Some Founders of the chemical Industry - Men to be remembered
This book contains eight profiles of 19th. century chemical industrialists orginally published in the Chemical Trade Journal. The preface and the article on William Gossage was given in issues 60 and 61, and issue 62 looked at Josias Christopher Gamble. Subsequent issues of Chemistry in Action! will contain the other articles. They will eventually be made available on the internet. Hopefuly this series will introduce you to some of the unsung and largely forgotten pioneers of the chemical industry in the U.K. and worldwide, told in the words of one of their contemporaries. In this issue Part 1 of James Muspratt's story.
JAMES MUSPRATT (Part 1)
Romance, adventure, and enterprise are comprised in the career of James Muspratt, who was the father of the alkali trade in this country. Losh had preceded him on the Tyne in 1814, and in 1816 Tennant had settled at St. Rollox, on the Clyde; however their operations were very limited, and Muspratt was the first to establish a soda works to carry out the Leblanc process on a large scale.
He was born
in Dublin on the 12th August, 1793; his father was an Englishman, whose
brother was a director of the East India Company; his mother, who was
a remarkable woman of fine character and culture, was a Miss Mainwaring,
one of the Cheshire family of that name. They resided in Dublin, and to
a commercial school in that city sent their son.
A chemist's laboratory would have many attractions for such a lad. Chemistry at that period retained much that still appealed to the imagination; it was not wholly divested of the mysterious and magical. The spirit of the old alchemist continued to move amongst its retorts and stills, its furnaces and phials. Experiments were made with the crudest apparatus, and there were no text books, that enabled it to be studied as an exact science. The youth rejoiced to devote what time he could spare to the study of such books as the Dictionary of Chemistry by Nicholson, and a translation of the works of Guyton de Morveau, and also to the making of experiments.
In the year 1810 he had the calamity to lose his father, and in the succeeding year his mother died. She had excited in him devoted love and veneration, and to his latest day her memory was sacred to him. Just before his father's death the young apprentice had for some cause quarrelled with his master, and was at home unoccupied when he lost his mother. An orphan, his heart heavy with grief, and his prospects darkened, the slight inheritance left him by his parents wasting away in chancery proceedings, he was attracted by the excitement of a warrior's life, and determined to seek a career in the army. All Europe was at this time watching the exploits of Wellington and Napoleon in the Peninsula, and to this strife of heroes, James Muspratt, full of strength and valour, went.
The cavalry of England had won much glory in these campaigns, and he was determined in it to obtain a cornetcy. But commissions in mounted regiments were retained for those favoured in high quarters, and Muspratt was only able to obtain the offer of a commission in the infantry. This he scorned to accept, but still attracted by military and camp life, he followed in the wake of the troops.
Two or three days after the 22nd July (1812) he visited the bloody but glorious field of Salamanca - and during the next month or two was with his countrymen in Madrid. Wellington received the acclaims of the Madridlones on the 12th August, on his triumphant entry into the capital. General Hill, to whose keeping he handed over the city, was compelled to retreat ten weeks later, and during that time the fever, which had hovered around the pathway of the armies and their halting grounds seized on young Muspratt. He received scarcely any care or attention of any sort, and had he not had a splendid constitution he must have succumbed to the disease.
Before he had risen from his sick bed the city was full of tumult at the rapid approach of the French forces in overwhelming numbers, and a hurried retreat had to be made down the valley of the Tagus westward. Weak as he was he determined not to fall a prisoner into the enemy's hands, and set out to follow the English, who had abandoned the city. It was then he accomplished the remarkable feat of walking 100 miles in two days, and made his way to Lisbon. His diary contains graphic accounts of the great hardships which he underwent; the history of that campaign relates how wretched was the state of the country, and how great were the sufferings of the troops and the inhabitants from hunger and sickness. Muspratt would gladly have got back again to his own country, and he hoped that at Lisbon he would find a vessel that would convey him home; but in this he was disappointed. Although his warlike longings had failed to be satisfied in the army, he succeeded in securing an appointment as midshipman in the navy, and in his ship, the "Impetueux," he took part in the blockade of Brest, and was engaged in the chase of the United States frigate, the "Constitution," the ship that vanquished the "Guerrire" in one of those celebrated naval duels.
He was promoted to rank of second officer in a smaller craft than the "Impetueux"; but the stern discipline and irksomeness of his post, accompanied, as was too often the case, with insult and humiliation, was intolerable to him, and he determined to desert. A comrade joined him in this resolve, which they carried out one dark night when the vessel lay in the Mumbles roadstead, off Swansea. The boatman who rowed them ashore only performed his perilous task under the terror of threats, that if he did not do it they would throw him overboard. In this escapade these young fellows ran great risk of disgrace and death, for such would have been their fate had they failed. Not until the morning was their escape detected, and then pursuit was fruitless. The hard experiences through which he had passed had quenched the spirit for military adventure - his ideas, derived from songs and romances, had proved illusions that faded amidst the stern realities of life. As soon as he could, he made his way back from Wales to Ireland. His affairs were still in Chancery, and for the termination of the suit he was compelled to wait; but little of the property that had been left him would come into his possession, the greater portion would have been wasted in its passage through the court.
His literary and artistic tastes drew him during this period of leisure into the society of authors and actors. A young man, about twenty-one, of a romantic and adventurous turn such as he had shown himself to be, would be filled with enthusiastic admiration of that star of unusual brilliancy which at that time attracted great attention in the dramatic world.
In the year
1791, at Drogheda, was born Eliza O'Neill. Her father was an indigent
stage manager and actor. The pretty little child might often be seen running
about the streets of the dirty town, barefooted. She was compelled before
she reached her teens to appear upon the stage with her father, and when
she was but twelve years of age she drew large houses, attracted by the
charms of her acting. She was only a girl when she played the part of
"Juliet," in Dublin, which excited the greatest enthusiasm,
and by the time she was one and twenty, she inspired the line of a prologue
Lord William Lennox wrote:- "She was loveliness personified; her voice was the perfection of melody; her manner graceful, impassioned, irresistible. In Lady Macbeth, the Siddons was unrivalled; while O'Neill in her matchless representation of feminine tenderness as Juliet and Mrs. Haller, was faultless." Her character was one of singular modesty and gentleness, she "wore the white flower of a blameless life." She married in 1819, William Wrixen-Beecher, M.P. for Mallow, who succeeded to a baronetcy, and the poor little maid of Drogheda, became Lady Wrixen-Beecher.
James Muspratt came under the spell of her beauty and genius, and although only a young man, was honoured in being able to assist in bringing her before the fashionable Dublin circle. Probably it was at this time that he made the acquaintance of the youth who afterwards became his intimate friend, the humorous, pathetic, romantic, artistic, poetical Samuel Lover. The man to whom he was most drawn was James Sheridan Knowles, the celebrated dramatist, actor and scholar, whose gift of authorship dawned on him when a mere child, and who, when he was but fourteen years old, wrote the extremely popular ballad, "The Welsh Harper." He made his deb-t also on the boards of the Crow Theatre. The intimacy of this friendship is seen in the fact that James Muspratt named his two sons, James Sheridan, and Edmund Knowles, after him. These early friendships revealed traits of character and tastes which were strikingly developed in after years. James Muspratt loved literature, especially romance, poetry, and the drama; he highly appreciated the gifts of literary and scientific men, who found in him a worthy and congenial friend.
As soon as his small inheritance came into his hands he determined to use the knowledge which he had acquired during the years he spent with the Dublin apothecary. He began by manufacturing a few simple chemicals, one of which was hydrochloric acid, but in the course of a short time he was joined by a Mr. Abbott, who put some money into the business, and then they made prussiate of potash, for which there was a good demand. He would now be a young man of about five-and-twenty.
France had nurtured the sciences to a greater extent than any other European country, and towards the close of the last century it was the focus of genius: Lavoisier, Arago, Thnard, Berthollet, Vauquelin, and many others, had constituted a glorious constellation. The Acadmie des Sciences stimulated invention and discovery. In the year 1775 it offered a prize of 2,400 livres for the best practical and profitable process of producing soda from common salt. The alkali in common use was that obtained from kelp; it was seen that some method should be devised for obtaining a more plentiful and cheaper supply of alkali from the abundant salt of soda.
In the year 1753, at Issoudun, a town of some 10,000 inhabitants, about nineteen miles south of Orleans, where various manufactures were carried on, and where there was a college, was born Nicolas Leblanc. He was trained in an apothecary's shop, and having studied pharmacy, passed on to surgery. He must have been a man of considerable ability, for he was appointed surgeon to the Duke of Orleans, and he was the author of various scientific works. Incited to the research by the prize offered by the Acadmie, he devoted his attention to the treatment of common salt. Many others were also at work. A Benedictine Father, Malherbe, had his process of lixiviating the fused mixture of sulphate of soda, iron and charcoal. Guyton de Morveau and Carnay made their mixture of common salt and lime, and were so sanguine of their invention as to erect works at Croisac, in Picardy, in 1782. De la Mtherie heated sulphate of soda and coal in close retorts, sulphurous acid was given off, which was condensed in leaden chambers. Athnas decomposed the salt with copperas, and decomposed the sulphate formed by employing Malherbe's method. Finally, in 1787, Nicolas Leblanc projected his process of decomposing common salt with oil of vitriol, condensing the muriatic acid in ammonia water: then after the sulphate had been well heated, it was mixed with half its weight of chalk and quarter its weight of charcoal, these were intimately ground together and heated in a crucible; then the contents were powdered and lixiviated; the soda evaporated and dried in hot air. The patent was obtained on the 25th September, 1791, and the works of "La Franciade" were built by Leblanc and Diz at St. Denis - the Duke of Orleans having found the capital of 200,000 livres.
When the Duke was executed on the 6th November, 1793, the works were confiscated. Leblanc was not awarded the prize, for a special commission appointed to examine the various processes, considered those of Malherbe and Athnas the most likely to prove successful, but judged none of the competitors worthy of the reward.
On the death of his patron and the stoppage of his works Leblanc was thrown into the most distressing poverty. For several years he struggled on, and in the year 1806, the works that had been confiscated were returned to him by the Emperor Napoleon; but the property was useless to him as he had no capital, and with the burden of years and sorrows pressing upon him, he had to seek refuge in the workhouse, where he died by his own hand.
This is the sad story of the life of the great inventor, whose discoveries have so largely contributed to the wealth and development of this country.
The year Leblanc died, works were established by Payen at Dieuze, to carry out his process, and twelve months afterwards, plate-glass made with soda instead of potash, was exhibited by the S. Gobain Plate Glass Co.
As we have before stated, Losh had started a small work on the Tyne, and Tennant had made a beginning, but only a beginning, on the Clyde. Doubtless, Muspratt, as a young man full of activity, intelligence and enterprise, had made himself acquainted with what was going on. He and his partner were making money by their existing business, but could not afford to launch into a new and expensive plant; still the process was being studied and watched, and when in the year 1823 the extravagant duty of £30 per ton was taken off salt, Muspratt saw the chance and seized it. He had in the previous year (1822) separated from his partner, and came to Liverpool. Mr. Abbott declined to accompany him. Mr. Muspratt perceived that the Mersey with its splendid port, its neighbouring coal fields, and its proximity to the salt district of Cheshire, presented advantages not excelled, if even equalled by the Tyne or the Clyde. He appeared to think that an old glass works on a site not altogether the most favourable, could advantageously be converted into a new Chemical works. He was determined to work the Leblanc process, but he did not possess the capital to begin at once to put up the plant for it; he had therefore to continue the manufacture of prussiate of potash, and devote the profits he made to erecting the necessary lead chambers for his sulphuric acid, and the other requisites of a complete soda works.
When he commenced the production of soda ash, he found the consumers of alkali so prejudiced in favour of potash, that it was no easy matter to sell his products. The soap-boilers had actually to have the soda given to them before they would use it, and even then he was compelled personally to watch and superintend the making of the soap. But when once the consumers got over their stupidity and ignorance, the demand for the new article far exceeded his powers for production; he rapidly enlarged his Liverpool works until the ground he had leased was wholly taken up. and there was no room for further extension. He therefore joined another countryman of his, an Irishman like himself, with whom he had become acquainted in Dublin, Mr. Josias Christopher Gamble, and they selected a piece of land at St. Helens, near Gerard's Bridge, where they erected a new works. This was in the year 1828.
A site on the canal side, adjacent to a colliery, and in the town in which the manufacture of glass had become established, with probably cheap land, good drainage, and a pleasant place of residence, may have been the principal reasons that caused St. Helens to be selected as the seat of the alkali trade by Muspratt and Gamble. They invaded a very prettily situated, nice little country town. It was the residence of several well-to-do families, who lived in substantial, comfortable homes, attached to their shops, or close to their business. Gardens and well-stocked orchards ran from street to street, the roads that led out from the town were lined with avenues of trees, and on all sides were rich farm lands, with well-cultivated hedges, and abundant timber. The streams that converged from Eccleston and Rainford, and ran down the Newton and Sankey valleys to the Mersey, were stocked with trout. If, when these founders of the industry that would so enrich this town, could, when they were selecting the site, have had a vision of the transformation they would initiate, they might have shrunk from the enterprise. There lay a smiling, peaceful valley, rich in fruits and flowers, and a rippling, crystal brook:-
The partnership between the compatriots only lasted a couple of years.* Gamble remained at St. Helens and Muspratt took some land at Newton, close to the new railway between Liverpool and Manchester, and on the St. Helens canal. The only drawback to this site was, that it was in the very heart of an agricultural district. Newton and Winwick were well wooded and highly cultivated, and the lands belonged to rich and influential landowners. It was to continue working the Leblanc process that these works were first erected; but wherever salt was decomposed, the appliances for the condensation of the acids were so imperfect that large quantities of gas escaped, causing great destruction to the surrounding vegetation. Gossage had not yet invented his condensing towers.
To be continued in issue #64