Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Keir, James

KEIR, JAMES (1735–1820), chemist, born on 29 Sept. 1735, was the youngest of the eighteen children of John Keir (1686–1743) of Muiston Baxter and Queenshaugh, Stirlingshire, by Magdalene, eldest daughter of George Lind of Georgie, near Edinburgh. After attending Edinburgh High School, he studied medicine at Edinburgh University, where he formed a lasting friendship with Erasmus Darwin. Having completed his medical studies, he entered the army for the sake of seeing foreign countries, and received his first commission as ensign in the 61st regiment of foot on 1 Oct. 1757. At this period he used to rise at four o'clock in the morning to read the classics and military writers, and he translated many chapters of Polybius. During the seven years' war he was stationed with his regiment in the West Indies. He became lieutenant on 31 March 1759, captain-lieutenant on 16 May 1766, and captain on 23 June of the same year (Army Lists). In the spring of 1768 he resigned his commission, being disappointed at not meeting with more sympathy in his studies from his brother-officers. He found, however, one congenial friend in Alexander Blair, afterwards a captain in the 69th regiment of foot. While in the army Keir wrote a treatise on the art of war, which was accidentally burnt at his publishers, and a pamphlet addressed to the Marquis of Granby in favour of the sale of commissions. Keir ultimately settled at Hill Top, West Bromwich, Staffordshire, and devoted himself to chemistry and geology. In 1775 he commenced business as a glass manufacturer at Stourbridge, near Birmingham. A paper by him ‘On the Crystallisations observed on Glass’ was communicated to the Royal Society by his friend George Fordyce [q. v.], and printed in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ in 1776. Early in the same year Keir completed his translation of Macquer's ‘Dictionnaire de Chimie,’ with additions and notes, published at London in two quarto volumes. In 1777 he issued a ‘Treatise on the different kinds of Elastic Fluids or Gases’ (new edition, 1779).

Keir had become intimate with Matthew Boulton [q. v.], and in the autumn of 1768 first met James Watt at Boulton's house. Watt wrote of him as ‘a mighty chemist and a very agreeable man’ (Muirhead, Life of Watt, p. 173). In 1778 Keir gave up his glass business to undertake, in the absence of Boulton and Watt, the sole charge of their engineering works at Soho, Birmingham. He declined, however, the offer of a partnership on account of the financial risk, and limited his connection with the firm to the letter-copying machine department. In 1779 he invented and took out a patent for a metal capable of being forged or wrought when red-hot or cold. It has been said to be almost identical with that now called ‘Muntz-metal.’ About 1780 Keir, in conjunction with Alexander Blair (then retired from the army), established works at Tipton, near Dudley, for the manufacture of alkali from the sulphates of potash and soda, to which he afterwards added a soap manufactory. The method of extraction proceeded on a discovery of Keir's. Priestley came to Birmingham in this year, and found an able assistant in Keir, who had discovered the distinction between carbonic acid gas and atmospheric air previously to, and independently of, Dr. Macbride. Keir was elected F.R.S. on 8 Dec. 1785. With Priestley and Darwin, he was also a member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham. On 3 May 1787 he communicated to the Royal Society some ‘Experiments on the Congelation of the Vitriolic Acid’ (Phil. Trans. vol. lxxvii.), and on 1 May 1788 ‘Remarks on the Principle of Acidity, Decomposition of Water, and Phlogiston’ (ib. vol. lxxviii.). Another paper from his pen, on ‘Fossil Alkali,’ appeared in 1788 in vol. vi. of the ‘Transactions of the Society of Arts,’ of which he was a member. Keir published the first part of his ‘Dictionary of Chemistry’ in 1789. He discontinued it upon becoming convinced of the weakness of his theory of phlogiston. On 20 May 1790 he communicated to the Royal Society ‘Experiments and Observations on the Dissolution of Metals in Acids, and their Precipitations, with an Account of a new compound Acid Menstruum, useful in some technical operations of parting metals’ (ib. vol. lxxx. pt. ii.). This paper contains suggestions which probably contributed to the discovery of the electro-plate process. In 1791 Keir wrote, at the special desire of the widow, a memoir of his friend Thomas Day [q. v.], author of ‘Sandford and Merton.’ During the same year his avowal of sympathy with the French revolution at a public dinner on 14 July exposed him to much virulent abuse. He defended himself and Priestley in various pamphlets, such as the ‘Extinguisher Maker,’ ‘T. Sobersides,’ and ‘High Church Politics.’ In 1793 he published a pamphlet entitled ‘The Martial Character of Nations,’ arguing that the French were not likely to become so pacific as to make national defence less necessary. Ten years later he wrote ‘Reflections on the Invasion of Great Britain by the French Armies; on the Mode of Defence; and on the useful application of the National Levies’ (1803).

About 1794 Keir and Blair purchased land at Tividale, near Dudley, on which they established the Tividale colliery. Keir had long studied the mineralogy of Staffordshire, and in 1798 wrote an article upon it for Stebbing Shaw, who was about to publish his ‘History of Staffordshire.’ He also gave Shaw valuable information respecting the manufactures of Staffordshire. Sir Humphry Davy, while visiting Gregory Watt at Birmingham in 1800, was introduced to Keir, and found him amiable as well as great (J. Davy, Life of Sir H. Davy, 1839, p. 78). In February 1811 Keir forwarded to the Geological Society ‘An Account of the Strata in sinking a Pit in Tividale Colliery,’ accompanied by a number of specimens. On 19 Dec. 1807, while Keir was staying with Blair at Hilton Park, his house at West Bromwich was burnt, though most of his books and papers were saved. For a time he lived at a small farmhouse in the neighbourhood. He died at West Bromwich on 11 Oct. 1820 (Scots Mag. 1820, vii. 480), and was buried on the 19th in the churchyard there (parish register). By his marriage in 1770 to Susanna Harvey (1747–1802) he had an only child, Amelia (1780–1857), who in 1801 married John Lewis Moilliet of Geneva, afterwards merchant and banker of Birmingham.

Keir, who frequently amused himself by writing poetry, suggested to Darwin many improvements (afterwards adopted) for the second part of the ‘Botanic Garden.’ The most valuable portion of his correspondence was destroyed by the fire at his daughter's residence, Abberley Hall, Worcestershire, on 25 Dec. 1845. A selection from what was saved, with a sketch of his life, was printed for private circulation in 1859.

[Mrs. Amelia Moilliet's Sketch of the Life of J. Keir, 1859.]

G. G.