Roebuck, John (1718-1794) (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 49
Roebuck, John (1718-1794)

by Francis Espinasse
1904 Errata appended.

ROEBUCK, JOHN, M.D. (1718–1794), inventor, born in 1718 at Sheffield, was the son of John Roebuck, a prosperous manufacturer of Sheffield goods, who wished him to engage in and inherit the business. John had a higher ambition, and, after receiving his early education at the Sheffield grammar school, was removed to Dr. Doddridge's academy at Northampton. He became a good classical scholar, retaining throughout life a taste for the classics; and he formed at Northampton a lasting intimacy with his fellow-pupil, Mark Akenside. Thence he proceeded to Edinburgh University to study medicine. There the teaching of Cullen and Black specially attracted him to chemistry. He became intimate with Hume, Robertson, and their circle, forming an attachment to Scotland which influenced his subsequent career. He completed his medical education at Leyden, where he took his degree of M.D. on 5 March 1742. A promising opening having presented itself at Birmingham, he settled there as a physician. He had soon a considerable practice, but his old love of chemistry revived, and he spent all his spare time in chemical experiments, particularly with a view to the application of chemistry to some of the many industries of Birmingham. Among his inventions was an improved method of refining gold and silver and of collecting the smaller particles of them, formerly lost in the processes of the local manufacturers. Stimulated by his successes, he established in Steelhouse Lane a large laboratory, and in connection with it a refinery of the precious metals. He associated with himself in the management of the laboratory an able business coadjutor in the person of Samuel Garbett, a Birmingham merchant. Roebuck became, in fact, what is now called a consulting chemist (Prosser, p. 15), to whom the local manufacturer applied for advice, and thus a considerable impetus was given to the industries of Birmingham. The most important of his several improvements in processes for the production of chemicals at this period was one of very great utility in the manufacture of sulphuric acid. In the fifteenth century the German monk Basil Valentine had first produced oil of vitriol by subjecting sulphate of iron to distillation, and the process had been but little improved previous to 1740, when Joshua Ward facilitated the manufacture by burning nitre and sulphur over water, and condensing the resulting vapour in glass globes, the largest that could be blown with safety. For glass globes Roebuck now substituted leaden chambers. The change effected a revolution in the manufacture of sulphuric acid, which was thus reduced to a fourth of its former cost, and was soon applied to the bleaching of linen, displacing the sour milk formerly used for that purpose. The first of the leaden chambers was erected by Roebuck and Garbett in 1746, and the modern process of manufacture is still substantially that of Roebuck (Parkes, i. 474–6; cf. Bloxam, Chemistry, 1895, p. 220).

Encouraged by the success of the new process, Roebuck and Garbett established in 1749 a manufactory of sulphuric acid at Prestonpans, eight miles east of Edinburgh. This proved for a time very profitable, but the firm neglected at the outset to procure a patent for their invention either in England or in Scotland, and endeavoured to reap exclusive profit from it by keeping the process a secret. The nature of the process became, however, known in England through an absconding workman, and in 1756 it was used by rivals in England, and later by others in Scotland. In 1771 Roebuck took out a patent for Scotland (cf. specification printed in the Birmingham Weekly Post, 19 May 1894), and with Garbett sought to restrain the use of the invention in Scotland by others than themselves. The court of session decided against this claim, on the ground that the process was freely used in England, and therefore could be freely used in Scotland. A petition against this decision was in 1774 dismissed by the House of Lords (Journals, xxxiv. 76, 217).

It is uncertain whether Roebuck was still in Birmingham when he turned his attention to the manufacture of iron. With the death of Dud Dudley [q. v.] the secret of smelting iron by pit-coal instead of by charcoal, a much more expensive process, had expired or become latent. The smelting of iron ore by coke made from pit-coal was probably rediscovered by Abraham Darby [q. v.] at Colebrookdale about 1734, but Roebuck was undoubtedly among the first to reintroduce the industry into Britain, and, further, to convert by the same agency cast iron into malleable iron. If the iron manufacture was comparatively unproductive in England, it was virtually non-existent in Scotland, although a country abounding in ironstone and coal. After adding a manufacture of pottery to that of sulphuric acid at Prestonpans, Roebuck appears to have thought of trying in the same district the manufacture of iron on a small scale (Jardine, p. 71). In the result there was formed for the purpose of manufacturing iron on a large scale in Scotland a company consisting of Roebuck and his three brothers, Garbett, and Messrs. Cadell & Sons of Cockenzie (Parkes, i. 478). The latter firm had already made some unsuccessful efforts to manufacture iron. Every arrangement of importance in the establishment of the company's works was due to Roebuck's insight and energy. He selected for their site a spot on the banks of the river Carron in Stirlingshire, three miles above its influx into the Firth of Forth. The Carron furnished water-power, the Forth a waterway for transport, and all around were plentiful supplies of coal, ironstone, and limestone. The first furnace was blown at Carron on 1 Jan. 1760, and during the same year the Carron works turned out fifteen hundred tons of manufactured iron, then the whole annual produce of Scotland (Smiles, Industrial Biography, p. 136). Large quantities of charcoal were used at first (Scrivener, p. 84); but Roebuck's ingenuity brought the much cheaper pit-coal into play, both for smelting and refining. In 1762 he took out a patent for the conversion of any kind of cast iron into malleable iron by the ‘action of a hollow pit-coal fire’ (Specifications of Patents, 1762, No. 780). The use of pit-coal on a large scale required, however, a much more powerful blast than was needed for charcoal. Roebuck consulted Smeaton [see Smeaton, John], in whose published ‘Reports’ (1812, vol. i.) are to be found accounts of several of his ingenious contrivances in aid of the operations at Carron. The chief of these was his production of the powerful blast needed for the effective reduction of iron by pit-coal. The first blowing cylinders of any magnitude constructed for this purpose were erected at Carron by Smeaton about 1760 (cf. Scrivener, p. 83, and Smiles, Life of Smeaton, p. 61). Besides turning out quantities of articles of manufactured iron for domestic use, the Carron works became famous for their production of ordnance, supplied not only to our own army, but to the armies of continental countries. It was from being made at Carron that carronades derived their name. The first of them was cast at Carron in 1779 (Smiles, Industrial Biography, p. 137 n.) The Carron ironworks were long the largest of their kind in the United Kingdom, and are still productive and prosperous.

When the Carron works were firmly established in a career of prosperity, Roebuck, unfortunately for himself, engaged in a new enterprise which proved his ruin. Mainly to procure an improved supply of coal for the Carron works, he took a lease from the Duke of Hamilton of large coalmines and saltworks at Borrowstounness (Bo'ness) in Linlithgowshire, which were yielding little or no profit, and about 1764 he removed with his family to Kenneil House, a ducal mansion which overlooked the Firth of Forth and went with the lease. Roebuck set to work to sink for coal, and opened up new seams; but his progress was checked by water flooding his pits, a disaster which the Newcomen engine employed by him was powerless to avert. It was this difficulty which led to one of the most interesting episodes of his career, his intimacy with and encouragement of Watt, then occupied in the invention of his steam-engine [see Watt, James]. Roebuck was intimate with Robert Black, then professor of chemistry at Edinburgh, who was a patron of Watt. Hearing from Black of Watt and his steam-engine, Roebuck entered into correspondence with him, in the hope that the new engine might do for the water in his coalpits what Newcomen's had failed in doing. Eventually Roebuck came to believe in the promise of Watt's invention, rebuking him for his despondency, and welcoming him to Kinneil House, where Watt put together a working model of his engine. Roebuck took upon himself a debt of 1,200l. which Watt owed to Black (Smiles, Industrial Biographies, p. 139), and helped him to procure his first patent of 1769. Watt admitted that he must have sunk under his disappointments if he ‘had not been supported by the friendship of Dr. Roebuck.’ Roebuck became a partner with Watt in his great invention to the extent of two thirds. But the engine had not yet been so perfected as to keep down the water in Roebuck's mines. Through the expense and loss thus incurred Roebuck became involved in serious pecuniary embarrassments. To his loss by his mines was added that from an unsuccessful attempt to manufacture soda from salt. After sinking in the coal and salt works at Borrowstounness his own fortune, that brought him by his wife, the profits of his other enterprises, and large sums borrowed from friends, he had to withdraw his capital from the Carron ironworks, from the refining works at Birmingham, and the vitriol works at Prestonpans to satisfy the claims of his creditors. Among Roebuck's debts was one of 1,200l. to Boulton, afterwards Watt's well-known partner. Rather than claim against the estate Boulton offered to cancel the debt in return for the transfer to him of Roebuck's two-thirds share in Watt's steam-engine, of which so little was then thought that Roebuck's creditors did not value it as contributing a farthing to his assets (Smiles, Life of Watt, p. 177).

Roebuck's creditors retained him in the management of the Borrowstounness coal and salt works, and made him an annual allowance sufficient for the maintenance of himself and his family. To his other occupations he added at Kenneil House that of farming on rather a large scale, and though, as usual, he made experiments, he was a successful agriculturist (Wight, Husbandry of Scotland, iii. 508, iv. 665). He died on 17 July 1794, retaining to the last his faculties and his native good humour. He married, about 1746, Ann Ward of Sheffield, but left her unprovided for. His third son, Ebenezer, was father of John Arthur Roebuck [q. v.] Another grandson, Thomas, is separately noticed.

Roebuck was a member of the Royal Societies of London and Edinburgh, and contributed to the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ (vols. 65 and 66). Of two pamphlets of which he is said to have been the author, one is in the library of the British Museum, ‘An Enquiry whether the guilt of the present Civil War in America ought to be imputed to Great Britain or America? A new edition,’ London, 1776, 8vo. Roebuck's verdict was in favour of Great Britain.

Roebuck was both warm-hearted and warm-tempered, an agreeable companion, much liked by his many friends, and exemplary in all the relations of private life. When he received the freedom of the city of Edinburgh during the provostship of James Drummond, he was assured that the honour conferred on him was ‘given for eminent services done to his country.’ Certainly the establishment of the Carron ironworks and the improvements which he introduced into the iron manufacture were of signal benefit to Scotland. Not only did it originate in Scotland a new industry which has since become of great magnitude, but it gave an impetus then much needed to Scottish industrial enterprise. Even the works at Borrowstounness, though ruinous to himself, contributed to the same end, so that the mineral resources of the district were developed with a spirit unknown before. Roebuck's personal failure there is to be ascribed mainly to the ultra-sanguine views which resulted from his success elsewhere.

[Memoir of Roebuck in vol. iv. of Transactions of the Royal Soc. of Edinburgh, communicated by Professor Jardine of Glasgow; R. B. Prosser's Birmingham Inventors and Inventions; Parkes's Chemical Essays, 2nd edit.; Scrivener's Hist. of the Iron Trade; Percy's Metallurgy, ii. 889; Smiles's Lives of Boulton and Watt; Hunter's Hallamshire, ed. Gatty, p. 310; Webster's Patent Cases; authorities cited.]

F. E.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.237
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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95 i 25 Roebuck, John: for Kenneil read Kinneil