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Bessemer, Sir Henry

process iron steel cheap

[be semer] (1813–98) British engineer and inventor: developed a process for the manufacture of cheap steel.

Bessemer’s father was an English mechanical engineer at the Paris Mint who returned to England during the French Revolution. Bessemer first gained some knowledge of metallurgy at his father’s type foundry. It was a time of rapid progress in industrial manufacture and Bessemer was interested in all new developments. Largely self-taught, he became a prolific inventor.

Cheap steel from the Bessemer process encouraged engineers to use it for large structures, usually successfully; but the rail bridge over the river Tay failed in high wind in 1879, costing the lives of 73 train passengers.

When he was 20 he produced a scheme for the prevention of forgeries of impressed stamps used on documents; these forgeries were then costing the Government some £100 000 per year. The Stamp Office adopted his suggestion, but did not reward him. It was an experience he did not forget.

Horrified at the price of hand-made German ‘gold powder’ purchased for his sister’s painting, he devised a method of manufacturing the powder from brass. Unable to patent the process, for secrecy he designed a largely automatic plant, workable by himself and his three brothers-in-law. From this he made enough money to cover the expenses of his future inventions, which included improvements in sugar cane presses and a method for the manufacture of continuous sheet glass.

The Crimean War directed Bessemer’s interest to the need for a new metal for guns. Cast iron (pig iron), which contains carbon and other impurities, is brittle, and the relatively pure wrought iron was then made from pig iron by a laborious and time-consuming method. Steel (iron with a small amount of carbon) was made in small quantities with heavy consumption of fuel and so was costly. He developed the Bessemer process for making cheap steel without the use of fuel, reducing to minutes a process which had taken days. Bessemer steel was suitable for structural use and was cheap enough to use for this, which greatly helped the industrial development then in progress; as well as being of value for railway systems and the machine-tool industry. The Bessemer process consisted of blowing air through molten crude iron, oxidizing carbon to blow-off gas and silicon and manganese to solid oxides. For this purpose he designed the Bessemer converter, a tiltable container for the molten metal, with holes for blowing air through its base. Some early users of his process were unable to reproduce his results, which led to legal disputes over royalty payments to him. The failures were due to ores containing phosphorus; Bessemer had by chance used iron ore free from phosphorus. This problem of phosphorus impurities in some ores was solved in 1878 by S G Thomas (1850–85) and P C Gilchrist (1851–1935). R F Mushet (1811–91) also improved the process, by the addition of an alloy of iron, manganese and carbon.

Bessemer set up his own steel works in Sheffield, using phosphorus-free ore. During his lifetime the Bessemer process was appreciated more abroad. Andrew Carnegie made his fortune by it in the USA, but the British steel manufacturers were loth to acknowledge its success. Bessemer was knighted in 1879.

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