Who Really Came Up with the Bessemer Process?

By Phineas Upham

The Bessemer Process became a cornerstone of American industry throughout our history, but most people working in the steel industry today, or walking through one of America’s many skyscrapers, take the time to appreciate its history. We tend to think of steel production as something that happened at the turn of the 19th century, but that could not be further from the truth. In fact, natives of East Asia had developed the process, using cold blasts in a cast iron to partially decarbonize metal.

This was the predecessor to modern steelmaking, at its most rudimentary form.

European travelers to Japan throughout the 17th century seemed to also observe the Bessemer Process at work, which involved heating molten metal and storing it briefly in the Earth. According to accounts, a ladle was used to help freely shape the metal into whatever shape the worker desired.

William Kelley, an inventor in the early 1850s, also seemed to have experimented with the process. He’d noticed Chinese ironworkers using something similar, and it had inspired him to try it. It’s possible that we’d be calling it the Kelly process today. He claims that Bessemer’s patent, which was filed shortly after Kelly’s experiments began, may have been stolen intellectual property.

According to Kelly, the process was shown to several interested parties who had come to America from England. Kelly believed that he’d been swindled once those parties returned to London, and one of them happened to tell Bessemer. He believed this so strongly, he wrote an op-ed to the Scientific American describing his process after they’d announced Bessemer’s patent.

Phineas Upham is an investor from NYC and SF. You may contact Phin on his Phineas Upham website or LinkedIn page.

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