Bessemer Steel Process

Illustration of the Bessemer steel production process
The Bessemer steel production process. Getty Images

The Bessemer Steel Process was a process of producing high-quality steel by shooting air into molten steel to burn off carbon and other impurities. It was named for the British inventor Sir Henry Bessemer, who worked to develop the process in the 1850s.

While Bessemer was working on his process in England, an American, William Kelly, developed a process using the same principle, which he patented in 1857.

Both Bessemer and Kelly were responding to a pressing need to refine the methods of manufacturing steel so it would be entirely reliable.

In the decades before the Civil War steel was produced in great quantities, but the quality of it often varied widely. And with large machines, such as steam locomotives, and large structures, such as suspension bridges, being planned and built, it was necessary to manufacture steel that would perform as expected.

Impact on Business

The Bessemer Process revolutionized steel making. And the manufacturing of reliable steel created a revolution in business. The American businessman Andrew Carnegie, during his business trips to England in the years following the Civil War, took special note of the Bessemer process.

In 1872 Carnegie visited a plant in England which was using Bessemer’s method, and he realized the potential of producing the same quality of steel in America.

Carnegie learned everything he could about steel production, and began using the Bessemer Process at mills he owned in America. By the mid-1870s Carnegie was heavily involved in steel production.

In time Carnegie would dominate the steel industry, and high quality steel would make possible the building of factories which defined the industrialization of America in the late 1800s.

The reliable steel produced by the Bessemer process would be used in countless miles of railroad tracks, vast numbers of ships, and in the frames of skyscrapers. Bessemer steel would also be used in sewing machine, machine tools, farm equipment, and other vital machinery.

And the revolution in steel created also created an economic impact as a mining industry was created to dig the iron ore and coal needed to make steel. 

The breakthrough that allowed the manufacture of reliable steel helped to transform society.