T. Howard Deighton.

The struggle for supremacy : being a series of chapters in the history of the leblanc alkali industry in Great Britain online

. (page 4 of 5)
Online LibraryT. Howard DeightonThe struggle for supremacy : being a series of chapters in the history of the leblanc alkali industry in Great Britain → online text (page 4 of 5)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

thoroughly dry and friable condition. This is a
matter of great importance to the consumer,
especially to those who use the drill. The great
storage power of the Company enables it to
manufacture large stocks during the autumn, and
to hold them in first-class condition, ready at any
time for immediate delivery. The fertilisers are
put up in quantities to suit the purchaser, and, in
this connection, it may be remarked that the
Company deals directly with, and studies the
requirements of, the small consumer of its products
with the same care as it provides for the necessities
of those who buy in large bulks. Not only are
fertilisers purchasable in small quantities, but


such materials as bleaching powder, soda ash or
crystals, caustic soda, pearl ash (carbonate of
potash), &c., may be had for household use in
air-tight tins containing i-lb. and upwards.

From the farm to the mine is, perhaps, a far
cry ; but they meet on common ground under the
roof of a chemical works. The sulphuric acid
that prepares the fertiliser for the farm, aids also
in the manufacture of blasting agents for the
mine. Cordite, nitro-glycerine, gun cotton and
blasting gelatine all owe something in their pre-
liminary stages to the powerful action of vitriol.

But the most interesting development in the
application of chemistry to the mining industry
is, perhaps, in the use of "cyanide" for the
elimination of the last traces of gold from "slimes"
and "tailings" after the pulverised ore has been
subjected to the ordinary mercurial treatment for
extracting the gold. Previous to the existence of
this modern demand, "cyanide" was employed to
a small extent in electroplating, and as a laboratory
reagent of occasional service. In 1887 Messrs.
MacArthur and Forrest took out a patent for
extracting gold from the ore by dissolving out the
precious metal in weak solutions of potassium
cyanide, By reason of its greater cheapness, and
on other grounds well appreciated by the chemist,
sodium cyanide is now generally used instead of
the more costly cyanide of potassium. About
1890 the use of this very remarkable and extremely
poisonous body began to come into use upon the
Rand. To-day it is in no sense an exaggeration to


say that the prosperity of the vast Transvaal gold
industry is mainly dependent upon the discovery
that cyanide can be successfully applied to the
recovery of gold from its ores. The sudden
demand for a substance which had never before
been manufactured except on a small laboratory
scale stimulated the inventive powers of chemists
in all parts of the world. There were difficulties
of a very unusual character in solving this problem.
"Cyanide" is a compound of soda (or potash) w r ith
the most terribly poisonous substance known to
commerce, viz., prussic acid, in chemical nomen-
clature always styled hydrocyanic acid. This acid
is a gaseous body having a smell of bitter almonds
(as a matter of fact it is present in very minute
quantities in bitter almonds and in peach kernels),
and is so excessively dangerous that inhaling a
breath of the pure gas is sufficient to cause instant
death. When dissolved in water, liquid prussic
acid is obtained (the merciful executioner of many
a favourite dog), and in this form it is sold under
rigid restrictions to pharmacists. A graphic
illustration of the intensity of the action of prussic
acid has been given by a well-known chemist, who
has said that if in a theatre a bomb containing
this gas were exploded, only those who were
nearest the doors could possibly escape the fatal
effect of the dread fumes. It will be understood,
therefore, that the invention of any process that
would deal safely on a manufacturing scale with
this invisible but death-dealing agent would be
a chemical and engineering triumph of the first



order. Space does not allow of a description of
the tremendous difficulties to be overcome, and
the manner in which the able staff of chemists,
and the managers of the works of THE UNITED
ALKALI COMPANY at the Central Laboratory at
Widnes, worked out a process which finally
conquered all obstacles. It is one of those
romances of science which deserves a fitting
record. The "Raschen" process, as it is called
after its inventor, is now in full operation at
the works at Runcorn, and some thousand tons
of sodium cyanide are there being turned out

As a further illustration of brainy enterprise
it may be stated that the cyanide plant, which
occupies a lofty three-storey building filled with
much costly machinery and apparatus unique
in its character, was burned to the ground on
the 24th of May, 1901. The reconstruction of the
building and of the plant (all of which had to
be specially designed) was considered by outside
experts to be a work that would occupy at least
twelve months. The managers and officials of the
company thought otherwise, and bringing to bear
upon the problem their united experience, energies
and mechanical resources, they resolved themselves
to direct the work of restoration. On the 3Oth
of September, 1901, practically four months after
the fire, these works were re-opened, and the
interrupted manufacture of cyanide was again
resumed. The rebuilding and equipment of so
great a structure in so short a space of time


cannot be bettered, even if it can be equalled,
by the rapid methods always associated with
American enterprise.

The science and practice of medicine owe
much to chemistry, and not least to the evolution
by the chemist of those compounds (disinfectants)
which have for their end the destruction of
bacterial life. It is not easy to kill germs. They
defy most of the ordinary destructive agencies.
A disinfectant should fulfil three main conditions
safety, cheapness and efficiency. The most
efficient germicides are mercuric chloride, chlorine
and carbolic acid. The first of these is unexcelled
in efficiency, but it is too deadly a poison for
safety, and it is also very costly. The second
is highly efficient, is safe and is cheap. The
third, carbolic acid, has a notoriously dangerous
character ; it is only efficient in strong solutions,
and, when this fact is taken into account, it is
not cheap. Time after time the most eminent
biologists have descanted upon the high efficiency
of chlorine as a germ killer. Such authorities as
Koch, Klein, Wynter-Blyth, Sheridan-Delepine
and Sims-Woodhead have shown that, considered
from all aspects, there is no agent equal to chlorine
in its disinfecting powers. Its extensive, if not
exclusive, use at Glasgow for combating the
plague, and at Maidstone and Lincoln during the
recent typhoid epidemics, has been so convincing
that no health authority can afford to overlook its
claims. Since chlorine is a gas, it may be asked
how it can be made available as a disinfectant.


The answer is provided by THE UNITED ALKALI
COMPANY in their liquid preparation, "Chloros,"
containing 10 per cent, by weight of available
chlorine. It emits but a slight smell, is completely
soluble in fresh or salt water, and not liable,
therefore, to block up pipes and drains, as in the
case of ordinary solid chloride of lime. It is a
complete disinfectant and deodorant for sewage,
and is adapted for use in hospitals and private
houses. The purposes for which " Chloros " is
applicable, vary from the cleansing of cattle pens
to the sterilisation of linen. It is a powerful anti-
septic, and, in times of emergency, it is sufficiently
safe for the treatment of drinking water suspected
to contain disease germs. Experimenting in May
of this year, upon the particularly refractory
bacillus typhosus, Prof. Klein found that one part
of "Chloros" in 1,500 parts of water destroyed
this germ in 2 minutes, and that its action was
thus twenty-one times more powerful than that of
absolute phenol (carbolic acid).

The needs of the medical faculty are still
further supplied by THE UNITED ALKALI COMPANY.
It was seen in an earlier chapter that the
Company is the largest manufacturer in the world
of chlorine. It is not surprising, therefore, to find
that chloroform of the purest quality is one of the
recognised products of the works at Widnes. In
addition to its well-known use as an anaesthetic,
chloroform is an important ingredient in chloro-
dyne and many other medicines, such as cough
mixtures. Chlorobenzene, the starting point of


so many of the synthetic dyestuffs, is another of
the chlorine products, in the manufacture of
any, compeers. The foregoing chapters can give
but an inadequate glimpse of the multitudinous
ramifications of an industry which touches life
at so many points. The operations of this
great organisation of 47 individual manufacturing
concerns, whose finished products exceed one
million tons annually, which employs some 12,000
men, among whom are about 150 chemists, and
which possesses, for its own purposes, a fleet of
82 cargo boats, cannot be described in detail in
the course of half-a-dozen chapters. Such a
corporation when engaged, as it is, in conserving
a great industry ceases to be merely a private
enterprise. It is fighting a national battle, and
is, therefore, worthy of the widest interest.



IT has been seen that, wherever salt, limestone,
sulphur and fuel can be got together, there
alkali may be manufactured. And since the
processes and apparatus invented by our country-
men are now common knowledge throughout the
civilised world, the only grounds upon which
the British manufacturer can base his hopes of
retaining the supremacy in this staple industry
are that his abundant supplies of the raw materials,
and his technical skill, may enable him to place
the finished product upon the world's market
more cheaply than any one else. Add to this the
unparalleled facilities for cheap transport on the
banks of the Mersey, the Tyne and the Clyde
and it must be admitted that, "with a fair field
and no favour," the maintenance of the supremacy
by the British producer would not for a moment
be in doubt. But, to pursue the metaphor, the
field is not fair, and, as will be shortly shown,
there is an undue discrimination in favour of the
foreign manufacturer.

When fiscal questions assume such dimensions
as to become part of the politics of the day,


individual commercial issues are apt to be obscured.
This being so, the following figures may be allowed
to speak for themselves, and to illustrate the
crushing weight of hostile tariffs upon the export
trade of the alkali industry :











Soda Ash











Soda Crystals











Caustic Soda










The Dingley Tariff, still in force, raised the
duty on soda ash to i 153. per ton, equal to
about 50 per cent, on the f.o.b. value of the article.
It also imposed a tax of 11 145. 4d. per ton on
chlorate of potash, about 45 per cent, on its f.o.b.
value, which had hitherto been admitted free.

Though space only permits the inclusion of
the figures in the above case, similar tables for
other countries would show similar and even
worse results.

But there are other and serious handicaps
upon the British chemical industry, retarding its
due expansion disabilities of native origin, partly
social and partly legislative. No industry must
be so ready as this to follow freely the light of
scientific discovery wherever it leads. The
progress of research is constantly evolving ideas
which, if put into practice, cause large alterations


in the practical methods of business. But research
involves preliminary training, and a peculiar habit
of mind which is not yet begotten in the great
English public schools or colleges. It is not the
creature of examinations, nor is it adapted to the
competition for scholarships. The great chemical
industry owes nothing to the historic educational
institutions of this country. If a tithe of the time
given in the schools and universities to classical
learning had been spent upon scientific studies,
this country would have been invulnerable in those
industries dependent upon applied science. "The
attitude of the older Universities," says Professor
A. G. Green, of the University of Leeds, "and of
the famous schools towards the scientific student,
has deterred many promising and rising young
men from adopting chemistry as a profession."
Somewhat late in the day, a number of "technical
colleges " have been opened, and a hasty but
disorganised attempt has been made to catch
up to our foreign commercial rivals. These
well-intentioned efforts have been but partially
successful, and many serious students still think
it necessary to visit a German or Swiss "Poly-
technicum" in order to pursue the highest forms
of research. The splendid laboratory presented
by Mr. E. K. Muspratt to Liverpool, and opened
on the 1 3th of October last with much ceremony,
will go far to remove this aspersion on British
Universities. The Muspratt Laboratory is staffed
and equipped for deep research into those problems
of physical and electro-chemistry which have such


intimate connection with the future welfare of the
chemical industry. " If we continue," says the
Manchester Guardian in a recent special article
upon this subject, "in our efforts for improved
education, and remove such industrial hindrances
as the present Patent Laws, and the duty on
manufacturing alcohol, there is no reason why we
should not erect large colour works in this country,
and carry them on successfully in spite of the new
development in Germany."

A great organisation such as THE UNITED
ALKALI COMPANY can do its share, and has indeed
done much towards the improvement of scientific
education, but it is beyond its scope to revise the
Patent Laws, or to frame the Budget in respect to
the duty upon alcohol for industrial purposes.
Long before local authorities provided facilities
for technical instruction, evening classes had
been established and supported at Widnes by the
great firms now amalgamated under the title of
apprentices were sent. Other employes were
encouraged to attend, by inducements of pro-
motion upon attaining certain standards of
proficiency. There are many foremen now holding
responsible positions in the various works who
owe their advancement to the valuable instruction
received in these technical classes. Much is still
being done by the Company for the advancement
of knowledge. Since the amalgamation in 1890,
the highly important work of testing and standard-
ising the chemical products of the constituent



firms has been conducted in the great central
laboratory at Widnes. Here a staff of very
highly-trained chemists is constantly employed,
not merely upon the routine work of a works
laboratory, but in researches connected with the
industry. The startling and brilliant process for
the manufacture of cyanide described in the last
chapter was worked out in this building, and many
other problems which cannot obviously be more
closely indicated are at present engaging the
activities of the staff. It was a pleasant surprise
to the writer to thus find in the somewhat
uninviting surroundings of Widnes, a fine three-
storey building occupied with ranges of laboratories,
workshops, and all the appliances for experimental
work upon a commercial scale. Three dynamos,
each of 5o-h.p., supply the current necessary for
the electrolytic researches which are being pursued ;
and, incidentally, it may be said, that the future
developments of the alkali industry appear to lie
in this direction. A library is also to be found in
the building, rich in technical works and containing
all patent specifications relating to alkali manu-
facture. The work done in this House of Science,
though primarily for the benefit of the Company, is
in reality of national importance. The impartial
observer sees here the intrinsic character of the
industrial struggle. It is a battle of brains. The
quiet unobtrusive directors of those experimental
processes are playing with a national industry. A
discovery that will shorten by but one step any of
the existing methods, may revolutionise a trade,



and bring widespread prosperity in its train.
Conversely, under the existing laws a foreign
patent may carry ruin and desolation into this
district. It is satisfactory to learn that, largely
owing to the work done in the central laboratory,
many processes have been introduced or so
considerably improved that imports of certain
products have been checked, and the tide turned
into the opposite direction. For sound commercial
reasons the actual figures are not here given, but
a study of the Trade Returns will reveal these
facts to those who are prepared to search the
Blue-books and trade journals. The " industrial
hindrances," above mentioned in the quotation
from the Manchester Guardian, viz., the inequitable
Patent Laws, and the tax on industrial alcohol,
play a disastrous part in the battle. They are
handicaps and fetters imposed upon the champion,
forged in the house of his friends.

England was the first country to recognise
that inventors who introduced or improved an
industry benefited the community by causing an
increase in trade and employment, and the first
also to adopt the method of rewarding inventors
by the grant of letters patent, securing to them
the exclusive right to their inventions for a limited
period. Nearly every civilized nation has followed
the example of this country by granting protection
for inventions. The foundation of our patent law
is the famous Statute of Monopolies of James I.,
passed in 1623, by which letters patent were
granted for the ''sole working or making of any


manner of new manufacture within the Realm to
the true and first inventor of such manufacture."
Later Acts have done practically nothing but
create the machinery whereby this fundamental
law is to be carried out. Up to quite lately it was
no part of the duty of the Patent Office to inquire
particularly into an invention for which a patent
was asked. Provided the rules of the office were
observed as to the form of the application, and
sufficient disclosure made in the specification of
the invention claimed, a patent was issued in due
course without any opposition from the authorities.
The effective force of patents so granted rested
on the strength of the opinions which could be
obtained from expert counsel, sometimes supported
by courts of law.

The risk to capital involved in the purchase
of such dubious patent rights, together with a
deepening impression that our industries were
materially suffering from the monopolies granted
to foreigners, who neither worked their patents in
this country, nor would allow others to work them,
led to the recent act of 1902, which attempts in
some measure to remedy these evils. The new
Act must, however, be regarded as tentative only.
It offers a rough test of the novelty of the invention
in the case of new applications, by providing for
a search through the files of the British Patent
Office for fifty years preceding the application.
But the genuine novelty of the invention can only
be tested by reference also to foreign patent
records. At present the Patent Office gives no


guarantee of the validity of a patent, and the
inventor takes the risk of finding that he has paid
his fees for protecting a manufacture which is,
in fact, open to all the world. It is this lack of
certainty which deprives the British patent of the
real commercial value of the American or German
grants. But from the industrial point of view,
more serious than the grant of letters patent,
which may not be worth the fees paid on their
behalf, is the question of the subsequent working
of the patent within the realm. The Patent Act
of 1902 does not provide for compulsory working,
but only for compulsory licences. Therein our law
differs from that of Germany or France, in each
of which countries the patent may be revoked
after the expiration of three years, if the invention
is not being worked by the patentee in the country
from which he has obtained the grant.

There is only one justification for giving a
private person an exclusive monopoly, viz., that
he may be encouraged to establish a " new manu-
facture within the realm " (to quote again the
ancient Statute above cited). If, therefore, a large
number of monopolies is granted to foreigners who
are allowed to keep the working of British patents
abroad, we are deliberately imposing shackles upon
ourselves in the struggle for industrial supremacy.
On the gth of April last, these points were placed
very forcibly before the present President of the
Board of Trade by an influential deputation from
tbe Association of Chambers of Commerce. At
that meeting much important matter was brought


forward, showing that the gravest injury was being
inflicted, both on employers and employed, by the
unreasonable laxity in the Patent Laws.

"The non-working of foreign patents," says
Mr. Levinstein (ex-President of the Manchester
Chamber of Commerce, past President of the
Society of Chemical Industry, and a member of
the deputation), "has inflicted incalculable harm
"on our trades. There is only one effective
"measure with regard to foreign patents, and this
"is to make it compulsory to work them on
"an adequate manufacturing scale (say) twelve
"months from the date the invention is worked
"in foreign countries. We grant a far larger
"monopoly to foreigners, and on much easier
"terms, than other European countries. The
"foreign patentee is protected by his high tariffs.
" It is, therefore, as a rule not in his own interest
" to work in this country the monoply we have so
" cheaply given him. He prefers to work it in the
"country which gives him high protection, with
"the additional advantage of selling to us his
"patented article without any restrictions, and at
"his own price. This is the converse to dumping.
"The foreign patentee rarely manufactures in this
"country. The shorter hours and higher wages,
"the heavier rates for transport, and the high
"duty on industrial alcohol deter him from
"manufacturing here. The want of compulsory
" working in this country, of monopolies granted to
"foreigners, is one of the reasons why, for the last
" twenty years, we have established so very few


" new trades or industries in comparison with
" other nations. Had we amended our patent laws
"in 1877, when patent laws were first established
"in Germany, in such a manner as to make them
" conform to the latter, a large number of industries
"would have been established in this country
"which do not exist to-day. The German patent
"laws have very largely stimulated enterprise,
"and have conferred incalculable advantages
"on German trades and industries; ours have
"been chiefly instrumental in advancing the in-
dustrial and commercial interests of our foreign

Two examples given by the above-named
deputation may be quoted here, as they come
with all the authority of the Associated Chambers
of Commerce :

"The most important of all dye wares is
"artificial alizarin, which has entirely supplanted
"the natural madder or Turkey red. It is made
"from a raw material (coal tar), of which we
"are the largest producers. The process for
"making this dye stuff was patented in this
" country by a number of foreign patentees, but no
"patent was granted in Germany. Every one was
"at liberty to make it and sell it there, whilst
" in this country it was a close monopoly. The
"German makers realised immense profits which
"enabled them to further extend and develop the
"manufacture of coal-tar dye stuffs. There is no
"doubt that the unrestricted development of the
"alizarin industry in Germany laid the foundation


1 2 4

Online LibraryT. Howard DeightonThe struggle for supremacy : being a series of chapters in the history of the leblanc alkali industry in Great Britain → online text (page 4 of 5)