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
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.
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.
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 taken out.
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 Egypt.
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 cool down.
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 introduction 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 Virginia.
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 otherwise required.
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 furnaces 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."
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 bronze.
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.
"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 "good vein."
"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 marvelous price."
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 topple over."
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 appointed work."
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 so much.
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 inquiring 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 forced draft.
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 came 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.
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 process.
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 invention.
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.
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 anything."
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?"
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 in it.
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 buildings, 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.