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Science and Industry

Chemistry and the Textile Industry

One of the problems facing the textile industry in the eighteenth century was the bleaching of cloth. In the mid-1700s, textiles were treated with stale urine and left in the sun for many months to bleach.

Charles Tennant was born in Ayrshire in Scotland in 1768 and apprenticed to a weaver. He learned his trade quickly and saw that the growth, in the weaving industry was restricted by the slow and inefficient bleaching process. He acquired bleaching fields near Glasgow in 1788 and began to study ways of speeding the process up. He developed a method using sulphuric acid, which reduced bleaching time from 18 months to four months. Next, he started to experiment with lime and chlorine and, after several years, patented bleaching powder in 1799. His method was quick, inexpensive, and harmless, and he would make his fortune from it.

Charles Tennant established a factory to make his bleaching powder in the north of Glasgow on the Monklands Canal. The canal brought in the coal that his factory consumed in vast amounts. By 1832 this was the largest chemical factory in the world and consumed 30,000 tons of coal a year. To reduce the cost of the coal he needed, Tennant became a sponsor for the building of the Garnkirk and Glasgow railway which, coincidentally, ran right past his factory. The railway opened in 1831 and was one of the first in Scotland to use steam locomotives.

Later, in 1840, the Edinburgh to Glasgow railway would come through the area, as would other lines. This area of Glasgow, called St Rollox, would, later in the nineteenth century, house four large locomotive and engine works and became one of the most famous locomotive building areas in the world.

Charles Tennant was friends with Charles Macintosh and helped him set up a factory near Glasgow. Macintosh invented the famous raincoat in 1824. Coincidentally Macintosh went into partnership with James Beaumont Neilson in 1828 to exploit Neilson's invention of the hot blast process for iron smelting, which I covered earlier in this course.

Charles Tennant expanded his business interests into many areas, including shipping and railways. He was also an active social reformer. He died in 1838, but his chemical works survived until 1964, by which time it was part of ICI.

In 1811 Charles Tennant established an associated company called C. Tennant and Sons Ltd. His son John Tennant transformed this business into a merchant bank training in metals, chemicals, and commodities. Renamed Tennant Metals in 1966, the company is now part of the Metalcorp Group.

John Roebuck

We have seen how many of the names we have encountered in this course were intertwined with each other, supported or inspired in their work by other greats of the age. Another of those people is John Roebuck.

Earlier in this section, we covered Joseph Black, Professor of the Practice of Medicine at the University of Glasgow and friend of James Watt. Born in 1718, John Roebuck studied medicine at the university of Edinburgh. He attended some of Joseph Black's lectures in Glasgow and developed an interest in chemistry. In 1746 he developed a method of producing sulphuric acid and set up a factory near Edinburgh. He became wealthy, but he hadn't patented his method, and his business became less profitable.

By 1759 he was involved in the iron industry and, with partners, established the Carron Ironworks near Falkirk in Scotland. This was to become one of the largest ironworks in the world, and I'll talk more about that in a minute.

Roebuck also leased a coalmine nearby to supply the ironworks with coal. The mine suffered with flooding. John Roebuck knew of James Watt – probably through their mutual friend Joseph Black – and encouraged him to develop a steam engine to pump the water. Roebuck funded James Watt's research and paid for Watt's patent.

Unfortunately, quality problems at Carron Ironworks, the unexpected expenses at the mine, and the failure of another of his businesses created financial difficulties for John Roebuck. Roebuck sold his share of the partnership with James Watt, including the patent to Matthew Boulton. James Watt's rise to wealth and fame was assured. Roebuck had to give up his interests in the Carron Ironworks and the mine. He became a successful farmer and died in 1794.

The Carron Company

Established in 1759 by John Roebuck and six partners, the Carron Ironworks was built on the River Carron, on the outskirts of Falkirk, and close to the newly completed Forth and Clyde Canal, which offered transport through to Glasgow.

The company produced cast iron goods and won a lucrative contract to supply armaments – mostly cannon - to the British Army and Navy in 1764. They also cast some of the parts for James Watt's first steam engine.

Quality problems resulted in the contract with the government being cancelled in 1773, but the company worked on its production processes and developed a smaller lighter type of cannon that could be mounted on the deck of a ship. These became known as Carronades. Although they had a shorter range than a full-size cannon. They were quicker to reload and easier to handle. They became popular on merchant ships as a form of defence and were also used on smaller warships.

The carronade was first produced in 1778 and remained in production until 1850. They gave British ships a considerable advantage in the Napoleonic Wars and were used on HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.

The Carron Company also produced arms for the United States of American, which, ironically, were used against the British in the War of 1812. They also provided materials and expertise to the Russian Empire – against the wishes of the British Government.

By 1814, the Carron Company was the largest iron works in Europe, employing over 2,000 workers. It attracted engineers and visitors from all over, including John Smeaton and Henry Cort. Benjamin Franklin also visited the factory and, supposedly, gave them a design for a cast-iron stove.

The company prospered throughout the nineteenth century producing cast iron household goods, including a design of bathtub. From the 1920s, the company produced some of the famous British red post-boxes and telephone boxes.

The Carron Company was dissolved in 1984. A company called Carron Phoenix now occupies the site making stainless steel, ceramic, and granite sinks. Also on the site, a company called Carron Bathrooms makes luxury bath tubs – though not from cast iron.

Josiah Wedgwood

Developments in science in the eighteenth century drove many of the developments of the industrial revolution, as we have seen. Another example was Josiah Wedgwood, who revolutionised the pottery industry. He developed the science of pottery glazes and introduced mass production to the industry.

Born to a family of potters in 1730, Josiah Wedgwood suffered from smallpox as a young boy. This damaged his legs, so he focussed on designing rather than making pottery. Around 1750 he began working with the renown potter Thomas Whieldon and began to study the chemistry of pottery. Over the next 30 years, he would develop a number of glazes, which made his wares unique and, therefore, highly desirable.

In 1763 he received his first order from the royal family. He proclaimed his association with the royal family in his brochures and stationery and exhibited the tableware he made to the public. He was immediately successful, and demand grew rapidly. He was a brilliant marketeer and set up showrooms at prime locations across Britain.

In 1769 he built a large new factory, which he called Etruria to the north of the town of Stoke on Trent. Around the same time, he perfected a range of black stoneware he called "Black Basalt." His black vases sold tremendously well.

In the late 1770s, Wedgwood developed Jasperware, which, again, sold fantastically well, boosted by his marketing techniques. He was the first entrepreneur to develop professional methods for marketing his products, including direct mail, money back guarantees, travelling salesmen, free delivery, buy one get one free, and illustrated catalogues.

Wedgwood's products sold to royal and aristocratic families across Europe, and by the 1780s, the factory was exporting 80% of its production.

As well as a brilliant marketeer, Wedgwood organised his factory for mass-production, adopting the division of labour system. He also pioneered cost accounting methods.

Wedgwood was a prominent campaigner for the abolition of slavery and produced ceramic medallions promoting the cause. These became fashion accessories for wealthy women.

Josiah Wedgwood died of cancer in 1795. The company's ceramic products remain popular today, although most are now made in Indonesia.

Thank you for listening to this lesson. In our next lesson, we cover some of the black people who were influential in the eighteenth century.

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Written by

Ross Maynard