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Henry Bessemer: Biography, Inventions & Importance

Instructor: Mary Ruth Sanders Bracy

Mary Ruth teaches college history and has a PhD.

In this lesson, we will learn about Henry Bessemer. Bessemer was the inventor of the modern process of making steel, the material which changed the world's landscape and made the modern industrial system possible.

Henry Bessemer

Have you ever wondered about what's inside of the Empire State Building? Or why you seem to cross railroad tracks nearly everywhere you go? One way to answer those questions is to look at the life of Henry Bessemer. Bessemer invented the modern process of steel-making. During the late parts of the Industrial Revolution, steel became the major building material for everything from skyscrapers to bridges to railroads to automobiles. Let's look more at Bessemer's life and work.

Biography

Henry Bessemer was born on January 9, 1813 in Herefordshire, England. His father, Anthony Bessemer, was also an inventor, as well as a printer and typesetter, and he gave Henry a love of working with metal. At the age of 17, Henry Bessemer relocated to London, where he began to pursue a career as an inventor.

Henry Bessemer
Henry Bessemer

Early Inventions

Many important inventions are answers to specific problems, and Henry's first one was no different. The British government faced a problem: its official documents were marked with stamps, and those stamps were easily copied, which led to fakes and forgeries. Bessemer invented an embosser, which stamped the information directly into the fibers of the paper, instead of on top of it. This made those stamps a lot harder to copy.

Next, Bessemer invented a machine that mass-produced bronze powder, which could be used to produce gold paint. At the time, there was a trend towards over-the-top gilded home decor, especially in gold, but the only factory that produced gold paint was in Germany. Bessemer visited the factory and learned about its processes, then returned home and refined them. By using bronze instead of gold and mass production techniques instead of making the paint by hand, he was able to cut the price to 1/40th of what it had been. Bessemer received a patent, or a license from the government giving him the exclusive right to manufacture a product, for this invention, and used the proceeds to fund the rest of his inventions.

The Bessemer Converter

Although Henry Bessemer received more than 100 patents during his lifetime, his most famous invention was the Bessemer Process, which created a new way of manufacturing steel.

Between 1850-1855, Bessemer worked to perfect a new type of weapon for the British military, which was fighting the Crimean War at the time. He succeeded, creating an artillery shell that was stronger and more accurate than cannon balls. There was a problem, though. The cannons, which were made of cast iron, were not strong enough to handle the new artillery shells. Bessemer began to look for a way to create a sturdier metal that could be used to build new cannons.

Steel was the clearest choice to replace iron in weapons-making, but it was very expensive and time-consuming to produce. However, when experimenting with ways to strengthen iron, Bessemer discovered a way of mass-producing steel. He realized that blowing compressed air through molten iron burned out impurities and created steel. As he continued to experiment, he realized that the steel he was producing was stronger than the currently available, expensive steel, and that Bessemer's steel could be produced 10 times as quickly. He patented the Bessemer Converter and the process of steel production was never the same.

A Bessemer Converter
A Bessemer Converter

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