2023 marks the 125th anniversary of the death of great English inventor Sir Henry Bessemer, remembered today for inventing the Bessemer Process: the first inexpensive industrial process for the mass production of steel from molten pig iron.
Delving into The Engineer’s archive, though, begs the question: was Bessemer the true inventor of his process, or just the first to commercialise it? Confined to just a quarter of a page in the October 17, 1856 edition of The Engineer, is the claim that an American working at a Welsh ironworks, J. G. Martien, is the actual discoverer, with a patent for the process filed three months prior to that of Bessemer’s.
The discovery involved using oxygen in a blast of air, blown through molten pig iron to burn off the impurities and thus manufacture steel both cheaply and efficiently. This process revolutionised the steel and iron industry, and the Bessemer Process became the most important technique for steelmaking from 1856 – 1950, lasting the test of time until the introduction of the open hearth method and more technical oxygen steelmaking processes. Bessemer himself was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1879 for his invention and overall contribution to science, and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in the same year.
Martien’s UK patent application included the main principle of “the application of air in a natural or heated state under pressure, to fluid iron, from a blast or melting furnace, and in such a manner as to penetrate and search every part thereof”. The invention was reportedly worked on in the presence of a number of witnesses, one of whom even contacted The Engineer to verify the report at the time, and Martien’s claim was said to be supported by “some powerful English iron manufacturers”.
Martien’s definition of his invention is undeniably synonymous with Bessmer’s, and if patented three months prior, then why wasn’t it the American who was hailed as the revolutionary inventor for years to come?
The Engineer goes on to report that, despite taking legal action, Martien was unable to challenge Bessemer, as “His attorney in London did not describe the invention in the manner desired by Mr. M… it now appears that this attorney is greatly interested in Mr. Bessemer’s success, and hence the reason for not complying with Mr. M’s wishes becomes evident.”
Bessemer faced other, perhaps more well known, accusations of theft at the time of his invention, with US engineer William Kelley publicly claiming that Bessemer had heard of, and subsequently stolen, his invention through conversing with some foundrymen, who Kelley had employed before they moved to England. This did lead to Kelley gaining the patent for the Bessemer Process in the US, and his name still subsequently remains within the history of engineering. Before now, J. G. Martien was to remain forgotten in the archives.
Despite these claims, Bessemer must still be hailed as “a man of remarkable ingenuity”, as the same edition of The Engineer calls him, three pages prior to covering Martien’s claim. Though it may have been money and status that allowed Bessemer to surpass Martien and Kelley’s claims, his grandeur as an engineer at the time, and the years after his invention, is undeniably deserved.
No matter the levels of contribution from all three men - and perhaps yet more unheralded scientists and engineers - the invention itself paved the way for mass development and growth in the steel industry, revolutionised railways, and made possible the industrial revolution as a whole.