Henry Bessemer dreamed about steel. He longed to find a way to make an unlimited supply of it, and not knowing how wasn't going to stop him.
Bessemer was a prolific 19th-century British inventor with more than 100 patents to his credit and a hunger to solve problems. Before his quest to make steel plentiful, his most famous invention was a gold-colored paint that contained no actual gold. In the 1840s, metallic paint was the must-have item in England for ornate picture frames. When he bought some of it for his sister's art project, Bessemer was flabbergasted to learn that its cost was equal to a day's wage. He created an inexpensive alternative by machining bronze into powder and adding it to paint; bronze glitters just as well at a fraction of the cost. This invention made him rich, but didn't dampen his drive to innovate. Instead, Bessemer's thoughts turned away from gold's luster for decorations and toward steel's toughness for weapons.
In 1853, England and its allies--France, Turkey, and Sardinia--were enmeshed in the conflict known now as the Crimean War, a battle to let Catholic pilgrims have access to the Holy Land in the Middle East. These allies supported the Catholics, the Russians, on the other side, wanted to keep the Holy Land for Orthodox Christians. To prevail in battle, England needed steel, and lots of it, for powerful cannons. But at the time, the process of converting raw iron into strong steel was painfully slow and expensive; it took a month to make just 50 pounds. In addition, only a few craftsmen knew the necessary techniques. The intense demand for a faster, cheaper way to make steel inspired many inventors, such as Bessemer, to develop a better process. They knew that the inventor who solved the problem would become very rich.
Bessemer's path to becoming an inventor was plotted out from an early age by his father, Anthony Bessemer, a Londoner working in Paris. A respected inventor himself, Anthony was elected into the lauded French Academy of Sciences for his novel typesetting devices and improvements to the optical microscope. As a member of this esteemed society, his path crossed those of scientific elites such as Antoine Lavoisier, who named the element oxygen and is often called "the father of modern chemistry" for systematizing chemical names. However, Anthony's charmed career came to an abrupt end with the French Revolution in 1792. Anthony barely escaped the guillotine, unlike Lavoisier, and hastily returned to England penniless. He settled in Charlton, England, a quiet town, rebuilt his typesetting workshop, and focused his .energies on his son, Henry, born in 1813.
Henry Bessemer had very little formal education, but was allowed free rein in his father's workshop. There he received tools instead of toys, and his desire to build was nurtured. The son matured into a tall and barrel-chested man, with a bold nose, meaty jowls, and thick sideburns that imperfectly camouflaged the lack of hair on the top of his...