Bessemer steel production

From iron into steel

In the 1850s, Dowlais ironworks began the process of transforming itself in response to the evolving demands of the industrial age. The key development was in the shift to steel production – which would enable Dowlais to enhance its position at the leading edge of technological innovation.

Iron had been central to the Industrial Revolution, but once the mass production of steel was developed it was soon superseded as the engineer’s material of choice. Henry Bessemer made the initial breakthrough in 1856, when he developed the first inexpensive process for the mass production of steel from molten pig iron.

Dowlais around 1900; Bessemer furnace; Dowlais, early 20th century

As ever, Dowlais was keen to adopt new methods and became the first British company to acquire a licence to produce steel using the Bessemer process in 1856. However, it was to take the best part of a decade of experimentation at Dowlais, under the guidance of William Menelaus, before a truly industrialised method for the production of steel was perfected.

Prior to its introduction, steel had been around 10 times more expensive than iron – making it far too expensive for use in railways, bridges or the frameworks of buildings. After the industrialisation of the Bessemer process, steel and wrought iron soon became similarly priced and most manufacturers quickly turned to steel. In 1871, Dowlais produced almost 26,000 tons of Bessemer steel; by 1884, it was producing more than 118,000 tons.

With steel production supplanting iron, Dowlais continued to grow through the second half of the century and, in 1888, built a second steelworks in South Wales, this time in Cardiff. The company had successfully evolved its business and entered the 20th century as one of the largest ironworks in the world.

Iron and steel – and China

Diagram of Bessemer furnace

When Henry Bessemer discovered his process for the mass production of steel from molten pig iron he gave the second wave of the Industrial Revolution a huge push forward. Patented in 1856, the Bessemer converter oxidised the impurities in the molten iron ore – carbon, silicon and manganese – creating strong, pure steel. Once this process was replicated on an industrial scale, steel quickly superseded iron because of its superior strength. Though Bessemer’s breakthrough was key to Europe’s industrialisation, 800 years earlier a similar process had been developed in China – the only difference being that they hadn’t used it for large-scale production.


1869 Suez Canal opened

1885 Karl Benz’s Motorwagen

1889 Eiffel Tower completed

Gustav Mahler
Music: 1897
Gustav Mahler appointed director of the Vienna Opera
Other sources of information
Henry Bessemer (
Bessemer converter (Sheffield Industrial Museum)
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