Profile: Henry Bessemer - The Man of Steel

This article is part of the 12 Chemical Engineers who Changed the World series.

The industrial revolution was a time when great men forged the modern world. Engineers played a vital role, and were able to provide long lasting solutions to the great problems of the day.

“I had an immense advantage over many others dealing with the problem inasmuch as I had no fixed ideas derived from long-established practice to control and bias my mind, and did not suffer from the general belief that whatever is, is right.”

Henry Bessemer

 

Henry Bessemer was a British inventor, born in 1813, who in 1856 developed the Bessemer Process - a method of producing vast quantities of steel at a hugely reduced cost.

In a time when steel was only able to be made in small batches, and all major construction was done with iron, Bessemer set out to develop a process for mass producing steel.

The Bessemer process was simple yet extremely effective - cold air was blown through liquid iron, which burnt out any impurities, such as any excess carbon. This was able to produce high quality steel from low quality, local pig iron.

The cost of steel was reduced from £40 to £7 per long ton. This directly lead to the widespread use of steel as a substitute for cast iron, and allowed the production of:

  • Large bridges
  • Railroads
  • Skyscrapers
  • Naval ships
  • High pressure boilers
  • Large turbines

Due to the increased strength at reduced cost steel was able to produce machinery that was much more powerful than previously possible.

 Bessemer was a prolific inventor throughout his life, and was also involved in:

  • Created heavier artillery shells cut with spiral grooves to spin them and improve accuracy
  • Developed a method for embossing velvet
  • Invented a hydraulic machine for extracting sugar cane juice
  • Developed steam driven fans for ventilating mines
  • Designed a furnace for making sheet glass

Henry Bessemer earned over 100 patents throughout his life, and was knighted for his contribution to science. The vast number of designs for a huge number of applications show the depth and talent of Bessemer. His focus, and work ethic are admirable and his should be emulated.

 

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