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
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