

At the first meeting of this Institution at which the real work of the Institution was commenced by the reading and discussion of papers — hold on Wednesday 28th April 18-17 at the former Queen's Hotel, which at that time adjoined the original terminus of the London and North Western Railway in Curzon Street, Birmingham — a paper was contributed by "Mr. Henry Bessemer, manufacturer, London," upon a mode of doing away with the necessity for coning the tires of railway wheels, by dividing the axle into two half lengths, held together rigidly by a long central coupling with concentric grooves, so that each wheel with its own half of the axle could revolve independently of the other; and he left a model of the plan, which was preserved until the removal of the Institution office to London in 1877.

In 1849 he devised what is presumed to be the first centrifugal pump, afterwards improved by both Appold and Gwynne, and also applied it for ship propulsion; a drawing of it was given in the Institution Proceedings in connection with a paper on centrifugal pumps in 1852 (Figs. 9 and 10, Plate 69).

In 1849 he also invented machinery for making briquettes of coal dust, for enabling this waste material to be profitably utilised. His invention of continuous brakes for railway carriages, 9th December 1853, using water instead of air, was the fore-runner of the Westinghouse and other continuous brakes now in use.

His quick-firing or repeating gun, 25th August 1854, in which the explosion of the powder ejected the cartridge and reloaded the gun, presented the germ of the Maxim gun. For firing elongated shot from smooth-bore guns he made the shot to revolve in its flight by the passage of the powder gases and air through curved holes in its body; and shots were successfully fired in this way in trials made at Vincennes by direction of the Emperor of France, by whom he was offered the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, if he could obtain permission to wear it, which was refused to him.

In 1861 he gave a paper at the summer meeting of the Institution in Sheffield on the manufacture of cast steel and its application to constructive purposes, describing the apparatus then working there for the manufacture of Bessemer steel at Messrs. John Brown and Co.'s Atlas Steel Works. In illustration of the paper he exhibited an 18-pounder gun made of the Bessemer steel cast in a single ingot of the required one and subsequently hammered, with a variety of specimens of the metal, broken to show the quality of the fracture; also some piston rods, a boiler-plate flanged for a locomotive fire-box, a plate bulged in a die without cracking or tearing, a plate of thin metal punched with a number of small holes very close together, and a tube of the metal which had been crushed flat without the surface cracking.

This was only five years after the first announcement of the Bessemer process in his piper read in 1856 at the Cheltenham meeting of the British Association, of which no record beyond the bare title is to be found in the report of the association for that year. An appreciation of the vast extent and importance of this invention was included in the presidential address at the Birmingham jubilee meeting of the Institution in 1897 (pages 265-6).

From abroad he received many distinctions, in recognition of the immense services he had thereby rendered to mankind; and in America some seven towns and cities have honoured themselves by adopting his name.

He became a Member of this Institution in 1861, and was a Member of Council from 1871 to 1878. In 1871-3 he was President of the Iron and Steel Institute; in 1877 he became a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers; and in 1879 a Fellow of the Royal Society.

His death took place at his residence at Denmark Hill, London, on 15th March 1898, at the age of eighty-five.

1898 Obituary [12][13]

"...Henry Bessemer died on Tuesday evening at his residence at Denmark Hill. He was born on the 19th of January, 1813, and his long life has carried him into a generation for whom his achievements lack the interest which they possessed for the few great metallurgists his contemporaries, yet alive. By those who had had the good fortune to know him well his death will be keenly lamented. But his increasing years and infirmities have long withdrawn him from public life; and for the younger metallurgists his name is not one with which to conjure.

Concerning the work which he accomplished, most of the details are familiar to those interested in the manufacture of steel, and nothing more is necessary-or indeed possible-just now than a recapitulation of certain prominent facts and dates. But the man himself was too remarkable in many respects, and his career too instructive and suggestive, to be passed over wholly in silence. It is satisfactory to know that for a considerable period he was at work on an autobiography. Bessemer wrote excellent English. He was extremely...More

1898 Obituary [14]

Sir HENRY BESSEMER died, at the age of eighty-five, at his residence at Denmark Hill, on March 15, 1898. By his death British metallurgy has to deplore the loss of one whose name will be for ever associated with the record of its progress and development, as that of Watt with the steam-engine. The discovery of the means of rapidly and cheaply converting pig iron into steel by blowing a blast of air through the molten iron was the result of labours and experiments that extended over a period of more than ten years, the results being attained only after many disheartening failures. Prior to this invention, the entire production of steel in Great Britain did not exceed 50,000 tons annually, and its price, which ranged from £50 to £60 per ton, precluded its use for most of the purposes to which it is now universally applied. At the present time the world's production of steel made by the Bessemer process has reached the enormous total of 11,215,000 tons per annum, Great Britain alone producing 1,845,000 tons. Its selling price has been reduced to about £4, 10s. per ton. No other invention has had such remarkable results. It is no exaggeration to say that without the Bessemer process for steel rail-making the present railway system of the world would not now exist. The most remarkable feature of the. invention is, that in all the more essential particulars the process remains identical with that first developed by the inventor at Sheffield, the pear-shaped converter with hydraulic tipping gear and cranes being still the characteristic features.

Henry Bessemer was born on January 19, 1813, at Charlton, in Hertfordshire. From his father, Anthony Bessemer, who was a type-founder and inventor of numerous mechanical contrivances, and a Member of the French Academy of Sciences, he seemed to have inherited his mechanical skill. Throughout his life he was a fruitful and persevering inventor, and some idea of his activity may be gained from the fact that he is said to have spent £10,000 in patent fees alone. His inventive faculties covered a very wide area, ranging from bronze-powder to sugar-machinery, and from the design of steamboats to the making of huge telescopes. The bronze-powder was one of his earliest ventures. He and his three brothers-in-law used to compound the mixture with their own hands in a small house in St. Pancras, in order that the method of manufacture might be kept secret. The raw material cost 1 ld. a pound, and the powder was imported from Germany at a cost of £5 per pound. The secret was kept for forty years. The profits were at first enormous, at least 1000 per cent., and for a long period several hundred per cent. Bessemer was continually patenting new inventions. Indeed, the 120 specifications of his inventions fill nine bulky volumes. His diamond-cutting machinery, shown at the Colonial Exhibition at South Kensington, and his Channel steamer will well be remembered. Many of his inventions never became generally known;—as, for instance, in the Journal of the Iron and Steel Institute for 1895, in connection with a paper on nickel steel, there were published some photographs of pages of old memorandum-books, dated December 28, 1858, showing that he had actually anticipated the discovery of nickel steel. Arguing that the ancient Egyptians must have used tools of meteoric iron containing nickel, he endeavoured to produce meteoric iron and to employ it for the manufacture of/ordnance. This invention was never patented, owing to the great discouragement he had received from the Minister of War, Mr. Sydney Herbert, who insisted that steel was wholly inapplicable for the manufacture of ordnance.

More fortunate than some great pioneer inventors, Bessemer reaped a full reward for his ingenuity and perseverance. In royalties for the manufacture of steel, under his numerous patents, he received altogether a sum considerably over a million sterling. Of course the validity of such patents did not escape question. Opposition was offered to the sealing of some of them, while anticipation was alleged against others. But none of the attempts made to upset them met with success; lawyers had to admit there was no case, and the question appears never to have been taken before the Courts. When Robert Mushet, immediately after the publication of Bessemer's system, perceived a fatal flaw, and promptly took out patents to rectify it by the employment of spiegeleisen in the making of steel, Bessemer obtained the opinion of counsel to the effect that the Mushet patents were invalid, seeing that the use of manganese in some form had been universally known to steel-makers for many years. The question of validity, however, became unimportant, owing to the lapsing of the patents in 1859 through non-payment of fees. That Mushet's process was valuable was admitted by Sir Henry Bessemer himself.

In the later years of his life, when the excitement of business was forbidden him by his doctors, he sought employment for his leisure in making reflecting telescopes. For this purpose he had a complete workshop in the grounds of his house on Denmark Hill, and employed a considerable number of workmen.

The first English recognition of Bessemer's work came from the Institution of Civil Engineers, who awarded him a gold Telford medal for a paper on his steel process read before them in 1859. The Society of Arts awarded him their Albert gold medal in 1872, and in 1877 the Institution of Civil Engineers made him an honorary member of their body, at the same time presenting him with the first Howard quinquennial prize. Two years later he became a Fellow of the Royal Society, and received the honour of knighthood, while in 1880 he was presented with the freedom of the City of London in recognition of the valuable discoveries which have so largely benefited the iron industries of the country, and those scientific attainments which are so well known and appreciated throughout the world. From abroad he received many honours. The King of Wurtemburg presented him with a gold medal. The Emperor of Austria appointed him a Knight-Commander of the Order of Franz-Joseph. He was offered by the Emperor of the French the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, but as permission to wear it was refused, he had to be content with a large gold medal, weighing 12 ounces, given him by Napolepn III. He was an honorary member of the Jernkontor of Sweden, a freeman of the city of Hamburg, and an honorary member and gold medallist of the Verein zur Beforderung des Gewerbfleisses. From America, he received the characteristic compliment of having several towns called by his name.

Sir Henry Bessemer's inventive powers were equalled only by his personal qualities. Unassuming in manner, and endowed with a marvellous memory, he would describe with a dramatic power his early struggles and disappointments, and tell how the so-called fallacious dream of the enthusiast was realised to its fullest extent. He retained all his faculties to the last. The recent death of his wife came as a severe blow to him. Recently, too, he had to go through a painful surgical operation, the after effects of which at his great age proved fatal, and in the midst of his family circle, the head of four generations of Henry Bessemers, the man whose name has become a part of the English language, and in honour of whom six American cities have been named, passed away. He had no superior in fertility and ingenuity of invention, and few combined so thoroughly an exhaustive knowledge of scientific principles with the powers of applying them in a commercially successful manner.

He was one of the founders of the Iron and Steel Institute. In 1870 he was elected President, and in 1885 Trustee of the Institute's invested funds. To this Institute he presented his collection of early specimens of Bessemer steel, dating back to August 1856, and in 1873 he instituted the Bessemer gold medal, which is awarded annually by the Iron and Steel Institute for conspicuous merit in connection with iron and steel manufacture. In addition to his Presidential address he contributed to the Proceedings papers in 1886 on some early forms of Bessemer converters, and in 1891 on the manufacture of continuous sheets of malleable iron and steel direct from fluid metal. In 1890 he addressed to Sir James Kitson a letter describing the circumstances that led to the invention of his steel process. This letter is printed in the Journal, 1890, No. IL p. 399. In April 1896 he prepared for the Council of the Institute the following account of the early history of his process:—

" The iron industry of Great Britain, like most of our other manufactures, was, a generation or two ago, just waking up from a long slumber, during which mere routine practice and individual skill held full sway, while scientific investigation and analytical research was at its lowest ebb.

" Some forty-five years ago, however, a powerful reaction set in, and Scientific methods and chemical investigations began to shed their powerful influence on every department of the iron manufacture. The complex chemical action of the blast-furnace was studied and improved. Sir Lowthian Bell, as we all know, has shown the world the whole interior action of that wondrous laboratory, which only the eye of Science can penetrate; other minds have sought to reduce the exhaustive labour of the puddling furnace, and many honoured names have striven, with more or less success, to accomplish that desirable object; and in various other departments the hand of Science has been observed helping the practical man in carrying out in a more economic manner his ordinary routine operations.

" By an almost universal law, the small cumulative improvements that have built up nearly all our great staple manufactures have resulted from the skill and observation of persons daily engaged in the particular trade to which their improvements apply, each one adding some new item to the long list of small changes that, in course of time, have perfected all these beautiful machines and processes with which we are familiar; it is, in fact, very rare that a man daily engaged in any manufacture abandons all his former ideas and practice, and starts on an entirely new basis.

" Such great and sweeping changes as occasionally are to be met with come from outsiders, if they come at all. They come from men who are not tied down by long habit of thought, but are free to take any daring flight of the imagination that seems to them within the region of acknowledged physical laws.

" Thus it happened, about forty years ago, that Mr. Henry Bessemer, in his endeavours to make a superior quality of cast iron for the manufacture of ordnance, made a discovery which he gradually developed at his bronze factory in London, and which consisted in a novel mode of converting molten pig iron, or fluid iron direct from the blast-furnace, without fuel or manipulation, into ingots of cast steel.

" The first announcement of this discovery was communicated to the world by the inventor, who read a paper on The Manufacture of Malleable Iron and Steel without Fuel,' on August 11, 1856, before the British Association for the Advancement of Science, at Cheltenham, and which paper was published verbatim in the London Times on August 14th, and by that means was rapidly spread throughout the whole Continent of Europe and America.

" The great commercial importance of the invention was at once recognised by the iron trade of this country, and many of our leading ironmasters came in haste up to London to witness the process in operation at Mr. Bessemer's works. The fear that it might become a great monopoly induced several enterprising ironmasters to purchase a license in the then state of the invention.

" We have seen how in America the Cheltenham paper induced Messrs. Cooper & Hewitt to test the soundness of the principle on which the invention is based; but a still more remarkable instance of the excited state of the iron trade, and of the efficiency of the Cheltenham paper as a guide and instructor, is furnished by the Trustees of the great Dowlais Ironworks, for, on the 27th of August, that is, thirteen days after the publication of the Cheltenham paper in the Times, Mr. Bessemer received a visit, at 4 P.M., from Mr. George Clark, of Dowlais House, and his co-trustee, Mr. H. A. Bruce (afterwards Lord Aberdare). He told them that the experiments were over for the day. when they said that they did not require to see the process, as their chemist, Mr. Edward Riley, had read a description of his (Mr. Bessemer's) apparatus in the Times, and had rigged up a temporary Bessemer converter at Dowlais, and tested the invention. (Sir Henry Bessemer forgets to point out that this first test of his invention was carried out under the direction of Mr. Menelaus and Mr. Edward Williams, two Past-Presidents of the Iron and Steel Institute.) Their object in calling on him was to learn on what terms they could be granted a license to make 70,000 tons of malleable iron annually.

" Mr. Bessemer told them that he was desirous of having one large firm in each of the six principal iron districts of Great Britain, who would be deeply interested in the maintenance of his patents, and who could not be induced to join any ring against them. With this object, the first firm in each district that applied for a license could have one by a cash payment of one year's royalty, at the rate of ten shillings per ton for malleable iron, for any number of tons they chose to name, for the whole of the duration of the patent after the first year paying one farthing per ton only, as an acknowledgment of the patent rights.

" The matter was talked over at Mr. Bessemer's house without coming to any conclusion, and they asked Mr. Bessemer to think over it, and invited Mr. Longsdon and Mr. Bessemer to dine with them that evening at the Tavistock Hotel, and after dinner these gentlemen signed an agreement with Messrs. Bessemer and Longsdon to make 20,000 tons of malleable iron annually, at a royalty of ten shillings per ton, paying £10,000, or one year's royalty, in advance. In this agreement they undertook at once to put up a Bessemer converter at Dowlais, and pay £5000 within seven days, and the balance at three and six months, an agreement that was honourably carried out. Sir Henry Bessemer has a photograph of this rough agreement still in his possession.

" The importance attached by the trade to this new plan of making malleable iron is further illustrated by the fact that within twenty-eight days of the reading of Mr. Bessemer's paper he had refused the Ebbw Vale Company's offer of £50,000 in cash for his patent, and had received in that short period no less than £27,000 for licenses, all of which were afterwards repurchased by him for the sum of £31,500.

" Trials of the process at different ironworks soon brought out the fact that the amount of phosphorus in ordinary pig iron prevented the successful production of malleable iron by this process, thus producing a violent reaction in the public mind, and an absolute disbelief in the process.

" Two years of incessant labour and study of the subject by Mr. Bessemer resulted in the production of steel of a very high quality, by using the purer pig irons of Sweden, from which the bar iron is made for the Sheffield steel manufacturer.

" But, what was of still greater importance, he had by continued investigation and careful analysis discovered the source of phosphorus in the Cumberland pig iron made from pure haematite ore, and the Workington Iron Company consented to alter their blast-furnace charges and materials in the manner he proposed, and make for him the first hundred tons of Bessemer pig that ever was made. More than 500,000 tons of this Bessemer pig has been sent from the West Coast alone to America, for the production of steel byi the Bessemer process, and it is also being largely used in every State in Europe for the production of mild steel for structural purposes.

" Then it was that Messrs. William & John Galloway, of Manchester, who had fully tested the Bessemer tool-steel at their works, joined him and his partner, Longsdon, in the erection of a steelworks at Sheffield, and his brother-in-law, Mr. Allen, who was the trusted manager of his bronze works in London, and who had assisted him in his early steel experiments, accepted the position of managing partner in the Sheffield works, it being a condition of the partnership that the process should be shown to all intending licensees, and their pig iron tested in their presence, the Sheffield firm, as compensation for this trouble, being allowed to use the patents without payment of any royalty. Thus the Sheffield works formed a sort of school for all who wished to be initiated in the details and practical working of the Bessemer steel process.

" All this had been going on for several years, and the manufacture of Bessemer steel had become a formidable rival to iron manufacturers, many of whom had seen the desirability of forming themselves into a body whose duties should be to encourage invention, and to investigate and discuss improved methods, and publish the results for the general benefit of that great staple manufacture.

" It will be within the memory of those gentlemen to whom the world is so much indebted for the initiation of this great Institute, that it was Bessemer steel only that was before the world at that period as a cast steel suitable for structural purposes, and hence the great iron manufacturers of this country, in entering into an alliance with the steel industry, practically identified themselves with the Bessemer process, the true birthplace of which was in this Metropolis, as can be shown by members of our Institute still living, and who have followed it step by step, from its first inception down to the present time, and to all of whom the records of the British Patent Office afford additional and most indisputable evidence of its origin.

" This special manufacture presents a strong contrast to the usual slow building up of our old-established manufactures, by the small additions contributed by scores of persons during a long series of years; for not only was the ideal process pointed out by the inventor, but it was left for him to develop step by step, and to design the hydraulic apparatus and other novel instruments, by means of which many tons of incandescent molten metal are so easily moved and controlled by one person from a distant stand, where he is safely removed from the fiery ordeal.

"The invention of the valvular ladle, for pouring vertically into the mould and preventing the admixture of slag, the rapidly moving ingot cranes and simple undivided casting moulds, which save so much loss of time and manual labour in getting the casting-pit clear for the next operation, &c., &., so that the Bessemer process is not confined to the invention of blowing numerous streams of air upward through the metal, but consists also in the invention of the whole plant and equipment of an entirely novel manufacture, which has since passed the ordeal of mechanical criticism and outside improvement almost intact for a period of forty years, and still exists in every steel-making country almost as it left the hands of the inventor, this it is which really constitutes the Bessemer process, and confers on its inventor the undoubted claim to originality." The following is a verbatim copy of the paper by means of which the Bessemer process was first made known to the world. This paper was read before the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Cheltenham on August 13, 1856, and published in the Times of the next day, but not in the Proceedings of the Association. The paper is as follows


The manufacture of iron in this country has attained such an important position, that any improvement in this branch of our national industry cannot fail to be a source of general interest, and will, I trust, be sufficient excuse for the present brief, and I fear, imperfect paper. I may mention that for the last two years my attention has been almost exclusively directed to the 0,10 manufacture of malleable iron and steel, in which, however, I had made but little progress until within the last eight or nine months. The constant pulling down and rebuilding of furnaces, and the toil of daily experiments with large charges of iron, had already begun to exhaust my stock of patience; but the numerous observations I had made during this very unpromising period all tended to confirm an entirely new view of the subject, which at that time forced itself upon my attention—viz., that I could produce a much more intense heat without any furnace or fuel than could be obtained by either of the modifications I had used; and consequently that I should not only avoid the injurious action of mineral fuel on the iron under operation, but I should at the same time avoid also the expense of fuel.

Some preliminary trials were made on from 10 lbs. to 20 lbs. of iron, and although the process was fraught with considerable difficulty, it exhibited such unmistakable signs of success as to induce me at once to put up an apparatus capable of converting about 7 cwts. of crude pig iron into malleable iron in thirty minutes. With such masses of metal to operate on, the difficulties which beset the small laboratory experiments of 10 lbs. entirely disappeared.

On this new field of inquiry I set out with the assumption that crude iron contains about 5 per cent. of carbon; that carbon cannot exist in a white heat in the presence of oxygen without uniting therewith and producing combustion; that such combustion would proceed with a rapidity dependent on the amount of surface of carbon exposed; and, lastly, that the temperature which the metal would acquire would be also dependent on the rapidity with which the oxygen and carbon were made to combine; and consequently that it was only necessary to bring together the oxygen and carbon in such a manner that a vast surface would be exposed to their mutual action, in order to produce a temperature hitherto unattainable in our largest furnaces. With a view of testing practically this theory, I constructed a cylindrical vessel 3 feet in diameter and 5 feet in height, somewhat like an ordinary cupola furnace, the interior of which is lined with fire-bricks, and at about 2 inches from the bottom of it I inserted five tuyere pipes, the nozzles of which are formed of well-burned fire-clay, the orifice of each tuyere being about inch in diameter; they are so put into the brick-lining (from the other side) as to admit of their removal and renewal in a few minutes when they are worn out. At one side of the vessel, about half-way up from the bottom, there is a hole made for running in the crude metal; and on the opposite side there is a tap-hole stopped with loam, by means of which the iron is run out at the end of the process. In practice this converting vessel may be made of any convenient size; but I prefer that it should not hold less than one, or more than five, tom of fluid iron at each charge. The vessel should be placed so near to the discharge hole of the blast-furnace as to allow the iron to flow along a gutter into it; a small blast cylinder will be required capable of compressing air to about 8 lbs. or 10 lbs. to the square inch.

A communication having been made between it and the tuyeres before named, the converting vessel will be in a condition to commence work; it will, however, on the occasion of its being used after re-lining with fire-bricks, be necessary to make a fire in the interior with a few buckets of coke, so as to dry the brickwork, and heat up the vessel for the first operation, after which the fire is to be all carefully raked out at the tapping-hole, which is again to be made good with loam. The vessel will then be in readiness to commence work, and may be so continued without any use of fuel, until the brick-lining in course of time becomes worn away and a new lining is required.

I have before mentioned that the tuyeres are situated close to the bottom of the vessel; the fluid metal will therefore rise some 18 inches or 2 feet above them. It is therefore necessary, in order to prevent the metal from entering the tuyere holes, to turn on the blast before allowing the fluid crude iron to run into the vessel from the blast-furnace. This having been done, and the fluid• iron run in, a rapid boiling up of the metal will be heard going on within the vessel, the metal being tossed violently about and dashed from side to side, shaking the vessel by the force with which it moves, from the throat of the converting vessel. Flame will then immediately issue, accompanied by a few bright sparks. This state of things will continue for about fifteen or twenty minutes, during which time the oxygen in the atmospheric air combines with the carbon contained in the iron, producing carbonic acid gas, and at the same time evolving a powerful heat.

Now, as this heat is generated in the interior of, and is diffused in innumerable fiery bubbles throughout, the whole fluid mass, the metal absorbs the greater part of it, and its temperature becomes immensely increased; and by the expiration of the fifteen or twenty minutes before named, that part of the carbon which appears mechanically mixed and diffused through the crude iron has been entirely consumed. The temperature, however, is so high that the chemically combined carbon now begins to separate from the metal, as is at once indicated by an immense increase in the volume of flame rushing out of the throat of the vessel. The metal in the vessel now rises several inches above its natural level, and a light frothy slag makes its appearance, and is thrown out in large foam-like masses. This violent eruption of cinder generally lasts about five or six minutes, when all further appearance of it ceases, a steady and powerful flame replacing the shower of sparks and cinder which always accompanies the boil. The rapid union of carbon and oxygen which thus takes place adds still further to the temperature of the metal, while the diminished quantity of carbon present allows a part of the oxygen to combine with the iron, which undergoes combustion and is converted into an oxide. At the excessive temperature that the metal has now acquired, the oxide as soon as formed undergoes fusion, and forms a powerful solvent of those earthy bases that are associated with iron. The violent ebullition which is going on mixes most intimately with the scoria and the metal, every part of which is thus brought in contact with the fluid oxide, which will thus wash and cleanse the metal most thoroughly from the silica and other earthy bases which are combined with the crude iron, while the sulphur and other volatile matters which cling so tenaciously to iron at ordinary temperatures are driven off, the sulphur combining with the oxygen and forming sulphurous acid gas.

The loss of weight of crude iron during its conversion into an ingot of malleable iron was found on a mean of four experiments to be 12.5 per cent., which is the loss on the present system. A large portion of this metal is, however, recoverable by treating with carbonaceous gases the rich oxides thrown out of the furnace by the boil. These slags are found to contain innumerable small grains of metallic iron, which are mechanically held in suspension in the slags, and may be easily recovered.

I have before mentioned that after the boil has taken place a steady and powerful flame succeeds, which continues without any change for about ten minutes, when it rapidly falls off. As soon as this diminution of flame is apparent, the workman will know that the process is completed, and that the crude iron has been converted into pure malleable iron, which he will form into ingots of any suitable size and shape by simply opening the tap-hole of the converting vessel and allowing the fluid malleable iron to flow into the iron ingot moulds placed there to receive it. The masses of iron thus formed will be perfectly free from any admixture of cinder, oxide, or other extraneous matters, and will be far more pure in a more forward state of manufacture than a pile formed of ordinary puddle bars. And thus it will be seen, that by a single process requiring no manipulation or particular skill, and with only one workman, from three to five tons of crude iron pass into the condition of several piles of malleable iron in from thirty to thirty-five minutes, with the expenditure of about one-third part of the blast now used in a finery furnace with an equal charge of iron, and with the consumption of no other fuel than is contained in the crude iron.

To those who are best acquainted with the nature of fluid iron, it may be a matter of surprise that a blast of cold air forced into melted crude iron is capable of raising its temperature to such a degree as to retain it in a perfect state of fluidity after it has lost all its carbon, and is in the condition of malleable iron, which in the highest heat of our forges only becomes softened into a pasty mass. But such is the excessive temperature that I am enabled to arrive at with a properly shaped converting vessel and a judicious distribution of the blast, that I am enabled not only to retain the fluidity of the metal, but to create so much surplus heat as to re-melt the crop ends, ingot runners, and other scrap that is made throughout the process, and thus bring them without labour or fuel into ingots of a quality equal to the rest of the charge of new metal. For this purpose a small arched chamber is formed immediately over the throat of the converting vessel, somewhat like the tunnel head of the blast-furnace.

This chamber has two or more openings on the side of it, and its floor is made to slope downwards to the throat. As soon as a charge of fluid malleable iron has been drawn off from the converting vessel, the workman will take the scrap intended to be worked into the next charge, and proceed to introduce the several pieces into the small chamber, piling them up around the opening of the throat. When this is done, he will run in his charge of crude metal, and again commence the process. By the time the boil commences, the bar-ends and other scrap will have acquired a white heat, and by the time it is over most of them will have been melted and run down into the charge. Any pieces, however, that remain may then be pushed in by the workman, and by the time the process is completed they will all be melted, and ultimately combined with the rest of the charge, so that all scrap iron, whether cast or malleable, may thus be used up without any loss or expense.

As an example of the power that iron has of generating heat in this process I may mention a circumstance that occurred to me during my experiments. I was trying how small a set of tuyeres could be used; but the size chosen proved to be too small, and after blowing into the metal for an hour and three quarters, I could not get up heat enough with them to bring on the boil. The experiment was therefore discontinued, during which time two-thirds of the metal solidified, and the rest was run off. A larger set of tuyere pipes were then put in, and a fresh charge of fluid iron run into the vessel, which had the effect of entirely re-melting the former charge; and when the whole was tapped out, it exhibited, as usual, that intense and dazzling brightness peculiar to the electric light.

To persons conversant with the manufacture of iron it will be at once apparent that the ingots of malleable metal which I have described will have no hard or steely parts, such as is found in puddled iron, requiring a great amount of rolling to blend them with the general mass; nor will such ingots require an excess of rolling to expel cinder from the interior of the mass, since none can exist in the ingot, which is pure and perfectly homogeneous throughout, and hence requires only as much rolling as is necessary for the development of fibre; it therefore follows that instead of forming a merchant bar or rail by the union of a number of pieces welded together, it will be far more simple and less expensive to make several bars or rails from a single ingot; doubtless this would have been done long ago, had not the whole process been limited by the size of the ball which the puddler could make.

The facility which the new process affords of making large masses will enable the manufacturer to produce bars that on the old mode of working it was impossible to obtain, while at the same time it admits of the use of some powerful machinery whereby a great deal of labour will be saved, and the process greatly expedited. I merely mention this fact in passing, as it is not my intention at the present moment to enter upon any details of the improvements I have made in this department of the manufacture, because the patents which I have obtained for them are not yet specified.

Before, however, dismissing this branch of the subject, I wish to call the attention of the meeting to some of the peculiarities which distinguish cast steel from all other forms of iron, namely, the perfect homogeneous character of the metal, the entire absence of sand-cracks or flaws, and its greater cohesive force and elasticity as compared with the blister steel from which it is made: qualities which it derives solely from its fusion and formation into ingots, all of which properties malleable iron acquires in like manner by its fission and formation into ingots in the new process. Nor must it be forgotten that no amount of rolling will give to blister steel (though formed of rolled bars) the ' same homogeneous character that cast steel acquires by a mere extension of the ingot to some ten or twelve times its original length.

One of the most important facts connected with the new system of manufacturing malleable iron, is that all iron so produced will be of that quality known as charcoal iron—not that any charcoal is used in its manufacture, but because the whole of the processes following the smelting of it are conducted entirely without contact with, or the use of, any mineral fuel; the iron resulting therefrom will, in consequence, be perfectly free from those injurious properties which that description of fuel never fails to impart to iron that is brought under its influence. At the same time, this system of manufacturing malleable iron offers extraordinary facility for making large shafts, cranks, and other heavy masses; it will be obvious that any weight of metal that can be founded in ordinary cast iron by the means at present at our disposal, may also be founded in molten malleable iron, and be brought into the forms and shapes required, provided that we increase the size and power of our machinery to the extent necessary to deal with such large masses of metal. A few minutes' reflection will show the great anomaly presented by the scale on which the consecutive processes of iron-making are at present carried on. The little furnaces originally used for smelting have assumed colossal proportions, and are made to operate on 200 to 300 tons of materials at a time, giving out ten tons of fluid metal at a single run. The manufacturer has thus gone on increasing the size of his smelting furnaces and adapting to their use the blast apparatus of the requisite proportions, and has by this means lessened the cost of production in every way; his large furnaces require a great deal less labour to produce a given weight of iron than would have been required to produce it with a dozen furnaces; and in like manner he diminishes his cost of fuel, blast, and repairs, while he ensures a uniformity of the result that never could have been arrived at by the use of a multiplicity of small furnaces.

While the manufacturer has shown himself fully alive to these advantages, he has still been under the necessity of leaving the succeeding operations to be carried out on a scale wholly at variance with the principles he has found so advantageous in the smelting department. It is true, that hitherto no better method was known than the puddling process, in which from 400 cwts. to 500 cwts. of iron is all that can be operated upon at a time; and even this small quantity is divided into homoeopathic doses of some 70 lbs. or 80 lbs., each of which is moulded and fashioned by human labour, carefully watched and tended in the furnaces, and removed therefrom one at a time to be carefully manipulated and squeezed into form. When we consider the vast extent of the manufacture, and the gigantic scale on which the early stages of the process is conducted, it is astonishing that no effort should have been made to raise the after-processes somewhat nearer to a level commensurate with the preceding ones, and thus rescue the trade from the trammels which have so long surrounded it.

Before concluding these remarks, I beg to call your attention to an important fact connected with the new process, which affords peculiar facilities for the manufacture of cast steel. At that stage of the process immediately following the boil, the whole of the crude iron has passed into the condition of cast .steel of ordinary quality; by the continuation of the process the steel so produced gradually loses its small remaining portion of carbon, and passes successively from hard to soft steel, and from soft steel to steely iron, and eventually to very soft iron; hence at a certain period of the process any quality of metal may be obtained; there is one in particular, which by way of distinction I call semi-steel, being in hardness about midway between ordinary cast steel and soft malleable iron.

This metal possesses the advantage of much greater tensile strength than soft iron; it is also more elastic, and does not readily take a permanent set, while it is much harder, and is not worn or indented so easily as soft iron; at the same time it is not so brittle or hard to work as ordinary cast steel. These qualities render it eminently well adapted to purposes where lightness and strength are specially required, or where there is much wear, as in the case of railway bars, which from their softness and lamellar texture soon become destroyed. The cost of semi-steel will be a fraction less than iron, because the loss of metal that takes place by oxidation in the converting vessel is about 21 per cent. less than it is with iron; but, as it is a little more difficult to roll, its cost per ton may be fairly considered to be the same as iron. But as its tensile strength is some 30 or 40 per cent. greater than bar iron, it follows that for most purposes a much less weight of metal may be used; so that taken in that way the semi-steel will form a much cheaper metal than any with which we are at present acquainted.

In conclusion, allow me to observe that the facts which I have had the honour to bring before the meeting have not been elicited from mere laboratory experiments, but have been the result of working on a scale nearly twice as great as is pursued in our largest ironworks, the experimental apparatus doing 7 cwts. in thirty minutes, while the ordinary puddling furnace makes only 4.5 cwts. in two hours, which is made into six separate balls, while the ingots or blooms are smooth even prisms, 10 inches square by 30 inches in length, weighing about equal to ten ordinary puddle balls.

1907 Obituary [15]

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. Wikipedia
  2. Pictorial Times - Saturday 29 May 1847
  3. Hereford Journal - Wednesday 6 June 1849
  4. The Times, Apr 16, 1879
  5. The Times, Apr 25, 1879
  6. 1861 Institution of Mechanical Engineers
  7. The Engineer 1897/06/11, p595.
  8. 'Design and Work', March 12, 1881
  9. [1] 'Large Telescopes' by H. P. Hollis, The Observatory, Vol. 37, p. 245-252 (1914)
  10. [2] 'George Calver (1834-1927)' by Ken Goward, FRAS, Orwell Astonomical Society (Ipswich)
  11. 1898 Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Obituaries
  12. 1898 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries
  13. The Engineer 1898/03/18, p256.
  14. 1898 Iron and Steel Institute: Obituaries
  15. Engineering 1907 Jan-Jun: Index: General Index