Collective Invention of Bessemer Steel

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Collective Invention of Bessemer Steel in the U.S. (1866-1885 and beyond)

Peter Meyer:

"British inventor Henry Bessemer announced a new steel making process in 1856. He correctly foresaw it would be a quick, high volume, fuel efficient approach and trod lightly on the fact that it hadn’t actually worked yet. After some further innovations with others, it developed into a thriving business in the 1860s. It took longer to transplant the technology to the U.S., which took another wave of innovations.

Several institutions served to aid collective invention in the U.S. technology. First, several new industrial journals and organizations arose during this period when mass production steel technologies were being adopted. The open-discussion environment in the British iron and steel industry may have been a model for its extension in the U.S., leading to collective invention on both sides of the Atlantic. Second, famous engineer Alexander Holley ran a consulting practice which pooled the key patents for Bessemer steel manufacture so members of one licensing organization would have access to them all. Holley himself designed most of the first fifteen Bessemer steel plants though they had different owners. Third, job turnover was high in the industry, so many employees had diverse experiences drawn from previous employers.

Huge demand for steel rails for railroad construction sustained the industry through a depression that started in 1873. Production quantities rose dramatically, as shown in Figure 1. The technologies in use improved quickly, and the price of Bessemer steel fell from over $100 per gross ton of rails in 1870 to about $60 in 1880." (