How Henry Bessemer Changed the Steel Industry

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Sir Henry Bessemer was an English inventor and engineer that is popularly known for being the first to develop and process steel inexpensively, later contributing to the invention of the “Bessemer converter.” Sir Henry changed the steel industry in a way that no one ever had, and no one has since. He was an inspiration to the entire steel industry, especially during the Industrial Revolution. 

Bessemer is known for other inventions as well, and his persistence and perseverance should be duly noted if you are looking for inspiration to become an inventor. Looking into Bessemer’s life and inventions should inspire you to take a look into your creative side as well, as we could all use some inspiration from this amazing English inventor.

Sir Henry Bessemer (19 January 1813 – 15 March 1898) 

Henry Bessemer’s Early Life

Bessemer was born in 1813, in Hertfordshire, England, raised by an Engineer and Typefounder, showing his creative side at a very early age. Being that his father was an inventor, it was apparent that Henry wanted to follow suit, becoming an inventor like his father. Unfortunately, their family was not exactly rich, and this forced Henry out of school and into work to help his family survive. But he didn’t let that stop him; in fact, this was the very spark that he needed to start bringing out his own ideas and inventions. Much of the inventions and creations from Henry all came about due to his transgressions, for if not for his troubles, it would have never pushed him to create and invent some of the most important products of all time.

Working with his father, Henry learned about metallurgy, and while most of his education was informal, he certainly learned just what he would need to know to help his inventions in the future. Knowing that his family needed help financially, and being an inventor at heart wanting to follow the footsteps of his father, he began tinkering with items and products around the home.

Perhaps one of the most interesting facts about Henry Bessemer is in his last name – over generations, it seems as if the last name was corrupted into Bessemer when originally it was spelled with an A, BA-ssemer. It continued to be Bassemer for some generations, but over the years, it was changed to an E, and they just never corrected it.

Anthony Bessemer – Henry’s Father

By the age of twenty, Henry’s father Anthony had helped in the construction of the first steam pumping machine to run in Holland. At the age of twenty-one, he fled to Paris, France, with nobody and no money. Destined to fail, he proved everyone wrong, becoming a part of the French Academy of Sciences within just five years. 

At Paris mint, Anthony obtained a lead position, which eventually led to him inventing the copying machine, and as you can imagine, this brought him much popularity and abundance. However, this did not last long. This was, unfortunately, when the French Revolution began, and when they came for Anthony, he fled to England. 

This was the start of Henry’s life, had Anthony not fled, who knows if Henry would have ever even been born.

Early Inventions

Before Henry Bessemer changed the steel industry, he had other ideas and creations in mind. Many people say that he was inspired to start inventing things so that he and his family didn’t have to struggle during the financial issues they were having. 

His earliest invention was the very first movable stamps, used to date documents. He then updated the typesetting device, creating a machine that produced graphite for use in pencils. 

From 1838 to 1883, Henry held about 129 patents for his inventions, becoming a prolific inventor. Here is a list of all of the creations and inventions Bessemer came up with during the 1800s.

  • Moveable stamps
  • Moveable dyes for embossed postage stamps
  • Military ordinance
  • A screw extruder used to remove sugar from sugar cane
  • A graphite producing machine
  • Upgrading the typesetting machine

Bessemer dreamed up many other inventions within the iron, steel, and glass industries.

SS Bessemer

Also known as the “Bessemer Saloon,” the SS Bessemer was a passenger steamship that helped fight against seasickness. Henry invented this ship in 1868 after experiencing his own issues with seasickness, so being personally affected, he created a ship with gimbals that were designed to stay level. The hydraulics were controlled by the steersman who would watch the leveling, making sure that everything worked without having problems. Unfortunately, the ship was always in a trial version and never received the proper tests that it needed to become an actual ship on the sea, and eventually, the idea was canned and put away, and the ship was scrapped.

Trials and Tribulations

The SS Bessemer didn’t just “get put away and scrapped,” but it actually destroyed some of the Calais piers on its voyage, and this put Henry’s confidence at an all-time low. This only shows that it doesn’t matter how talented you are at creating and inventing products. Even if your ideas could potentially benefit the world, you can still get turned down, turned away, and rejected. Instead of allowing this to end your career, however, we could all take notes and learn a little from Sir Henry and let the failures push us forward – not backward. 

In fact, Henry was born during one of the hardest moments of his father’s life during the French Revolution. Anthony Bessemer (father) escaped from the reverses during the revolution and fled to Hertfordshire, England, from Paris, France. He had no money to his name at all, but he knew that he had to make this work, not only for him but now for baby Henry on the way. So Henry’s story started out during trying times. His family always seemed to be in a financial crisis, so he left his studies behind. His childhood consisted of being in the workshop every day with his father, Anthony.

Henry Bessemer and his inventions thrived off of trials and tribulations. This just proves to you that even during the darkest of days, we all need to keep trying.

Manufacturing Bronze Powder and Gold Paint

Henry Bessemer changed the steel industry many times during his life. His popularity and fortune grew after he first created the system of manufacturing bronze powder that aided in the production of gold paint. This process had been around for some time, especially in China and Japan, but he succeeded in making it much more affordable.

This creation consisted of six steam-powered machines, making a bronze powder that he examined from Nuremberg, but improving the product at a much lower price than anywhere else. This bronze powder aides in producing gold paint as well, and Henry was one of the first persons to use reverse engineering in this process. This was, in fact, one of the earliest uses of reverse engineering ever implemented, which is basically deconstructing a product to find out as much information as you can, then copying that information but also improving it as you reconstruct and put it back together.

The process was always kept a secret, with only some of his family members knowing the ins and outs of manufacturing bronze powder, and this secretive process is actually still used today. Henry made this invention and product so cheap for consumers that he made a huge profit from it, aiding as the start of many other inventions. 

Napoleon, the Emporer 

Napoleon Bonaparte was a French military leader who led many successful campaigns during the Revolutionary wars, rising in his popularity each time he was successful. So what does Napoleon have to do with Sir Henry Bessemer? Meeting with this Emporer was quite possibly the most important beginning of Henry’s career, as it was the very start of the Bessemer converter – it at least sparked the idea and contributed to the creation of it.

During the Crimean War, there were many imperfections in the British army’s artillery, which Bessemer continued to point out to his generals. One of his early proposals was to fire an elongated shot from a smooth-bore gun, but the British office was not hearing any of this. The only encouragement he received was, in fact, from Napoleon Bonaparte, the Emporer. Napoleon encouraged him so much that he invited Henry to Vincennes where they produced experiment after experiment, testing this method of an elongated shot through a smooth-bore gun, and helping the rotation by grooving the projectile of the shot. However, during these experiments, Bessemer found that the material was just too weak, and he had to find a to make the material stronger, leading him to fuse cast iron with steel and create a strong metal material. This combination led to Bessmer patenting the process in 1855, the first of many patents over the next 15 years.

As we mentioned before, even trials and tribulations have a place in our lives, and an accident during one of these experiments led Henry in a different direction. He began trying other experiments that he hadn’t thought of yet, which led to a second steel patent. This patent consisted of melting pig iron, through which steam was blown, and allowed you to use a large furnace containing many crucibles. These experiments led him to patent what we now know as the “Bessemer Converter.”

The Bessemer Process and the Bessemer Converter

Before we had the open furnace, Sir Henry Bessemer invented the Bessemer Converter, which led to changing to the steel industry forever. This process consisted of melting pig iron while air or steam was blown through it. This aeration aided in removing any impurities by oxidizing, which also helped the mass of the iron, and keeping it molten longer. This process had been used outside of Europe for many years but never on such a large industrial scale.

Bessemer Converter inveted by Sir Henry Bessemer

This process resulted in mass production and was also simultaneously the cheapest way to produce steel, making Sir Henry Bessemer one of the most honorable inventors of all time. He changed the steel industry by storm because if not for him, railroads, skyscrapers, and stronger metal machines might not be here today. One of the best factors of this game-changing steel production idea is the fact that it was the highest quality steel but at the lowest rates possible.

Although the Bessemer Converter is considered Sir Henry’s invention, there was an inventor by the name of James Nasmyth, who had actually been working on this idea for some time. However, he abandoned the project, and even when Henry tried to give him some of the credit and profits, Nasmyth refused them because he was already in retirement. This was when Sir Henry Bessemer became known as the “Man of Steel” or the “Inventor of Steel.” 

What can we learn from Sir Henry’s life and inventions?

Sir Henry might have passed away in 1898, but his legacy lives on forever. Henry Bessemer changed the steel industry and many other industries during his life. His passion and persistence are instilled in the hearts of inventors and creators everywhere. Henry was brought up into a tough world and was considered almost destined to fail, yet these challenges seemed to drive him. The fact that he pushed through and allowed the trials to make something great of himself is a story and a legacy that all of us should take notes from.

If you’re a creator or an inventor, we can take Sir Henry’s life as inspiration. Even if you don’t plan on creating or inventing the next big thing, no matter what the love of your life is, you can take his trials and tribulations that he went through and used as a positive thing and make those positive thoughts your own. 

If someone like Henry Bessemer changed the steel industry, then which industry can you have an impact on? He was born into adversity and poverty, yet he used those struggles as reasons to make something of himself. He actually took the cards he was dealt with and built something from them. This proves that anyone can overcome their problems and make a difference in the world, especially as an inventor.

Are you ready to become an inventor?

Getting your idea out of your head and into your hands is only the first in a long set of steps towards becoming a successful inventor.

First Steps To A Successful Invention

At Invention Therapy, we believe that the power of the internet makes it easier than you think to turn your invention idea into a reality. In most cases, you can build a prototype and start manufacturing a product on your own. Changing your way of thinking can be difficult. Being an inventor requires you to balance your passion with the reality of having to sell your products for a profit. After all, if we can't make a profit, we won't be able to keep the lights on and continue to invent more amazing things!

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