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.
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.
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