Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cochrane, Archibald

549062Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 11 — Cochrane, Archibald1887Robert Hunt

COCHRANE, ARCHIBALD, ninth Earl of Dundonald (1749–1831), naval officer and chemical manufacturer, born on 1 Jan. 1749, was the son of Thomas Cochrane, the eighth earl, of Dundonald. Archibald was in his youth in the navy, in which he became acting lieutenant. A cruise on the coast of Guinea gave the young man a distaste for the naval profession, and on his return home he obtained a commission in the army, joining the 104th regiment, which he after a time also relinquished. He succeeded to the title on the death of his father, 27 June 1778; but the ancient inheritance of the Cochranes had been wasted, and Archibald was so poor that he was unable to equip his son for sea until the Earl of Hopetoun advanced him 100l. Although his circumstances were somewhat improved by a second marriage, he expended so much money on his manufacturing pursuits that the family were compelled to return to Scotland. About this time he made extensive experiments for improving the mode of preparing hemp and flax for the manufacture of sailcloth. The admiralty appears to have adopted Dundonald's process; but the inventor derived no benefit from his patent. His son states that 'the unentailed estates were absorbed by extensive scientific pursuits,' that is, in attempts to apply imperfect scientific knowledge to manufacturing processes.

Dundonald was an active-minded young man, and found himself in the midst of a society full of the recent great discoveries made by Cavendish, Priestley, Black, and others. He is said to have been on intimate terms with those philosophers; but his only thought was to retrieve the fortunes of the family by applying the discoveries of that day. While staying with his relations on the Tyne, he became acquainted with the alkali manufacturers; the manufacture was then carried on by employing the ashes of various marine plants. Attempts were being made by continental chemists to prepare carbonate of soda by the decomposition of common salt. Le Blanc, in 1781, patented a process for effecting this by a mixture of sulphate of soda, carbonate of lime, and charcoal calcined together, and Dundonald's attention was attracted to this new process. He was now residing in Newcastle, and he formed an intimate acquaintance with Messrs. Losh and Doubleday, who were employing a process, not very successfully, resembling, in many respects, that of Le Blanc. At the suggestion of Dundonald, and at his expense, Mr. Losh made inquiries at Paris. On Losh's return from France the Walker Chemical Company was formed and a new manufactory established. Dundonald became an active member of this firm, and all the experimental trials appear to have been made at his suggestion, chiefly under his superintendence, and at his cost. In 1796 the new process had obtained a considerable degree of success, and in 1808 alkali (carbonate of soda) was obtained by decomposing the waste salt obtained from the soap-boilers. Thus was commenced the alkali manufacture on the banks of the Tyne, which speedily extended itself to Lancashire and Cheshire. Dundonald's motives were excellent, but his means were insufficient. 'Our remaining patrimony,' his son writes, 'melted like the flux in his furnaces.'

Dundonald also established a manufactory for the production of alumina as a mordant, for silk and calico printers; he engaged in the manufacture of British gum (starch, in the form of sago, exposed to a temperature of 600 F.), still extensively used; and he spent money on the economical preparation of salammoniac, and on a new process for obtaining white lead.

When on the west coast of Africa he had noticed the ravages made on ships' bottoms by worms. It now occurred to him to apply coal-tar ; and he immediately designed and built, at much cost, retorts for the distillation of tar from coal. He was quite correct in his views, and was very near the discovery of the other coal products, from which fortunes have been derived; but although he urged the admiralty to try the coal-tar on ships in the navy, he was never successful, mainly owing to the introduction of copper sheathing.

In the prosecution of his coal-tar patent Dundonald went to reside, in 1782, at the family estate of Culross Abbey. Here he erected kilns, and superintended the working of his collieries on the adjoining properties of Vallyfield and Kincardine ; but his unbusiness-like management led only to ruin. An explosion of one of his kilns, and the combustion of the escaping gas, suggested to Dundonald the possibility of applying coalgas as an illuminating agent. The result of all these schemes was failure.

In 1795 Dundonald published his 'Treatise showing the intimate connection between Agriculture and Chemistry.' Davy published his 'Elements of Agricultural Chemistry' in 1813. It has been urged that the celebrated chemist was indebted to the earl for many of the hypotheses which gave character to the 'Elements.' But Davy's appointment in 1802 to the post of chemist to the board of agriculture, and the allotment to him by Sir Thomas Bernard and Davies Gilbert of land on their estates for his experiments in agricultural chemistry, gave him the opportunity of making experiments which Dundonald never thought of.

Dundonald in 1785 proposed the malting of grain for the purpose of feeding cattle, and he published a treatise 'On the Use of Salt Refuse as a Manure.' Several of his suggestions have, with some modifications, been laid before the public as modern discoveries. The creative tendencies of his mind were considerable ; but he wanted the methodical training required to reduce his ideas to practice.

He died at Paris on 1 July 1831. His last years were spent in the most depressing poverty. His son writes : 'His discoveries, now of national utility, ruined him, and deprived his posterity of their remaining paternal inheritance.' He was thrice married, and had six sons by his first wife, Anne Gilchrist, the eldest of whom was Thomas Cochrane [q. v.], the admiral. His second wife was the widow of John Mayne; his third Anne Maria, daughter of Francis Plowden. She had a pension from the crown for her father's literary services, which died with her, and after her death (18 Sept. 1822) Dundonald received help from the Literary Fund.

[The Industrial Resources of the Tyne, Wear, and Tees, 1864; Watt's Bibl. Brit.; Thomson's Cyclopaedia of Chemistry, 1854; Autobiography of a Seaman, by Thomas, tenth earl of Dundonald, 1860; Eeport of the Twenty-third Meeting of the British Association, 1863; Paris's Life of Sir Humphry Davy, 1831; Gent. Mag. 1831, pt. ii. 172-3.]

R. H-t.