"Bessemer Steel" in Kentucky
by Martha Grassham Purcell
One most important invention or discovery of the
nineteenth century was made by William Kelly, who
came from Pittsburgh and located near Eddyville, in
Lyon County, in 1846. Here he operated both the
Union and the Suwanee furnaces, mostly by slave labor,
until he conceived the plan of using Chinese workers,
which he secured through a New York tea house. As
these Celestials, with their pigtails, were the first in
this section, they created a great deal of curiosity.
Mr. Kelly, having a special knowledge of chemistry
and metallurgy, investigated and experimented in the
manufacture of iron, and concluded that the crude metal
could be converted into steel without fuel; that by
placing the fluid metal in a suitable furnace and forcing
powerful blasts of air through the molten mass, he
could produce the desired result.
His veteran forgemen could not conceive of metal
being "boiled" by simply blowing air through it, for
it had been their experience that air blown over its
surface chilled it. They knew nothing of the affinity
of oxygen with carbon for producing heat; they had
always consumed quantities of charcoal to secure this
greater heat; they had buried bars of wrought iron in
charcoal in a furnace, where, the air being shut off, the
charcoal was slowly burned for two or more weeks.
Then the product was taken out and melted, forming
"cast steel." So they were completely surprised when
forcing the currents of air through the mass of iron
intensified it to incandescence and refined the metal.
The experiment was made in 1851 and used by Mr.
Kelly advantageously for many years. Being almost
isolated in practically a wilderness, thirty miles from
even the nearest country press, the inventor failed to
advertise and take proper advantage of his invention.
In 1855, however, many of the steamboats plying the
Ohio River were using boiler plates made from iron
prepared by "Kelly's air-boiling process." The next
year Henry Bessemer, an iron manufacturer of England,
took out a patent for this pneumatic process, to
which his name has been given; but, although Mr.
Kelly was delayed in securing his patent by his attorney,
when the claim was heard by the commissioner of
the Patent Office in this country, it was decided that
Mr. Kelly was the inventor and his patent was at once
granted. For many years Mr. Kelly received a royalty
on his interest in the inventions. In time the patents
of Kelly, Bessemer, and Mushet were combined.
Prior to this discovery, steel cost five times as much
as iron; now steel rails, wearing four times as long as
iron, cost only a few dollars more per ton. Thus we
see the incalculable importance of another Kentucky
invention, for now steel is made directly from pig iron
in about thirty minutes, instead of as formerly in almost
as many days.