James Beaumont Neilson, engineer, was born on the 22nd of June, 1792.
First, we had the Stone Age, then the Bronze Age and then the Iron Age, which lasted for ages. The last great era of the Iron Age was the period of the Industrial Revolution and it was ushered in thanks to James Beaumont Neilson, whose invention revolutionised the entire iron industry. Neilson invented and patented his hot-blast oven process, one of the greatest discoveries in metallurgy, in 1828. That was a tremendous advance to the iron industry as the process greatly increased the efficiency of smelting iron. Neilson’s invention quickly proved its worth through significant savings in fuel consumption and was rapidly adopted throughout the iron industry. Neilson was frequently challenged as the inventor of the hot-blast method and successfully defended his claim in a number of actions. He also introduced several improvements to the manufacture of gas, including the smokeless ‘swallow-tail’ burner, and was a keen advocate of technical education and the welfare of workers.
James Beaumont Neilson was born in Shettleston, on the 22nd of June, 1792. Wee Jamesie got his early education at the Parish School of Strathbungo and the Chapel School in Gorbals. Before he was fourteen, he was “put to work” (he didnae have muckle choice) as a gig boy in charge of a winding machine at the Govan colliery. Two years later, he was apprenticed as an engineer to his elder brother John, himself the engineer at Oakbank. Jamesie served his brother for three years, but in his spare time, he also studied grammar, drawing and mathematics. After that, Neilson was employed as an engine-wright at a succession of collieries.
In 1814, whilst working at a pit in Irvine, Neilson introduced several improvements, including the construction of a cast-iron edge railway between the Pit and Irvine harbour. A few years ater, Neilson got his breakthrough when he applied for the position of superintendent and foreman for the brand new Glasgow Gas Company. In August, 1817, out of twenty candidates, Neilson was appointed foreman for a term of five years. However, in a short space of time, he worked his way up to become manager and chief engineer. Neilson retained this position for thirty years between 1817, when the Company was incorporated, and his retirement in 1847. During that time Neilson was responsible for the extension of the central works and new branch works in Tradeston and Partick.
Neilson’s advancement was due, to a very large extent, to the effort he put into his further education. He attended classes on chemistry, natural philosophy and higher mathematics at the Andersonian Institution, and devoted much of his time to those studies. During his early career, Neilson introduced several valuable improvements in the method of gas manufacture, which was then in its infancy. Neilson was the first to employ clay retorts and he introduced sulphate of iron as a self-acting purifier, passing the gas through beds of charcoal to remove its oily and tarry elements. The swallow-tail or union jet was also Neilson’s invention.
In 1824, Neilson was invited to look into a fault, which had developed in a blast furnace at the Muirkirk Iron Company’s Wilsontown Ironworks. Up to that point, Neilson had nothing to do with the smelting of iron, however, that experience caught his attention to the extent that he even read a paper on the subject to the Philosophical Society, in 1825. Prior to Neilson’s discovery, it was common belief that an injection of cold air led to an improved blast and a more effective furnace. Artificial means, such as blowing air through a regulator to lower its temperature as far as possible, were employed. Founded on inspection and observation, Neilson formed the opinion that the opposite was true.
Neilson reasoned that, as air increases in volume according to temperature, if he heated it by passing it through a red-hot vessel, its volume would increase and in consequence, the effect of the blast in the furnace would be improved. Neilson then set about conducting crude experiments at the Gas Works where he proved his theory to be correct by trying the effect of heated air on the illuminating power of gas. Neilson found the combustion of the gas was rendered more intense, and its illuminating power greatly increased. He tried a similar experiment at a smithy in Malta Street. Blowing the fire with heated air, it became much more brilliant and the degree of heat was intensified.
Neilson patented his hot-blast process, in 1828, obtaining ‘charta donationis’, in the language of the day, to protect his invention. However, Neilson didn’t have the means to conduct full scale practical trials, so he got together several investors, including owners of the Clydeside Iron Works, where the process was first commercially introduced during 1828/9. By 1834, after Neilson had resolved some early teething troubles, the process was in widespread use in Britain, on the Continent, and in the United States and India. By 1840, over seventy licences had been taken out by ironmasters in England and Scotland at 1/- (one shilling) per ton.
Neilson’s technique also reduced the amount of coal required to make iron and led to greatly increased production efficiency. Use of the hot blast tripled iron output per ton of coal and produced a superior quality. It also permitted iron to be recovered from lower-grade ores, and made possible the efficient use of raw Scottish coal as well as the inferior and harder anthracite or non-bituminous coal of South Wales without coking. Thus, his invention revolutionised the whole iron industry in Scotland and elsewhere and drove the extraordinary development of the railway and shipbuilding industries in Britain.
Neilson’s discovery also meant that the valuable Blackband ironstone, discovered by David Mushet at the beginning of the century, could then be fully utilised. Mushet described Neilson’s process as “one of the greatest discoveries in metallurgy.” An English iron manufacturer called Jessop, declared it to be “of as great an advantage in the iron trade as Arkwright’s machinery was in the cotton-spinning trade,” and the ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’ stated that it “has effected an entire revolution in the iron industry of Great Britain, and forms the last era in the history of this material.”
James Beaumont Neilson died suddenly, on his estate of Queenshill, in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, on the 18th of January, 1865.