Issue 1, 27th September 1995: Henry Bessemer, Man of Steel
By Adam Hart-Davis.
Henry Bessemer was born near Hitchin, Hertfordshire, on 19 January 1813. His dad was a rich engineer, and he always enjoyed messing about with scientific and technical things.
(Also born Jan 19: Paul Cezanne, artist, 1839; William Williams Keen, US' first brain surgeon, 1837; Edgar Allan Poe, author, 1809; James Watt, Scottish instrument maker and inventor, 1736.)
When he was 17, and in love, he made his first serious invention---embossed stamps to use on title deeds. People who needed a five-pound stamp would usually peel one off an old deed, and thus avoid buying a new one. The government was losing GBP100,000 a year in revenue. His invention made this impossible, and he persuaded the Stamp Office at Somerset House that this was a brilliant idea. They offered him the post of Superintendent of Stamps, at GBP700 a year---a small fortune in 1830! He was over the moon---now he could marry his beloved.
He then had an even better idea, which was simply to print a date on the stamps. When he told them about this, they said ``Thanks very much; we won't need you as Superintendent of Stamps now.'' And he got nothing at all for his invention, and for saving them all that money.
This made him mad: he had come up with a couple of brilliant ideas, and had made no money from them. After that, he found out about patenting. In all he took out 110 patents. I must tell you about a few of them:
STUDIES OF FLOWERS FROM NATURE BY MISS BESSEMER
He thought this deserved better than just ink; so he went to a shop and bought some ``bronze powder'' in two different colours, and had to pay seven shillings an ounce for it. He realized that if he could make this stuff cheaply he could also make a fortune. So he invented machines to do it. The first one failed, but the second was a success.
He reckoned it would be no good to patent this process; so he determined to keep it utterly secret. He had the full-size machines made in sections all over the country, and assembled them himself in his house in St Pancras, north London. He hired his three brothers-in-law to run the plant, and kept every room locked and the whole factory sealed against snoopers. Only five people ever went into he building, and they managed to keep the process secret for 35 years---much longer than a patent would have lasted. And so he made his first fortune.
The trouble with his new heavy shell was that the existing gun-barrels weren't strong enough to take the extra pressure; so he decided to find a way of making better steel. There was no structural steel available at the time. Crucible steel was the best, but could be made only in kilogram quantities; if you wanted a bridge or a gun, you had to make it out of wrought iron.
He was lying ill in bed when the idea came to him to blow air in at the bottom of a vat of molten iron. The problem with iron was that it had too much carbon in it. He had tried blowing air in from the side of a vat of molten iron, and found that although the temperature went up, he was left with some curious hollow shapes of solid material in line with where the air had blown in - in other words the air had produced some material with a higher melting point.
In Baxter House, St Pancras, he set out to see whether a blast of air could change molten iron into steel. He made a cylindrical furnace about 4 feet high with six horizontal air-pipes around the bottom. For the first trial he put in 7 hundredweight of molten pig iron---that's about 300 kg---and an air blast of 15--20psi. ``All went on quietly for about ten minutes...'' There were some sparks and hot gas as he expected. But then the reaction became more violent, until after ten minutes it was ``sending up an ever-increasing stream of sparks and a large white flame. Then followed a succession of mild explosions, throwing molten slags and splashes of metal high up into the air, the apparatus becoming like a volcano in a state of active eruption. No one could approach the converter to turn off the blast, and some low flat zinc-covered roofs close at hand were in danger of being set on fire by the shower of red-hot matter falling on them.''
The Bessemer Converter was invented in 1856, and became the heart of steel production for nearly 120 years.
He patented his invention, and formed the Bessemer Steel Company both to make the steel and to license the process to others. He set up in Sheffield, the heart of steel country, where he could do this most effectively.
In 1858 and 1859 Henry Bessemer & Co made a loss, but then the profits started to come in; by 1867 he had made GBP200,000 plus as much again in royalties, and by the time the patent expired in 1870 he had made more than a million pounds.
But alas his great steelworks is now a desolate empty site, just by the railway line north of Sheffield station, with his old red-brick office building, Bessemer House, still looming over it.
Henry Bessemer was an astonishingly successful inventor and businessman. He notched up success after success. He was knighted in 1879, and died in London on 15 March 1898. But I am relieved to say that even he did not always get it right. His most dramatic failure come with the Bessemer Saloon Ship Company.
He had suffered terribly from sea-sickness on his trips to France; so in December 1869 he began to spend time and a lot of money designing and making a cross-channel boat in which one could not be sea-sick.
The idea was that the entire cabin was mounted in gimbals with a great weight or even a gyroscope underneath it, so that however rough the sea was the cabin would always stay horizontal; the hull of the boat would just roll and pitch about it.
He built a little model, and then a full-sized mock-up of the cabin in a mobile hut mounted on a deck in a field near his house. He used a large steam engine to make the deck rock and roll, and then tried to keep the cabin horizontal. People said it would never work, but he went ahead anyway, and spent more than GBP40,000 on floating the company and the boat.
Unfortunately it proved so unstable that it was impossible to steer. On its maiden voyage on 8 May 1875, a beautiful calm day, the ship sailed from Dover, and in broad daylight, demolished the pier at Calais. The Bessemer Saloon Ship never sailed again, and the Company sank without trace.
See the Center for Iron and Steel Reseach at Carnegie Mellon University in the US and the American Iron and Steel Institute.
The Science Museum in London currently has an ``Iron and Steel'' exhibition, including an early Bessemer converter. They also have a list of other museums on the Web.