Nervous persons who ride in sleeping-cars are much indebted to Henry Bessemer, to whose inventive genius they owe the beautiful steel rails over which the cars glide so steadily. It was he who so simplified and cheapened the process of making steel that it can be used for rails.
Nine people in ten, I suppose, do not know the chemical difference between iron and steel. Iron is iron; but steel is iron mixed with carbon. But, then, what is carbon? There is no substance in nature of which you can pick up a piece and say, This is carbon. And hence it is difficult to explain its nature and properties. Carbon is the principal ingredient in coal, charcoal, and diamond. Carbon is not diamond, but a diamond is carbon crystallized. Carbon is not charcoal, but in some kinds of charcoal it is almost the whole mass. As crystallized carbon or diamond is the hardest of all known substances, so also the blending of carbon with iron hardens it into steel.
The old way of converting iron into steel was slow, laborious, and expensive. In India for ages the process has been as follows: pieces of forged iron are put into a crucible along with a certain quantity of wood. A fire being lighted underneath, three or four men are incessantly employed in blowing it with bellows. Through the action of the heat the wood becomes charcoal, the iron is melted and absorbs carbon from the charcoal. In this way small pieces of steel were made, but made at a cost which confined the use of the article to small objects, such as watch-springs and cutlery. The plan pursued in Europe and America, until about twenty-five years ago, was similar to this in principle. Our machinery was better, and pure charcoal was placed in the crucible instead of wood; but the process was long and costly, and only small pieces of steel were produced at a time.
Henry Bessemer enters upon the scene. In 1831, being then eighteen years of age, he came up to London from a country village in Hertfordshire to seek his fortune, not knowing one person in the metropolis. He was, as he has since said, „a mere cipher in that vast sea of human enterprise.” He was a natural inventor, of studious and observant habits. As soon as he had obtained a footing in London he began to invent. He first devised a process for copying bas-reliefs on cardboard, by which he could produce embossed copies of such works in thousands at a small expense. The process was so simple that in ten minutes a person without skill could produce a die from an embossed stamp at a cost of one penny.
When his invention was complete he thought with dismay and alarm that, as almost all the expensive stamps affixed to documents in England are raised from the paper, any of them could be forged by an office-boy of average intelligence. The English government has long obtained an important part of its revenue by the sale of these stamps, many of which are high priced, costing as much as twenty-five dollars. If the stamp on a will, a deed, or other document is not genuine, the document has no validity. As soon as he found what mischief had been done, he set to work to devise a remedy. After several months’ experiment and reflection he invented a stamp which could neither be forged nor removed from the document and used a second time. A large business, it seems, had been done in removing stamps from old parchments of no further use, and selling them to be used again.
The inventor called at the stamp office and had an interview with the chief, who frankly owned that the government was losing half a million dollars a year by the use of old stamps; and he was then considering methods of avoiding the loss. Bessemer exhibited his invention, the chief feature of which was the perforation of the stamp in such a way that forgery and removal were equally impossible. The commissioner finally agreed to adopt it. The next question was as to the compensation of the young inventor, and he was given his choice either to accept a sum of money or an office for life in the stamp office of four thousand dollars a year. As he was engaged to be married, he chose the office, and went home rejoicing, feeling that he was a made man. Nor did he long delay to communicate the joyful news to the young lady. To her also he explained his invention, dwelling upon the fact that a five-pound stamp a hundred years old could be taken off a document and used a second time.
„Yes,” said she, „I understand that; but, surely, if all stamps had a DATE put upon them they could not at a future time be used again without detection.”
The inventor was startled. He had never thought of an expedient so simple and so obvious. A lover could not but be pleased at such ingenuity in his affianced bride; but it spoiled his invention! His perforated stamp did not allow of the insertion of more than one date. He succeeded in obviating this difficulty, but deemed it only fair to communicate the new idea to the chief of the stamp office. The result was that the government simply adopted the plan of putting a date upon all the stamps afterwards issued, and discarded Bessemer’s fine scheme of perforation, which would have involved an expensive and troublesome change of machinery and methods. But the worst of it was that the inventor lost his office, since his services were not needed. Nor did he ever receive compensation for the service rendered.
Thus it was that a young lady changed the stamp system of her country, and ruined her lover’s chances of getting a good office. She rendered him, however, and rendered the world, a much greater service in throwing him upon his own resources. They were married soon after, and Mrs. Bessemer is still living to tell how she married and made her husband’s fortune.
Twenty years passed, with the varied fortune which young men of energy and talent often experience in this troublesome world. We find him then experimenting in the conversion of iron into steel. The experiments were laborious as well as costly, since his idea was to convert at one operation many tons’ weight of iron into steel, and in a few minutes. As iron ore contains carbon, he conceived the possibility of making that carbon unite with the iron during the very process of smelting. For nearly two years he was building furnaces and pulling them down again, spending money and toil with just enough success to lure him on to spend more money and toil; experimenting sometimes with ten pounds of iron ore, and sometimes with several hundredweight. His efforts were at length crowned with such success that he was able to make five tons of steel at a blast, in about thirty-five minutes, with comparatively simple machinery, and with a very moderate expenditure of fuel.
This time he took the precaution to patent his process, and offered rights to all the world at a royalty of a shilling per hundredweight. His numerous failures, however, had discouraged the iron men, and no one would embark capital in the new process. He therefore began himself the manufacture of steel on a small scale, and with such large profit, that the process was rapidly introduced into all the iron-making countries, and gave Mrs. Bessemer ample consolation for her early misfortune of being too wise. Money and gold medals have rained in upon them. At the French Exhibition of 1868 Mr. Bessemer was awarded a gold medal weighing twelve ounces. His process has been improved upon both by himself and others, and has conferred upon all civilized countries numerous and solid benefits. We may say of him that he has added to the resources of many trades a new material.
The latest device of Henry Bessemer, if it had succeeded, would have been a great comfort to the Marquis of Lorne and other persons of weak digestion who cross the ocean. It was a scheme for suspending the cabin of a ship so that it should swing free and remain stationary, no matter how violent the ship’s motion. The idea seems promising, but we have not yet heard of the establishment of a line of steamers constructed on the Bessemer principle. We may yet have the pleasure of swinging from New York to Liverpool.