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No. 762:
Kelly's Converter

Today, we harm ouselves by believing a legend we wish were true. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Every now and then we hear a story that should be true but isn't. Such stories take hold of us and become part of our folklore. And we're left to the sad business of debunking.

Charles Drew, the black doctor who developed blood banking, didn't die because a white hospital denied him a transfusion. Thomas Crapper didn't invent the flush toilet. George Washington didn't chop down the cherry tree. Then there's William Kelly. A road marker near the town of Eddyville, Kentucky, says,

Here William Kelly, 1811-1888, discovered the steel making method later known as the Bessemer process which made it possible for [us] to pass from the iron age to the steel age.

Kelly went to Eddyville in 1846 in pursuit of a young woman he'd met. He invested in an iron forge. It was being used to convert high-carbon pig iron to high-quality wrought iron.

First he watched his forgemen reheating molten pig iron to burn out excess carbon -- fining it and refining it. In 1857 he patented the idea of blowing air through the melt. That way the burning carbon kept the liquid hot and saved fuel.

Meanwhile, Henry Bessemer had patented an air-blowing process in 1855 -- two years ahead of Kelly. During 1858 and 1859 he perfected the process in Sheffield, England.

Bessemer's process had three features: He held the temperature of the melt by burning out the carbon. He stopped the blow of air at just the right moment to leave some carbon in place. And he invented means to de-oxidize the steel before he poured it. Kelly hadn't fully understood. He did only the first step.

So Kelly's process was unsuccessful. He filed for bankruptcy in 1857. We would've forgotten Kelly entirely. But then, in 1861, an American group became interested in making the so-called "pneumatic steel" here. They went after Bessemer's and Kelly's patents. When the dust settled, we were making Bessemer steel.

But we also built a Kelly legend in the wake of all this. He was the small American businessman who'd outsmarted the British lion. It was the stuff patriots love. I suppose little harm would've been done. But writer Robert Gordon finds a dark side.

To build the legend, an older William Kelly rewrote history. He filed affidavits telling how he'd watched the ignorant forgemen and seen what they could not. He understood. They didn't.

To believe the Kelly legend we had to believe the ironmen who worked hands-on didn't already know as much as Kelly did. In the end the American steel industry bought into that legend.

To believe the Kelly legend, we had to believe that our industries have little to learn from their workers. And that was a wound from which American industry is only beginning to recover.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Gordon, R.B., The 'Kelly' Converter. Technology and Culture, Vol. 33, No. 4, pp. 769-779.