What is the Bessemer Process?

Without the Bessemer Process, we would still be stuck back in the age of iron instead of the age of steel. Many innovators and experimentations went ahead of Henry Bessemer’s successful patent. The problem was how to remove impurities from crude iron ore. Smelting it in a blast furnace caused some impurities to rise to the surface as dross, but Mr. Bessemer had other ideas.

Napoleon Bonaparte and the Bessemer Process

Back in 1854, a conversation between Napoleon and Henry Bessemer regarding the kind of steel required for better artillery. According to Bessemer, in his autobiography, that moment “was the spark which kindled one of the greatest revolutions that the present century had to record, for during my solitary ride in a cab that night from Vincennes to Paris, I made up my mind to try what I could to improve the quality of iron in the manufacture of guns."

By the January of 1855 Bessemer perfected the refining process by introducing air-blowing into the process. To that end, Bessemer invested a pear-shaped container in which iron was heated and oxygen was blasted through the molten metal. The result was a steel that was malleable but strong enough for artillery purposes. He patented his method in 1856.

The steel produced by the Bessemer process came largely into its own for the making of railroad rails.

The Last Problem of the Bessemer Process Solved

The steel formed from Bessemer’s converter was brittle. A way needed to be found to remove the excess phosphorus exacerbating the problem. Short of only using ore from Sweden or Wales, which were phosphorous-free, it fell to Welshman Sidney Gilchrist Thomas, who figured that adding limestone to the Bessemer process worked.

That was a revolution in itself because it meant that iron ore from anywhere in the world, could be put through the Bessemer process and used to mass-produce steel.

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