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Sir Henry Bessemer



Sir Henry Bessemer (January 19, 1813 March 15, 1898), English engineer, was born at Charlton near Hitchin in Hertfordshire.

Throughout his life, Bessemer was a prolific inventor, but his name is chiefly known in connection with the Bessemer process for the manufacture of steel. Though this process is no longer commercially used, at the time of its invention it was of enormous industrial importance because it lowered the cost of production of steel, leading to that material being widely substituted for others which were inferior in almost every respect but that of cost. Bessemer's attention was drawn to the problem of steel
manufacture in the course of an attempt to improve the construction of guns.

Of course, patents of such obvious value did not escape criticism, and invalidity was freely urged against them on various grounds. But Bessemer was fortunate enough to maintain them intact without litigation, though he found it advisable to buy up the rights of one patentee, while in another case he was freed from anxiety by the patent being allowed to lapse in 1859 through non-payment of fees. At the outset he had found great difficulty in making steel by his process; in his first licences to the trade iron alone was mentioned.

Experiments he made with South Wales iron were failures because the product was devoid of malleability; Mr Goransson, a Swedish ironmaster, using the purer charcoal pig iron of that country, was the first to make good steel by the process, and even he was successful only after many attempts. His results prompted Bessemer to try the purer iron, obtained from Cumberland hematite, but even with this he did not meet with much success, until Robert Mushet showed that the addition of a certain quantity of spiegeleisen had the effect of removing the difficulties.

Whether or not Mushet's patents could have been sustained, the value of his procedure was shown by its general adoption in conjunction with the Bessemer method of conversion. At the same time it is only fair to say that whatever may have been the conveniences of Mushet's plan, it was not absolutely essential; this Bessemer proved in 1865, by exhibiting a series of samples of steel made by his own process alone. In 1866, Bessemer provided finance for Zerah Colburn, the American locomotive engineer and journalist, to start a new weekly engineering newspaper called Engineering, and based in Bedford Street, London. It was not until many years later that the name of Colburn's benefactor was revealed. Prior to the launch of Engineering, Colburn, through the pages of The Engineer, had given support to Bessemer's work on steel and steelmaking.

The pecuniary rewards of Bessemer's great invention came to him with comparative quickness; but it was not till 1879 that the Royal Society admitted him as a fellow and the government honoured him with a knighthood. Bessemer died in March 1898 in Denmark Hill, London. ?

The invention from which he made his fortune was a machine for making fine brass powder which was used as a 'gold' paint. It was treated highly secretly, with only a few trusted employees and members of his immediate family allowed to operate it. This money allowed him to pursue his other inventions.

Among Bessemer's numerous other inventions, not one of which attained a tithe of the success or importance of the steel process, were movable dies for embossed stamps, sugar machinery, and a ship which was to save her passengers from the miseries of mal de mer. This last had her saloon mounted in such a way as to be free to swing relatively to the boat herself, and the idea was that this saloon should always be maintained steady and level, no matter how rough the sea. For this purpose hydraulic mechanism of Bessemer's design was arranged under the control of an attendant, whose duty it was to keep watch on a spirit-level, and counteract by proper manipulation of the apparatus any deviation from the horizontal that might manifest itself on the floor of the saloon owing to the rolling of the vessel. A boat, called the Bessemer, was built on this plan in 1875 and put on the cross-Channel service to Calais, but the mechanism of the swinging saloon was not found effective in practice and was ultimately removed.

Bessemer also obtained a patent in 1857 for the casting of metal between contrarotating rollers - a forerunner of today's continuous casting processes and remarkably, Bessemer's original idea has been implemented in the direct continuous casting of steel strip.

Bessemer was the first to patent a method for making float glass, in 1848, but it was not commercially successful.


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