Chapter 15: We Got Chemistry
The Industrial Revolutions were made possible thanks to the Scientific Revolution, which began centuries earlier as militaries needed to invest in new ways to gain an edge in battle. With it came the Scientific Method and advancements in chemistry. Starting in the mid-18th Century, a few individuals took those chemistry lessons out of the laboratory and applied them to industry. These are their stories.
In this episode, we’ll cover:
John Roebuck and his works mass-producing sulfuric acid
Nicolas Leblanc and his method for manufacturing soda ash
Charles Tennant and his bleach powder empire
Sources for this episode include:
Clow, Archibald, and Nan L. Clow. The Chemical Revolution: A Contribution to Social Technology. The Batchworth Press. 1952.
Eddy, Matthew Daniel, et al. “An Introduction to Chemical Knowledge in the Early Modern World.” Osiris, vol. 29, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1–15.
Harari, Yuval N. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. HarperColins. 2015.
Harden, Arthur. “Tennant, Charles.” Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900. Volume 56. 1898.
“James Hutton: Scottish Geologist.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Last updated: March 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/James-Hutton
Kiefer, David M. “Sulfuric Acid: Pumping Up the Volume” Today’s Chemist at Work. Vol. 10, No. 9, 2001, p. 57-58.
Martin, Christy and Brigitte Van Tiggelen. “Making the Process.” Distillations. Science History Institute. 2011. https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/making-the-process
Newman, William R. and Lawrence M. Principe. Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry. University of Chicago Press. 2002.
Ever since ancient peoples started turning limestone into plaster and malachite ore into copper, they started getting some pretty crazy ideas. Like, what else can we turn stuff into? Can we turn, say, base metals into, say, gold?
And with that, a new field of research spread across the Eurasian landmass – that of alchemy.
In Europe, in particular, the pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone captured the imaginations of scholars throughout the Middle Ages.
And then came gunpowder.
To the alchemists, gunpowder must have been a lot of fun. I mean, ground-up metals starting on fire and exploding? It was right up their alley.
But it would also change the character of their alley. Here’s why…
Gunpowder belonged first and foremost on the battlefield, in the cannons, causing destruction. And when it got to Europe, the rules of warfare changed. And in that new, destructive environment, you couldn’t afford to be left behind. Kings and their Medieval warriors had a new incentive to finance scientific pursuits, to give them an edge in battle.
Among other things Galileo did was build telescopes, which he used to discover the moons of Jupiter. But those telescopes were built not principally for astronomical research, but for the Venetian Navy, who paid him to help them see enemy fleets from as far as eight miles away.
Up in England, the crown spent centuries funding their Office of Ordnance – later called the Board of Ordnance – which not only produced and stored arms and ammunitions, but also explored new means and methods of warfare. To this end, they advanced the study of physics and other natural sciences.
With military support of scientific research, the field of natural philosophy was leaving the confines of the monasteries – a trend that only intensified as a result of the Protestant Reformation.
These were the early stages of what we now call the Scientific Revolution. And in that process a new concept was developed: The Scientific Method.
As Sir Isaac Newton – who was quite interested in alchemy – described it in his Principia, “In experimental philosophy we are to look upon propositions collected by general induction from phenomena as accurately or very nearly true, notwithstanding any contrary hypotheses that may be imagined, until such time as other phenomena occur, by which they may either be made more accurate, or liable to exceptions.”
In time, the natural sciences also left the confines of military application and were made accessible to everyone. In the City of London, this came in the form of Gresham College. A precursor to the Royal Society, Gresham College was less of a real school and more of a loose network of natural philosophers in London who occasionally delivered lectures which the public could attend.
Perhaps the most important member of this made-up college was Robert Boyle. You may remember him from Chapter 7 – he supported the works of Robert Hooke and Denis Papin.
Boyle was an alchemist who always hoped the old monks may have been on to something with their pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone. During the chaos of the Glorious Revolution, he got an old law repealed which had prohibited to transmutation of base metals into silver and gold. And he conducted experiments on the transmutations of metals. Needless to say, they failed.
But in the process of his experiments, Boyle applied the scientific method to the ancient study of alchemy. And by the time his proteges were dying in the 18th Century, the study of alchemy had been replaced by the study of chemistry.
The alchemists had become – simply – chemists.
This is the Industrial Revolutions
Chapter 15: We Got Chemistry
Before we get into it today, let me just say, I am no Robert Boyle. In fact, when I was in school, I was always pretty horrible with the natural sciences. I remember taking a test on rocks where I had to look at different kinds of rocks and identify them. No matter how hard I might study, rocks all look the same to me. The fact I passed my high school biology exam, meanwhile, was a straight-up miracle.
History, civics, and economics are my jam. I’m comfortable talking to you about those subjects. But an entire episode about chemistry and chemicals is a bit ambitious for me. I am very grateful to all those science nerds out there who are good at this stuff so I don’t have to be.
So, there is a strong possibility I’m going to get some stuff wrong today. If you happen to be a chemist – or you’re generally strong in the sciences – and you catch a mistake, please let me know about it. You can contact me via social media @IndRevPod. That’s @ I-N-D – R-E-V – P-O-D on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
During the Scientific Revolution – but before the start of the first Industrial Revolution – the production of chemicals was largely the same as it had been for centuries. Potash was needed for glass, soap, and saltpeter. Alum and copperas (also known as green vitriol, also known as ferrous sulfate, also known as Iron 2 Sulfate) were used to mordant and dye textiles. Salt and sugar were obviously used in food. And sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate were needed for gunpowder.
But it was the research of these chemicals – and how changes in the environment created reactions in the chemicals – that really advanced during these years.
In 1661, Boyle published a book on the subject: The Sceptical Chymist: or Chymico-Physical Doubts & Paradoxes. Among other things, it rejected the conventional views about chemistry throughout the Middle Ages – like the idea that there were just four elements: earth, wind, fire, and water.
The next year, he presented his “Boyle’s Law” on how the pressure of gas increases as the volume of the container it’s in decreases.
Further advances were made by the German chemist Georg Stahl who investigated combustion. Then there were the Swedish chemists Georg Brandt and Axel Fredrik Cronstedt, who identified new elements and minerals, including cobalt and nickel.
And with these big advancements came smaller, practical insights as well. The distillation of hard spirits spread across Europe. The waterproofing of wood began. New research was done on bleach and cloth dyes. And as I mentioned last week, developments in chemistry were driving new developments in pottery.
But the study of chemistry really picked up in the latter half of the 18th Century. In England, Henry Cavendish discovered hydrogen. In Sweden, Carl Wilhelm Scheele discovered oxygen and a slew of new acids. In France, Louis Claude Cadet de Gassicourt became the first to synthesize new chemical compounds. And up in Scotland, Joseph Black discovered carbon dioxide and created a theory of latent heat.
You may also remember Black from Chapter 7 – he was pretty much the first investor in James Watt’s steam engine enterprise. His loan to Watt was paid back thanks to a new investor – an entrepreneur who was among the first to take the study of chemicals out of academia and into industry – John Roebuck.
The son of a cutler, John Roebuck was born in Sheffield, in 1718. He had studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, where Black was among his professors. He later went to Holland where he completed his studies and earned his medical degree. He then returned to England and set up a medical practice in Birmingham.
But ever since he studied under Black, Roebuck had had a keen interest in chemistry. And in Birmingham, he befriended a local merchant by the name of Samuel Garbett.
Now, it seems like Garbett’s back story is a little bit lost to history. He was apparently a purchasing agent in Birmingham for merchants outside of Birmingham. Whatever that entailed, he had some money. And with that money, he and Roebuck set up a laboratory on Steelhouse Lane.
The lab was primarily used to refine and study precious metals. But then, in 1746 – Roebuck made a breakthrough in the lab. He built a boxlike chamber from riveted sheets of lead, within which he could produce sulfuric acid.
Known better at the time as vitriol, sulfuric acid is a colorless, odorless, and syrupy liquid that has been used for millennia. By the 18th Century, it largely had three purposes. First, for dying or bleaching fabrics. Second, for cleaning iron as it’s produced. And third, for producing salt.
Up until this point though, sulfuric acid could really only be made in glass jars, a few pounds at a time. Glass was expensive and easily broken. Lead, on the other hand, was cheap and resistant to sulfuric acid. And in his lead condensing chamber, Roebuck could produce over a hundred pounds of sulfuric acid at a time.
To do it, he mixed a small batch of sulfur and saltpeter in a ladle, which he ignited and placed on a tray in the chamber. Water on the floor of the chamber would absorb the gases created by the ignition. He repeated the process several times, and then pulled out the product - a liquid that was about 40% sulfuric acid. He was able to further concentrate the chemical as a percentage of the liquid by boiling it.
And so, in 1749, Roebuck and Garbett decided to build a factory to mass produce this vitriol. The site they chose for it was in the small fishing village of Prestonpans, just east of Edinburgh. Just four years beforehand, it had been the site of an early battle in the final uprising of the Jacobites.
For the next several years, the Prestonpans Vitriol Company would go unchallenged as virtually the sole producer of sulfuric acid in Great Britain. By the end of the 18th Century, the factory had over a hundred lead chambers – or as they dubbed them, “lead cathedrals” – of about 120 cubic feet each. In the end though, Roebuck and Garbett had not bothered getting a patent for the lead chamber process, and it was copied by others – but not before they made a fortune mass producing vitriol.
And as the first Industrial Revolution picked up, the benefits of mass-produced vitriol became clear. Improvements made in cotton spinning techniques led to an explosion in the textile trade (shout out Chapter 5!). And sulfuric acid made it possible to bleach the cloths and dye the calicos coming out of the textile mills.
The Prestonpans Vitriol Company created a profitable foundation for Roebuck and Garbett as they sought investment opportunities in other industrial businesses. Among other things, they set up a pottery business nearby and they experimented with converting salts into sodas.
But the longest-lasting of their investments was in their Carron Ironworks, which they built near Falkirk in 1759. It produced a new kind of cannon for the Board of Ordnance – the Carronade. It also employed guys like Henry Cort (shout out Chapter 6!), William Symington (shout out Chapter 12!), and John Smeaton (shout out chapter – WAIT, WHAT?!).
I haven’t mentioned John Smeaton yet? Okay, real quick, he was a Lunar Society member whose research on waterwheels was critical to the development of Richard Arkwright’s water frame in the textile mills. He was also a canal builder and was considered the Father of Civil Engineering.
Anyway, the Carron Ironworks was pretty mismanaged at the time and did really shoddy work, but it somehow stayed afloat. It still exists today as Carron Phoenix, which produces stainless steel, ceramic and granite-molded sinks.
The same could not be said of Roebuck’s coal mine at Bo’ness, which was supposed to supply the coal for the ironworks. But Roebuck had them dig in too deep, and it flooded to the point it could not be saved. Not even the pumping power of Watt’s steam engine could get Roebuck out of that mess.
Plus, Roebuck was losing a small fortune with that salt-to-soda scheme. AND the Royal Navy cancelled a major order of his cannons because they kept falling apart. So, when the Scottish banking sector collapsed in 1772 and credit dried up, Roebuck went broke. He had to give up his rights to Watt’s patent and dump the coal mine.
But despite his failures, he became the first mass producer of chemicals and an integral figure in the story of bleaches and dyes for the textile industry. The next major figure in that story would be another chemist with a medical degree, down in France.
France was pretty much constantly at war throughout the 18th Century. There was the War of Spanish Succession, then the War of the Quadruple Alliance, then the War of Polish Succession, then the War of Austrian Succession, and then the Seven Years War, all before the 1770s. And that’s not including all the colonial skirmishes and the Jacobite uprisings they supported.
Even today. excessive military spending can put a strain on a country. Former president Jimmy Carter recently spoke with President Donald Trump about China and told him why he believed the Chinese economy overtaking the American economy. “I normalized diplomatic relations with China in 1979. Since 1979, do you know how many times China has been at war with anybody? None. And we have stayed at war.”
How can that be? After all, war also creates a lot of economic stimulus. That’s how the Second World War finally put an end to the Great Depression, right? And didn’t war capitalism lead to industrialization?
Here’s the thing: If war spending is taking a substantial portion of your GDP, year after year and decade after decade, it’s money that isn’t being spent on other economic activity – infrastructure renewal, a social safety net, etc. And if you’re going into debt to finance the wars – which France was constantly doing (and we are too) – the interest can overwhelm your treasury and lead to inflation.
Now imagine, on top of that, war spending also took a substantial portion of everyday resources, because those resources couldn’t yet be easily resupplied through mass production. In the 18th Century, armies and navies needed to buy a lot of guns and cannons and uniforms and food and everyday supplies for the business of warfare. Suddenly, some resources were in short supply. And among them was sodium carbonate, also known as soda ash.
Made from burned plants and seaweed, sodium carbonate was needed for the production of soap, dyed fabrics, bleach, paper, and glass, all of which the French military needed as they marched their army or sailed their navy off to battle.
So, in 1775, the Academy of Sciences decided to hold a little contest to confront the shortage. They offered a prize of 2,400 livres to the person who could come up with a way to produce soda ash from non-vegetable sources.
It took 15 years, but finally, somebody figured it out.
Nicolas Leblanc was born in the tiny commune of Ivoy-le-Pré – in the Centre-Val de Loire region of France – in 1742. His father was something of a middle manager at an ironworks and died when Nicolas was 8 years old. At that point, the young Leblanc was sent to Bourges to live with a Dr. Bien, a friend of the family.
As a result of living with the doctor, Leblanc developed an interest in medicine. He worked in a drug store where he studied pharmacy and then, in 1759, went to Paris to study at the College of Surgeons. He earned his medical degree and started a practice, but it didn’t fare too well financially. Then, in 1780, he took a new job as the surgeon to the house of Louis Philippe, the Duke of Orléans.
Now, I won’t go into the biography of the Duke of Orléans, but I encourage you to research him because he’s a fascinating character. The cousin of Louis the Sixteenth, he played an interesting role in the unfurling of the French Revolution and his descendants ended up making an interesting play for the throne later on.
Anyway, while under the duke’s employ, Leblanc conducted chemical experiments, perhaps picking up where he left off with his pharmaceutical studies. During that time, he authored various scientific articles.
Among those working on similar chemical experiments at the time was Louis-Bernard Guyton de Morveau, who created a mixture of common salt and lime and, in 1782, built a factory in Picardy to produce it. At that factory, a certain Father Malherbe, a Benedictine friar, figured out a process to lixiviate the fused mixture of sulphate of soda, iron and charcoal. Meanwhile, Jean-Claude Delamétherie figured out how to make sulfuric acid in a process remarkably similar to Roebuck's.
In 1787, Leblanc successfully decomposed common salt with oil of vitriol, condensing the muriatic acid in ammonia water. After the sulfate had been sufficiently heated, it was mixed with half its weight of chalk and a quarter of its weight of charcoal, grounded together, and heated in a crucible. When the soda was dried, a powder was left: Artificially manufactured sodium carbonate.
By 1790, Leblanc was ready to present his work to the Academy. The next year, he won the prize and obtained a patent. From there he set up a factory in St. Denis with a 200,000 livre investment from his boss, the Duke of Orléans.
Now, if you know your French history and you’ve been paying attention to the timeline so far, you can probably guess what’s coming. Things are going to fall apart for Leblanc, because the French Revolution is veering off the cliff into crazytown.
First of all, he couldn’t get production started because France was prepping for war against the rest of Europe. The war effort commandeered the country’s supply of sulfuric acid, which Leblanc would have needed for his process of making soda ash.
Then, in 1793, the Duke of Orléans (by this point known as Philippe Égalité) was guillotined due to some guilt-by-association charges against his family. With his benefactor dead, Leblanc’s factory was confiscated. Then, a special commission appointed to examine the Academy’s contest decided that Malherbe was actually more deserving of the prize, but that nobody did good enough to actually win it. So, Leblanc had that taken away too.
The next 10 years of his life must have been pretty miserable. In 1802, the Emperor Napoleon returned the factory to Leblanc, but by that point it was useless to him. Leblanc was broke and unable to restart production. In 1806, he put a gun to his head and ended his life.
That’s the French Revolution for you. It created a lot of misery and a serious delay in industrialization on the continent, a delay that ultimately benefited Great Britain.
Three years later, three Englishmen - William Losh, Thomas Wilson, and Thomas Bell – opened up an alkali factory in Newcastle. Over the next 120 years, the company expanded into iron and steam engines. It was run by some of Britain’s leading industrialists and it made their families a fortune. But they got their start by producing soda ash using a technique known as the Leblanc process.
Would I like to get to everyone today? Yes. Can I? No.
So, before we get to our last story, let me quickly highlight a few other important individuals you should know about. Because when it comes to their work in chemicals, they are often forgotten by history, even though they may be among the more important players.
There was James Hutton, A Scottish scientist James Hutton, best known for his work in geology. He gave the West the principle of geologic time.
Originally training to be a lawyer, he realized at university he was more interested in chemistry experiments. And with his friend, James Davie, he also had an interest in making sal ammoniac from coal soot. He went on to earn a medical degree, but the method he and Davie created for manufacturing sal ammoniac turned out to be so profitable, that they turned it into their profession.
From a farm in Scotland, they made this ammonium chloride – a key ingredient in fertilizers as well as in metalwork and certain medicines. It gave them the financial security to devote their lives to scientific discovery.
Then there were Alexander George and Cuthbert Gordon, who in 1758 patented a new dye called cudbear. They took advantage of the patent and set up a factory at Leith in Scotland, although they struggled to sales. The market for dyes didn't really see the need for it yet.
Finally, there was Samuel Read, another Scot who worked in the Levan bleachfields. You’ll learn all about bleachfields in a moment. In 1763, he was sent to Ireland to collect mechanical ideas by the Board of Trustees for Manufactures, Fisheries and Improvements in Scotland.
What he found was staggering. At one place, he found a bleach manufacturer that had four main buildings: Two buck houses for soaking, a drying house, and a water mill for washing. We know almost nothing about this little factory, but it must have been among the first doing a mass-bleaching operation.
He brought this concept back to Scotland, where it spread. It was known as the Irish method, to differentiate it from the Dutch method, which was more focused on quality than quantity.
But when it came to bleaching – and when it came to Scottish chemical manufactures – nobody really outshines our next character.
“Auld comrade dear, and brither sinner, How's a' the folk about Glenconner?” So begins a 1789 poem by the great Robert Burns, the “Epistle to James Tennant Of Glenconner.” Written during his years in Edinburgh, Burns recounts his friends back in Ayrshire, where he grew up.
It’s written like a letter to his friend, James Tennant, and it includes a curious line – “And no forgetting wabster Charlie, I'm tauld he offers very fairly.” Charlie, it seems, may be referring to a young Charles Tennant.
Born in 1768, Charles was the ninth son of John Tennant with his second wife, Margaret. He received a little homeschooling followed by a stint in a local parish school. Then he was apprenticed to a master handloom weaver – or “wabster” in the Scots dialect – who manufactured silk goods. Charles learned how to weave and spin fabrics made of silk, linen, and cotton.
He was subsequently sent to the bleachfields at Wellmeadow to learn the process for bleaching these textiles.
First, you would boil the fabric in a weak alkali solution – like, um, fermented urine – then expose it to the sun for eight to ten days on a lawn called a bleachfield. Needless to say, this was pretty gross, but also super-inefficient. Unbleached clothes would pile up waiting for their turn to be bleached.
But he didn’t just learn the traditional methods. He also learned about new methods being developed by guys like Scheele in Sweden, who discovered a new bleaching agent: Chlorine.
Tennant decided to go into business bleaching with chlorine, possibly with an investment from Admiral Thomas Cochrane, the 10th Earl of Dundonald.
Then, in 1798, he took out a patent for the manufacture of bleach liquor from chlorine and a sludge of lime – rather than the more common combination of chlorine and potash. He got the idea from one Hugh Foy who was never compensated.
Transporting the materials for this process was difficult at the turn of the 19th Century, so Tennant did not bother scaling this business for himself. Instead, he sought to license the technology to small manufacturers for £200 a time. Those manufacturers who did not pay the royalty – and there were many – were subsequently sued.
But it was his 1799 patent that was truly transformative. One of his partners, a Charles Macintosh, had come up with a way to make a dry bleaching powder by creating a reaction between calcium hydroxide and chlorine gas.
With bleaching powder, the transport problem was eliminated. So rather than license the process of making bleaching powder, they would mass produce it and sell it to textile businesses across the country.
So, that same year, they moved the firm from Darnley to St. Rollox where they converted a brewery into a new chemical plant, making bleaching powder and a bleaching liquid. Within five years, the factory was producing nearly 10,000 tons of the two products annually.
By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the St. Rollox factory was producing chemicals for a worldwide market, and the firm started expanding its product line to include sulfuric acid, sodas, soaps, and explosives. By the 1830s, it was the largest chemical factory in the world, with over a quarter million square feet of floor space.
Tennant died in 1838 and was buried in the Glasgow Necropolis. His resting place is marked with a large monument, including a statue of him, a testament to his accomplishments in life.
Tennant left behind an incredible personal legacy. His company went on to merge into Imperial Chemical Industries, one of the largest chemical manufacturers of the 20th Century. His grandson, Sir Charles Clow Tennant, became a member of Parliament, Chairman of the Nobel Explosives Company, and then entered the nobility with a baronage. Among his many descendants are aristocrats, businesspeople, writers, and politicians, including some from the Asquith and Tennyson families.
Of course, the legacy of industrial chemicals is a mixed bag. And we’ll talk all about the positive and negative outcomes of that bag over the course of the podcast. But the strides made in chemicals during the first Industrial Revolution set off a chain reaction of inventions and advancements in many industries, including iron production, cement making, paper making, glass, soap, gas lighting, and more.
And then consider the world we live in today, with our clean homes and offices, our heightened sense of personal hygiene, our electronics, our myriad of pills and other medicines, our colorful clothing and dishware, and our plastics – my god, all the plastics – it would all be impossible without the mass production of chemicals.
And the mass production of chemicals would have been impossible, had it not been for the development of the scientific method and the explosion in scientific study during the age of Enlightenment – next week, on the Industrial Revolutions.
If you’re enjoying the podcast, please remember to subscribe, to sign up for the newsletter at IndustrialRevolutionsPod.com, and to follow @IndRevPod on your social media platforms. And, if you use the Apple Podcasts app, please leave a five-star rating and a good written review. These are the simple and free ways you can help the podcast grow so I can keep making it for you. Thank you.