"Have To" History - The Bessemer Process

Stuff You Don't Really Want To Know (But For Some Reason Have To) About... the Bessemer Process

Three Big Things:

1. The Bessemer Process made better steel more quickly and more cheaply.

2. Better, affordable steel played a significant part in the Second Industrial Revolution. It may have been its primary cause; it was at least a major catalyst.

3. Bessemer steel made it possible to build skyscrapers, massive bridges, and reliable railroad tracks, as well as lots of other cool stuff. That makes it way more interesting than it sounds.   

Context and Background

Prehistoric man used a number of elements he discovered in nature. Stones of various sorts were made into weapons or used to grind food. Lead was shaped into vessels for storing or transporting liquids. Copper was used to create some of humanity’s earliest tools, until eventually a few clever types figured out how to combine it with tin to make something even cooler – bronze.

Bronze was king for a while until iron became practical enough to replace it. Its earliest uses were in jewelry or ceremonial items using iron from meteorites which had fallen to earth – a gift from the gods, as it were. Over time, people figured out that Earth actually had plenty of iron; they just had to mine it and refine it and make it usable. (Seems like there’s a controversial metaphor in there somewhere.) The iron used to make weapons or farming implements was the same substance you need to ingest in order to grow up big and strong, albeit it in a different form. In its swords-n-plows form, however, iron can be brittle. It corrodes easily when exposed to moisture, limiting its usefulness.

Still, it was a big enough deal that human pre-history is typically divided into three general eras – the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and... well, you get the idea.   

Eventually, somewhere around 1000 BCE, iron was alloyed with carbon to make a new metal – steel. Steel was (and is) super-nifty and comes in several varieties, depending on the exact mix. Steel is ridiculously strong but can still be shaped into useful items once heated sufficiently. As of 2021, something like 95% of all metal used in the world is some form of steel.

It's kind of a big deal, is the point.

Before the Bessemer Process, however, steel was laborious to produce and quality could be inconsistent. It was a very popular metal for certain small items – expensive cutlery, sophisticated springs, etc. – but in practical terms, it was a limited resource.

What IS The Bessemer Process?

The technical details aren’t particularly important for understanding its historical significance. The short version is that it forces cool air through molten iron to remove impurities. It’s named for its supposed inventor in the 1850s, a British fellow named Sir Henry Bessemer, although an American chap known as William Kelly may have stumbled across the same idea at around the same time independently, but generally it’s thought Bessemer beat him to it. (A real patriot would nevertheless insist on calling it the “Kelly Process.” Brave men and women fighting and dying for this country and you’re afraid to stand up for one of our greatest innovators just so you don’t flunk history? Pathetic.)

It took a few decades of refining and improving the process, but by the late 1800s it was possible – thanks to the Bessemer Process – to produce vast quantities of high quality steel far more cheaply than before.

Honestly, this statement alone should be sufficient to excite anyone. Over the generations, however, we’ve allowed silly things like electricity and child labor laws to somehow overshadow just what all this keen steel meant for the nation.

Why It Matters

Bessemer steel became feasible just as the nation was heading into the Second Industrial Revolution, leading many to argue that the Bessemer process itself was largely responsible for the results. Those railroad tracks that began connecting the nation after the Civil War? They lasted far longer and could handle heavier loads and more severe environments once the Bessemer Process was involved. Factories and manufacturing? Sure, they existed before Bessemer steel – but machinery became more affordable, more accurate, and more durable thanks to the Bessemer process. High pressure boilers made from Bessemer steel meant better steam engines. Over time it allowed the evolution of larger and safer ships, automobiles, and airplanes.

And that’s not even the best part. Steel girders meant that man could finally build structures taller than a few stories. Skyscrapers became a thing in America’s wealthiest cities – twenty stories, thirty stories, and eventually a hundred or more. Safe, affordable, strong, and available – steel was (and is) pretty much magic when it comes to building stuff.

Taller buildings meant more people and more business and more activity were possible with less urban sprawl. The country could pack its population, services, workplaces, shopping, and whatever else it might desire into relatively few square miles by going up instead of always having to extend out. Those same steel girders combined with some fancy steel cables allowed seriously heavy-duty bridges to be constructed over major bodies of water so that the people and commerce could move back and forth far more quickly and easily.

Eventually, technology found an even better way to produce high quality steel efficiently and affordably. By the late 1960s, the Bessemer Process had become the “old way,” replaced by more modern methods which you don’t need to know about because there was way too much else going on in the 1960s for your teacher to ask you about Blast Furnaces or the Electric Arc Method. Today the U.S. only makes about 4% of the steel produced in the world. China produces over half; no other nation accounts for more than 6% or so.

How Do I Remember This?

Imagine life before the microchip (no computers, at least in the modern sense of the term), or before the internet. Imagine your world before automobiles or cell phones. The introduction of each of these technologies sparked massive changes far beyond what the items themselves actually did. That’s what Bessemer steel did for construction, industry, business, infrastructure, and the rest of the Second Industrial Revolution.

And don’t forget those trains. Choo-choo.

There’s a famous photo from the Great Depression of eleven men sitting on a steel beam having lunch, way up in the sky. (Google “Lunch Atop A Skyscraper” if you’d like a visual.) Imagine these men are all wearing shirts (sorry ladies) with large, fraternity-style letters on the front. Eleven men means eleven letters: “T-H-E-B-E-S-S-E-M-E-R.”

I supposed you could add two more guys in your mental image and go with “B-E-S-S-E-M-E-R-S-T-E-E-L,” or add seven more guys to spell out “T-H-E-B-E-S-S-E-M-E-R-P-R-O-C-E-S-S.” But come on – there’s really not that much room on the beam to begin with. (You want someone to fall off? Your professor’s never going to accept “H-E-S-S-E-M-R-S-T-E-E” as a valid answer, so best keep them all alive and fully dressed if possible.)

What You’re Most Likely To Be Asked

Unless your teacher is particularly weird, you’re unlikely to be asked to elaborate on the Bessemer Process itself or even produce an extensive list of what it made possible in its day. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to rattle off some of the examples covered above, however – they make for excellent supporting details and fit in well with a variety of related “Second Industrial Revolution” topics.

Most likely, however, “the Bessemer Process” will be the answer to a fill-in-the-blank or multiple choice question of some sort. “Which of the following contributed to the massive increase in manufacturing, the expansion of railroads, and the first skyscrapers in the late nineteenth century?” Something like that. As long as you know your Bessemer basics, you won’t have any trouble.

You may discover that your instructor seems anxious to establish the basics of the Second Industrial Revolution so they can get into the far more interesting stuff – child labor, early workers’ unions, the social ills associated with crowded tenements and dirty cities, and of course the arrival of the Progressives to try to make it all better. For example, here’s how New York’s Social Studies Framework presents the era:

11.5 INDUSTRIALIZATION AND URBANIZATION (1870 – 1920): The United States was transformed from an agrarian to an increasingly industrial and urbanized society. Although this transformation created new economic opportunities, it also created society problems that were addressed by a variety of reform efforts.

(a) New technologies and economic models created rapid industrial growth and transformed the United States... Students will examine the technological innovations that facilitated industrialization, considering energy sources, natural resources, transportation, and communication.

In APUSH, Bessemer fits perfectly into the Thematic Focus of Work, Exchange, and Technology (WXT):

The interplay between markets, private enterprise, labor, technology, and government policy shape the American economy. In turn, economic activity shapes society and government policy and drives technological innovation.

It’s also an ideal example to trot out for Learning Objective ‘D’ in Period 6 (1865-1898):

Explain the effects of technological advances in the development of the United States over time.

Finally, although not mentioned by name, Key Concept 6.1.I.b.i (yes, that’s a real thing) just begs for it:

Businesses made use of technological innovations and greater access to natural resources to dramatically increase the production of goods.

It all just screams “TALK ABOUT THE BESSEMER PROCESS!” Just make sure you connect all that innovation and production into the reform efforts and expanded government of the early twentieth century. Teachers love that stuff.  

Bonus Points: How To Sound Like You Know More Than You Do

The Bessemer Process was burgeoning at roughly the same time that Alexander Graham Bell was taking innovations he’d originally hoped might assist the deaf or save wounded presidents and used them to invent the telephone (and the metal detector, and a better phonograph player, and some other weird stuff). Edison was improving the light bulb and inventing pretty much everything else with the help of his “invention factory” at Menlo Park. The Second Industrial revolution was transitioning from steam to electrical power, and the nation wasn’t far away from manned flight and the Model T automobile.

If you (or your teacher) lean a bit “GO AMERICA!” in your historical perspective, use the Bessemer Process as a demonstration of one of the many marvelous ways in which capitalism makes life better for everyone. Because steel was needed for so many commercial purposes, there was natural motivation to make it better, faster, and stronger than before. (If your instructor is ancient enough, you can drop in a Six Million Dollar Man reference here.) Industrialization brought the common American citizen more safety, more convenience, and more cool toys, and steel was the reliable, free-market foundation for it all.

If you prefer a more High School Musical “We’re All In This Together” approach, you can use Bessemer as an example of how no one person is responsible for progress. Maybe Bessemer and/or Kelly discovered the basics of the process, but they didn’t invent steel. They were improving on something already being done. Their innovation in turn required tinkering and experimentation from others, including by most accounts a Swedish ironmaster named Goran Goransson, who redesigned the furnace used to actually, um… Bessemize stuff, thus making it reliable and effective enough to transition into mass production, etc., etc. Very few innovations or inventions are the result of a single individual acting in isolation, America is most productive when more people have a voice, grazing in the grass is a gas baby can you dig it, etc.

Now bring it in for a group hug and we’ll all go around and say something we find special about the person to our left.

Either way, don’t get too hung up on the process itself. It’s all about what it allowed, created, represented, etc. Cover it, then launch from it – don’t dig in on it. That could get boring.

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