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The History of Steel Development in UK


 
  Sir Henry Bessemer, F. R. S. - An Autobiography, 1905

 

 

It is fifty years since Henry Bessemer made the great invention which has rendered his name famous, not only in English-speaking countries, but also in all civilized communities, and it is seven years since he died.  If this Autobiography had dealt with the story of a lesser man, its appearance so long after his death might have reduced its interest and value so far as to render it scarcely worth while to place the narrative before the reader.

But lapse of time cannot tarnish the luster of Henry Bessemer's memory, nor can common and world-wide use of the great invention that crowned it, render uninteresting a story of the struggles through which he passed and the battles he had to fight before the world became enriched by his inventive genius.

The late Abram S. Hewitt, himself an engineer of universal reputation, and one of the pioneers of the Bessemer Process in the United States, speaking at the American meeting of the London Iron and Steel Institute, in 1890, said: 

A very few considerations will serve to show that the Bessemer invention takes its rank with the great events which have changed the face of society since the time of the Middle Ages.  The invention of printing, the construction of the magnetic compass, the discovery of America, and the introduction of the steam-engine, are the only capital events in modern history which belong to the same category as the Bessemer process.  They are all examples of the law and progress which evolve social and moral results from material discoveries and inventions.  It is inconceivable to us how the world ever existed without the appliances of modern civilization; and it is quite certain that if we were deprived of the results of these inventions the greater portion of the human race would perish by starvation, and the remainder would relapse into barbarism.

 I know it is very high praise to class the invention of Bessemer with these great achievements, but I think a careful survey of the situation will lead us to the conclusion that no one of these has been more potent in preparing the way for the higher civilization which awaits the coming century than the pneumatic process for the manufacture of steel....  The name of Bessemer will therefore be added to the honorable roll of men who have succeeded in spreading the gospel of "Peace on earth and goodwill toward men," which our Divine Master came on earth to teach and encourage.

The words of Abram S. Hewitt are frequently quoted in the following pages, always in the same spirit of appreciation of the great inventor; but on no other occasion did he so justly and clearly crystallize his opinion of Bessemer as in the foregoing passage addressed to the Iron and Steel Institute, at a time when all the futile attempts that had been made to deprive Bessemer of the profit and glory of his great invention, had faded into almost forgotten history, and its practical outcome in the United States was measured by millions of tons of steel every year.

On an early page of this volume the author tells us he makes no claim to literary merit.  He, certainly, was without training in the art of writing, but the happy gift, which characterized all his mechanical work, of instinctively selecting the simplest and best means of attaining a given end, did not desert him here.  He wrote just as he talked, and infused into his writing the charm of his conversation.  It was one of the great pleasures of his latter years to discuss with his old and valued friends - the proprietors of Engineering - the details of his Autobiography, and each printed page is more or less a reflection of the man himself in his varying moods.  

The eighty-five years of busy life which had been allotted him, had in no measure dimmed his memory, or even paled his enthusiasm: and in his Autobiography he lived over again the ambitions of youth, the struggles of manhood, the bitterness of injustice, the pleasure of appreciation, and the satisfaction of success.  The world, as it recollects Bessemer, only knew him as the triumphant inventor, but in this volume we tread with him the thorny road to success, and more than that, he shows us the seamy side of the inventor's career.

Unfortunately, this Autobiography is not complete; even a Chapter of the history of the steel process is wanting that recording its brilliant success in the United States.

Sir Henry laid down his pen only a year before he died, but his self-told story goes no further than the episode of the Bessemer Saloon Steamer, in 1872.  After that incident was closed he retired into private life, but not to a life of idleness.  He had many occupations: the beautifying of his home; the installation of a large diamond-cutting and finishing plant; his telescope and observatory; his method of cutting and polishing optical lenses; his solar furnace; all these and other things kept him very busy, and formed not the least interesting part of his long life.  

It is unfortunate that he has left no consecutive record of this period; but he did leave many drawings, letters, and other documents referring to it, and from these has been prepared the supplementary Chapter which concludes the present volume.


 
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