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HENRY BESSEMER AND THE MAKING OF STEEL
 IRON is the most precious metal in the world. It is
the most precious metal in the world, because it is the
most useful. Without iron to make our stoves, kettles,
knives, tools, engines, and railroads, we would be
living to-day very much as the Indians lived when Columbus discovered
America. Our cooking utensils, our tools, and our weapons would, to
this very day, be of clay or wood or stone. Pound for pound, pure gold is,
to be sure, worth more than pure iron. But when it is made up into
useful articles, iron may be worth more than a corresponding weight of gold.
A bar of iron, for example, worth five dollars, is worth ten when made into
horseshoes, fifty-five dollars when made into needles, three
thousand dollars when made into penknife blades, and twenty-five
thousand dollars when made into balance springs for watches.
PRIMITIVE IRON FURNACES
In most of the countries of the world there is more or
less iron ore. Yet people mixed copper and tin to form
bronze, and fashioned bronze tools and weapons, long
before they learned to use iron. The reason for this was
that iron is not found like gold, copper, or tin, by itself.
It is mixed with clay, or rock, or other substances,
and in this form is called iron ore. To obtain the iron,
the ore must be put under great heat. When this is done,
the iron in the ore melts and runs out, and only then can
it be collected and made into useful things.
IMPLEMENTS OF THE BRONZE AGE.
The first furnace in which iron ore was melted was
probably no more than a pile of wood with a layer of ore
on top. The entire heap was covered over with clay to
 keep in the heat. A large hole at the top and a number
of holes at the bottom provided the needed draft. The
reward for several days' work with such a furnace was
a couple of pounds of iron. Yet the smith—a very
honorable person among ancient peoples—forged from
the iron obtained in this way, crude knives, axes, and spearheads that were superior
to similar tools and weapons made of stone or of bronze.
PRIMITIVE FORGE IN NORTHERN EUROPE, 1600.
In the course of time, improvements were made on this method of smelting iron.
Charred wood, or charcoal, which makes a hotter fire, came to be used instead of
wood. A goatskin bellows was added to fan the fire. With a bellows to force the
air into the furnace, the draft could be made stronger than when the air entered
of its own accord, and still more important, the draft could be controlled. The
furnace was then built so that it could be used over
and over again. It was made of clay, and at least one form was four or five feet high and
about five feet wide at the bottom. An opening was left in front, which was
closed with clay after the furnace was filled with layers of charcoal and iron
ore, and was broken down after each melting, so that the melted iron could be
One of these improved furnaces would supply from fifteen to
twenty pounds of iron in a day, and there was at last, iron enough for knives,
axes, spears, swords, chisels, saws, files, forks, reap hooks, harrows, and
chains. When these improvements in the furnace were brought about no one knows,
but they were all probably made long before the Israelites were in bondage in
For more than two thousand years after this, there was little progress in
smelting iron. What there was, consisted in building better furnaces, and in
making them so that the charcoal and the iron ore could be put in at the top,
and so that the smelted iron and the slag could be drawn off at the bottom. Such
a furnace could be run for months, and even for years, without being allowed to
THE BLAST FURNACE
About the time of Columbus, other improvements followed. Furnaces were built
still larger, some of them as high as twenty or thirty feet. More powerful
bellows also came into use, which were worked by horse power or by water power.
These larger furnaces with the more powerful bellows, called blast furnaces,
produced from two to three tons of iron a day.
The modern blast furnace dates, however, from the
of the steam engine. This did away with the bellows worked by horse power or
water power, and made possible the use of blowers, which deliver a blast of air
many times strong enough to blow a person off his feet.
Smelting iron required so much wood that countries like England became alarmed.
It was feared that all the good timber would be burned up. A trial was made of
soft coal, but it was not satisfactory. The custom of charring wood to make
charcoal probably suggested the idea of charring soft coal, and using the coke,
or charred coal. Coke answered very well for smelting iron, and its use became
general in western Europe about 1750. But in the United States charcoal was
employed until after 1865, and this accounts for the cutting off of the large
trees, over great areas, in all our older states, like the Wilderness in
Up to 1828, cold air was used to fan the fire. Then an ingenious Englishman made
a great discovery. He found that if the air was heated very hot before it was
forced into the furnace, the iron could be smelted with half the amount of fuel
The forced blast, the hot blast, and the use of coke are thus the important
features of the modern blast furnace. These modern furnaces are built from
seventy-five to a hundred feet high, and from twenty to thirty feet wide inside
at the widest part. A single blast furnace of average size will turn out a
hundred tons of iron a day, or it will produce as much iron as six to seven
thousand of the furnaces of ancient times.
There is scarcely any limit to the amount of iron the modern blast furnace can
produce. But the blast furnace has one drawback. The iron made in primitive
could be hammered at once into tools and implements,
and only the iron needed for knife blades, swords, and the like had to be
refined, or changed into a finer kind of steel. The iron produced in a blast
furnace, called pig iron, will not bend, and it cannot be hammered. It can be
melted and molded into castings, such as stove tops and stove lids, but before
it can be pressed or hammered into useful things, it has to be refined. To
change pig iron into the higher grades of steel needed to make delicate machines
and fine tools, such as knives, axes, saws, and chisels, was at this time very
expensive. The best pig iron could be bought in London for thirty to thirty-five
dollars a ton, but a ton of high grade steel cost from two hundred and fifty to
three hundred dollars.
The invention of the steam engine, the steamboat, the locomotive, the sewing
machine, and the like, increased the amount of good steel that was needed. It
seemed that the progress of the world was to be halted, unless some way was
found to change the cheap pig iron, of which there was an abundance, into steel,
at less expense. What the world needed was some one to do for the making of
steel, what Crompton had done for spinning, Whitney for cotton growing, and
McCormick for wheat raising. The man to do this was born at Charlton, England,
in 1813. His name was Henry Bessemer.
PREPARING FOR WORK
In 1813, Charlton was a small country village. There among the woods and fields
and country folk, Henry Bessemer lived. He received a good elementary school
education, but he did not go to high school. Instead, he passed the years
between the ages of thirteen and sixteen in doing whatever he wanted to do. Some
of the neighbors said he was fooling his time away. However that may be, he was
fond of working on a lathe which his father bought for him. He made working
models of machines. One of these was a brick machine, with which he molded
little bricks of white clay. He also molded, in type metal, wheels, pulleys, and
other objects. "Often during my evening walks around the fields, with a favorite
dog," he says in his autobiography, "I would take up a small lump of yellow clay
from the roadside, and fashion it into some grotesque head or material object,
from which I would afterwards make a mold and cast it in type metal."
Henry's father owned a big type foundry. This was a
place of great interest. Many a day he spent there,
cutting dies, molding type, and mixing different kinds
of type metal. But the antimony used in making
the type metal caused Henry on more than one occasion
to become sick, and his sickness finally betrayed him.
"There was . . . one other attraction in the village,
which played an important part in molding my ideas,"
he tells us. "I was very fond of machinery, and of watching
it in motion. If ever I was absent from meals, I could
probably have been found at the flour mill . . . , where I
passed many hours, gazing with pleasure upon the broad
sheet of water falling into the . . . buckets of the great
. . . water wheel; or, perhaps, I might have been
watching, with a feeling almost of awe, the large wooden spur
 wheel, which brought up the speed, and which was one of
the wonders of millwright's craft in those days."
BESSEMER BUYING MEDALLIONS FROM A VENDER.
By the time Henry was seventeen years old, he was full grown, a little more than
six feet tall, and full of energy. He was to become the Thomas Edison of
England. But he did not set to work with any big plan in mind, as to how he was
going to become the most famous inventor of his age. He merely had wide-open
eyes, and did the thing before him which seemed worth doing.
MAKING ART CASTINGS AND STAMPING DIES
On one of his rambles about London, where his parents moved in 1830, young
Bessemer met with an Italian selling plaster casts "of the most beautiful
medallions, real works of art, at one penny apiece." He bought a number of the
most beautiful of the medallions and took them home, to cast them in metal.
After working with the very greatest patience for more than a year, he not only
succeeded in casting medallions in metal, but he perfected
 his way of casting, so that he was able to reproduce
in metal, rosebuds, flowers, ferns,—indeed any natural
object,—with all the delicate curves and fine lines. He
also found a way of putting a coat of copper on his
casts, so that they looked as if they were made of
His casts were really beautiful, and attracted attention even among artists.
Thus by following out a boyish interest, and by putting to use the skill he had
acquired, Bessemer was started on his great career. The neighbors, meanwhile,
complained that the young man was allowed to fool his time away.
While busy with his art castings, his attention was
called to the use of dies to stamp raised figures on
cardboard and leather. It was a short step from making
molds to cast medallions and flowers, to making dies to
stamp raised figures. Then, too, Bessemer had made
many a die at Charlton when "fooling his time away."
"After a certain amount of practice," he tells us, "I
produced a great many very beautiful dies. . . . I erected
a powerful 'fly-press' for stamping impressions from these dies.
"It will be easy to imagine my delight on securing my
first order for five hundred copies, on . . . cardboard,
of a beautiful cartoon of Raphael. These impressions cost
me only three pence each . . . , and I found ready sale
for them at a half crown.
"I also made a great many dies . . . for bookbinders,
cardboard manufacturers, etc., this turning to
commercial account the art of 'fine casting,' which I had
heretofore only pursued as an amusement."
MAKING A STAMP DIE FOR THE GOVERNMENT
 While thus engaged, Bessemer learned that the government was being defrauded of
probably five hundred thousand dollars a year, by people taking stamps from old
and useless deeds, and using them on new deeds. Bessemer thought a stamp could
be made which would prevent this fraud. Everything else was set aside and
neglected, for this great object was to make his fortune. After some months, the
die was completed. It was made of steel, and punched four hundred little holes
in the parchment, each one of them forming a part of the design of the stamp.
The die was no sooner finished, than Bessemer was off to the president of the
Stamp Office. In triumph he said to himself: "A few more weeks will seal the
fate of my life. If I succeed in saving the government so much revenue, they
must reward me liberally. I shall then establish myself in a new home, and marry
the young lady to whom I have for two years been engaged.
DESIGN OF BESSEMER'S DIE, 1833.
"The design gave great satisfaction . . . , and the Stamp Office
authorities decided to adopt it. I was then asked if, instead of receiving a sum
of money from the Treasury, I should be satisfied with the position of
Superintendent of Stamps, at three or four thousand dollars a year. This was
all I could desire. . . . A few days after this
. . . , I called on the young lady to whom I was
 engaged, and showed her . . . my new . . . stamp. I
explained to her how it could never be removed and used again
. . . , when she at once said, 'Yes I understand this; but
surely, if all the stamps had a date upon them, they could not be used again
without detection.' While I felt pleased and proud at the clever and simple
suggestion of the young lady, I saw also that all my more elaborate system of
piercing dies, the result of months of study, and the toil of many a weary and
lonely night, was shattered to pieces by it."
Bessemer felt in honor bound to present to the authorities the new die with the
movable dates. It was so simple that it was adopted and is in use even to this
day. But the new die was so simple that there was no need of a superintendent of
stamps at four thousand dollars a year. Bessemer thought, of course, that the
government would pay him liberally for his nine months of labor. At first there
were half promises of reward, but the Stamp Office finally told him that he had
offered the die to the government of his own free will, and that there was no
money to give him. "Sad and dispirited, and with a burning sense of injustice
overpowering all other feelings," he says, "I went my way from the Stamp Office,
too proud to ask as a favor that which was . . . my just right."
This was a hard blow for a young man who thought he all but had a good position
for life, and could marry at once the girl he loved. He was, however, not
altogether discouraged. "I have made one good invention," he said to himself,
"and I can make others. I will keep my eyes open for a 'good vein,' and when I
find it, I will work it for all it is worth." For the next four or
five years, he was busy with a number of inventions, when by accident he
discovered the first of the "good veins" he was to find.
MAKING BRONZE POWDER
Henry's sister asked him one day to letter the title and
her name on the cover of a flower book. The book was
so beautiful that Henry thought common ink would not
look well enough. He decided to do the letters in a
paint made of bronze powder, so that they would look as if
they were made in gold. When he went to get the bronze
powder, he was astonished to learn that a little ounce
bottle cost a dollar and a half. Most of us would have
grumbled at the price, then paid it, and gone our way.
Not so with Bessemer; his eyes were wide open for a
"On my way home," he tells us, "I could not help
asking myself over and over again, 'How can this simple
. . . powder cost so much money?' for there cannot be
gold enough in it, even at that price, to give it this
beautiful rich color. It is probably only a better sort of brass;
and for brass . . . a dollar and a half an ounce is a
Bessemer hurried home and with a little acid convinced
himself that there was no gold in the powder. Here
was powdered brass, selling at twenty-two dollars a
pound, and the brass itself only cost twenty-two cents a pound.
"This powder must surely be made," he said to himself,
"by some old-fashioned hand process, and offers a splendid opportunity for
gain, if I can construct a machine to make it."
 Bessemer set about making a machine that would change, at small cost, a solid
block of brass into powder as soft and fine as flour. The first machine he built
reduced the solid brass to powder, but when the powder was worked up into paint,
it was dull, and lacked the beautiful color which gave value to the powder.
"This," he tells us, "was not the first castle I had built, only to see it
BESSEMER LETTERING HIS SISTER'S ALBUM.
For about a year after this, Bessemer was occupied with other things. But the
idea of making a machine which in an hour would give to a pound of brass the
value of an ounce of gold haunted him. With the aid of a microscope he studied
the bronze powder he had bought, and that which he had made, and saw why his
powder was worthless. He then designed and made with his own hands a number of
working models, one to cut the brass, another to roll the tiny particles,
another to polish them, and finally one to sift the powder. "At last after
months of labor, the great day of trial once more arrived. . . .
I felt that on the result of this . . . trial hung the whole
of my future life's history, and so it did . . . I
watched . . . with a beating heart, and saw the iron monsters do their
Bessemer was now sure that he could make bronze powder. He interested in the new
enterprise a friend who advanced fifty thousand dollars to build a factory. A
patent would give no protection to such an invention. If they were to profit by
it, everything must be kept a secret. So Bessemer worked for almost a year in
designing all by himself the different machines.
To keep even those who
had made the machines from having an idea of what they were for, the different
parts of each machine were give out to be made at different places. The old
"Baxter House," to become famous because of the many inventions made there in
after years, was bought and fitted up for a factory. Here, at length, all the
machines were assembled and put in place. To carry on the work,—and there
was not very much to do, for the machines were all self-acting,—the three
brothers of Bessemer's wife were employed, at extra good wages. They kept
faithfully a secret for which at any time they might have received thousands of
dollars. The secret did not become known for many years.
The profits from making bronze powder by this new process were enormous. Powder
which cost a dollar and thirty cents a pound to make was sold at a dollar and
thirty cents an ounce. From these profits, Bessemer had ample means to support
himself and his family. What was quite as important, he had ample means to carry
out and bring to completion the many other inventions born of his active mind.
Thus this invention had a profound
effect on Bessemer's life. It
freed him, at the early age of thirty, from anxiety about the comfort of his
family, gave him the use of all of his time, and supplied him with the money
necessary to carry on his experiments.
HIS MASTER INVENTION
During the next dozen years, Bessemer was busy with
many different projects, and he took out no less than
thirty patents. This brings us to 1854, when he was at
work on a new kind of ball or projectile for cannon.
"If you cannot get stronger metal for your guns," said
an army officer one day, "such heavy projectiles will
be of little use." This remark set Bessemer at work to
find a way to produce a metal from which big guns could be
cast, and this led to the discovery of his now famous
process of making steel.
To refine, or to change pig iron into steel, at that
time, the common way was to break up about seventy pounds
of pig iron into small pieces, and place them in a
tub-like arrangement, over which poured a very hot flame. As
the pig iron melted, a man called a puddler stood by
and stirred the molten mass so that the flame and air
reached all parts of it. After two or three hours of stirring,
the liquid iron formed into grains. The heat was then
increased until these grains melted and ran together. When
this had occurred, the flame was shut off, and the
puddler collected, on the end of an iron bar, the cooling metal
in a ball-like mass called a bloom. The bloom was then
put between great rollers, and rolled, reheated, and
rolled again and again. Or it was hammered, reheated, and
 hammered over and over. It was this long process,
expensive both in fuel and labor, that made steel cost
PUDDLING MOLTEN METAL.
At the old "Baxter House," Bessemer built a puddling furnace very much like
those in common use at that time. One day, when working with his furnace, he
noticed two pieces of pig iron on the inside which did not melt, although the
heat in the furnace was great. About a half hour later, he observed that the
pieces were still unmelted. It occurred to him to take one of them out and
examine it. To his surprise, what he thought was a piece of unmelted pig iron
turned out to be a piece of steel. He saw from this that if air was forced into
the molten pig iron when under great heat, the iron would be changed into steel.
A small furnace was built, and Bessemer proved to his own satisfaction that good
steel could be produced in this way.
Most people would doubtless have been satisfied with so
great a discovery and stopped. But to Bessemer's
in-  quiring mind, this question came: "Yes, pig iron can be
changed into steel by forcing air into the molten metal
when fuel is used; but can steel be made in this way,
without the use of fuel?" The answer to this
question changed the history of the world.
Bessemer next built what he called a converter. It was
about four feet high, and around the bottom were six
pipes extending inside. The pipes were connected on the
outside with a chamber into which air was driven by a
When all was ready, the draft was turned on, and about seven hundred pounds of
molten pig iron were poured into the converter. Except for a few sparks that
from the top, everything went on quietly enough for about
ten minutes. Then things began to happen. Clouds of sparks and a roaring flame
burst from the top. This was followed by a few mild explosions, and then the
converter became a young volcano in active eruption. Slag and white-hot metal
were thrown high into the air, and the converter rocked, as explosion followed
explosion. All this was a surprise to Bessemer, and for a time he was fearful of
his life. In another ten minutes the eruptions had ceased, the flame had died
down, and all became quiet again.
MODERN TYPE OF CONVERTER.
The molten metal, hotter than ever
metal had been heated before, was drawn off and molded into an ingot. Best of
all, it was steel of good quality. Thus was born the most ferocious of all the
machines used by men, and one of the greatest of all inventions. "What all this
meant," says Bessemer, "what a perfect revolution it threatened in every
iron-making district in the world, was fully grasped by my mind as I gazed on
that glowing ingot, the mere thought of which almost overwhelmed me for the time."
Bessemer now worked to adapt the new process to
commercial use. A number of different converters were made, and finally he hit
upon the form which has since been in general use. By early August, 1856, he
was ready to take out a patent on his invention, which came to be known the
world over as the "Bessemer Process." Thus, in seven months, this great inventor
brought forth an invention which changed iron into steel in twenty to thirty
minutes, and which reduced the cost of making good steel from two hundred
dollars to three or four dollars a ton.
The new invention was scarcely finished before Bessemer
read a paper before a meeting of iron makers. The
title of his paper, "The Manufacture of Iron (Steel)
without Fuel," was the object of many a joke. "We will be
burning ice next," remarked one iron maker. "Clay,"
said another to his friend, "I want you to come with me
. . . this morning. Do you know that there is actually
a fellow come down from London to read a paper on the
manufacture of malleable iron without fuel?" Nevertheless, Bessemer's paper was the sensation of the
meeting. Iron makers flocked to "Baxter House" to see the new
process. In less than a month, Bessemer sold to the
iron makers of England licenses to use the new process,
to the amount of one hundred and thirty-five thousand
dollars. Greater honor and greater wealth than he had
ever dreamed of seemed easily within his reach.
SAVING THE NEW PROCESS FROM FAILURE
Then, lo! the new process proved to be a failure. The
steel made by it was good for nothing. The newspapers
denounced "the whole scheme as the dream of a wild
 enthusiast, such as no sensible man could for a moment
have entertained." One paper spoke of Bessemer's
invention as "a brilliant meteor that had flitted across
the . . . sky for a short space, only to die out in a train
of sparks, and then vanish in total darkness." These
criticisms stunned Bessemer. He went out to the
different furnaces and saw for himself the utter failure of his
Something was wrong, but he had no idea what it was.
Should he give up and admit his failure, or should he go
ahead? Bessemer was no "quitter." To protect his
family, he gave his wife fifty thousand dollars; this
left him sixty thousand, and he resolved to spend the last
penny of it, if need be, to prove the worth of his
One expensive experiment followed another, only to end in heartbreaking failure.
A whole year, then another half year glided by, with nothing accomplished except
that thousands of dollars were spent, and Bessemer was much worn from hard work
and anxiety. Those who had something to lose, if his invention was a success,
sneered at his efforts. His friends tried to get him to give up a project which
experience had shown was worthless. Those dearest to him grieved over his
obstinate perseverance. But what could he do? His reputation had been injured;
he had spent the greater part of three years and a goodly fortune on the
invention, and he believed in it. To give up was to surrender his reputation,
his time, the money he had invested, and the fame and wealth which he knew would
be his if he succeeded. Happily the end was near.
MAKING PIG IRON.
The pig iron produced at this time in England contained
 considerable phosphorus, and phosphorus was found to be
the enemy of the new process. Work as he would,
Bessemer could not make good steel out of pig iron with
phosphorus in it. He had made good steel, and this led
him to wonder what kind of pig iron he had used. He
learned that this pig iron came from Sweden, and that
it contained no phosphorus. Pig iron from Sweden was
immediately ordered. On its arrival, no time was lost
in melting it and putting it into the converter. You
can well imagine Bessemer's anxiety about the outcome.
When the molten mass was turned out of the converter,
it was steel of an excellent quality. Not long after
this the discovery was also made that with a little care
quantities of pig iron could be produced in England, free from
phosphorus. It was now Bessemer's turn to laugh.
MAKING THE PROCESS A SUCCESS
 Bessemer seemed for a time no nearer to success than before. When he talked to
steel makers about buying licenses, they said: "Oh, this is the thing which made
such a blaze two years ago and which was a failure." Not a single steel maker in
all England would buy.
Bessemer saw that if his process was ever to be
adopted, he must build a steel plant of his own. A plant was started at
Sheffield, and Bessemer produced as good steel for fifty dollars a ton as was
being sold at that time for five times this sum. "The only reason," he says,
"why the plant was not burned down, was that nobody thought it would come to
When the new steel was made, nobody would buy it.
If Bessemer talked to a toolmaker about using some of
 his metal, he was met with the reply, "Well, perhaps it
is good enough for rails; anything is good enough for
rails." On asking a railroad engineer to recommend the
use of steel rails, the engineer exclaimed, "Mr. Bessemer,
do you wish to see me tried for manslaughter?"
AN IRON MINE IN MINNESOTA.
Bessemer's steel was, however, too good, and the price
at which it was offered was too attractive to be
resisted long by the greedy world. Here and there a toolmaker
began to use a little. It was satisfactory, and he
bought more. The steel makers, seeing there was demand for
new metal and that they were being undersold in the
market, rushed to Bessemer to obtain licenses to use
the new process. Thus began one of the greatest industrial
revolutions in modern times. Bessemer's steel gradually
found its way into tools, engines, steamboats, cannon,
warships, bridges, skyscrapers, and a million other
useful things. His royalties from the invention, which even his
 best friends had at one time considered worthless,
amounted to no less than five million dollars.
So many uses were found for steel, when once it could be made at small cost, that
the present is called the "Age of Steel," and its manufacture is one of the
great industries of the world. Great waste regions, like the Mesabi Range of
Minnesota, because of the iron ore they contain, have become more valuable than
gold mines. To transport the enormous quantities of iron ore needed, railroads
have been built and steamboat lines constructed, which carry nothing else. Large
cities like Pittsburgh have grown up about steel, and cities like Gary, Indiana,
have been located and built for the sole purpose of making it. Billions of
dollars are invested in this great industry, and millions of people are employed
STEEL CONSTRUCTION SKYSCRAPERS.
Without steel that is both good and cheap, we would not have many of our finest
and more delicate tools and instruments; we would not have our giant engines,
and locomotives, and steamboats; we would not have great bridges, like the
Brooklyn Bridge, or our mammoth
build-  ings,
and without these and other useful things made of steel, our
lives would be very different from what they are, and the whole industrial world
about us would be changed.
No wonder Bessemer has been called the
"Captain of Modern Civilization," that his discovery
is ranked with the printing
press and steam engine as one of the three greatest inventions in the history of
the race, and that his fame is as wide as the world.