The British Pioneers Who Changed the World with Modern Steel

The British Pioneers Who Changed the World with Modern Steel

16th December 2019

The names of many of the people who have contributed to human progress have been lost over the centuries. Yet, when we look back at the history of steel, we can see some inventors and other visionaries who helped to bring us the material that is now so important in the modern world.
Abraham Darby
Europe had traditionally lagged behind Asia in steel-making knowledge. However, Abraham Darby helped to change all that. He was born in Staffordshire in the late 17th century and played a huge part in the Industrial Revolution that pushed Britain to the fore.

Darby’s most important contribution was in discovering a way of making pig iron in a blast furnace. He did this by using coke instead of charcoal, adapting a technique that he had seen used when grinding barley.

He didn’t produce steel, but his breakthrough meant that the UK was now smelting iron ore with coal. This was an important step along the way. The story of his furnaces can be seen at the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron. 
Benjamin Huntsman 
Born at the start of the 18th century, Benjamin Huntsman was a clock-maker and experimental surgeon. He took the next step in this long process when he was able to make cast steel in clay pot crucibles. It was still a long way from current CE marked fabrications, but it was an important step along the way.

He was based in Sheffield, and it was his break-through that helped to make this city into a world-leader in the production of steel. His technique was similar in some ways to the ancient steel-making processes in India, but used a bed of roasted coals to get tougher and more uniform metal.

Legend has it that a rival businessman by the name of Walker stole his secrets when he disguised himself as a beggar and asked to sleep by the fire one night. Soon, the country would become the front-runner in the revolution that changed the world.
Henry Bessemer 
This British engineer was a prolific inventor. He decided to find a way to make stronger steel in order to produce artillery shells for use in the Crimean War.

In the mid-19th century, Bessemer poured some pig iron into a container and blasted it with air. After 10 minutes, the mixture produced violent sparks and flames. The end result was pure iron that was free of carbon.

He was then able to turn that iron into high-quality steel. His Bessemer Converter played a huge role in steel-making for a century and helped to firmly establish Sheffield as the world’s premier steel-making city.

Andrew Carnegie 
Carnegie was born in Dunfermline but moved from Scotland to the US at the age of 12. There, he would become one of the richest men in history. His US Steel Corporation was created at the start of the 20th century and was one of the first billion-dollar companies.

He began his career as a messenger boy but achieved massive success when he combined the Bessemer process from the UK with phosphorus-free iron. This allowed him to produce excellent steel at his mill in Pennsylvania.

Carnegie’s steel was used to build the skyscrapers, railroads and bridges that helped to develop the modern image of the USA.