Henry Bessemer and the birth of modern steelmaking

Sir Henry Bessemer invented the first ever process for mass-producing steel. In this article, we take a look at Bessemer’s life and achievements, and explain the specifics of a process that inspired the Industrial Revolution.

Henry Bessemer’s life and achievements

Henry Bessemer was an English inventor, engineer and entrepreneur. Born in Hertfordshire in 1813, this son of an engineer and typefounder showed from an early age considerable mechanical and inventive skills.

Throughout his life, Bessemer made many contributions in the field of engineering and materials science (aka metallurgy), amounting to a total of 129 individual patents spanning 1838 to 1883.

Bessemer’s earliest contribution was the invention of six steam-powered machines for manufacturing bronze powder, which was typically used in the manufacture of gold paint. He also devised a method for making a continuous ribbon of plate glass, which while not commercially successful at the time was a forerunner to today’s continuous casting of steel strip.

While his process for producing bronze powder, in particular, brought him wealth and fame, Henry Bessemer is most noted for devising a steel production process that inspired the Industrial Revolution. The invention of what’s now known as the Bessemer Process was so significant that Bessemer himself was knighted in 1879.

The Bessemer Process in steelmaking

During the period of 1850 to 1855, Henry Bessemer, like many metallurgists, was focused on the problem of producing cheap steel. At the time, steel was produced only in small batches and at great expense, but the general concencus was that if it could be manufactured and harnessed effectively it would be an absolute game changer. The race was on to be the first to conquer the element and make it cheap to make at scale.

In his experiments, Bessemer studied the effects of blasting compressed air through molten metal to produce steel that was lighter, easier to shape and able to be produced in greater quantities at a faster rate. When the oxygen is passed through the molten metal it reacts with the carbon, releasing carbon dioxide and removes impurities like silicon, thus producing a more pure iron.

At first, the process removed too much carbon. However, further experimentation led to the introduction of a compound of iron, carbon and manganese (known as spiegeleisen) that helped to remove the excess oxygen and stabilise the carbon content.

The Bessemer Process, as it’s known today, saw steel production costs massively reduced and wrought iron all but replaced with mild steel.

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