Steel Before The 1850's

In spite of a rapid increase in the use of machines and the

overwhelming demand for iron products for the expanding railroads, the

use of steel had expanded little prior to 1855. The methods of

production were still largely those of a century earlier. Slow

preparation of the steel by cementation or in crucibles meant a

disproportionate consumption of fuel and a resulting high cost.

Production in small quantities preven
ed the adoption of steel in uses

which required large initial masses of metal. Steel was, in fact, a

luxury product.

The work of Reaumur and, especially, of Huntsman, whose development of

cast steel after 1740 secured an international reputation for

Sheffield, had established the cementation and crucible processes as

the primary source of cast steel, for nearly 100 years. Josiah Marshall

Heath's patents of 1839, were the first developments in the direction

of cheaper steel, his process leading to a reduction of from 30 to 40

percent in the price of good steel in the Sheffield market.[4] Heath's

secret was the addition to the charge of from 1 to 3 percent of

carburet of manganese[5] as a deoxidizer. Heath's failure to word his

patent so as to cover also his method of producing carburet of

manganese led to the effective breakdown of that patent and to the

general adoption of his process without payment of license or royalty.

In spite of this reduction in the cost of its production, steel

remained, until after the midpoint of the century, an insignificant

item in the output of the iron and steel industry, being used

principally in the manufacture of cutlery and edge tools.

[4] Andrew Ure, Dictionary of arts, manufactures and mines, New

York, 1856, p. 735.

[5] See abridgement of British patent 8021 of 1839 quoted by

James S. Jeans, Steel, London, 1880, p. 28 ff. It is not clear

that Heath was aware of the precise chemical effect of the use of

manganese in this way.

The stimulus towards new methods of making steel and, indeed, of making

new steels came curiously enough from outside the established industry,

from a man who was not an ironmaster--Henry Bessemer. The way in which

Bessemer challenged the trade was itself unusual. There are few cases

in which a stranger to an industry has taken the risk of giving a

description of a new process in a public forum like a meeting of the

British Association for the Advancement of Science. He challenged the

trade, not only to attack his theories but to produce evidence from

their own plants that they could provide an alternative means of

satisfying an emergent demand. Whether or not Bessemer is entitled to

claim priority of invention, one can but agree with the ironmaster who

said:[6] "Mr. Bessemer has raised such a spirit of enquiry throughout

... the land as must lead to an improved system of manufacture."

[6] Mining Journal, 1857, vol. 27, p. 465.

Bessemer and his Competitors

Henry Bessemer (1813-1898), an Englishman of French extraction, was the

son of a mechanical engineer with a special interest in metallurgy. His

environment and his unusual ability to synthesize his observation and

experience enabled Bessemer to begin a career of invention by

registering his first patent at the age of 25. His active experimenting

continued until his death, although the public record of his results

ended with a patent issued on the day before his seventieth birthday. A

total of 117 British patents[7] bear his name, not all of them, by any

means, successful in the sense of producing a substantial income.

Curiously, Bessemer's financial stability was assured by the success of

an invention he did not patent. This was a process of making bronze

powder and gold paint, until the 1830's a secret held in Germany.

Bessemer's substitute for an expensive imported product, in the then

state of the patent laws, would have failed to give him an adequate

reward if he had been unable to keep his process secret. To assure this

reward, he had to design, assemble, and organize a plant capable of

operation with a minimum of hired labor and with close security

control. The fact that he kept the method secret for 40 years, suggests

that his machinery[8] (Bessemer describes it as virtually automatic in

operation) represented an appreciation of coordinated design greatly in

advance of his time. His experience must have directly contributed to

his conception of his steel process not as a metallurgical trick but as

an industrial process; for when the time came, Bessemer patented his

discovery as a process rather than as a formula.

[7] Sir Henry Bessemer, F.R.S., an autobiography, London, 1905,

p. 332.

[8] Ibid., p. 59 ff.

In the light of subsequent developments, it is necessary to consider

Bessemer's attitude toward the patent privilege. He describes his

secret gold paint as an example of "what the public has had to pay for

not being able to give ... security to the inventor" in a situation

where the production of the material "could not be identified as having

been made by any particular form of mechanism."[9] The inability to

obtain a patent over the method of production meant that the disclosure

of his formula, necessary for patent specification, would openly invite

competitors, including the Germans, to evolve their own techniques.

Bessemer concludes:[10]

Had the invention been patented, it would have become public

property in fourteen years from the date of the patent, after which

period the public would have been able to buy bronze powder at its

present [i.e., ca. 1890] market price, viz. from two shillings

and three pence to two shillings and nine pence per pound. But this

important secret was kept for about thirty-five years and the

public had to pay excessively high prices for twenty-one years

longer than they would have done had the invention become public

property in fourteen years, as it would have been if patented. Even

this does not represent all the disadvantages resulting from secret

manufacture. While every detail of production was a profound

secret, there were no improvements made by the outside public in

any one of the machines employed during the whole thirty-five

years; whereas during the fourteen years, if the invention had been

patented, there would, in all probability have been many improved

machines invented and many novel features applied to totally

different manufactures.

[9] Ibid., p. 82.

[10] Ibid., p. 83.

While these words, to some extent, were the rationalizations of an old

man, Bessemer's career showed that his philosophy had a practical

foundation; and, if this was indeed his belief, the episode explains in

large measure Bessemer's later insistence on the legal niceties of the

patent procedure. The effect of this will be seen.

Bessemer's intervention in the field of iron and steel was preceded by

a period of experiments in the manufacture of glass. Here Bessemer

claims to have made glass for the first time in the open hearth of a

reverberatory furnace.[11] His work in glass manufacture at least gave

him considerable experience in the problems of fusion under high

temperatures and provided some support for his later claim that in

applying the reverberatory furnace to the manufacture of malleable iron

as described in his first patent of January 1855, he had in some manner

anticipated the work of C. W. Siemens and Emil Martin.[12]

[11] Ibid., p. 108 ff.

[12] Ibid., p. 141. Bessemer's assertion that he had approached

"within measurable distance" of anticipating the Siemens-Martin

process, made in a paper presented at a meeting of the American

Society of Mechanical Engineers (Transactions of the American

Society of Mechanical Engineers, 1897, vol. 28, p. 459), evoked

strong criticism of Bessemer's lack of generosity (ibid., p.

482). One commentator, friendly to Bessemer, put it that

"Bessemer's relation to the open-hearth process was very much

like Kelly's to the Bessemer process.... Although he was

measurably near to the open-hearth process, he did not follow it

up and make it a commercial success...." (ibid., p. 491).

The general interest in problems of ordnance and armor, stimulated by

the Crimean War (1854-1856), was shared by Bessemer, whose ingenuity

soon produced a design for a projectile which could provide its own

rotation when fired from a smooth-bore gun.[13] Bessemer's failure to

interest the British War Office in the idea led him to submit his

design to the Emperor Napoleon III. Trials made with the encouragement

of the Emperor showed the inadequacy of the cast-iron guns of the

period to deal with the heavier shot; and Bessemer was presented with a

new problem which, with "the open mind which derived from a limited

knowledge of the metallurgy of war," he attacked with impetuosity.

Within three weeks of his experiments in France, he had applied for a

patent for "Improvements in the Manufacture of Iron and Steel."[14]

This covered the fusion of steel with pig or cast iron and, though this

must be regarded as only the first practical step toward the Bessemer

process,[15] it was his experiments with the furnace which provided

Bessemer with the idea for his later developments.

[13] British patent 2489, November 24, 1854.

[14] Bessemer, op. cit. (footnote 7), p. 137 He received

British patent 66, dated January 10, 1855.

[15] See James W. Dredge, "Henry Bessemer 1813-1898,"

Transactions of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers,

1898, vol. 19, p. 911.

These were described in his patent dated October 17, 1855 (British

patent 2321). This patent is significant to the present study because

his application for an American patent, based on similar

specifications, led to the interference of William Kelly and to the

subsequent denial of the American patent.[16] In British patent 2321

Bessemer proposed to convert his steel in crucibles, arranged in a

suitable furnace and each having a vertical tuyere, through which air

under pressure was forced through the molten metal. As Dredge[17]

points out, Bessemer's association of the air blast with the increase

in the temperature of the metal "showed his appreciation of the end in

view, and the general way of attaining it, though his mechanical

details were still crude and imperfect."

[16] See U.S. Patent Office, Decision of Commissioner of Patents,

dated April 13, 1857, in Kelly vs. Bessemer Interference. This is

further discussed below (p. 42).

[17] Dredge, op. cit. (footnote 15), p. 912.

IN U.S. PATENT 16082. This patent, dated November 11, 1856, corresponds

with British patent 356, dated February 12, 1856. The more familiar

design of converter appeared first in British patent 578, March 1,

1860. The contrast with Kelly's schematic drawing in Fig. 2 (p. 42) is


Experiments were continued and several more British patents were

applied for before Bessemer made his appearance before the British

Association on August 13, 1856.[18] Bessemer described his first

converter and its operation in some detail. Although he was soon to

realize that he "too readily allowed myself to bring my inventions

under public notice,"[19] Bessemer had now thrown out a challenge which

eventually had to be taken up, regardless of the strength of the vested

interests involved. The provocation came from his claims that the

product of the first stage of the conversion was the equivalent of

charcoal iron, the processes following the smelting being conducted

without contact with, or the use of, any mineral fuel; and that further

blowing could be used to produce any quality of metal, that is, a steel

with any desired percentage of carbon. Yet, the principal irritant to

the complacency of the ironmaster must have been Bessemer's attack on

an industry which had gone on increasing the size of its smelting

furnaces, thus improving the uniformity of its pig-iron, without

modifying the puddling process, which at best could handle no more than

400 to 500 pounds of iron at a time, divided into the "homeopathic

doses" of 70 or 80 pounds capable of being handled by human labor.[20]

Bessemer's claim to "do" 800 pounds of metal in 30 minutes against the

puddling furnace's output of 500 pounds in two hours was calculated to

arouse the opposition of those who feared the loss of capital invested

in puddling furnaces and of those who suspected that their jobs might

be in jeopardy. The ensuing criticism of Bessemer has to be

interpreted, therefore, with this in mind; not by any means was it

entirely based on objective consideration of the method or the


[18] Bessemer's paper was reported in The Times, London, August

14, 1856. By the time the Transactions of the British Association

were prepared for publication, the controversy aroused by

Bessemer's claim to manufacture "malleable iron and steel without

fuel" had broken out and it was decided not to report the paper.

Dredge (op. cit., footnote 15, p. 915) describes this decision

as "sagacious."

[19] Bessemer, op. cit. (footnote 7), p. 164.

[20] The Times, London, August 14, 1856.

[21] David Mushet recognized that Bessemer's great feature was

this effort to "raise the after processes ... to a level

commensurate with the preceding case" (Mining Journal, 1856, p.


Within a month of his address, Bessemer had sold licenses to several

ironmasters (outside Sheffield) and so provided himself with capital

with which to continue his development work; but he refused to sell his

patents outright to the Ebbw Vale Iron Works and by this action, as

will be seen, he created an enemy for himself.

The three years between 1856 and 1859, when Bessemer opened his own

steel works in Sheffield, were occupied in tracing the causes of his

initial difficulties. There was continued controversy in the technical

press. Bessemer (unless he used a nom-de-plume) took no part in it

and remained silent until he made another public appearance before the

Institution of Civil Engineers in London (May 1859). By this time

Bessemer's process was accepted as a practical one, and the claims of

Robert Mushet to share in his achievement was becoming clamorous.