Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Weldon, Walter

WELDON, WALTER (1832–1885), chemist, eldest son of Reuben Weldon, manufacturer, and his wife, whose maiden name was Esther Fowke, was born at Loughborough on 31 Oct. 1832. He was employed for some years in his father's business, but, finding he had a taste for literature, he went to London as a journalist shortly after his marriage in March 1854. He contributed to the ‘Dial,’ afterwards incorporated with the ‘Morning Star.’ On 1 Aug. 1860 he issued the first number of a sixpenny monthly magazine, called ‘Weldon's Register of Facts and Occurrences relating to Literature, the Sciences, and the Arts,’ but, although ably conducted, it proved a failure, and was abandoned in 1864. Among the contributors were George Augustus Sala, Edmund Yates, Mr. William Michael Rossetti, James Hain Friswell, and Percy Greg. About this time, probably through the influence of a friend and fellow-Swedenborgian, Charles Townsend Hook, a paper manufacturer of Snodland, near Rochester, his attention was drawn to technological chemistry. He read widely and took out his first patents for the ‘manganese-regeneration process,’ which eventually made his name famous, before he had ever seen a chemical experiment. On 18 Sept. 1865 Weldon and his friend Greg met Mr. John Spiller to explain to him two processes devised by Weldon for the cheaper manufacture of magnesium and aluminium, which proved, however, impracticable. In the latter part of 1866 he met Colonel Gamble, and explained that he ‘thought he had obtained a peroxide of manganese’ from the protoxide by suspending it in water and blowing air through, a process which, with certain important modifications, proved ultimately successful. He was at this time, says Colonel Gamble, totally unacquainted with the methods of quantitative chemical analysis, and the results to be obtained thereby. The object of Weldon (and of various unsuccessful predecessors) was to regenerate the manganese peroxide used in enormous quantities in the manufacture of chlorine, and converted into a valueless by-product which was thrown away. From this time onwards he carried out experiments on a large scale, first in 1866 at the demolished works of the Walker Chemical Company on the Tyne, and later at those of Messrs. J. C. Gamble & Company at St. Helens. These led to the ‘magnesia-manganese’ process patented in 1867, and the ‘lime-manganese’ process patented a little later, which was finally adopted, but not worked commercially till 1869. By this latter process ninety to ninety-five per cent. of the manganese peroxide formerly lost was recovered; ‘the price of bleaching powder was reduced by 6l. per ton, and something like 750,000l. per annum added to the national wealth.’ The essential detail of the process which distinguishes it from that of earlier workers is the use of an excess of lime over and above that required for the precipitation of the manganese. M. Jean-Baptiste Dumas, in presenting to Weldon the gold medal of the Société d'Encouragement pour l'Industrie Nationale in Paris, said, ‘By this invention every sheet of paper and every yard of calico throughout the world was cheapened.’ For this discovery Weldon was also awarded a ‘grand prix’ at the Paris Exhibition of 1878.

In 1870 the invention of a new chlorine process, ‘the Deacon process,’ by Henry Deacon (d. 1876) and Ferdinand Hurter (1844–1898) led Weldon to fear that his work might be superseded, and he invented another process, known as the ‘magnesia-chlorine’ process, which was developed later at the works at Salindres by Messrs. Péchiney and M. Boulouvard, and was then called the Péchiney–Weldon process (see James Dewar, Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry, vi. 775). This process has not proved finally successful, while the lime-manganese process is still largely employed. In 1880 Weldon read at the Swansea meeting of the British Association an important paper, in which he showed that the heat of formation of compounds increases in nearly all cases with the atomic volume, the heat of formation of equal volumes of different compounds being approximately equal. On 8 June 1882 Weldon was elected F.R.S. On 11 July 1883 he was elected president of the Society of Chemical Industry, of which he had been one of the founders in 1881. During the first half of 1884 he voluntarily undertook the labour of supplying the journal of the society with a large number of abstracts of patents ‘at a ruinous cost of time.’ On 9 July 1884 he delivered his presidential address at Newcastle-on-Tyne on the soda and chlorine industries. A paper on the numerical relations between the atomic weights, read at the Montreal meeting of the British Association, was not published, but Weldon printed in 1885 in quarto form, for private circulation, the first chapter dealing with the glucinum family, of a memoir ‘On the Ratios … of the Atomic Weights.’ He attempts to show that the ratios of the atomic weights of higher members of the glucinum family to that of glucinum are powers, or multiples of powers, of the fourth root of the ratio of the atomic weight of magnesium to that of glucinum. Weldon went in spite of illness to the Aberdeen meeting of the British Association in 1885, but was obliged to return, and died at his house, Rede Hall, Burstow, Surrey, of heart disease shortly after, on 20 Sept. of that year. The manganese-recovery process will be remembered not only for its great intrinsic importance in chemical industry, but as a marvellous achievement on the part of a man without previous training. Like his scientific contemporaries, Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace and Sir William Crookes, Weldon was a believer in modern spiritualism.

Weldon married Anne Cotton at Belper on 14 March 1854. By her he had three children. He was only survived by Walter Frank Raphael Weldon, F.R.S. (1860–1906), professor of comparative anatomy at Oxford from 1899 till his premature death. A second son, Walter Alfred Dante, born on 15 June 1862, died suddenly at Cambridge in 1881. The Royal Society's Catalogue contains a list of ten papers by Weldon.

[Besides the sources quoted, obituaries in the Journal of the Soc. of Chemical Industry, 1885, iv. 577 (the most important), and Proc. of the Royal Soc. 1889, vol. xlvi. p. xix, by F. W. R[enaut]; Lunge's Manufacture of Sulphuric Acid and Alkali, 1880, iii. gives a history of Weldon's process, and of the work of his predecessors; article by Lunge on Chlorine in Thorpe's Dict. of Applied Chemistry; Weldon's own papers; information supplied by the late Prof. W. F. R. Weldon.]

P. J. H.