Monday, June 22, 2015

The Bessemer Process The Process that Made the Modern World

Bessemer Converter
A process that change the world. It added steam to the already ongoing industrial revolution that hit the world. It allowed men to build new products and build structures towards the heavens. The Bessemer process allowed the mass production of steel, a material that shaped our modern world.

The Bessemer process was used in order to produce steel from wrought iron. The process involved numerous patents issued from 1855 to 1857 by an English inventor named Sir Henry Bessemer. It changed the steel industry and inspired further developments in steel making. Its impact reached beyond imagination. It led to greater industrialization, changed the landscape of cities, and forged the modern era.

Before the Bessemer process, steel had been known as a luxury metal. Many saw it as a high valued steel because production of it cost huge amount of time and labor. Back then, steel could only be made in small quantities. Wrought iron had to be infused with carbon in order to produce blister steel. Then, the blister steel had to be melted in small clay crucibles before being heated to extreme temperatures. During the process, carbon spread throughout the blister steel and creating a steel. However, the process could only produce small amounts of steel. In addition, it required numerous crucibles and artisans in order to manufacture substantial amounts. Hence, steel in large quantities using the old method resulted to expensive prices.

Sir Henry Bessemer changed the process of making steel. Born on January 19, 1813 in Charlton, Hertfordshire, Henry had a father who made a name for himself in metallurgy. Naturally, Henry learned the trade from his father and in 1830, he moved to London to pursue greater fortunes. Indeed, he became known as an expert in metal and also a great inventor. From 1838 up to 1853, he already produced 34 patents involving numerous field from glass making to sugar refining. In 1854, England went to war against Russia in the Crimean War. Bessemer developed new bullets and mechanism for guns. But during in this pursuit, iron made weapons failed to withstand new recoil systems and bullets that Bessemer made, thus, he looked into making new weapons using a new material. He saw steel as the strongest and best candidate material for new generation of weapons. However, he knew difficulty of manufacturing steel.

Bessemer worked to develop a new way of producing steel. For each major discovery he made, he applied for a patent. On October 17, 1855, Bessemer received a patent on the process of blasting air to the molten wrought iron to removed impurities to make steel. And by March 15, 1857, he took a patent for a new equipment, a tilting egg-shaped vessel serving as the converter for the process. He also adopted a patent by Robert Mashet that added manganese to the molten steel mixture in latter stages of the process in 1857. The process of transforming iron into steel involved placing high carbon iron to the converter, where air blast beneath the vessel, initiating a reaction that resulted to the removal of the impurities like carbon. The removal of impurities such as carbon created a spectacular pyro display with fumes of flames spew out the mouth of converter.  Once the flames died down, which meant about half an hour, it meant the conversion process was completed and the result – steel. Throughout the process, it used no fuel, because it used its own heat. It allowed the production of huge quantities of steel with less time and less labor.

Bessemer presented his new technique to British iron producers. In August 1856, Bessemer presented a paper before the British association for the Advancement of Science titled: “The Manufacture of Malleable Iron and Steel without Fuel.” It received mix reactions from iron makers. Some enthusiastic but some showed pessimism. He encouraged many to use his process and he started selling licenses for his process. In the end he collected £27,000 from iron makers who applied for license.

Bessemer’s process, however, did not came without controversy and weaknesses. Allegations that Bessemer stole the process from a Kentucky iron worker named William Kelly surfaced. Kelly was said to have developed the same method between 1847 and 1851 and Bessemer traveled to the United States in order to steal the technique and named it for himself. Later on, however, the accusations proved to be groundless. But the biggest damage for the reputation of Bessemer and his process came in 1858. In a trial and demonstration of his complete process in Dowlais Ironworks, the Bessemer process failed to make good quality steel instead it created brittle low quality steel. Unknowing to Bessemer, his process only worked for non-phosphoric iron. Most iron ore in England, however, had high content of phosphorus. Many iron makers felt disappointed and cheated by Bessemer.

The Bessemer process, however, spread. In 1858, Bessemer himself established a steel work in Sheffield. In 1859, Swedish iron works in Edsken adopted the Bessemer process, especially because they had an abundant deposits of non-phosphorous iron. Spanish iron workers also adopted it because they too had non-phosphorous iron. In the 1860’s the Bessemer process led to the rise of an American steel magnate named Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie used the process to corner the American steel market.

Developments continued in the Bessemer process. Bessemer and other iron workers began to look for a solution to make steel from phosphorous rich iron. In 1878, Sidney Gilchrist Thomas along with his relative Thomas Gilchrist developed the Bessemer process allowing the conversion of phosphorous rich iron into steel. From their development steel industry boomed. The Bessemer process started the transformation of the steel industry, from just a luxurious metal into an everyday material seen in numerous products and structure and making it one of the pillar of the industrial revolution. By the end of the 19th century, the Bessemer process allowed the production of over 10 million tons of steel from just few million or even just thousands. It precipitated the creation of the modern world. Numerous consumer goods began to be made from steel. Steel became the frame of numerous skyscrapers that dominated city skyline even to this day. Bridges and rails expanded and became stronger much to the credit of steel. Cheap and large quantities of steel made possible by the Henry Bessemer’s process.

See also:

"The Bessemer Process." in An Encyclopedia of the History of Technology. Edited by Ian McNell. New York, New York: Routledge, 2002.

Evans, Chris. "Bessemer Process." in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, Volume 1. Edited by Joel Mokyr. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Misa, Thomas. "Bessemer, Henry." in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, Volume 1. Edited by Joel Mokyr. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Birch, Alan. The Economic History of the British Iron and Steel Industry, 1784 - 1879. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2006.


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