Some founders of the Chemical industry: Men to be remembered
J. Fenwick Allen
This book contains eight profiles of 19th. century chemical industrialists, originally published in the Chemical Trade Journal. The preface and the article on William Gossage was given in issues 60 and 61; issue 62 looked at Josias Christopher Gamble; issues 63 and 64 at James Muspratt, and issues 65 and 66 at Andreas Kurtz. Subsequent issues of Chemistry in Action! will contain the other articles. Hopefully 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 the second part of Henry Deacon’s life is published. See issue 67 for part 1.
Deacon's patents, in connection with manufacture of alkali - Deacon's chlorine patent, 29th April, 1868 - Several other patents up to 8th July, 1876 - The "plus pressure salt cake roaster" - Weldon's chlorine process - Dr. Hurter - Deacon's paper before Chemical Society, June 30, 1872, on his chlorine process - Deacon a thinker, but also essentially practical - Dr. Vernon Harcourt's visit to Widnes - Deacon's appreciation of the work of his assistants - His public work for Widnes - Summary of his life and work - Died 23rd July, 1876
From December 1854 Deacon's career and work can be best seen and followed by an examination of his patents. There is a remarkable sequence and development in all his inventions; they are not spread over a great variety of subjects - they are concentrated around the most important points of alkali manufacture. They are not mere amendments of other men's designs - they are profoundly original in conception and in execution. They are the outcome of philosophical reasoning and of scientific hypotheses, as well as of patient and masterly investigation and experiment. The subjects which he treated are not exhausted; a minute and careful examination of some of Deacon's inventions will show that he only broke ground for a future generation, and has left the promise of a rich reward to the men who are capable of following in his footsteps.
It is as no mere useless inventory of invention that we give the following record of his discoveries as they were patented:-
No. 1,504. 12 December, 1854. This is Deacon's patent, although taken out in the name of his patent agent, John Henry Johnson, London. This invention relates to the application of the gases arising from the combustion of fuel or fuel gases in the manufacture of carbonated compounds of soda, by double decomposition with corresponding compounds of ammonia, as is well understood by practical men. The fuel gases and ammonia in any convenient form are introduced into suitable vessels containing the salt of soda which is to be decomposed; the object being by aid of the fuel gases, to form marketable compounds of soda in the presence of or by the reaction of ammoniacal compounds. An atmosphere of the fuel gases may also be used during the completion of such process or manufacture. Previous to the final escape of the uncombined or unabsorbed fuel gases, they are passed through or in contact with a solution capable of retaining any ammonia contained in the gases. It is preferred to form these compounds with the fuel gases under pressure; coke or anthracite coal is preferred as fuel, the combustion being effected with a strong draught, whilst smoke is to be avoided as much as possible. The heat arising from the combustion of such fuel may be economically employed in heating water, burning limestone, or for any other purpose requiring but a moderate heat, and wherein the fuel gases are not deteriorated or injuriously contaminated.
No. 1404. June 21, 1858. The purification of alkaline lyes, by the addition of protoxide of iron to such lyes at a temperature not exceeding 130ø Fahrenheit. Separating at a temperature under 130ø the precipitate obtained, and then decanting off the alkaline solution, and lastly using the precipitated sulphides by roasting them with an alkaline chloride to obtain an alkaline sulphate.
No. 352. Feb. 9, 1860. Taken out by Henry Deacon and Thomas Robinson (Robinson, of Robinson and Cooks, engineers, St. Helens, and of Hargreaves and Robinson, of Widnes). It was for the use of a cupola or separate combustion chamber, and blasted air, in combination with any decomposing apparatus, reverberatory or other furnaces used in the manufacture of soda, for the purpose of decomposing the salt or salt cake, roasting the salt cake, making the black ash, and evaporating, or finishing, or calcining.
No. 1030. 10th April, 1862. In the ordinary manufacture of caustic soda the caustic liquors are evaporated, and during evaporation the salts precipitated are removed, and evaporation is continued until the residual liquors become so concentrated as to solidify on cooling, or until so much of the water is driven off as is required. The improvements specified are:- stopping the evaporation at an earlier stage, removing the salts precipitated during evaporation as usual, and continuing the evaporation or concentration, until the caustic alkaline liquors will deposit crystals of hydrated caustic soda on cooling to the ordinary atmospheric temperature. The mother liquor to be used for subsequent operations or finished alone.
No. 1,030. 10th April, 1862. A process of obtaining crystals of caustic soda containing more than one atom of water by cooling caustic soda liquors, and then removing the last portions of mother liquors from caustic soda crystals by means of an elevated temperature below but approaching to the melting point.
No. 1,455. 14th May, 1862. It is well understood that certain colours are produced, by the action of an elevated temperature on mixtures of clays, with sulphate or carbonate of soda, or both, of sulphur and of carbon, atmospheric air being excluded during the first heating. The patent specified improvements in the vessels or retorts in which these substances are heated, so that the materials during the process might be easily inspected, stirred, &c., during the heating; and also the method of washing the colours in circulating lixiviating tanks.
No. 1,403. 29th April, 1868. Chlorine is usually produced by heating peroxide of manganese in aqueous solution of hydrochloric acid, the materials if perfectly utilised yielding one equivalent of free chlorine and one equivalent of chloride of manganese in solution (as a by-product of little value) for every one equivalent of peroxide of manganese and two equivalents of hydrochloric acid employed. The patent specifies the heating of oxide of copper or oxide of manganese or other similar oxides or compounds in a current of hydrochloric acid gas and atmospheric air. In this manner the whole of the hydrochloric acid gas may be decomposed at a moderate temperature, say about 400ø Fahrenheit; the chlorine of the acid gas is set free, and the hydrogen of the acid gas combines with atmospheric oxygen. The mixtures of oxides remain unaltered, and the process becomes continuous. Water that is formed is removed by condensation, and the chlorine absorbed and utilised in any well-known manner.
In this process oxygen is the element required to unite with the hydrogen of hydrochloric acid; and one at least of the compounds employed must be of such a character that it will have the power of uniting with oxygen, either at the ordinary temperature or when heated, and when it is afterwards heated with hydrochloric acid, and heated either alone or in the presence of oxygen it must possess the property of decomposing such acid, and of ultimately yielding chlorine as one of the results of decomposition. By applying this test to the metallic compound employed, the suitability of the mixture will be ascertained without difficulty. "My process is but the hydrochloric and the oxygen of the air react on each other in the presence of these compounds, and a continuous stream of hydrochloric acid, and air in entering the apparatus employed, results in the issue of a continuous stream of chlorine and of the vapour of water, mixed of course with nitrogen of the air, unused oxygen, and hydrochloric acid." A copper salt was selected from a large number of substances, because it acts at a comparatively low temperature. Pieces of burnt clay were saturated with a solution of the salt.
No. 2,469. 13th September, 1870. Improvements in the apparatus required in working the process described in No. 1,403.
No. 2,476. 14th September, 1870. The "Deacon" bleaching powder chamber with its arrangement of shelves, for producing strong bleaching powder by the use of chlorine when diluted with inert gases.
No. 2,641. 5th October, 1870. For improvements in the manufacture of sulphuric acid, by employing salts of copper in conjunction with hydrochloric acid and sulphurous acid gases together with oxygen, or air, so that sulphuric acid and chlorine may be produced.
No. 753. 20th March, 1871. This invention is for the production of sulphuric acid by the employment of salts of copper in conjunction with sulphurous acid gas together with oxygen or air. The process is to impregnate pieces of burnt clay with a strong solution of sulphate of copper and dry them, these are placed in a tower, and through them are passed heated mixtures of sulphurous acid gas and oxygen in equivalent proportions with or without super-heated steam, and sulphuric acid is produced, and can be condensed in any convenient manner. The success of this invention depends not only upon the use of such a chemical reagent as sulphate of copper, but also upon the temperature at which it is performed, which temperatures vary between the point at which sulphate of copper begins to be decomposed in a current of hot air, and about that point at which tin melts, so that the sulphate of copper may continue and remain sulphate of copper.
No. 1682. 27th June, 1871. Improvements in apparatus for producing chlorine and sulphuric acid: this apparatus applies to the process previously specified.
No. 691. 15th March, 1871. The employment in the manufacture of bleaching-powder, and of the sulphate of soda, &c., of inclined shelves on which are placed solid material, over which gases pass and act on the solid materials - chlorine on dry slaked lime, sulphurous acid gas, air and vapour of water on common salt; also drying diluted chlorine by means of chloride of calcium or sulphuric acid.
No. 1,908. 21st July, 1871. This invention consists in causing heated sulphuric acid anhydride (SO3) to pass over or through heated chloride of sodium, by the reaction that takes place the sulphate is formed corresponding to the chloride employed and chlorine is liberated. The working of this process is connected with processes previously mentioned which had been patented. For the complete conversion of an alkaline chloride (MCl) into its corresponding sulphate (M2SO4) with the liberation of its chlorine (Cl), one equivalent of oxygen (O) is required, for every equivalent of sulphuric acid (SO3), or two equivalents of oxygen (2O) for every equivalent of sulphurous acid (SO2), or four equivalents of oxygen (4O) for every equivalent of sulphur (S), or is expresses in the following formula:-
S + 4O = SO2 + 2O
The claim put forward in this patent is: The manufacture of the sulphates of the alkalies and of chlorine, and of bleaching powder, by causing heated anhydrous sulphuric acid, mixed with air or oxygen, to come in contact with the chlorides of the alkalies at an elevated temperature, such mixture with air or oxygen being effected either before or during the decomposition of the chlorides under treatment, when such chlorides and the sulphates resulting therefrom are kept separate and distinct from the solid materials used to form or promote the formation of anhydrous sulphuric acid.
No. 2,667. 9th October, 1871. This process is to manufacture the alkaline sulphates by causing heated sulphuric or sulphurous acids, mixed with oxygen and with vapour of water, to pass in succeeding alternations in contact with certain chemical substances called catalytic substances, and in contact with alkaline chlorides, which are kept separate from the catalytic substances.
No. 3,309. 7th Nov. 1872. Bleaching liquor is usually formed by causing a mixture of caustic lime and water to absorb chlorine; this patent is to use certain kinds of carbonate of lime to replace wholly, or in part, the caustic lime usually employed.
No. 505. 11th Feb. 1873. This is to accelerate the "Deacon" process by mixing the active catalytic substance, sulphate of copper, with other substances such as sulphate of soda which when used alone are inactive and inert.
No. 3,092. 20th Sept. 1873. This invention relates to the "finishing" of salts obtained in the manufacture of alkali by causing heated air to pass through them when at an elevated temperature.
No. 3,253. 7th Oct. 1873. This specifies improved apparatus in working the "Deacon" process for the utilising of heat evolved in the decomposition of the hydrochloric acid.
No. 3,336. 15th Oct. 1873. A patent for an improved arrangement in connection with the black ash revolver to secure more perfect combustion.
No. 163. 12th Jan., 1874. In working the "Deacon" process, the porous substances need reviving, that is reimpregnating, and this specification describes a method of doing this by means of steam.
No. 332. 28th January, 1875. This specifies an improvement of apparatus for withdrawing the porous substances employed in working the "Deacon" process.
No. 906. 11th March, 1875. Here the claims are for an invention in the manufacture of chlorine by a mixture of common salt with a compound of copper in conjunction with air and hydrochloric acid, the same being obtained from a separate source.
No. 1632. 3rd May, 1875. The use of burnt pyrites, "cinder," instead of clay for the absorption of the copper salt in the "Deacon" process.
No. 1909. 25th May, 1875. The use of magnesia for a similar purpose.
No. 2003. 1st June, 1875. The purification of the hydrochloric acid used in the "Deacon" process from sulphuric acid.
No. 3920. 11th November, 1875. Improvements in the apparatus for containing an arrangement of the porous materials used.
No. 176. 8th July, 1876. Deacon's "plus pressure" salt-cake roaster. The object of this invention was to make a "close," "blind," or "muffle" furnace, in such a manner that the gases of combustion should exert a pressure around the muffle, and so that there should be no suction of any gases within the muffle, through any defective masonry.
This was achieved by the patent which claims the novelty of constructing a furnace in such a manner that the fire which is contiguous to the furnace is placed so low in relation to the muffle that the ascending power of the column of hot air over the fire is sufficient so to propel the flame, and other products of combustion through the flues round the muffle, as to prevent the escape of gas from the muffle into the flues.
In the year 1867, Weldon was at work; his labours at Messrs. J.C. Gamble and Sons works, at Gerard's Bridge, St. Helens, were attracting general notice, and manufacturers were beginning to realise the probability that the plan of Gossage, on which success was denied him thirty years before, was now about to be carried out. But Deacon was never content to be a mere imitator, to follow in the wake of other men was distasteful to him, he strove to originate and to lead. To work out his designs he was fortunate at this time in engaging the services of a young chemist, Dr. Ferdinand Hurter. He was a man whose capacity and training Deacon knew how to appreciate, and from the date of the earliest experiments which he entrusted him to make, he had one who could execute his designs, and intelligently carry out his instructions.
Masters are sometimes accused of growing rich and famous on the inventions of their servants; there was no suspicion of this in the initiation or working out of the “Deacon chlorine process;” no one will more readily acknowledge than those who co-operated with him, that it was Deacon who initiated, superintended and directed the experiments, who explained as the result of his own thought and reasoning its philosophy, and who designed its working plant. The reactions were somewhat occult, the plant was involved and complicated, so many points had to be considered in the working, that its advantages were not rapidly apprehended as those of Weldon's invention; and before the "Deacon" process was understood, the "Weldon" was widely adopted and at work. Nevertheless, he prophesied that his must be the process of the future, that whereas Weldon's at the best could only give one ton of bleach for 43cwts. of salt; his would certainly give a ton of bleach for 13 cwts. of salt.
The philosophical character of Deacon's mind is well illustrated in the various papers he read and lectures he delivered. Before the British Association in Liverpool, in September, 1870, he read a paper on "A new method of obtaining chlorine." It was here that he put forth his theory that chemical reactions, as well as mechanical motions, were obtained in obedience to the law enunciated in the parallelogram of forces. "My idea is that concurrent chemical forces unite and are resolved into other equivalent forces. A chemical result, therefore, may be the resultant of direct forces, or the resultant of indirect forces acting in many directions; and also the resultant of indirect forces may bring about a chemical result, which lies outside the path of all the forces engaged. That is to say, we may deal with the composition and decomposition of concurrent chemical forces, much in the same way as we deal with these problems in mechanics." "May it not be said that the skilled chemist, like the skilled navigator, can so use the union of forces that by the aid of the wind itself he sails nearly in the wind's eye?"
His lecture given before the fellows of the Chemical Society, June 30th, 1872, on "Deacon's method of obtaining chlorine, as illustrating some principles of chemical dynamics," is full of abstruse philosophical reasoning on the following points:-
He supports his theories by an accumulation of results given in tabulated form; and he illustrates his ideas by means of many geometrical diagrams.
He thus states his conclusions:-
2HCl + O to H2O + 2Cl
In February and April, 1874, there are two papers, one given before the Warrington Literary and Philosophical Society, on "Thought about Atoms," and the other contributed to the Quarterly Journal of Science on "The modern hypothesis of atomic matter and humiferous ether." His conclusions are: "Tangible matter does transmit forms of motion of all kinds, and appears to be elastic; and if elastic, needs no medium for transmitting motion, and the so-called necessity for the hypothesis of ether disappears. It must then be more philosophical to endow appreciable matter, even hypothetically, with the qualities it appears to possess, than to create matter of an unknown kind in order to endow it with qualities we see, but refuse to appreciate, in matter that lies before us."
These questions serve to illustrate to what an extent his mind had been imbued with the spirit of Faraday. Faraday asked him, when a mere lad, "How it was that snow disappears when the temperatures of the ground and the air are below the freezing point!" The teacher left the question unanswered as a mental exercise for his pupil, to cultivate the habit of observation and reasoning.
Henry Deacon was as practical as he was philosophical; he was no mere dreamer. His chemist, after several days close work on an analysis of ultramarine, a material on which he sometimes experimented, and in connection with which he took out one of his patents, brought it complete and exact to his employer, who looked it over, and then handed it back with the remark that caused no little chagrin, "Such absolutely accurate analysis are no use to me, they come a week after they are wanted; I want an analysis at the time, and not days after the thing is done with." On another occasion, leakages in the Deacon chlorine apparatus were causing great trouble. Dr. Hurter complained to Deacon that he could not get the workmen to do their work, so as to make the joints of some pipes tight; "then do it yourself, and when you have succeeded you will be able to make others do it," was the reply.
While engaged on this job, Deacon came into the works with a visitor, Dr. Vernon Harcourt, of Oxford. Hurter was busy at his pipes, and looked as black as a sweep, hands and face and dress resembling those of a furnace bricksetter. In this plight he was introduced to Dr. Vernon Harcourt, as "the chief of my laboratory, Dr. Ferdinand Hurter," Deacon doubtless was proud that the most responsible men in his employ were men not above soiling their hands at any work that needed their doing.
One day shortly after he came to Widnes, Dr. Hurter was busy in the laboratory, making some experiments in which he was using bisulphide of carbon. He was carefully distilling this substance and condensing it. Whilst this was going on Deacon came in.
He had a most retentive memory, and he often puzzled those associated with him at the readiness with which he could lay his hand on a book or a document, which were not arranged with any pedantic order but piled up on his table or his desk. Once asked how he was able to remember such things he replied, "Oh, I have pigeon-holes in my head, and I only have to go to my memory and look in the right pigeon-hole."
In business he was the laborious painstaking, cautious characteristics of a German, he allowed no detail, however minute, to be overlooked, and whatever he did, he did it with all his might.
He cared for his workpeople, and knew well how to value the services of those who co-operated with him. It was not for the purpose of paying a mere idle compliment that more than once he said: "I wish to record my thanks to my partners for their forbearance during the years over which my researches have been extended;" and again, "Whilst I claim the discovery and the reasoning that led up to it, yet all subsequent progress has been the result of constant conference between Dr. Hurter, Mr. Eustace Carey, the manager of the work, and myself, and I am glad to have this opportunity of acknowledging the value of their assistance."
In public life he promoted every beneficent undertaking. He was chairman of the Local Board; to him Widnes is mainly indebted for its waterworks at Pex Hill, which affords the district such an ample supply of excellent water. He was chairman of the first School Board. These, and indeed every other public movement at Widnes, had his sagacious and enthusiastic support. He was particularly active and anxious in the promotion of the scheme of a Ship Canal from Hale Point, through Dutton and over Widnes Marsh to Widnes, but he was baffled by the opposition of various interests. He was ever on the alert to watch every point that affected the interests of the Widnes traders and manufacturers, not neglecting those of the inhabitants. No Bill came before Parliament but Henry Deacon was foremost, either in energetic support or equally energetic opposition. When the St. Helens Railway and Canal was transferred to the London and North-Western Railway Co. by the Act of 1864, so eminent were his services in the interests of the Widnes traders, in securing the insertion of clauses in this Act for the protection of the trade of the district, that they made him a presentation of very handsome plate. He was mainly instrumental in obtaining for Widnes the exceedingly favourable railway rates that it enjoys to-day, and so making its prosperity assured. He infused vivacity and energy into all public affairs, and as a magistrate he was painstaking and fair.
His family in London belonged, with Faraday, to the small sect of the Sandemanians, but he was a liberal churchman, or probably with more accuracy he might be described as a very broad churchman: he had a perfect horror of all cant and shams; in politics he was a philosophical Radical.
It was at the early age of only 53, that his career was cut short; but for several years his health had not been good; he subjected his physical powers frequently to no ordinary strain, the wear and tear was too great, or, as he himself acknowledged when he found his health breaking down, "I have taken too few holidays." We surmise that it was the ceaseless activity of his intellect and his temperament, engaged in undertakings that were varied, difficult, and complicated, needing constant labour and anxious thought, that undermined his constitution, and made him an easy prey to an attack of typhoid fever, of which he died after a week's illness at Appleton House, near Widnes, on the 23rd of July, 1876. He was twice married, to the first wife in 1851, and to the second in 1866. His widow survives him with a family of seven sons and four daughters.
By this brief review of the life of Henry Deacon, we are impressed by the influence, we might almost say the inspiration exercised on a boy's mind, by a great master. Let those appointed to instruct and influence the young ever be our strongest characters and our finest minds: the teacher's chair is of all places the one where dull common place is intolerable.
Let those appointed to instruct and influence the young ever be our strongest characters and our finest minds: the teacher's chair is of all places the one where dull common place is intolerable.
But Deacon also is a notable illustration of the great advantage of a thorough all round training; his knowledge of mechanics and geometry was good, he was a careful student of chemistry, and a good practical engineer, these acquisitions, with the qualities of indomitable perseverance, unwearying industry, a devotion to duty that might be described as an article of faith, and shrewd common sense, made him a man who has obtained a lasting name in technical chemistry, and who has handed down to posterity, in his numerous inventions, a heritage not soon to be exhausted, or in his own words, "I trust my efforts will only be a prelude to a full generalisation by abler hands."
In the next issue: James Shanks