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.
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.
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.
Using a system of carefully
heated rollers, Bessember was able to emboss
velvet with elaborate patterns.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
steam-driven fans for
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 www.ex.net/1995/09/27/science/science.html
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