The New International Encyclopædia/Bessemer, Henry

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The New International Encyclopædia
Bessemer, Henry
Edition of 1905. See also Henry Bessemer on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

BESSEMER, Sir Henry (1813-98). An English inventor, who originated and successfully developed the process for making steel known by his name. He was born at Charlton, near Hitchin, England, and acquired his early education in the schools of the neighborhood. His father, who was a French artist, owned a type-foundry, and in this establishment the son received his early mechanical training. He inherited from his father artistic talent, and was skillful at modeling, designing, and painting. He early turned his attention to mechanical inventions, and his first successful scheme was a method of impressing on deeds and other documents the stamps of the internal revenue office, which at that time could be forged readily. Of such marked excellence was this invention that it was straightway appropriated by the revenue office, without compensation to the inventor, in spite of his strenuous efforts to secure justice. Later in life, when he had achieved success and honor, he brought this matter to the attention of the Government, and was knighted (1879) as a tardy recognition of the value of his early invention. Bessemer's next work of importance was that of a new method of producing bronze powder, or ‘gold’ paint, which was successful from a commercial point of view, and supplied him with resources to carry on his metallurgical researches. He was greatly interested in the production and manipulation of alloys, doubtless on account of his father's business as a type-founder, and though without a scientific training, he was a careful, ingenious, and determined investigator. During the Crimean War, in common with many other inventors, he was engaged in experiments looking to the improvement of cannon, and designed an elongated projectile so shaped and perforated as to revolve in its flight through the passage of air and powder-gases. For the discharge of such a projectile he found that the cannon of that period would not resist the strain, and accordingly he determined to carry on experiments with a view to producing iron of greater strength. Working in Paris, with the encouragement of the Emperor Napoleon, he produced an improved form of cast iron, and was then led to further refine the iron until steel was produced. Patents were taken out in connection with these ideas in 1855, and the experiments were continued, so that Bessemer soon (in his own words) “became convinced that if air could be brought in contact witli a sufficiently extensive surface of molten crude iron, the latter would rapidly be converted into malleable iron.” As a result of numerous experiments followed the ‘converter’ (q.v.), which, along with the other apparatus, was installed in 1856 at his bronze-factory in London, and steel ingots were produced which were successfully rolled into rails without hammering. After the process was developed, the Bessemer Steel Works in Sheffield were erected, and were soon producing a large output, as well as training competent workmen to carry on similar factories in other parts of the world. On August 13, 1856, Bessemer read a paper at the Cheltenham meeting of the British Association, on “The Manufacture of Malleable Iron and Steel Without Fuel,” and in 1865, at the Birmingham meeting, he read another important paper “On the Manufacture of Cast Steel, its Progress and Employment as a Substitute for Wrought Iron.” The growth of this process (see Iron and Steel, Metallurgy of) was not only marked in itself, but it had a wide-spread effect in greatly cheapening the price of steel and making it available for railway and other engineering work. In 1858 the steel made at Sheffield, the principal producing centre of England, was less than 50,000 tons, produced by the cementation process. Since that time the output has marvelously increased, and in 1896 Great Britain produced 1,815,842 tons of Bessemer-steel ingots and the United States 3,019,000, the yearly output of the world being considerably in excess of 10,000,000 tons. Bessemer's process has in forty years undergone few, if any, radical improvements.

In addition to his success in steel-working, which brought him renown and fortune, Bessemer had other inventions to his credit, among which were a method for compressing into a solid block the graphite used in the manufacture of lead-pencils, which is still in use; a method for casting type, using a force-pump to drive the metal into the mould; a system of rollers for embossing and printing paper; a machine for embossing velvet; and a ship with a stationary cabin. The latter, on which Bessemer spent much money, was, however, a complete failure. In 1859 Bessemer received his first honor, in the firm of the Telford Medal of the Institute of Civil Engineers; in 1872 the Albert Medal of the Society of Arts; in 1871-73 he was president of the Iron and Steel Institute of Great Britain; and in 1879 he was made a fellow of the Royal Society. That a man who did so much for British industrial development did not receive higher honors from the home Government was a source of deep regret to English engineers, who alluded to the fact that, in the United States, where the Bessemer process was largely used, eight cities or towns bore his name. He was an honorary member of many foreign engineering and scientific societies, including the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, before whom, in December, 1896, he presented a paper on “The Origin of the Bessemer Process,” which was printed in the Transactions of that society (Vol. XVII., New York, 1896), and also published in Engineering News (Vol. XXXVI., New York); Engineering (Vol. LXII., London), and other scientific journals of that time, to which the reader is referred.