Bessemer, Henry (DNB01)
|←Berthon, Edward Lyon||Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement
|Best, William Thomas→|
BESSEMER, Sir HENRY (1813–1898), engineer and inventor, was born at Charlton, near Hitchin in Hertfordshire, on 19 Jan. 1813. He came of French Huguenot stock, bearing a name—probably Basse-mer—that had been corrupted to its present form some generations back.
His father, Anthony Bessemer, himself a notable inventor and engineer, was born in the city of London, but with his parents passed over to Holland in early childhood, and was in due time apprenticed to an engineer. Before he was twenty he took a conspicuous part in the construction and erection of the first steam pumping engine set to work in Holland, At the age of twenty-one the elder Bessemer went to Paris, and, although possessing scanty means and few friends, he quickly attained high distinction, becoming a member of the French Academy of Sciences five years after his arrival. Later he was appointed to a leading position in the Paris mint, where his artistic skill in die-sinking and engraving, and his invention of a copying machine, brought him reputation and abundant means. With the French Revolution, however, reverses came, and Anthony Bessemer barely saved his life and lost nearly all his fortune. He escaped to England and settled in the Hertfordshire village of Charlton, where Henry Bessemer was born. The pursuits followed by the elder Bessemer in the secluded village shaped the course of Henry Bessemer's life. The former established a small factory at Charlton for the manufacture of gold chains, and this was subsequently abandoned for a more important enterprise, that of type-founding. This business was undertaken in association with William Caslon, the representative of the well-known family which for two previous generations had been connected with this industry [see under Caslon, William]. The skill of the elder Bessemer as a die-sinker rapidly brought considerable success to the new business.
Henry Bessemer, inheriting the energy, inventive talent, and artistic feeling of his father, was brought up amid congenial surroundings ; except for the time devoted to an elementary education, the whole of his early years were spent in his father's workshop, where he found every opportunity and encouragement for developing his natural inclinations. At the age of seventeen he came to London to seek his fortune, possessing a knowledge of all that his father and the Charlton factory could teach him. This was in 1830 ; he appears to have first turned his knowledge of easily fusible alloys, and of casting them, to good account, and to have made a trade in art work of white metal, and afterwards in copper-coating such castings, the earliest practical application of electro-plating. His work brought him into notice. He occasionally showed it at the exhibitions of the Royal Academy at Somerset House. From art castings to embossing metal, cards, and fabrics, was a natural step, and in this his skill as a draughtsman, and his ability as a die-sinker, inherited from his father, gave him special advantages. The fly press at first, and afterwards the hydraulic press, in its then primitive form, enabled him to turn out large quantities of embossed work in different materials, and for this he found a ready market.
His connection with Somerset House (through the annual art exhibitions), and the attention he was then paying to stamping and embossing work, led to his first great invention. At that time (about 1833) it was notorious that frauds on the government, by the repeated use of stamps affixed to deeds, were perpetrated to an alarming extent, involving a loss to the revenue of 100,000l. a year. This fraud Bessemer rendered impossible by the invention of perforated dies, so that a date could be indelibly impressed on every stamp. His gift of this invention to the government was to have been recognised by a permanent official appointment, but, fortunately for the inventor, the promise was not kept, although it was recognised many years later by a tardy bestowal of knighthood. Greatly disappointed at the result of this, his first great invention, Bessemer turned to another direction in order to make a livelihood. He purchased plumbago waste at 2s. 6d. a pound, which, after cleaning and lixiviation, he compressed into blocks under hydraulic pressure, and cut into slips for making pencils; as the plumbago in this shape found a market at 4l. 10s. a pound, the industry was a profitable one. After a time he disposed of the secret of manufacture for 200l. Reverting to early experience, Bessemer now turned his attention for a while to type-founding, the novel idea of his process being that of casting under pressure ; this was followed by notable improvements in engine turning, an occupation which brought him into contact with Thomas De La Rue [q. v.], founder of the printing house. About 1838 he invented a type-composing machine that was used at the printing offices of the 'Family Herald,' and was capable of setting five thousand type an hour. It was at this time too that he invented and perfected a process for making imitation Utrecht velvet. The mechanical skill and artistic capacity of the inventor proved useful in this industry, for he not only had to design all the machinery required, but to engrave the embossing rolls himself. His arrangement with the manufacturers was to emboss the velvet supplied to him at a fixed price. At the commence- ment this price was six shillings a yard, hut it was ultimately reduced to twopence, when he abandoned the industry.
About 1840 Bessemer turned his attention to the manufacture of bronze powder and gold paint, an industry that had been known in China and Japan for many centuries, and was very successfully imitated in Germany, where the price of the powder and paint was about 5l. 10s. a pound. After many trials and failures, and encouraged considerably by De La Rue, Bessemer succeeded in producing an article at least equal to that made in Germany, and at so cheap a rate that he was enabled to defy all competition. The manufacture of this material affords perhaps the most remarkable illustration of the successful working of a secret process. The various details were entrusted to a few relatives, by whom the works were managed for nearly forty years, until the price of the powder had fallen from 4l. to 2s. 6d. a pound, and the margin was too small to carry on the business profitably. During the first half of this time, however, Bessemer derived relatively large revenues from the industiy, and was thus enabled to find the means for developing his third great invention. It may be mentioned here that between 1849 and 1853 he was considerably interested in the processes of sugar refining, and obtained a number of patents (thirteen in all) for machinery for the purpose. No profitable results, however, attended these efforts, which were somewhat outside the range of Bessemer's special line of invention.
The commencement of the most important part of Bessemer's career dates back to the Crimean war, when the obvious imperfections in the artillery of the British army brought to the front a large number of more or less able inventors. Naturally Bessemer was among this number ; one of his early proposals was to fire elongated shot from a smooth-bore gun and obtain rotation by grooving the projectile. He received no encouragement from the British war office, but a good deal from the Emperor Napoleon, who invited him to Vincennes, where some interesting experiments proved conclusively that the material then available for gun construction was entirely too weak. To obtain a stronger material was now the object of Bessemer's most earnest investigations. His efforts were directed to the production of a combined metal by the fusion of pig or cast iron with steel in a reverbatory or cupola furnace. This was the subject of the first of the long series of patents taken out by Bessemer in connection with the manufacture of steel, which extended over a period of fifteen years from August 1854 to August 1869. The combination of cast iron and steel (a process protected by a patent dated 10 Jan. 1855) produced a metal that gave promising results, but was altogether deficient in the qualities required. Accident led Bessemer to experiment in another direction. He was melting pig iron in a reverberatory furnace, and observed some pieces exposed to the air blast on one side of the bath that remained unmelted in spite of the intense heat ; on examination these proved to be mere shells of wholly decarbonised iron, the carbon having been burnt out by the blast. This accident was at once turned to account, and a number of interesting experiments followed that formed the basis of the second Bessemer steel patent dated 17 Oct. 1855. This patent describes the use of a furnace large enough to contain a number of crucibles charged with melted pig iron, through which air under pressure or steam was blown. This was followed by another patent, dated 7 Dec. 1855, for running the melted pig iron from the blast furnace or cupola into a large tipping vessel — the Bessemer converter — the air blast being introduced through tuyeres so as to pass up through the charge. Two patents, dated 4 Jan. and 12 Feb. 1856, describe improvements in mechanical details, and on 15 March following, another specification was filed, for the addition of some recarbonising material to be added to the charge from which the carbon and impurities had been burnt out by the blast, so as to restore a given percentage of carbon, according to the quality of steel it was desired to manufacture. This completes the list of master patents that controlled the Bessemer process. There were many others, but they were of relatively minor importance. Between the middle of 1855 and the summer of 1866, when he read a famous paper at the Cheltenham meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Bessemer carried out a great number of experiments at his laboratory, Baxter House, St. Pancras, with the object of establishing his process on an industrial scale.
The problem to be solved was how to decarbonise the charge completely, and to keep it fluid by the active combustion of the impurities in the molten iron by means of an air blast. The first converter used for this process was a cylindrical chamber lined with fireclay, with a row of tuyeres near the bottom and an opening at the top for the discharge of the burning gases. The converter held ten hundredweight of molten metal, and an air blast of fifteen pounds' pressure to the square inch was used. This was admitted through the tuyeres into the charge for about ten minutes, when a violent explosion of sparks and flame and melted slag occurred, lasting some minutes. As soon as this had subsided the charge was tapped from the converter, and the metal was found to be wholly decarbonised malleable iron. After many experiments the fixed converter was replaced by one mounted on trunnions ; in its earliest form this arrangement was patented in February 1856.
The success of Bessemer's experiments attracted considerable attention, and this was increased to widespread enthusiasm on the reading of his famous paper before the British Association at the Cheltenham meeting in 1856. This paper was entitled 'On the Manufacture of Malleable Iron and Steel without Fuel.' The result of the paper was remarkable. Bessemer's reputation as a practical man of science was such that the statements he made were accepted without question, and within a month of the date of the meeting he had received no less than 27,000l. from ironmakers in different parts of the country for licenses to use the invention. But Bessemer's victory was not yet quite decisive. Trials of the process were hastily made by the licensees, without due care and knowledge, resulting for the most part in failure. Enthusiasm gave place to discredit, condemnation, and abuse, and for a while Bessemer's reputation and the Bessemer process were in danger of extinction. The great inventor, however, was not easily discouraged ; he carried out new experiments at Baxter House, spent thousands of pounds in the construction of fresh plant, and in 1858 he was able to show his numerous licensees why they had failed, and how they could make higher-class steel with certainty. Thus he justified the claims made in his Cheltenham paper of 1856, and proved that he had passed the experimental stage of manufacture. Then followed a violent opposition on the part of the steel trade, which was met by Bessemer erecting in 1859 his own works in Sheffield, and starting in business as a steel maker. Those works became financially successful ten years after they were opened, and have continued to flourish till the present time. In June 1859 Bessemer was selling tool steel (for the first time quoted on the metal market), the price being 21. 4s. per cwt. But this steel was not made by the real Bessemer process. The melted iron, having been quite decarbonised by the air blast, was granulated by being run into water, and was then remelted in a crucible with sufficient manganese to return the desired amount of carbon. It was in June 1859, however, that the first Bessemer steel was run direct from the converter, the decarbonising agent having been put into the charge after the blast had done its work. From this time the manufacture proceeded steadily on a constantly increasing scale. Subsequently, in 1879, the Bessemer process reached its ultimate stage of perfection, owing to the discovery by Sidney Gilchrist Thomas [q. v.] of a means of eliminating phosphorus in the Bessemer converter, and the manufacture of Bessemer steel was thereby greatly facilitated and cheapened in both England and America. The Bessemer process from 1865 onwards experienced the competition of the Siemens process for making steel ; this process was largely employed in Great Britain after its invention in that year [see Siemens, Sir William], but Bessemer's earlier invention has conspicuously maintained its superiority of output for the whole world.
A claim was made by Robert Forester Mushet [q. v.] to have anticipated Bessemer's invention altogether, and to have been the first to carry it to a successful issue. But there is no doubt that Bessemer worked independently of Mushet, and was not acquainted with Mushet's experiments till he had completed his own. He consented to the award of the Bessemer medal of the Iron and Steel Institute to Mushet in 1896, and bestowed on him an annuity of 300l. Mushet stated his case in 1883 in 'The Bessemer-Mushet Process, or the Manufacture of Cheap Steel.' Bessemer told his story in an unpublished autobiography.
Within five years of 1859, the date of the completion of Bessemer's invention, the Bessemer process had been adopted by all the steel-making countries of the world, and its real value was understood, though no one Avould have ventured to prophesy the vast developments that were in store for it. Reverting to the cause which had first led him to this line of investigation, Bessemer soon after 1859 made a speciality of gun-making at Sheffield, and manufactured some hundreds of weapons for foreign governments. No doubt indeed exists that, but for the opposition to the use of steel for ordnance in this country, that material would have been used in the British services twenty years sooner than was the case. The Bessemer steel exhibits at the London International Exhibition of 1862 gave a good idea of the state of the manufacture at the Sheffield works at that date. These exhibits included locomotive boiler tube plates, from one of which a disc 23 in. diameter and ¾ in. thick had been cut, and stamped into a cup 11 in. in diameter and 10 in. deep. There were a 25-pounder steel gun, the ninety-second made to that date; a 24-pounder gun belonging to another large order ; square steel bars and double-headed steel rails twisted cold into spirals ; a 14-in. ingot, the fracture of which loolted like forged steel ; an ingot weighing 3,136 pounds, the 6,410th that had been cast from the converter of the Sheffield works. There was also a double-headed steel rail 40 ft. long ; the crankshaft of a 250 horsepower engine, and some weldless tyres. From this it will be seen that Bessemer steel was coming widely into use in very varied directions. The first locomotive steel boilers were used on the London and North-Western Railway in 1863. In that year stationary boilers of the same material were made, and ships' plates were rolled on a large scale. The first Bessemer steel rails were made much earlier than this. In 1861 Crewe station was laid with such rails rolled at Crewe from ingots cast at Sheffield. The next year another rail was laid outside the Camden goods station, and the experience gained from these experiments revolutionised railway practice and rendered possible the heavy loads and high speeds of to-day. The first steel rails — those laid at Crewe — were in good order five years later, though 300 trains a day had run over them. Prices of course ruled high, but even so steel rails proved to be cheaper than iron rails, and were laid as rapidly as they could be made. In 1865 the output of Bessemer steel on the continent was as follows : — France, 30,000 tons ; Prussia, 33,000 tons ; Belgium, 40,000 tons; Austria, 21,000 tons; liussia, 5,000 tons; Sweden, 6,000 tons; the German States, 2,000 tons ; Italy, 350 tons ; and Spain, 500 tons. The manufacture in the United States, which was destined to surpass by far that of other countries, had not then commenced. Prices were — compared with those of to-day- fabulously high ; though, compared with those which had been charged by Krupp in 1860, they appeared extremely low. Then 120l. a ton had been paid for steel tyres. In 1866 Bessemer had forced the price down to 45l. and 40l. a ton.
These figures show that Bessemer's reward had at last come after many years of work and waiting. But so much time had been lost in early struggles that but a few years remained before the expiry of the master patents. From the beginning of 1866 to the end of 1868 the royalties at 2l. per ton of ingots averaged 200,000l., but after 1868 they fell to 2s. 6d. per ton. The total royalties received amounted to about one million sterling. The expiry of patents of course
largely reduced the price of rails, and greatly increased demand. About 1864 Bessemer sold his American patents to a United States syndicate, but it was not until the expiry of these patents that great progress was made in America. In 1866 the first order for steel rails came from the United States, 1,000 tons at 25l. a ton ; the following year this price had fallen to less than half, and in 1867 England sent to the United States 28,000 tons at 12l'.
Within the United States the Bessemer steel manufacture was introduced and developed by Alexander L. Holley (1867-70). In 1869 110,000 tons of rails were laid on the United States railways. Of these Messrs. Cammell & Co. of Sheffield sent out 27,000 tons, Messrs. John Brown & Co. 50,000 tons, and the Barrow Company 15,000 tons. But in the same year the Troy (New York) Works were able to produce 20,000 tons, and the importation of Bessemer steel from England into America ceased with the establishment of other works. During the thirty years 1869-1899 the manufacture increased so rapidly that in the latter year the capacity for production had grown to about 10,000,000 tons. The manufacture of Bessemer steel in the United States has for many years exceeded that of any other country, and at the present time it is probably equal to that of the rest of the world collectively. With growing production prices fell, until steel rails could be purchased for less than 5l. a ton.
After Bessemer's more active and financial interests in steel manufacture ceased, he turned his attention to other matters. Among these the invention which most attracted public attention was his swinging saloon for sea-going vessels. His desire was to mitigate, if not to remove, the suffering due to sea-sickness. To this end he constructed, for the Channel service, the steamship Bessemer, a boat 350 ft. long, 54 ft. wide, and with 4,000 horse-power. The great feature of this vessel was a saloon hung amidship on trunnions, the movement of which in a sea-way could be so controlled by hydraulic machinery as to maintain always a steady floor. The saloon was 70 ft. long, 30 ft. wide, and 20 ft. high. This ship made its trial between Dover and Calais on Saturday, 8 May 1875. The result, however, was disappointing, and the venture, carried out at Bessemer's expense, was somewhat prematurely abandoned. The late years of Bessemer were years of busy leisure. He erected a fine observatory at his residence on Denmark Hill, and devoted a great deal of his time to the construction of a telescope and to mechanism for grinding and polishing lenses. From this he was led to a series of interesting experiments on the application of solar heat for the production of high temperatures, and he hoped to do much with his solar furnace. He also laid out with characteristic originality and skill a diamond cutting and polishing plant for one of his grandsons.
The universal adoption of his inventions in the manufacture of steel gave Bessemer a world-wide pviblic reputation, although he made few contributions to technical literature. His famous British Association paper was excluded from the 'Transactions' of that body. In May 1859 he read a paper before the Institution of Civil Engineers on the 'Manufacture of Malleable Iron and Steel.' In 1886 he contributed a paper to the Iron and Steel Institute on 'Some Earlier Forms of the Bessemer Converter,' and again in 1891 he read a second paper 'On the Manufacture of Continuous Sheets of Malleable Iron or Steel direct from the Fluid Metal.' A more recent paper to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers on some early experiences of the Bessemer process concludes the list of his publications, though letters from him to the 'Times,' 'Engineering,' and other papers were not infrequent.
Considering the great services he rendered to the whole world, the recognitions he received were richly deserved. The legion of honour offered to him by the French emperor in 1856 he was not allowed to accept. The Albert gold medal was awarded him by the Society of Arts in 1872 for his services in developing the manufacture of steel. In 1868 his name appears as one of the founders of the Iron and Steel Institute, of which he was the president from 1871 to 1873. On retiring from office he presented the institute with an endowment for the annual presentation of a Bessemer gold medal. This has been bestowed on distinguished metallurgists of many nationalities. He was elected in 1877 a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, which conferred on him the Telford gold medal in 1858 and the Howard quinquennial prize in 1878 ; and he became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1879. It was also in that year he was knighted for services rendered to the inland revenue office forty years before. He was given the freedom of the city of Hamburg, and on 13 May 1880 he was presented with the freedom of the city of London in a gold casket at a specially convened meeting in the Guildhall. He was also honorary member of many foreign technical societies, and he had the satisfaction of knowing that no less than six thriving manufacturing towns in the United States and one county (in Alabama) were named after him. The towns are in Michigan, Alabama (chief town of the county of Bessemer), Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wyoming, and North Carolina.
Sir Henry Bessemer died at his residence at Denmark Hill on 15 March 1898, and was buried at Norwood cemetery. He married in 1833 Anne, daughter of Richard Allen of Amersham ; she died a year before him. He was survived by two sons and a daughter.
His portrait, painted by Rudolph Lehmann, was bequeathed to the Iron and Steel Institute; another portrait hangs on the wall of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers' building in New York.
During the fifty-six years that intervened between Bessemer's first patent specification (that relating to an invention of machinery for casting type, dated 8 March 1838) and his last patent specification (that relating to his invention dealing with ships' saloons, which was completed in 1894), the records of the patent office show that he protected no fewer than 114 inventions, an average of two a year, although, as may be supposed, the number is not evenly distributed. His life may be divided into three epochs, each of them full of momentous consequences to himself, the last of the highest importance to the world. The events marking these epochs were : The invention of a means for defacing government stamps ; the invention of Bessemer bronze powder and gold paint; the invention of the Bessemer steel process. Nearly all the many minor incidents of an incessantly busy life may be said to have led up to, or to have grown out of, these three great inventions. The first saved the revenue 100,000l. a year; the second, conducted during forty years as a secret process, brought Bessemer a sufficient income to prosecute his experiments in the manufacture of steel ; and the third has revolutionised the commercial history of the world. 'The invention [of Bessemer steel] takes its rank with the great events which have changed the face of society since the time of the middle ages. The invention of printing, the construction of the magnetic compass, the discovery of America, and the introduction of the steam engine are the only capital events in modern history which belong to the same category as the Bessemer process' (Address of the Hon, Abram S. Hewitt to the Iron and Steel Institute, 1890).
[Bessemer left behind him a completed autobiography, but it is scarcely likely to be published. The only biography of him in existence is a monograph by the present writer, written for the American Society of Mechanical Engi-
neers, and published in the Transactions of that body, 1899; cf. Men of the Time, 1895; Jeans's Creators of the Age of Steel; Mushet's Bessemer-Mushet Process, 1883.]