(1735 – 1820)
James Keir was a man of many trades, a distinguished chemist, industrialist, author, translator, geologist, metallurgist, and military captain, although he is best remembered for having invented modern-day soap and for revolutionizing the Stourbridge Glass Industry and the Soho Company. He was born in Stirlingshire, Scotland on September 29, 1735 to a family of 18. His parents, John Keir and Magdaline Lind, came from families of considerable wealth and political influence. He went to a public high school in Edinburgh from 1742 to 1748, although finished his schooling privately. He took classes in medicine and chemistry at the University of Edinburgh until 1757, at which time he dropped out to join the West Indies militia. He served in the 61st foot alongside another Scotsman, Alexander Blair, whom he later partnered with in 1778 to create Tipton Chemical Works, a soap manufacturer that produced nitric and hydrochloric acids, red and white lead, and alkali, among other chemicals. Blair was a co-investor in Dr. Charles Irving’s scheme of 1776, which sought to establish a plantation to produce castor oil and cotton on the British-controlled Mosquito Shore, south of Cabo Gracias a Dios on the Rio Grande de Matagalpa. Blair’s interest in castor oil likely stemmed from its use in the manufacturing of soap. Blair and Irving hired Gustavus Vassa as the overseer of the Mosquito Shore project, hoping that his fluency in Igbo would help them recruit West African captives to work on the plantation. At the time, Vassa thought that slavery could be reformed and apparently believed that Irving’s plantation could provide enslaved Africans with ameliorated conditions and the opportunity to achieve emancipation. However, Vassa became disillusioned and abandoned the project in June of 1776. It is unknown if Keir and Vassa ever met.
In 1766, eager for intellectual stimulation, Keir began translating Pierre-Joseph Macquer’s Dictionnarie de Chymie. He published the first English edition, Dictionary of Chemistry, in 1771 and the second edition in 1777. He served in the army until 1768, at which time he resigned his commission as a captain to pursue a career in chemistry and philosophy.
In the early 1770s, he moved to the West Midlands to seek out industrial opportunities. During this time, his childhood friend, Erasmus Darwin, a physician at Litchfield, introduced him to the Lunar Society of Birmingham, a dinner club and informal learning society, whose members included prominent industrialists and intellectuals, such as Matthew Boulton, James Watt, and Josiah Wedgwood. Keir was an ambitious businessman and in 1770 partnered with his cousin to produce metal ship parts for the British Navy, which saw him board a ship bound for Antigua. On October 10, 1771, he married Susanna Harvey with whom he had two children, a son who died as a young boy and a daughter named Amelia. In 1772, he took over operations of Holloway End Glasshouse in Amblecote, with the help of two other aspiring industrialists, Samuel Skey and ‘old’ John Taylor. The glass manufactory supplied a variety of products including window glass, chemical wares, decanters, and wine glasses. The nature of this business allowed him to make a number of observations concerning the crystallization of glass, which he published in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions in 1776 and in an article titled, Observations on the Crystallization of Glass. While working at the glasshouse, he experimented with the production of alkali, a desirable commodity used for bleaching, dyeing, and soap making. His discovery that the waste sulphates of potash and soda could be converted into alkali led to another business venture in 1778, Tipton Chemical Works, with his army friend, Alexander Blair. The manufactory was located along the Birmingham Canal at the former site of Bloomsmithy Mill, in an area later referred to as Black Country due to the heavy pollution from the concentration of factories and coal mines in the region. The location was advantageous due to the close proximity of inexpensive fuel sources and the convenience of the canal. Tipton Chemical Works quickly became Keir’s greatest accomplishment, producing an estimated 1 million pounds of soap a year, a scale of operations in the late 18th century exceeded only by the Soho Company.
From 1778 to 1780, Keir assumed a management and consultant role at the Soho Company while Boulton and Watt were away perfecting their steam engine business. Keir’s time at the Soho Company was short-lived, he resigned from his position in 1781, citing gross abuses in the company’s management. He partnered with Boulton on two different initiatives, the development of a letter-copying press for which he became a quarter-partner and the creation of a golden-coloured metallic alloy that could be forged when hot or cold. For a short period of time, the Navy utilized the compound metal for ship bolts, nails, and sheathing, but ultimately chose not to use it any further. Keir attempted to expand the market for the compound by rebranding it as Eldorado-metal. The rebranding was successful, and the alloy came to be used to make fanlights, sash windows, and skylights.
His innovations in chemistry and engineering allowed him to become a fellow of the Royal Society in 1785, as well as a member of the Society of Antiquaries and the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce. Keir was also active in the political sphere and sympathized with the French and American revolutions. In 1790, he published An Essay on the Martial Character of Nations and in 1803 wrote Reflexions on the Invasion of Great-Britain by the French Armies. In 1794, Keir and Blair purchased the Tividale Colliery, a coalmine just southeast of their factory, which supplied fuel for the soap manufactory and provided Keir with a variety of geological specimens to study. In 1810 he published the article, Mineralogy of the South-West Part of Staffordshire.
Keir remained involved with Tipton Chemical Works up until 1811, at which time he relinquished control to Blair. Unbeknownst to Keir, Blair had apparently embezzled thousands of pounds from Tipton Chemical Works over the years to pay off his gambling debts, nearly destroying the company in the process. On June 3, 1815, the partnership of Blair and his sons dissolved, and Tipton ceased to be associated with their names. In his final years, Keir suffered from rheumatism, his main joy coming from his interest in mineralogical and geological studies as well as his growing number of grandchildren. He passed away on October 11, 1820 at the age of 85 and was buried at All Saints Church in West Bromwich. Unfortunately, fires at his Hill Top house in 1807 and at Abberley Hall in 1845 destroyed many of his letters and manuscripts.
RELATED FILES AND IMAGES
Duffill, Mark. “Report on Alexander Blair and James Keir,” unpublished report (n.d.).
Duffill, Mark. “Vassa Report No. 6,” unpublished report, September 27, 2008.
Schranz, Kristen M. “James Keir (1735-1820): A Renaissance Man of the Industrial Revolution,” in Jenny Uglow, ed., In the Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future 1730-1810 (London: Faber & Faber, 2002).
Smith, Barbara M. D. and J. L. Moilliet. “James Keir of the Lunar Society,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 22:1 (1967), 144-154.
Sullivan, Janet C. “Paying the Price for Industrialization: The Experience of a Black Country Town, Oldbury, in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” PhD Thesis, University of Birmingham, 2014.
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on 2020-06-12 by Carly Downs