Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Making Steel from the Bessemer (Kelly) Process

(Update: details concerning Kelly's development of the "Kelly's air-boiling process.")

I knew that an American invented making steel with blown air in parallel with Bessemer developing the idea in England. If you have been reading the railroad histories in this blog, you will have noticed that a lot of railroads were being built in the early 1850s. The Midwest railroads were competing to buy iron rails imported from Europe. They must have been cast iron because they are described as brittle. They tended to crack, split, and loose chunks. It was well known that steel would make better rails. But it was too expensive. (Wrought iron was not brittle, but it was also too expensive to provide the quantity of rails needed by the railroads.) Steel was also wanted for bridges, ship hulls, etc.

Cannons suffered from the same problem, they needed to be made from ductile steel instead of brittle cast iron. But steel was too expensive to make the guns needed by the Crimean War. Since necessity is the mother of invention, and steel was necessary in the 1850s, Sir Henry Bessemer invented a new process to make guns while William Kelly, a metallurgist, invented the same process. Kelly purchased an iron factory in Eddyville, KY, in 1846. "As early as 1847, Kelly began experimenting with what he called an air-boiling process in which he forced air into molten iron. By 1851, he apparently was beginning to produce steel in this cost saving manner."
Apparently, there is some evidence that those working with Bessemer in England had learned about what Kelly was doing in Kentucky and tried to imitate the process. Many people were attempting to improve the production of steel since the demand for industrial products was growing rapidly. Kelly, however, did not obtain a United States patent for his process until 1857. Unfortunately, he went into bankruptcy in that year and had to sell the rights to his patent for a small sum. Steel making firms wishing to use the Bessemer paid for the use of the patent but 95 percent of the funds went to Henry Bessemer and only 5 percent to William Kelly. It is no wonder that the Bessemer process came to dominate steel making since it produced steel for about 15 percent of the cost of the previous blooming method. [Detroit1701]
Even after the Bessemer Process was developed, steel rails were more expensive than iron rails, but they lasted 10 times longer than iron rails so railroads wanted the steel rails. An iron mill in Detroit installed the first commercial scale pneumatic process converter in America in 1864. The steel ingots from that plant were rolled into the first steel rails in America in a Chicago plant in 1965.

Bessemer also invented the converter vessel that was in a vertical position for the blow, but then could be turned to pour the contents into a ladle.

A short video:

A longer video:

I could not find a date for this film. This plant is obsolete, not only because it is using the Bessemer process, but because the steel is being poured into molds. The Bessemer process was replaced by the Open-Hearth method. Now plants use a Basic Oxygen Converter and continuous casting.

While looking for a photo, I found 77 other ones. The one I was after was in 44 more photos.


  1. I like your site and stories. Above your references are the 1950's when I believe you mean 1850's. Good work.

    1. Thanks for the catch. Should be fixed. That is the price I pay for being a touch typist, sometimes my fingers instead of my brain do the typing.