James ‘Paraffin’ Young, inventor, entrepreneur and chemist, obtained a patent for the extraction of paraffin from shale on the 17th of October, 1850.
Let us shed a little light on James Young, who was the Scottish chemist better known as ‘Paraffin Young’ and renowned for his discovery of a method for distilling paraffin from coal and shale. We have James Young to thank for paraffin lamps, which may not be all that common today, but once upon a time, they were sold and used all over the world and that’s the reason James Young earned his nickname. I don’t know if you’ve ever pumped away on a paraffin lamp until the wick became incandescent, sat under its yellowing light with the familiar smell and listened to its comforting hiss. But if you have, you can now pin the name of James Young on your nostalgia.
Young patented his processes for extracting and refining oil from certain types of coal and shale on the 17th of October, 1850. As it happens, the French had attempted something similar earlier in the century, but without success. It was entirely due to Young’s initiative and perseverance that the world's first oil refinery got started. It was an industry that transformed West Lothian and its landscape, which still bears the scars that act as a monument to Young. The ‘blaes’ – enormous piles of nature resistant burnt shale – can still be seen, although some of it was used recently in the construction of the M8. Young’s own works employed thirteen thousand men at one time and the shale oil industry indirectly engaged upwards of forty thousand men. And, for over half a century, long after Young had retired, up to three million tons of coal and shale were mined and treated each year.
Its products and by-products included paraffin lamp oil, solid paraffin or paraffin wax, lighthouse oil, candles, waterproofing, lubricants, naphtha (used as a solvent for rubber, for the manufacture of paint and in the textile and dry cleaning industries), ammonium sulphate fertiliser, and later, fuel oil (for furnaces and diesel engines). The prosperous industry even produced ‘Ross Petrol’, which was billed as the ‘Best and Most Economical Motor Spirit in the Market’ and made by James Ross & Co. of Philipstoun Oil Works in Linlithgow. The death knell for the industry was sounded by competition from directly extracted crude oil; from the more profitable wells that sprang up in the USA and the Persian Gulf – but long after Young went to America to collect his royalties, which he did in 1859. Business slowed drastically from around 1910 and was at a standstill by the 1950s, with the last of the shale mines being closed by Manny Shinwell in 1962. Perhaps, in the not too distant future, when we’ve exhausted all of the marine-based hydro-carbons in the world, Young’s invention will be resurrected.
James Young was born in the Drygate, near Glasgow Cathedral, on the 13th of July, 1811. For a time, he was apprenticed to his father as a carpenter and joiner, but from the age of nineteen, he attended evening classes in chemistry at Anderson's College, which is now Strathclyde University. James attended the lectures of Professor Thomas Graham, the distinguished scientist whose ‘Laws of Diffusion’ led to many practical applications, including the modern day artificial kidney machine. Later, in 1832, James became Professor Graham’s assistant and occasionally took some of his lectures. During his time as a student at the ‘Andersonian’, Young made many notable friends, including David Livingstone, who was studying medicine there, Lyon Playfair, later Professor of Chemistry at the Royal College of Mines, and Hugh Bartholemew, who became Manager of the Glasgow Gas Works. In his first scientific paper, which was dated the 4th of January, 1837, James showed his aptitude for innovation when he described a modification to a voltaic battery that had been invented by Michael Faraday. Later that year, when Graham accepted a post at University College in London, James went with him to continue as his assistant and help with experimental work. In 1838, Young turned to industrial chemical processes, when he became a Manager of James Muspratt’s chemical works in Newton-le-Willows, near St Helens. Then, in 1844, he moved to Tennants, Clow & Co. in Manchester. Four years later, he established his own business with James Oake, refining a natural oil seepage from a Derbyshire Colliery at Alfreton.
That seepage was naphtha about which Playfair had written to Young, suggesting he could profit by it, which he sure did. Young’s company controlled the yield from the spring and produced illuminating oil and lubricants for the Manchester cotton mills. Later, on the 17th of October, 1850, after Hugh Bartholemew had reminded Young about the ‘cannel coal’ that folks in Scotland had used for ages in their braziers to provide light, Young patented his own process of extracting oil from ‘Torbanite’. He had discovered that by slow distillation, he could obtain paraffin oil and paraffin wax, both of which were in universal demand, from the coal. The following year, he established the world's first oil refinery at Boghead Colliery near Bathgate in partnership with Edward Binney and Edward Meldrum. He made a fortune in a hurry and when the Torbanite ran out, he switched to oil shale, which wasn’t as oil-rich as the coal, but it was near at hand, in abundance, easy to extract and cheap. He became even richer and, in 1864, when his patent expired, he bought out his partners and formed Young's Paraffin Light and Mineral Oil Company, based at Addiewell. His company sold paraffin lamps and paraffin oil all over the world, and he got the nickname ‘Paraffin Young’.
In addition to paraffin, Young’s other achievements included his discovery of a more efficient means of producing sodium stannate and chlorate potash. He also collaborated with Professor George Forbes to more accurately measure the speed of light and convinced the Royal Navy that adding quicklime to bilge water, which is acidic, would prevent it corroding its iron ships. Young’s lifelong friendship with David Livingstone led to his selfless financing of many of the missionary explorer’s journeys. That extended to the cost of purchasing the freedom of African slaves from Arab traders or buying goods from Portuguese merchants. He also contributed towards Livingstone’s last Zambesi trip and financed Lieutenant Grandy’s unsuccessful rescue mission. And after Livingstone’s funeral he continued to support his family and to finance the anti-slavery movement. James Young died at his home, Kelly House, near Wemyss Bay, on the 13th of May, 1883, was buried at Inverkip.