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Sir Henry BessemerSir Henry Bessemer

prolific inventor best known for his steel-making process

Henry Bessemer was born near Hitchin, Hertfordshire, on January 19, 1813, the son of an engineer. From an early age he showed that he had inherited his father's engineering talents, and by the time of his death he had been awarded over 110 patents.

Embossed Stamps

At the age of 17, Bessemer invented embossed stamps to use on title deeds. Prior to this people who needed a five-pound stamp would usually peel one off an old deed rather than buy a new one. This practice cost the British government 100,000 a year in revenue. Bessemer's invention made it impossible to reuse old stamps, and he persuaded the Stamp Office at Somerset House to use them. The Stamp Office offered him the post of Superintendent of Stamps, at 700 a year -- a small fortune in that day. But then Bessemer realized that it would be even better to simply print a date on each stamp. When he told the Stamp Office about this idea, they gave him their thanks and then informed that he was no longer needed as Superintendent of Stamps. Despite having saved the Stamp Office a great deal of money, Bessemer ultimately received nothing at all for either his embossed stamp or his date idea.

Compressing Plumbago Dust

Bessemer did make some money when he found a way of compressing soft plumbago dust (native graphite) to form hard lead pencils. He sold this invention to a friend for 200, and that friend made a fortune with it.

Embossed Velvet

Using a system of carefully heated rollers, Bessember was able to emboss velvet with elaborate patterns.

Brass Powder

In 1840, Bessemer was asked by his sister to paint the title on her portfolio of flower paintings. He was a skilled calligrapher, and he decided to use gold paint for the letters. In his day gold paint was made by mixing brass powder into pigments. Bessemer knew that the brass used to make the powder cost only sixpence a pound, so he was quite surprised to learn that, in powder form, it cost 225 times that. The existing powder was made by hand in Germany, so Bessemer set about making it mechanically. Once he had perfected the process and the machines, he determined to keep it secret rather than patent them. He had the machines made in sections by different manufacturers across England, and assembled them himself in his house in north London. He then hired his three brothers-in-law to run the plant. Only five people ever went into the building, and they managed to keep the process secret for 35 years, and Bessemer made his first fortune.

Sugar Cane Press

In answer to a challenge contest from Prince Albert, Bessemer devised a hydraulic machine for extracting juice from sugar cane.

Mortar Shell

In 1854, Bessemer took out a patent for a very accurate, spinning mortar shell. Armies at that time were still using cannonballs, which, though quite lethal, were not very accurate. Bessemer was sure that if you used a long thin projectile it would not only be heavier but also more accurate, because you could cut spiral grooves around it which would make it spin, and keep it on target (what we now refer to as "rifling"). Although the War Department showed no interest in his idea, Napoleon was keen, and Bessemer traveled to France to showcase his new design. Although Napoleon was sold on the shells, gun barrels of the day weren't strong enough to fire them. Bessemer would have to invent a stronger metal before his mortar shells could be put into use.

diagram of Bessemer's mortar shell and cannon

a Bessemer converter, on display at the Science Museum in Londona Bessemer steel converter operating during the firing stage at the Bessemer Steel WorksBessemer Converter

Bessemer wanted a material that was as malleable as wrought iron, but which could be cast in molds to make strong cannon. Cast steel had been around since the 1750's and would have been ideal for his purposes, but it could only be made in fifty-pound batches. It also took a long time in the furnace, making it extremely expensive. Bessemer began experimenting with a small furnace, melting some steel in a bath of molten pig iron. Blowing air over the surface to raise the temperature to melt the steel, he noticed that a lump or two of pig iron would not melt. Subsequent observation revealed that this was because the pig iron was now steel; the air had burnt off the carbon from the surface of the iron.

Bessemer realized that if he could expose enough of the molten iron to the air he could convert it all into steel by burning off the carbon, so he made a furnace with a hole in the top and tried to bubble air through the molten iron. The air blast burned off the excess carbon in the pig iron, and the reaction produced sufficient heat to keep the steel red-hot after the iron had melted, dispelling the need for any further expensive fuel.

After patenting the Bessemer Converter in 1856, Bessemer formed the Bessemer Steel Company to both make the steel and to license the process to others. He set up in Sheffield, then the heart of steel country. The company suffered losses in its first two years of operation, but by 1867 Bessemer had earned over 200,000 plus as much again in royalties, and by the time the patent expired in 1870 he had made more than a million pounds.

model of Bessemer's steel apparatus

Bessemer Saloon Ship

Bessemer had suffered terribly from sea-sickness on his trips to France, so in December 1869 he began working on a cross-channel boat on which one could not get sea-sick. His plan called for the cabin to be mounted in gimbals with either a great weight or a gyroscope underneath it, so that no matter how rough the sea was the cabin would always stay horizontal, while the hull of the boat rolled and pitched around it.

Bessemer spent more than 40,000 on bringing his concept to fruition. Unfortunately, the Bessemer Saloon Ship proved so unstable that it was impossible to steer. On its maiden voyage on May 8, 1875, the ship sailed from Dover, crossed a relatively calm Channel, and, in broad daylight, smashed into the pier at Calais, France. The ship never sailed again.

model of the Bessemer Saloon Cabin

Bessemer's Other Inventions Include

steam-driven fans for ventilating mines
a special furnace for making sheet glass

Henry Bessemer was knighted in 1879 and awarded a Fellowship of the Royal Society. He died in London on March 15, 1898.

Anthony Feldman and Peter Ford Scientists and Inventors, The People Who Made Technology from Earliest Times to Present Day New York: Facts on File, 1979
Neil Cossons Making of the Modern World, Milestones of Science and Technology London: John Murray (Publishers) Ltd., 1992

Science and Technology

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This page was last updated on 09/12/2015.

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