Friday 27 September 2013

Men of Yore: Henry Bessemer

This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form.  Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards.  We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity.

Henry Bessemer

Henry Bessemer was born on January 19, 1813 in Charlton, Hertfordshire, England. Bessemer developed the first process for mass-producing steel inexpensively. The dominant steel manufacturing technology of today is an extension and refinement of the one developed by Bessemer.

Bessemer, the son of an engineer and typefounder, demonstrated considerable mechanical skill and inventiveness early in life. He made his first fortune selling "gold" powder made from brass as a paint additive. Bessemer's secret formula was used to adorn much of the gilded decoration of his time, and brought him great wealth.

In October, 1855, Bessemer took out a patent for his process of rendering cast iron malleable by the introduction of air into the fluid metal to remove carbon. Bessemer's industrial process was similar to a Chinese method to refine iron into steel, developed in the second century BCE. They called this process the "hundred refinings method" since they repeated the process 100 times.

The story of Bessemer's steel process is a classic example of the military's impetus to technological development. During the Crimean War Bessemer invented a new type of artillery shell. The Generals reported that the cast-iron cannon of the time were not strong enough to deal with the forces of the more powerful shell. Bessemer then developed an improved iron smelting process that produced large quantities of ingots of superior quality. Modern steel is made using technology based on Bessemer's process. Much of the modern industrial age has built upon steel created for cannon of war.

Among the many honors of Bessemer's life were a Knighthood by the British crown for devising a counterfeit-proof official stamp (seal) for the British government, and the Fellowship of the Royal Society. Bessemer died in London on March 14, 1898.

I had an immense advantage over many others dealing with
     the problem inasmuch as I had no fixed ideas derived from long-
   established practice to control and bias my mind, and did not
     suffer from the general belief that whatever is, is right.

                                                                                    —Sir Henry Bessemer

Manufacturing steel at a reduced cost has allowed the modern world to come into existence.  Despite all the high-tech, electronics and biological industries it's still called the 'iron age', because iron (and steel) is one the more important materials that the world is dependent on.  Henry Bessemer is just one of the men that allowed this world to develop by allowing the material to become so widely available that it can be purchased for a pittance: the Bessemer Process had allowed steel rails to be manufactured for $32/tonne instead of $170/tonne (Source).

Check out some of the other entries from the 'Men of Yore' series:


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