Henry Bessemer

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Sir Henry Bessemer (19 January 1813 – 15 March 1898) was an English engineer, inventor, and businessman. Bessemer's name is chiefly known in connection with the Bessemer process for the manufacture of steel.

Contents

Early life

Bessemer's father, Anthony, was born in London, but moved to Paris when he was 21 years old. He was an inventor who, while he was engaged by the Paris Mint, made a machine for making medallions that could produce steel dies from a larger model. He became a member of the French Academy of Science [2], for his improvements to the optical microscope, when he was only 26. He was forced to leave Paris by the French Revolution, and returned to Britain. There he invented a process for making gold chains, which was successful, and enabled him to buy a small estate in the village of Charlton, near Hitchin in Hertfordshire, where Henry was born in 1813.

Early inventions

The invention from which Henry Bessemer made his first fortune was a series of six steam-powered machines for making very fine brass powder which was used as a gold paint. As he relates in his autobiography,[3] he examined the gold paint made in Nuremberg which was the only source of gold paint at the time. He then copied and improved the product and made it capable of being made on a simple production line. It was an early example of reverse engineering where a product is analysed, and then reconstituted. Each employee knew only his part of the process, so secrecy was assured. It was a closely guarded secret, with only a few trusted employees and members of his immediate family involved. It was a widely used alternative to a patent, and such trade secrets are still used today. The cost of the Germany-sourced powder, which was made by hand, was £5 10s 0d and he eventually reduced the price to half a crown, or about 1/40th.[4] The profits from sale of the paint allowed him to pursue his other inventions.

Bessemer patented a method for making a continuous ribbon of plate glass in 1848, but it was not commercially successful (see his autobiography, chapter 8). However, he gained experience in design of furnaces, which was to be of great use for his new steel-making process.

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