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Significant Scots
Dr John Roebuck


The account given of Dr. Roebuck in a Cyclopedia of Biography, recently published in Glasgow, runs as follows: -- "Roebuck, John, a physician and experimental chemist, born at Sheffield, 1718; died, after ruining himself by his projects, 1794. Such is the short shrift which the man receives who fails. Had Dr. Roebuck wholly succeeded in his projects, he would probably have been esteemed as among the greatest of Scotland's benefactors. Yet his life was not altogether a failure, as we think will sufficiently appear from the following brief account of his labours: --

At the beginning of last century, John Roebuck's father carried on the manufacture of cutlery at Sheffield, [footnote... Dr. Roebuck's grandson, John Arthur Roebuck, by a singular coincidence, at present represents Sheffield in the British Parliament....] in the course of which he realized a competency. He intended his son to follow his own business, but the youth was irresistibly attracted to scientific pursuits, in which his father liberally encouraged him; and he was placed first under the care of Dr. Doddridge, at Northampton, and afterwards at the University of Edinburgh, where he applied himself to the study of medicine, and especially of chemistry, which was then attracting considerable attention at the principal seats of learning in Scotland. While residing at Edinburgh young Roebuck contracted many intimate friendships with men who afterwards became eminent in literature, such as Hume and Robertson the historians, and the circumstance is supposed to have contributed not a little to his partiality in favour of Scotland, and his afterwards selecting it as the field for his industrial operations.

After graduating as a physician at Leyden, Roebuck returned to England, and settled at Birmingham in the year 1745 for the purpose of practising his profession. Birmingham was then a principal seat of the metal manufacture, and its mechanics were reputed to be among the most skilled in Britain. Dr. Roebuck's attention was early drawn to the scarcity and dearness of the material in which the mechanics worked, and he sought by experiment to devise some method of smelting iron otherwise than by means of charcoal. He had a laboratory fitted up in his house for the purpose of prosecuting his inquiries, and there he spent every minute that he could spare from his professional labours. It was thus that he invented the process of smelting iron by means of pit-coal which he afterwards embodied in the patent hereafter to be referred to. At the same time he invented new methods of refining gold and silver, and of employing them in the arts, which proved of great practical value to the Birmingham trades-men, who made extensive use of them in their various processes of manufacture.

Dr. Roebuck's inquiries had an almost exclusively practical direction, and in pursuing them his main object was to render them subservient to the improvement of the industrial arts. Thus he sought to devise more economical methods of producing the various chemicals used in the Birmingham trade, such as ammonia, sublimate, and several of the acids; and his success was such as to induce him to erect a large laboratory for their manufacture, which was conducted with complete success by his friend Mr. Garbett. Among his inventions of this character, was the modern process of manufacturing vitriolic acid in leaden vessels in large quantities, instead of in glass vessels in small quantities as formerly practised. His success led him to consider the project of establishing a manufactory for the purpose of producing oil of vitriol on a large scale; and, having given up his practice as a physician, he resolved, with his partner Mr. Garbett, to establish the proposed works in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh. He removed to Scotland with that object, and began the manufacture of vitriol at Prestonpans in the year 1749. The enterprise proved eminently lucrative, and, encouraged by his success, Roebuck proceeded to strike out new branches of manufacture. He started a pottery for making white and brown ware, which eventually became established, and the manufacture exists in the same neighbourhood to this day.

The next enterprise in which he became engaged was one of still greater importance, though it proved eminently unfortunate in its results as concerned himself. While living at Prestonpans, he made the friendship of Mr. William Cadell, of Cockenzie, a gentleman who had for some time been earnestly intent on developing the industry of Scotland, then in a very backward condition. Mr. Cadell had tried, without success, to establish a manufactory of iron; and, though he had heretofore failed, he hoped that with the aid of Dr. Roebuck he might yet succeed. The Doctor listened to his suggestions with interest, and embraced the proposed enterprise with zeal. He immediately proceeded to organize a company, in which he was joined by a number of his friends and relatives. His next step was to select a site for the intended works, and make the necessary arrangements for beginning the manufacture of iron. After carefully examining the country on both sides of the Forth, he at length made choice of a site on the banks of the river Carron, in Stirlingshire, where there was an abundant supply of wafer, and an inexhaustible supply of iron, coal, and limestone in the immediate neighbourhood, and there Dr. Roebuck planted the first ironworks in Scotland.

In order to carry them on with the best chances of success, he brought a large number of skilled workmen from England, who formed a nucleus of industry at Carron, where their example and improved methods of working served to train the native labourers in their art. At a subsequent period, Mr. Cadell, of Carronpark, also brought a number of skilled English nail-makers into Scotland, and settled them in the village of Camelon, where, by teaching others, the business has become handed down to the present day.

The first furnace was blown at Carron on the first day of January, 1760; and in the course of the same year the Carron Iron Works turned out 1500 tons of iron, then the whole annual produce of Scotland. Other furnaces were shortly after erected on improved plans, and the production steadily increased. Dr. Roebuck was indefatigable in his endeavours to improve the manufacture, and he was one of the first, as we have said, to revive the use of pit-coal in refining the ore, as appears from his patent of 1762. He there describes his new process as follows: -- "I melt pig or any kind of cast-iron in a hearth heated with pit-coal by the blast of bellows, and work the metal until it is reduced to nature, which I take out of the fire and separate to pieces; then I take the metal thus reduced to nature and expose it to the action of a hollow pit-coal fire, heated by the blast of bellows, until it is reduced to a loop, which I draw out under a common forge hammer into bar-iron." This method of manufacture was followed with success, though for some time, as indeed to this day, the principal production of the Carron Works was castings, for which the peculiar quality of the Scotch iron admirably adapts it. The well-known Carronades,*

[footnote... The carronade was invented by General Robert Melville [Mr. Nasmyth says it was by Miller of Dalswinton], who proposed it for discharging 68 lb, shot with low charges of powder, in order to produce the increased splintering or SMASHING effects which were known to result from such practice. The first piece of the kind was cast at the Carron Foundry, in 1779, and General Melville's family have now in their possession a small model of this gun, with the inscription: -- "Gift of the Carron Company to Lieutenant-general Melville, inventor of the smashers and lesser carronades, for solid, ship, shell, and carcass shot, &c. First used against French ships in 1779." ...]

or "Smashers," as they were named, were cast in large numbers at the Carron Works. To increase the power of his blowing apparatus, Dr.Roebuck called to his aid the celebrated Mr. Smeaton, the engineer, who contrived and erected for him at Carron the most perfect apparatus of the kind then in existence. It may also be added, that out of the Carron enterprise, in a great measure, sprang the Forth and Clyde Canal, the first artificial navigation in Scotland. The Carron Company, with a view to securing an improved communication with Glasgow, themselves surveyed a line, which was only given up in consequence of the determined opposition of the landowners; but the project was again revived through their means, and was eventually carried out after the designs of Smeaton and Brindley.

While the Carron foundry was pursuing a career of safe prosperity, Dr. Roebuck's enterprise led him to embark in coal-mining, with the object of securing an improved supply of fuel for the iron works. He became the lessee of the Duke of Hamilton's extensive coal-mines at Boroughstoness, as well as of the salt-pans which were connected with them. The mansion of Kinneil went with the lease,and there Dr. Roebuck and his family took up their abode. Kinneil House was formerly a country seat of the Dukes of Hamilton, and is to this day a stately old mansion, reminding one of a French chateau. Its situation is of remarkable beauty, its windows overlooking the broad expanse of the Firth of Forth, and commanding an extensive view of the country along its northern shores. The place has become in a measure classical, Kinneil House having been inhabited, since Dr. Roebuck's time, by Dugald Stewart, who there wrote his Philosophical Essays.

[footnote... Wilkie the painter once paid him a visit there while in Scotland studying the subject of his "Penny Wedding;" and Dugald Stewart found for him the old farm-house with the cradle-chimney, which he introduced in that picture. But Kinneil House has had its imaginary inhabitants as well as its real ones, the ghost of a Lady Lilburn, once an occupant of the place, still "haunting" some of the unoccupied chambers. Dugald Stewart told Wilkie one night, as he was going to bed, of the unearthly wailings which he himself had heard proceeding from the ancient apartments; but to him at least they had been explained by the door opening out upon the roof being blown in on gusty nights, when a jarring and creaking noise was heard all over the house. One advantage derived from the house being "haunted" was, that the garden was never broken into, and the winter apples and stores were at all times kept safe from depredation in the apartments of the Lady Lilburn. ...]

When Dr. Roebuck began to sink for coal at the new mines, he found it necessary to erect pumping-machinery of the most powerful kind that could be contrived, in order to keep the mines clear of water. For this purpose the Newcomen engine, in its then state, was found insufficient; and when Dr. Roebuck's friend, Professor Black, of Edinburgh, informed him of a young man of his acquaintance, a mathematical instrument maker at Glasgow, having invented a steam-engine calculated to work with increased power, speed, and economy, compared with Newcomen's; Dr. Roebuck was much interested, and shortly after entered into a correspondence with James Watt, the mathematical instrument maker aforesaid on the subject. The Doctor urged that Watt, who, up to that time, had confined himself to models, should come over to Kinneil House, and proceed to erect a working; engine in one of the outbuildings. The English workmen whom he had brought; to the Carron works would, he justly thought, give Watt a better chance of success with his engine than if made by the clumsy whitesmiths and blacksmiths of Glasgow, quite unaccustomed as they were to first-class work; and he proposed himself to cast the cylinders at Carron previous to Watt's intended visit to him at Kinneil.

Watt paid his promised visit in May, 1768, and Roebuck was by this time so much interested in the invention, that the subject of his becoming a partner with Watt, with the object of introducing the engine into general use, was seriously discussed. Watt had been labouring at his invention for several years, contending with many difficulties, but especially with the main difficulty of limited means. He had borrowed considerable sums of money from Dr. Black to enable him to prosecute his experiments, and he felt the debt to hang like a millstone round his neck. Watt was a sickly, fragile man, and a constant sufferer from violent headaches; besides he was by nature timid, desponding, painfully anxious, and easily cast down by failure. Indeed, he was more than once on the point of abandoning his invention in despair. On the other hand, Dr. Roebuck was accustomed to great enterprises, a bold and undaunted man, and disregardful of expense where he saw before him a reasonable prospect of success. His reputation as a practical chemist and philosopher, and his success as the founder of the Prestonpans Chemical Works and of the Carron Iron Works, justified the friends of Watt in thinking that he was of all men the best calculated to help him at this juncture, and hence they sought to bring about a more intimate connection between the two. The result was that Dr. Roebuck eventually became a partner to the extent of two-thirds of the invention, took upon him the debt owing by Watt to Dr. Black amounting to about 1200L., and undertook to find the requisite money to protect the invention by means of a patent. The necessary steps were taken accordingly and the patent right was secured by the beginning of 1769, though the perfecting of his model cost Watt much further anxiety and study.

It was necessary for Watt occasionally to reside with Dr. Roebuck at Kinneil House while erecting his first engine there. It had been originally intended to erect it in the neighbouring town of Boroughstoness, but as there might be prying eyes there, and Watt wished to do his work in privacy, determined "not to puff," he at length fixed upon an outhouse still standing, close behind the mansion, by the burnside in the glen, where there was abundance of water and secure privacy. Watt's extreme diffidence was often the subject of remark at Dr. Roebuck's fireside. To the Doctor his anxiety seemed quite painful, and he was very much disposed to despond under apparently trivial difficulties. Roebuck's hopeful nature was his mainstay throughout. Watt himself was ready enough to admit this; for, writing to his friend Dr.Small, he once said, "I have met with many disappointments; and I must have sunk under the burthen of them if I had not been supported by the friendship of Dr. Roebuck."

But more serious troubles were rapidly accumulating upon Dr. Roebuck himself; and it was he, and not Watt, that sank under the burthen. The progress of Watt's engine was but slow, and long before it could be applied to the pumping of Roebuck's mines, the difficulties of the undertaking on which he had entered overwhelmed him. The opening out of the principal coal involved a very heavy outlay, extending over many years, during which he sank not only his own but his wife's fortune, and--what distressed him most of all--large sums borrowed from his relatives and friends, which he was unable to repay. The consequence was, that he was eventually under the necessity of withdrawing his capital from the refining works at Birmingham, and the vitriol works at Prestonpans. At the same time, he transferred to Mr. Boulton of Soho his entire interest in Watt's steam-engine, the value of which, by the way, was thought so small that it was not even included among the assets; Roebuck's creditors not estimating it as worth one farthing. Watt sincerely deplored his partner's misfortunes, but could not help him. "He has been a most sincere and generous friend," said Watt, "and is a truly worthy man." And again, "My heart bleeds for him, but I can do nothing to help him: I have stuck by him till I have much hurt myself; I can do so no longer; my family calls for my care to provide for them." The later years of Dr. Roebuck's life were spent in comparative obscurity; and he died in 1794, in his 76th year.

He lived to witness the success of the steam-engine, the opening up of the Boroughstoness coal, [footnote... Dr. Roebuck had been on the brink of great good fortune, but he did not know it. Mr. Ralph Moore, in his "Papers on the Blackband Ironstones" (Glasgow, 1861), observes: -- "Strange to say, he was leaving behind him, almost as the roof of one of the seams of coal which he worked, a valuable blackband ironstone, upon which Kinneil Iron Works are now founded. The coal-field continued to be worked until the accidental discovery of the blackband about 1845. The old coal-pits are now used for working the ironstone." ...] and the rapid extension of the Scotch iron trade, though he shared in the prosperity of neither of those branches of industry. He had been working ahead of his age, and he suffered for it. He fell in the breach at the critical moment, and more fortunate men marched over his body into the fortress which his enterprise and valour had mainly contributed to win. Before his great undertaking of the Carron Works, Scotland was entirely dependent upon other countries for its supply of iron. In 1760, the first year of its operations, the whole produce was 1500 tons. In course of time other iron works were erected, at Clyde Cleugh, Muirkirk, and Devon--the managers and overseers of which, as well as the workmen, had mostly received their training and experience at Carron--until at length the iron trade of Scotland has assumed such a magnitude that its manufacturers are enabled to export to England and other countries upwards of 500,000 tons a-year. How different this state of things from the time when raids were made across the Border for the purpose of obtaining a store of iron plunder to be carried back into Scotland!


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