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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

used twice.

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

million dollars.

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