Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Young, James (1811-1883)

YOUNG, JAMES (1811–1883), chemist and originator of the paraffin industry, son of John Young, a joiner, and his wife, Jean Wilson (married on 9 Feb. 1809), was born at Drygate, Glasgow, on 13 July 1811. He received a scanty education at a night school, working at the bench with his father during the day. In 1830 he went to the evening lectures of Thomas Graham [q. v.], at the Andersonian University, where he became acquainted with David Livingstone [q. v.], whom he taught the use of the lathe, and Lyon, afterwards baron, Playfair. With both men he formed an intimate and lifelong friendship. In the session 1831–2 Graham appointed Young his assistant, and he used occasionally to take Graham's lectures. In 1836 he was presented with a watch, and on 28 June 1837 with a testimonial by the ‘mechanics' class.’ In Young's first scienscientific paper, dated 4 Jan. 1837, he described a modification of a voltaic battery invented by Faraday (Philosophical Magazine, 1837, x. 242). In the same year Young went, with Graham as his assistant, to University College, London, and helped him with the experimental work in his important researches (information from Dr. H. E. Schunck, F.R.S.) In 1839 he was appointed manager to Messrs. Muspratt [see under Muspratt, James] at Newton le Willows, and in 1844 to Messrs. Tennant at Manchester, for whom he devised a method of making sodium stannate direct from tin-stone. In 1845 he served on a committee of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society for the investigation of the potato disease, and suggested the immersion of the tubers in dilute sulphuric acid as a means of stopping the disease; he was not elected a member of the society till 19 Oct. 1847. During his stay in Manchester he started a local chemical society which afterwards became a section of the Literary and Philosophical Society, but eventually died out. Finding the ‘Manchester Guardian’ not sufficiently liberal, he also set on foot the movement for the establishment of the ‘Manchester Examiner,’ which was first published in 1846 (R. Angus Smith, Centenary of Science, p. 348). On 3 Dec. 1847 Playfair wrote to Young from London a letter (quoted in Wemyss Reid's Memorials of Lyon Playfair, pp. 102), telling him of a petroleum spring in the Riddings colliery at Alfreton, Derbyshire, belonging to Playfair's brother-in-law, James Oakes, and suggesting that he might turn the petroleum to account. The spring yielded at that time three hundred gallons daily. Young suggested to Messrs. Tennant that they might treat the petroleum, but they thought it ‘too small a matter,’ and in 1848 Young, in partnership with Edward Meldrum, agreed to buy up the yield of the spring, from which they manufactured illuminating oils and lubricating oils until in 1851 it was exhausted. Finding that the spring was failing, Young had meanwhile experimented (for a long time without result) on the production of paraffin from the dry distillation of coal, and on 17 Oct. 1850 took out a patent for this purpose, of which the specification was completed on 16 April 1851.

In the beginning of 1850 Mr. Hugh Bartholomew, of the Glasgow City and Suburban gas works, showed Young a sample of ‘Torbane Hill mineral’ or ‘Boghead coal,’ which was found to give a better yield of paraffin than any other coal. In the summer of 1850 Young & Meldrum and Edward William Binney [q. v.] entered into partnership under the title of E. W. Binney & Co. at Bathgate, and E. Meldrum & Co. at Glasgow; they erected works at Bathgate, which were completed in the following year. In 1852 Young left Manchester and lived henceforward in Scotland. The firm first manufactured naphtha and lubricating oils; paraffin for burning and solid paraffin were not sold till 1856, and the demand for the solid substance only became considerable in 1859. Meanwhile Young's success gave rise to an immense amount of litigation. In 1853 Mr. and Mrs. William Gillespie, the owners of the Torbane Hill estate, sued James Russel & Son, the lessees of the right to extract coal therefrom, from whom Young and his partners had contracted to buy the Torbane Hill mineral, on the ground that this mineral was not coal—a contention which would, if sustained, have destroyed the value of Young's patent. After much conflicting scientific evidence from the most distinguished chemists and geologists, the jury decided that Torbane Hill mineral was a kind of coal. William Gillespie tried in 1861 and 1862 to obtain a repeal of Young's patent, but in vain. Young and his partners also had to defend themselves against infringements of the patent. In 1854 they won a case in the queen's bench against Stephen White and others; in 1860–1 they obtained 7,500l. damages and costs from the Clydesdale Chemical Company; in 1861, 5,000l. from John Miller & Co. and William Miller & Co. But the most serious case was that begun in September 1862 against Ebenezer Fernie, William Carter, and Joseph Robinson, tried from 29 Feb. to 7 May 1864 before Vice-chancellor Sir John Stuart, who awarded Young's firm 10,000l. costs and 11,422l. damages. Fernie and his partners appealed to the House of Lords, but lost the appeal. In each of these cases an attempt was made to show that Young had been forestalled. De Gensanne, before 1777, Archibald Cochrane, ninth earl of Dundonald [q. v.], in 1781, and others had invented processes for the distillation of coal; in 1830 Karl von Reichenbach first prepared solid paraffin from beech tar, and later showed that it existed in small quantity in coal-tar; in 1829 Auguste Laurent proposed to obtain illuminating oils from the Autun schists, and in 1833 showed that paraffin could be got from the English bituminous schists; Selligue in 1839 exhibited in Paris lubricating and illuminating paraffin oils and solid paraffin candles obtained by the distillation of schists; Richard Butler in 1833, Count de Hompesch in 1841, and Du Buisson in 1847 took out patents for obtaining paraffin in this way. All these attempts were on the one hand unknown to Young; on the other he was the first who, by heating gradually suitable coals to a low red heat, and purifying the products suitably afterwards, made the process a commercial success, and there can be no doubt as to the validity of his patent.

In February 1865 Young took over the whole business from his partners. He built second and larger works at Addiewell, near West Calder, and in January 1866 he sold the concern to ‘Young's Paraffin Light and Mineral Oil Company’ for 400,000l. Other companies worked under license from Young's firm, and the paraffin manufacture spread over the south of Scotland. The fame of Young's paraffin soon led to the exploitation of petroleum springs all over the world, and so has given rise to an immense industry.

In 1872 Young took his friend, Robert Angus Smith [q. v.], who printed accounts of the voyages, to St. Kilda and to Iceland on his yacht the Nyanza. He noticed that the bilge-water in his yacht was acid, and suggested the addition of caustic lime to the bilge-water to prevent the rusting of iron ships, a suggestion afterwards adopted in the navy (Proc. Royal Soc. Edinburgh, 1872, vii. 702). He is further said to have been the first to find that iron vessels could be used instead of silver for boiling down caustic soda solutions—a discovery which, though simple, was of considerable practical importance. In 1873 he was elected F.R.S. Young bought estates at Durris on the Dee in 1871 (Scotland) and at Kelly (he was known as ‘James Young of Kelly’) on the Clyde in 1873, near Wemyss Bay. He spent the greater part of his later years at Kelly. In 1878 he began at Pitlochry a series of experiments with Professor George Forbes on the velocity of light. The final observations, made by a modification of the method of Fizeau, were carried out in 1880–1 between Kelly House and a hill called the Tom, behind Innellan. Young and Forbes found the velocity of white light to be 301,382 kilometres per second (Phil. Trans. 1882, p. 231), a value slightly higher than those previously obtained by Albert A. Michelson and by Cornu. They also found that blue light travelled at a rate 1.8 per cent. faster than red, a result not yet fully explained. During his later years Young also worked at the practical applications of the electric light, but published nothing on this subject.

Young was a member of the Chemical Society, of which he was vice-president from 1879 to 1881. The degree of LL.D. was conferred on him by St. Andrews University in April 1879. He died at Kelly on 13 May 1883. He married, on 21 Aug. 1838, Miss Mary Young, and was survived by three sons and four daughters.

Young, although outwardly somewhat ‘cool’ in temperament, was a man of enthusiastic and generous nature. While Livingstone was in Africa he allowed him to draw on him as he pleased; ‘any monetary promise of his given to a Portuguese trader or Arab slave-dealer, written upon an old bit of leather or piece of bark, was duly honoured by Young.’ He gave generously towards the general expenses of Livingstone's second and third expeditions, and contributed 1,000l. towards the last or Zambesi expedition, and 2,000l. towards a search expedition under Lieutenant Grandy, which proved too late to find Livingstone alive. He had Livingstone's body-servants brought to England, and presented to Glasgow a statue to his memory, erected in George Square, Glasgow. He had previously presented a bronze statue to the city, also erected in George Square, of his former master, Graham, and he had Graham's ‘Researches’ printed for private distribution at his expense in 1876. The volume was edited by R. Angus Smith. In 1870 he endowed with a sum of 10,500l. the ‘Young’ chair of technical chemistry at Anderson's College, of which he was president from 1868 to 1877. On 11 April 1878 he gave 1,000l. to the Royal Society, eventually appropriated to the ‘Fue reduction fund.’

The best portrait of Young was painted by Sir John Watson Gordon [q. v.], and passed into the possession of John Young, esq.

[Obituaries in Journal Chem. Soc. 1884, xlv. 630; Chemical News, 1883, xlvii. 245; Manchester Guardian, 15 May 1883, and Manchester Examiner and Times, 15 May 1883, pp. 5, 8; Men of the Time, 10th edit.; Wemyss Reid's Memorials of Lyon Playfair, passim; Chambers's Encyclopædia; Poggendorff's Biographisch-literarisches Handwörterbuch, iii. 1474; R. Angus Smith's Life and Works of T. Graham, 1884, Preface, and p. 65; R. Angus Smith's Centenary of Science in Manchester, 1883, pp. 290–4, 348, passim; Calendar of the Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College (with which Anderson's College is now incorporated); Jubilee of the Chemical Society, 1891, p. 181; Evidence given on Anderson's University before Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction, &c.; Smith's Visit to St. Kilda (privately printed), 1879, passim (reprinted, Glasgow, 1876); Record of the Royal Society; Roscoe and Schorlemmer's Chemistry, iii. 144 (on the history of the paraffin manufacture), passim; Mills's Destructive Distillation, 3rd edit. 1866, passim; Redwood's Petroleum, 1896, p. 13; Dittmar and Paton's art. on ‘Paraffin’ in Encycl. Brit. 9th edit.; information kindly given by Young's son, John Young, esq., of Glasgow; by his daughter, Mrs. Mary Ann Walker of Limefield, West Calder; by Dr. T. E. Thorpe, F.R.S.; by Professor G. G. Henderson, and by Dr. C. H. Lees; Laurent, ‘Sur les Schistes bitumineux et sur la Paraffine,’ Annales de Chim. et de Phys. 1833, liv. 392; Larousse's Dict. Universel, art. ‘Paraffine;’ Personal Life of Dr. Livingstone, by Dr. W. G. Blaikie, 1880, passim, contains several letters from Livingstone to Young; Somerville's George Square, Glasgow, 1891, pp. 191, 274–5, 288; Young's own papers; Report of Trial before the Lord Justice General in the Action … Mr. and Mrs. Gillespie … against Messrs Russel & Son, 29 July–4 Aug. 1853; Report of Jury Trial, Binney & Co. against The Clydesdale Chemical Co., 1 Nov. to 7 Nov. 1860; Report of Trial, Young v. Fernie, in Chancery, before Vice-Chancellor Stuart, 1864; Report of an Appeal in the House of Lords, Fernie v. Young. All these reports contain a large amount of scientific evidence with regard to previous processes and the working of Young's process for the manufacture of paraffin.]

P. J. H.