Born in Charlton, Hertfordshire, England on January 19, 1813, Sir Henry Bessemer was the son of an engineer who was a French immigrant. Sir Henry's inventiveness and keen business sense led him to a life of fame and wealth.
At an early age, he showed an interest in inventing things. His involvement with steel production began in the 1850s, during the Crimean War, when he experimented with new types of cannon projectiles. His most significant innovation at the time was a spinning projectile. The spinning motion helped stabilize the trajectory of the object. Ignored by the British military, Bessemer took his spinning projectile idea to France, where it was better received.The main problem was that the projectile tended to explode before leaving the cannon chamber. Bessemer needed a higher-strength material for the cannons.
Steel was scarce for there was no efficient method of removing carbon from iron ore to the specifications needed for steel. It was thought that cast ironhad to be converted to wrought iron by removing most of the carbon, then converted to steel by re-adding carbon. Bessemer contended that cast iron could be converted directly into steel by applying blasts of cool air to the molteniron. Although many believed that the cool air would only solidify the iron prematurely, Bessemer's demonstrations proved the opposite to be true. The cool air caused the carbonic impurities to ignite and burn off more readily.
Bessemer's process, also called the pneumatic conversion process, was patented in 1856. Ironically, American inventor William Kelly had developed virtually the same process in 1851. Kelly, however, had chosen to protect his discovery through secrecy instead of through the patent office, so Bessemer had no knowledge of Kelly's work. Not until a year after Bessemer announced his process did Kelly go public and secure an American patent. The Bessemer interestseventually overtook Kelly's steelmaking firm, and most of the profit and notoriety went to Bessemer.
In 1878 Sidney Gilchrist Thomas adapted the Bessemer process to the removal of phosphorus in the steel. Bessemer had produced his steel from phosphorus-free ores, and was therefore limited by the selection of ores. The Bessemer process was the most important development in the steel industry because it allowed steel to become, with iron, the foundation of modern industry. For his accomplishments, Bessemer was admitted to the Royal Society in 1877 and was knighted in 1879.
The open-hearth steelmaking process developed by Charles William Siemens andhis brother, Ernst Werner von Siemens, and Pierre-Émile Martin surpassed the Bessemer process at the turn of the twentieth century in terms of total steel output. The last Bessemer converters were phased out during the 1970s.
Bessemer went on to invent other things, such as a steamship cabin that remained stable while the ship rolled, preventing seasickness. He also invented asolar furnace, an astronomical telescope, and diamond polishing machines.
None of Bessemer's other inventions approached the importance of the steelmaking process that bears his name. The process did not become fully successfuluntil Bessemer was in his seventies. Nonetheless, both he and the industrialized world benefited greatly from it. Bessermer died in London, England, on March 15, 1898.