On this day in history : 15th March 1898 – The death of Henry Bessemer – the inventor and engineer who pioneered the first method of inexpensively manufacturing steel….

Henry Bessemer – Public domain

Bessemer was born in Charlton, Hertfordshire on the 19th of January 1813…. He was the son of an engineer and inventor and he started to show the same qualities himself from an early age – and in which he was mainly self-taught….

Spanning over a period of 45 years, from 1838 to 1883, Bessemer held well over 100 patents – he was a prolific inventor…. From moveable dies for embossing postage stamps to military ordnance and methods of extracting sugar from sugar cane….to many other inventions in the glass, iron and steel industries….

He initially made his fortune by inventing a series of 6 steam powered machines for producing the bronze powder used to make gold paint…. The Victorians couldn’t get enough gold paint – the decoration style of the time demanding huge quantities of it…. Bessemer became a very wealthy man….

But what he is really known for is his breakthrough in finding a way to inexpensively produce steel…. At the time there were only two types of iron based material – cast iron and wrought iron…. The cast variety was made by treating iron-ore with coke in a blast furnace; whereas wrought iron involved a labour intensive process known as ‘puddling’…. This meant iron had to be stirred continuously to remove carbon – which makes iron brittle – and during the process the slag had to be raked off…. Cast iron was used for load bearing applications, such as the towers of bridges and for engine parts…. But for things such as girders and rails only wrought iron was suitable…. The puddling method used for wrought iron produced a material that could then be forged – but it was in enormous sized quantities – lumps between 100-200 lbs – and full of slag…. This then required steam hammers to bring it to a condition where it could be rolled into pieces of a workable size…. It was a slow and laborious process….

Bessemer invented a process which used oxygen in air which was then blown through molten pig iron – in a pear-shaped receptacle called a ‘converter’…. This burnt off the carbon and impurities to make steel…. It was called ‘The Bessemer Process’ and meant there was now a way to mass produce steel – it also meant Bessemer helped to inspire the Industrial Revolution….

The Bessemer Process – Public domain

It is a method no longer widely used – but at a time of rapid development it was invaluable….as it supplied a ready supply of a material much in demand….

Bessemer Converter, Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield – Image : Chemical Engineer – own work – Public domain

Bessemer was elected to the fellowship of The Royal Society of London in 1877 and on the 26th of June 1879 he was knighted by Queen Victoria…. He died at Denmark Hill, London….and was buried in West Norwood Cemetery…. He rests amongst other influential Victorians such as Sir Henry Tate, Baron de Reuters and Sir Henry Doulton….

Photo : Robert Mason, own work CC0

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