Sir Henry Bessemer
A little way from London, England, at Denmark Hill, looking toward the
Crystal Palace, is a mansion which is fit for royalty. The grounds,
covering from thirty to forty acres, are beautifully terraced, dotted
here and there with lakelets, fountains, and artificial caverns, while
the great clumps of red rhododendron, yellow laburnum, pink hawthorne,
and white laurel make an exquisitely colored picture. The home itself is
spacious and inviting, with its elegant conservatory and rare works of
art. The owner of this house, Sir Henry Bessemer, is cordial and
gracious; and from his genial face and manner, no one would imagine that
his life had been one long struggle with obstacles.
Born in Charlton, a little county town in Hertfordshire, Jan. 19, 1813,
he received the rudiments of an education like other boys in the
neighborhood. His father, Anthony Bessemer, an inventor, seeing that his
son was inclined to mechanics, bought him, in London, a five-inch
foot-lathe, and a book which described the art of turning. Day after
day, in the quiet of his country home, he studied and practised turning,
and modelling in clay.
At eighteen years of age he went to London, "knowing no one," he says,
"and myself unknown,--a mere cipher in a vast sea of human enterprise."
He soon found a place to work as modeller and designer, engraving a
large number of original designs on steel, with a diamond point, for
patent-medicine labels. A year later he exhibited one of his models at
the Royal Academy. His inventive brain and observing eye were always
alert in some new direction. Having ascertained that the Government lost
thousands of pounds annually by the transfer of adhesive stamps from old
deeds to new ones, he determined to devise a stamp which could not be
For several months he worked earnestly, at night after his daily tasks
were over, and in secret, thinking how richly the Government would
reward him if he succeeded. At last he produced a die of unique design,
which perforated a parchment deed with four hundred little holes. He
hastened to the Stamp officials to show his work. They were greatly
pleased, and asked him which he preferred for his reward, a sum of
money, or the position of Superintendent of Stamps, with a salary of
three or four thousand dollars a year. He delightedly chose the latter,
as that would make him comfortable for life. There was another reason
for his delight; for being engaged to be married, he would have no
solicitude now about daily needs: life would flow on as smoothly as a
At once he visited the young lady, and told her of his great success.
She listened eagerly, and then said, "Yes, I understand this; but
surely, if all stamps had a date put upon them, they could not at a
future time be used without detection." His spirits fell. He confessed
afterward that, "while he felt pleased and proud of the clever and
simple suggestion of the young lady, he saw also that all his more
elaborate system, the result of months of toil, was shattered to pieces
by it." What need for four hundred holes in a die, when a single date
was more effective? He soon worked out a die with movable dates, and
with frankness and honor presented it before the Government officials.
They saw its preferableness: the new plan was adopted by Act of
Parliament; the old stamps were called in and new ones issued; and then
the young inventor was informed that his services as Superintendent of
Stamps, at three thousand dollars a year, were not needed.
But surely the Government, which was to save a half million dollars a
year, would repay him for his months of labor and thought! Associations,
like individuals, are very apt to forget favors, when once the desired
end is attained. The Premier had resigned; and, after various promises
and excuses, a lawyer in the Stamp Office informed him that he made the
new stamp of his own free will, and there was no money to be given him.
"Sad and dispirited, and with a burning sense of injustice overpowering
all other feelings," says young Bessemer, "I went my way from the Stamp
Office, too proud to ask as a favor that which was indubitably my
Alas! that he must learn thus early the selfishness of the world! But he
took courage; for, had he not made one real invention? and it must be in
his power to make others. When he was twenty-five he produced a
type-casting machine; but so opposed was it by the compositors, that it
was finally abandoned. He also invented a machine for making figured
Utrecht velvet; and some of his productions were used in the state
apartments of Windsor Castle.
A little later his attention was accidentally called to bronze powder,
he having bought a small portion to ornament his sister's album. The
powder, made in Germany, cost only twenty-two cents a pound in the raw
material, and sold for twenty-two dollars. Here was a wonderful profit.
Why could he not discover the process of making it? He worked for
eighteen months, trying all sorts of experiments, and failed. But
failure to a great mind never really means failure; so, after six
months, he tried again, and--succeeded. He knew little about patents,
had been recently defrauded by the Government; and he determined that
this discovery should be kept a secret. He made a small apparatus, and
worked it himself, sending out a travelling-man with the product. That
which cost him less than one dollar was sold for eighteen. A fortune
seemed now really within his grasp.
A friend, assured of his success, put fifty thousand dollars into the
business. Immediately Bessemer made plans of all the machinery required,
sent various parts to as many different establishments, lest his secret
be found out, and then put the pieces of his self-acting machines
together. Five assistants were engaged at high wages, under pledge of
secrecy. At first he made one thousand per cent profit; and now, in
these later years, the profit is three hundred per cent. Three of the
assistants have died; and Mr. Bessemer has turned over the business and
the factory to the other two. The secret of making the bronze powder has
never been told. Even Mr. Bessemer's oldest son had reached manhood
before he ever entered the locked room where it was made.
For ten years the inventor now turned his attention to the construction
of railway carriages, centrifugal pumps, etc. His busy brain could not
rest. When frequent explosions in coal-mines occasioned discussion
throughout the country, he made, at large expense, a working model for
ventilating mines, and offered to explain it to a committee of the House
of Commons. His offer was declined with thanks. A little investigation
on the part of great statesmen would have been scarcely out of place.
At the great exhibition in London in 1851, he exhibited several
machines,--one for grinding and polishing plate glass, and another for
draining, in an hour, an acre of land covered with water a foot deep.
The crowd looked at them, called the inventor "the ingenious Mr.
Bessemer," and passed on. Two years later he made some improvements in
war implements, and submitted his plans to the Woolwich Arsenal; but
they were declined, without thanks even. Some other men might have
become discouraged; but Mr. Bessemer knew that obstacles only strengthen
and develop men.
The improved ordnance having been brought to the knowledge of Napoleon
III., he encouraged the inventor, and furnished the money to carry
forward the experiments. While the guns were being tested at Vincennes,
an officer remarked, "If you cannot get stronger metal for your guns,
such heavy projectiles will be of little use." And then Mr. Bessemer
began to ask himself if he could not improve iron. But he had never
studied metallurgy. This, however, did not deter him; for he immediately
obtained the best books on the subject, and visited the iron-making
districts. Then he bought an old factory at Baxter House, where Richard
Baxter used to live, and began to experiment for himself. After a whole
year of labor he succeeded in greatly improving cast-iron, making it
almost as white as steel.
Could he not improve steel also? For eighteen months he built and pulled
down one furnace after another, at great expense. At last "the idea
struck him," he says, of making cast-iron malleable by forcing air into
the metal when in a fluid state, cast-iron being a combination of iron
and carbon. When oxygen is forced in, it unites with the carbon, and
thus the iron is left nearly pure. The experiment was tried at the
factory, in the midst of much trepidation, as the union of the
compressed air and the melted iron produced an eruption like a volcano;
but when the combustion was over, the result was steel.
Astonished and delighted, after two years and a half of labor, Bessemer
at once took out a patent; and the following week, by request, Aug. 11,
1856, read a paper before the British Association, on "The manufacture
of malleable iron and steel without fuel." There was great ridicule made
beforehand. Said one leading steel-maker to another. "I want you to go
with me this morning. There is a fellow who has come down from London to
read a paper on making steel from cast-iron without fuel! Ha! ha! ha!"
The paper was published in the "Times," and created a great sensation.
Crowds hastened to Baxter House to see the wonderful process. In three
weeks Mr. Bessemer had sold one hundred thousand dollars worth of
licenses to make steel by the new and rapid method. Fame, as well as
great wealth, seemed now assured, when lo! in two months, it being found
that only certain kinds of iron could be worked, the newspapers began to
ridicule the new invention, and scientists and business men declared
the method visionary, and worse than useless.
Mr. Bessemer collected a full portfolio of these scathing criticisms;
but he was not the man to be disconcerted or cast down. Again he began
the labor of experimenting, and found that phosphorus in the iron was
the real cause of the failure. For three long years he pursued his
investigations. His best friends tried to make him desist from what the
world had proved to be an impracticable thing. Sometimes he almost
distrusted himself, and thought he would give up trying, and then the
old desire came back more strongly than ever. At last, success was
really assured, but nobody would believe it. Every one said, "Oh, this
is the thing which made such a blaze two or three years ago, and which
was a failure."
Mr. Bessemer took several hundredweight of the new steel to some
Manchester friends, that their workmen might try it, without knowing
from whence it came. They detected no difference between this which cost
thirty dollars a ton, and what they were then using at three hundred
dollars a ton.
But nobody wanted to buy the new steel. Two years went by in this
fruitless urging for somebody to take up the manufacture of the new
metal. Finally, Bessemer induced a friend to unite with him, and they
erected works, and began to make steel. At first the dealers would buy
only twenty or thirty pounds; then the demand steadily increased. At
last the large manufacturers awoke to the fact that Bessemer was
underselling them by one hundred dollars a ton, and they hastened to pay
a royalty for making steel by the new process.
But all obstacles were not yet overcome. The Government refused to make
steel guns; the shipbuilders were afraid to touch it; and when the
engineer of the London and North-western Railway was asked to use steel
rails, he exclaimed, excitedly, "Mr. Bessemer, do you wish to see me
tried for manslaughter?" Now, steel rails are used the world over, at
the same cost as iron formerly, and are said to last twenty times as
long as iron rails.
Prejudice at last wore away, and in 1866, the "Bessemer process," the
conversion of crude iron into steel by forcing cold air through it for
fifteen or twenty minutes, was bringing to its inventor an income of
five hundred thousand dollars a year! Fame had now come, as well as
wealth. In 1874, he was made President of the Iron and Steel Institute,
to succeed the Duke of Devonshire. The Institute of Civil Engineers gave
him the Telford Gold Medal; the Society of Arts, the Albert Gold Medal.
Sweden made him honorary member of her Iron Board; Hamburg gave him the
freedom of the city; and the Emperor of Austria conferred upon him the
honor of Knight Commander of the Order of Francis Joseph, sending a
complimentary letter in connection with the jewelled cross and circular
collar of the order. Napoleon III. wished to give him the Grand Cross of
the Legion of Honor, but the English Government would not permit him to
wear it; the Emperor therefore presented him in person with a gold medal
weighing twelve ounces. Berlin and the King of Wurtemburg sent him gold
medals. In 1879 he was made Fellow of the Royal Society, and the same
year was knighted by Queen Victoria. In 1880 the freedom of the city of
London was presented to him in a gold casket; the only other great
discoverers who have received this distinction being Dr. Jenner, who
introduced vaccination, and Sir Rowland Hill, the author of penny
postage. In the United States, which gives no ribbons or decorations,
Indiana has appropriately named a flourishing town after him.
It is estimated that Sir Henry Bessemer's one discovery of making steel
has saved the world, in the last twenty-one years, above five thousand
When his patent expired in 1870, he had received in royalties over five
million dollars. In his steel works at Sheffield, after buying in all
the licenses sold in 1856, when the new process seemed a failure, the
profits every two months equalled the original capital, or in fourteen
years the company increased the original capital eighty-one times by the
How wise it proved that the country lad did not obtain the permanent
position of superintendent of stamps, at three thousand dollars a year!
Rich beyond his highest hopes, the friend of such eminent and
progressive men as the King of the Belgians, who visits Denmark Hill,
Sir Henry has not ceased his inventions. Knowing the terrors of
sea-sickness, he designed a great swinging saloon, seventy feet by
thirty, in the midst of a sea-going vessel named the "Bessemer." The
experiment cost one hundred thousand dollars, but has not yet proved
successful. In 1877, when sixty-four years old, he began to devote
himself to the study of Herschel's works on optics, and has since
constructed an immense and novel telescope, which magnifies five
thousand times. The instrument is placed in a comfortable observatory,
so that the investigator can either sit or stand while making his
observations. "The observing room, with its floor, windows, and dome,
revolve and keep pace automatically with every motion of the telescope."
This is accomplished by hydraulic power.
No wonder that Bessemer has been called the "great captain of modern
civilization." He has revolutionized one of the most important of the
world's industries; he has fought obstacles at every step,--poverty, the
ridicule of the press, the indifference of his countrymen, and the
cupidity of men who would steal his inventions or appropriate the
results. He has earned leisure, but he rarely takes it. His has been a
life of labor, prosecuted with indomitable will and energy. He has taken
out one hundred and twenty patents, for which the specifications and
drawings fill seven large volumes, all made by himself. The world had at
last come to know and honor the boy who came to London at the age of
eighteen, "a mere cipher in a vast sea of human enterprise." He made his
way to greatness unaided, save by his helpful wife.
Sir Henry died on the fifteenth of March, 1898, leaving an immense
fortune, which, nevertheless, was not inordinate when compared with the
services rendered by him to mankind; and a stainless name. The unfair
treatment which had embittered his earlier days had been atoned for by
the Queen granting him a title in recognition of his invention accepted
by the Post-Office, and he had come to be regarded as one of the
greatest benefactors of modern times. Such a life, crowned with such a
success, is calculated to be a mighty inspiration to every ambitious