The Chemical Industry, Early Days

A talk given to the Rotary Club of Castleford in February 1952


THE SPEAKER was Rotarian Hal Hickson, who said that he regarded his talk as a "My Job" talk. Having in mind the Rotary booklet on this matter, he thought that within its confines it was difficult to make a talk, but perhaps on the other hand it had merit, inasmuch as it pulled one back to Rotary all the time.

He had resorted to devices and had made a chart of names of men connected with the chemical industry in the early days. He hoped that he would be successful in capturing some of the romance by telling the Rotary Club about these men. The other part of his talk would deal with industrial development which started about the year 1800.

The Early Days

He then referred to manufacture of silk and Pears' soap. It was the first clear soap and was advertised in a big way. Proceeding, he mentioned the name of Henry William Perkin, who, in his view, epitomised the concept on which the chemical industry is based. Research is called for today, together with vitality and courage. Perkins, at the age of 18, whilst still at school, had a private laboratory at his own home. He worked and struggled and put together the right materials in proper proportions. He produced a red sludge and followed this up and, in the process of drying and extracting, he found that there was something wrong with what one of his assistants was doing. He dissolved the substance in spirit of lime and got a beautiful liquid. From this was founded the dyeing industry. He appealed to his father for help and eventually built a factory. Although he made a fortune, it did not worry him. His name stands out in the field of research. He was, however, subsequently discouraged and he sold out his business.

Another name in chemicals was the name of Mond. He was a German, a cultured man, with a University education. He was impressed with the disposal of waste products and this led to the uncovering of zinc sulphate and nitric acids. He went into the long process connected with alkali, and his skill led to the development of soda ash, for which there was a very big demand.

He was a young man, about thirty, at the time he came to Great Britain; then he went to Holland where he erected and designed his plant. Steam engines came in about that time. It was one personality that drove right through to make the progress that was made at that time.

At the end of three years, there was an outbreak of cholera and he got some bleaching powder which went a long way to stemming the cause.

He came to England, and met John Brunner. They worked on their Belgian processes and scraped together money with which to carry on. History knows how many nights were spent by these men in getting over their troubles. Brunner did the commercial side and in seven years they floated a company with capital of half a million pounds. Success never turned Mond's head. He went on to make ammonia which he got from coal. There were few facilities for education at that time. Eventually, he found the process of winning nickel which now plays an important part.

By 1914 we had practically lost the chemical industry, as the German Government helped their nationals. The Patent Laws of this country allowed the Germans to register their product which was protected under the Act. This has since been modified. Figures were given to the effect that 80% of the dyes made in 1914 were manufactured in Germany.

The 1914-18 war was largely a chemical war, and made the Government realise the value of the chemical industry. An Act of Parliament in 1920 regulated the importation of dyes. Before that, 90% of the dyes were imported, and today this has been reduced to only 5%. The chemical industry of this country has really only grown up in the past twenty years or so.

Proceeding, he referred to the setting up of the I.C.I. Combine in 1926 which was largely formed to get a concentrated bargaining power against other big combines. This enabled the I.C.I. to exercise pressure and to continue research.

The second world war found this country better prepared, as a result of what the chemical industries had done. We were able to make poison gases and also antidotes and this, to some extent, influenced the use of poisons in the late war. During the war there were developments both with regard to penicillin and D.D.T. The latter is useful, particularly for typhus and malaria.