Tag Archives: num:ScienceMuseum=1959-186

‘Onward Ever’ – Sir Henry Bessemer 19.1.1813 – 15.3.1898

Sir Henry Bessemer, British inventor and engineer, 1880 ( Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library )

Sir Henry Bessemer’s motto summed him up – one who strived, faced and overcame obstacles to achieve a number of successes. These culminated in the invention of his process for the bulk production of steel in 1856. This development was to prove massively significant in the extension of the railways and in large construction.

Bessemer, born 200 years ago this month, sought the key process that would allow him to live in the lap of luxury.  His father, Anthony Bessemer, also a successful inventor, encouraged his son’s interest in things mechanical and gave him the freedom to explore his own ideas from the early age of 17.

Early in his career, Henry Bessemer made a fortune from his mechanised process for making bronze powder, previously made in a laborious manual process fiercely protected in Germany, and sold at a high premium. Bessemer took great steps to maintain secrecy, including employing his three brothers-in-law to oversee manufacturing.

Later, Bessemer applied himself assiduously to a method for producing good quality malleable iron in quantity, and eventually high quality steel. On 24 August 1856 he presented his method to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in a paper entitled “The Manufacture of Iron without fuel”.  Later he commented that he should have waited until the process was reliable. He had to overcome early problems with poor quality steel due to high quantities of phosphorus in the iron ore used – an issue later resolved by Sidney Thomas Gilchrist. Robert Mushet also offered improvements to the process by his numerous experiments to control the amount of carbon in iron ore. Although Bessemer rejected his claims, he agreed to pay Mushet an annual pension of £300 a year for an undisclosed reason – perhaps to avoid troublesome litigation.

Pilot Bessemer converter, 1865 ( Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library )

Despite the Bessemer process rapidly gaining international recognition, notably in France, Belgium and North America, Bessemer had a tougher time gaining in acceptance in Britain, in particular with the War Office and the Admiralty.

Never one to let a perceived injustice or lack of recognition go without a fight, in 1878 Bessemer wrote to the Times and to the entire cabinet, including the Prime Minster, Lord Beaconsfield, about his important role, in 1833, of inventing a way of stamping state documents that could not be open to fraud. His contribution was finally recognised with a knighthood conferred by Queen Victoria in 1879.

Bessemer and the Royal Family, Sheffield, South Yorkshire, 1875 ( Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library )

As to his invention of the Bessemer process for bulk production of steel – it seems inevitable, understanding his character of steely determination combined with hard work, wide experience and enormous intellect, that he would be able to look at an area outside his direct area of expertise, approach it with an open mind, not be hidebound by received practice, and finally find a satisfactory solution which was to have a worldwide impact

Liquid steel and an underground time machine

My attention was drawn last week to an incredible set of photographs taken recently in Notting Hill Gate underground station, during refurbishment. They show a deserted passageway sealed up in 1959, with advertising posters surviving untouched to this day:

Hidden lift passage, Notting Hill Gate station, 2010 (London Underground / Mike Ashworth)

The full set, by London Underground’s Head of Design and Heritage, Mike Ashworth, are on Flickr. One of them advertises the Science Museum’s then-new Iron and Steel gallery, depicting a Bessemer steel converter in mid-pour:

Science Museum 'Iron and Steel Gallery' poster, Notting Hill Gate station, c.1959 (London Underground / Mike Ashworth)

I’ve spoken before (in posts about Barrow-in-Furness and Bessemer) about our 1865 converter. It’s now in Making the Modern World but back in the sixties it was in Iron and Steel, as shown here:

Science Museum audioguides, 1961 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

(Hand-held audioguides aren’t a recent museum phenomenon. We were trying them out in the sixties!)

In front of the converter you can see a flattened metal ring. It’s a section of round gun barrel, squashed flat by a steam hammer. It was done cold, and there’s no cracking.

Section of Bessemer steel hammered flat, 1860 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

It was a demonstration carried out by Bessemer in 1860 to show the superb ductility (flexibility) of his steel, which made it such a useful material – giving us longer bridges, bigger ships, taller buildings, stronger machinery and rails to take heavier and faster trains. You can see it in Making the Modern World, too.

Iron and Steel was replaced in 1995 by our current Challenge of Materials gallery.

(Thanks to Mike Ashworth and London Underground for sharing their pictures.)


If you’re planning to have a look at Richard Wilson’s Slice of Reality sculpture on the Greenwich peninsula, following my last post, you’ll find plenty else of interest along the Thames path while you’re there.

The area was once a hot-bed of industry, and there’s still plenty going on, though there’s been a spate of demolitions recently that are rather depressing for those interested in our industrial heritage.

One aspect of Greenwich’s industrial story is little-known, and even the best local historians are having trouble piecing together the details. But it seems certain that Henry Bessemer, indelibly associated with the Sheffield steel industry, built a factory on the Greenwich peninsula in the 1860s, near the site of the what became the Victoria Deep Water Terminal, just along from Wilson’s sculpture.

Greenwich peninsula, near old Victoria Deep Water Terminal (David Rooney)

I wrote about Bessemer in a recent post. His eponymous converter, one of which we’ve got on show, revolutionised the steel-making industry in Sheffield, but Bessemer was a south-London chap, and lived and died in Denmark Hill, near Peckham.

Bessemer converter on show at the Science Museum (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Bessemer’s Greenwich factory is long gone. But if it had succeeded, perhaps Greenwich would have become known for steel as much as for ships and timekeeping. More on the waterfront industry of east London in future posts…

Steel yourself for a visit to Barrow

You may have been following my recent posts on Britain’s submarine history. One thing that’s emerged has been the important role of Barrow-in-Furness in transport history.

The Vickers company, now part of BAE Systems, made most of Britain’s submarine fleet at their Barrow yard, and BAE are manufacturing our latest subs there now.

But Barrow was a transport town long before the submarines. In the mid-nineteenth century, Barrow became a centre for steel-making, as iron ore mined in the nearby Lake District was brought to the town by rail.

Experimental Bessemer converter, 1865 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

This device, a prototype Bessemer converter, was made at the Barrow Haematite Ironworks in 1865, and is on show at the Science Museum. Large-scale converters that followed enabled steel to be made in vast quantities.

This plentiful local steel supply, coupled with Barrow’s sheltered waterside, made the town an ideal place to build ships, and Barrow yards churned out countless vessels before turning towards submarines in 1900.

The railway line that transported the iron ore which enabled this whole industry to thrive was a significant network in its own right.

Barrow railway station, 1930 (NRM / Science & Society)

We’ve got lots of Furness Railway items in the National Railway Museum collections, including ‘Coppernob’, on show in the NRM Station Hall

'Coppernob' locomotive for Furness Railway, 1846 (NRM / Science & Society)

…paintings in the art collection…

Oil painting of a train on the Furness Railway, 1910 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

…and delightful archive items.

Furness Railway timetable, 1915 (NRM / Science & Society)

Today, parts of the Furness Railway are still used by the national rail network, including the line to Barrow. It’s an area with a long and enduring history.