George Thomas Beilby
From Graces Guide
Sir George Thomas Beilby (1850-1924) was a British chemist.
1850 November 17th. Born in Edinburgh, the son of a doctor and educated at Edinburgh Academy and Edinburgh University.
In 1869, he joined the Oakbank Oil Company to work in the oil shale industry where he and colleague William Young were able to increase the yield of oil, ammonia, and other useful materials from the shale by retorting and fractional distillation improvements. Their Young and Beilby patent retort was patented in 1882.
1877 Married Emma Clarke Newnham; they had a son Hubert and a daughter Winifred who married chemist Frederick Soddy.
In 1892, Beilby patented a production method for hydrogen cyanide. This new method used ammonia and coal as starting materials and was able to meet the rising demands on sodium cyanide for the gold leaching by the MacArthur-Forrest process.
Beilby was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1906. He was president of the Society of Chemical Industry in 1899, of the chemical section of the British Association in 1905, of the Institute of Chemistry in 1909-12, and of the Institute of Metals in 1916-8.
In 1912 he was a member of the Royal Commission on Fuel and Engines for the Navy. During World War I, he was a member of the Admiralty Board of Invention and Research. He was knighted in 1916.
1924 August 1st. Died in Hampstead.
1924 Obituary 
"The death of Sir George Beilby, which occurred in London last Thursday night, has removed one of our most industrious chemists and experts in the matter of fuel economy.
He was born in 1850, and received his academic education at Edinburgh University. In 1869 he joined the staff of the Oakbank Oil Co, and thereby began a lengthy association with the Scottish shale oil industry. In the course of that association he introduced several important improvements in the distilling process, chief among which was a method for recovering ammonia from the spent retort material.
Subsequently, he was actively connected with the Kastner-Kellner Alkali Co and the Cassel Cyanide Co. It was while engaged with the last-named company that his important researches on the low-temperature carbonisation of bituminous coal were begun. He had for many years interested himself in the economical use of fuel.
He contributed in an important measure to the work of the Royal Comission on Coal Supplies in 1903, and was a member of Lord Fisher's Royal Commission on Fuel and Engines for the Navy, 1912-1913. The outbreak of the European War directed renewed attention to the finding of that Commission in the matter of developing a native source of oil supply by the adoption of low-temperature carbonisation of coal..."[more].
1924 Obituary 
SIR GEORGE THOMAS BEILBY, LL.D., D.Sc., F.R.S., who died on July 31, 1924, was a Past-President of the Institute of Metals (1916-18) and its second May Lecturer. Nothing could illustrate the calibre of the man better than the fact that, in spite of this distinguished record, metallurgy was not only not his main interest and subject of study, but was little more than a hobby. He was a man of many parts.
Trained as a chemist, he first developed on the side of chemical engineering, and indeed may be said to have been one of the founders of this profession. Distinguished by his successful work in the Scottish oil industry, he subsequently became a chemical manufacturer (potassium and sodium cyanide) and the leading authority in the country on the economic utilization of fuel. He built a works at Newcastle for the electrochemical production of sodium, which is still manufacturing this metal. His interest in metallurgy arose from certain difficulties he had encountered as a cyanide manufacturer in the reactions between metals and gases at high temperatures. It was this work that ultimately led him to formulate his theory of "The hard and soft states in metals," which constituted the subject matter of the second May Lecture and exercised a profound influence on physical metallography for upwards of ten years.
In his later years he had a most distinguished record of public service, as a member of the Royal Commission of Fuel and Engines for the Navy (1912-13), as a member of the Central Panel of the Admiralty Board of Invention and Research set up in 1915, as a member of the Trench Warfare Department and its successor in 1917, the Chemical Warfare Department, as the first Director of Fuel Research set up by Lord Curzon, the Lord-President of the Council in 1917 and as Chairman for many years of the Governors of the Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College, now the Royal Technical College. If to this remarkable record is added the fact that he had a strong artistic side, as shown by his beautiful work in colour photography, his very original work in organ construction and his skill in organ playing, it will be conceded that he was no ordinary man, but, on the contrary, a very remarkable one. Within the limits imposed upon this notice, it is not possible to do more than emphasize certain aspects of his work.
He was the son of Dr. G. T. Beilby, a well-known medical practitioner in Edinburgh, and was born there in 1850. He was educated in. Edinburgh schools and at the University, and his first appointment was that of chemist to the Oakbank Oil Company.
For twenty years his work centred on the Scottish oil industry, in several sections of which he introduced improvements. The most important of these was the use of a large volume of superheated steam which was passed into and through the spent shale in the retort, converting the carbon into water-gas and the nitrogen largely into ammonia. This procedure had several advantages, of which the main one was that it more than doubled the yield of ammonia - a result which saved the Scottish oil industry from extinction during the years of severe competition by petroleum. He erected his original retort operated on these lines at Oakbank.
Later on he was associated with the late Mr. James Young, who had been experimenting on similar lines. In due course they brought out the Young and Beilby retort, which is the prototype of the existing forms. He was one of the first to see the importance of the McArthur-Forrest patents for the extraction of gold from its ore by means of cyanide, and proceeded without delay to investigate the possibilities of preparing cyanide cheaply. This led in due course to his putting down a small factory near Edinburgh, where he produced the material in fair quantities at a price much lower than that reached by other makers.
In 1890 he laid his process and its results before the Directors of the Cassel Gold Extracting Company of Glasgow (now the Cassel Cyanide Company, Glasgow). His process was accepted, and he became a director and partner in the firm. The process was used exclusively and profitably by the Company unti1 1900, when Castner introduced a new method of cyanide manufacture, on the development of which Beilby and he worked together. The method which they worked out was adopted by the Company. Beilby at this time joined the Board of Directors of the Castner-Kellner Alkali Company, and until the outbreak of war he took a leading part in the development of the two Companies mentioned.
Concurrently with his early work in the development of the recovery of ammonia from shale at relatively low temperatures, he had conducted experiments in steaming bituminous coal. From this time onwards he never lost touch with national problems for the prevention of smoke and the economic use of coal.
He took part in the inquiry of the Royal Commission on coal supplies in 1903, and submitted an analysis of the purposes to which the British output of coal is applied and an estimate of the scope for economy attainable in each category of use by improved methods.
For a time he worked on the production of smokeless fuel for domestic purposes, but he discontinued his experiments when the inquiries of the Royal Commission on fuel and engines (1912-13) gave a wider significance to low-temperature carbonization. Lard Fisher was Chairman of the Commission, and Beilby as one of its members was able to furnish the Commission with very definite experimental evidence bearing on the main subject of inquiry. The Commission reported that the only means of rendering Great Britain to some extent self-supporting in the matter of fuel lay in the development of a new carbonizing industry, founded on the distillation of coal at a temperature much below that used in gas retorts or coke-ovens. It was to this problem that Beilby mainly devoted the last ten years of his life. He responded to all the calls upon his technical knowledge made during the war, but the fuel question was always his main concern.
As already mentioned, a Fuel Research Board was set up in 1917 with Beilby as its Chairman and Director of Research. He designed, constructed, and equipped the fuel research station at East Greenwich, and within a year the problem set by the Fisher Commission of 1913 had been solved in its scientific and technical aspects sufficiently to permit the home production of fuel oil under war conditions if need had continued to press. Commercially it still stands a problem. The records of the Fuel Research Department published year by year constitute a very convincing testimony to Beilby's remarkable work in this field of inquiry, and the whole organization as it stands to-day is to all intents and purposes his creation. Faced as a cyanide manufacturer with the difficulty of finding any metal tube which would withstand the action of ammonia at 700° C. for any length of time, he turned to the microscope for light on the problem. From this he was led to investigate the effects of various forms of mechanical work on the crystalline structure of metals, and in particular the disturbances which occurred in the processes of polishing and burnishing. The complete record of this and allied work which was done in his spare time - a time measured sometimes in minutes rather than in hours - is contained in his book entitled "The Aggregation and Flow of Solids," published in 1921.
His researches in this field, which were ingeniously planned and most accurately carried out, were of an entirely novel kind, for he worked as a scientific amateur, approaching and tackling his problems in his own way, aided by his unusually wide experience and skilled technique. In metallography he is best known by Isis theory of "The hard and soft states in metals," which formed the subject of his May Lecture—an address which will never be forgotten by those who were privileged to hear it. As already mentioned, it had a profound influence for several years on the development of physical metallography, and gave rise to a variety of researches designed to test the range of application of his theory. In view of recent researches on the constitution of matter, it is difficult to judge the precise form of the theory which will be ultimately accepted, but there can be no two opinions of the magnitude of the service he rendered as to the elucidation of the changes produced in metal crystals by mechanical work of all kinds.
Notwithstanding his wonderful record of successful work, Beilby was at his greatest as a man and as a citizen: The following quotation from the obituary in Nature, September 6, puts this aspect of him so well that it is quoted below "As a citizen, indeed in all relations, Beilby systematically shunned publicity. Even in matters of public interest for which he did active work, his help was so unobtrusive that it was little known unless circumstances made his emergence unavoidable. Education, training for and in research, smoke prevention, each succeeded in identifying him, but these were by no means the limits of his active help in affairs. In 1877 Sir George married Emma, daughter of the Rev. S. Newman, and Lady Beilby has been a devoted coadjutor in many of his public interests. With her he was early among those who worked for the admission of women to professions, and this cause appealed to him in the first instance in the critical case of medicine. Their interest in students, particularly students of science, began many years ago, and only few have even a general idea of the extent to which he coupled financial help with advice as to courses of training or subsequent experience."
The Times obituary notice of August 2 contained an appreciation of a colleague, which states his chief personal qualities so admirably that the writer ventures to include it "Sir George was a man of the most lovable disposition. His entire freedom from bias in forming a judgment on the many difficult problems which came before him was a noteworthy feature of his career. Indeed his character is best summed up in the forceful words which Lord Fisher used in describing Sir George in his book, 'That he was as meek as Moses and as thorough as Cromwell.' For the last nine years of his life, he gave all that was in tins to the service of his country. He closed Isis beautiful home in Glasgow, where he had built an organ chamber with his own hands, and where he was surrounded by many old friends. He came to live, or rather to sleep, in a London hotel, for he lived from early morning to late evening, weekdays and Sundays alike, with his work. He refused to take any payment for what he did, or for the refund of his personal expenses. He presented the rights of any patent he took out to the Government, he helped generously and secretly many who needed encouragement and assistance in a new undertaking, especially if the project was unlikely to commend itself to the cautious wisdom of the Committee. He was a very reserved, sensitive, and rather silent man, but when there was occasion, he spoke forcefully. He was both sympathetic and critical, and though he had a great heart, it was not worn on the sleeve. He won the devoted admiration and affection of all who worked with him, but his complex nature, part artist and part man of science, made him impenetrable to the casual acquaintance and to the quack, for whom in his gentle way he had no mercy." -H. C. H. C.
1924 Obituary 
Sir GEORGE BEILBY, F.R.S., died on July 31, 1924, in his seventy-fourth year.
He was the son of Dr. G. T. Beilby, a well-known medical practitioner in Edinburgh, and was educated privately and at Edinburgh University.
In 1869 he entered the services of the Oakbank Oil Company, and thereby began a lengthy association with the Scottish oil shale industry, in the course of which he introduced several important improvements in the distillation process, chief among which was a method for recovering ammonia from the spent retort material. It is of interest to note that the use of steam in gas production for the purpose of recovering the nitrogen of the coal as ammonia was first proposed by Beilby, who practised it on an industrial scale at the Oakbank Oil Works. He was no -less successful in the other industrial enterprises with which he was associated, notably the Castner Kellner Alkali Company and the Cassel Cyanide Company. It was while engaged with the last-named company that his important researches on low-temperature carbonisation of bituminous coal were begun.
His private industrial enterprises and technical work did not, however, exclude other interests. He was a prominent supporter of the Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College, of which he was a governor up to his death, and Chairman for many years, during which it became in 1912 the Royal Technical College, and in 1913 was affiliated to the University of Glasgow.
In 1900, when the National Physical Laboratory was instituted, he was a member of the first Committee. His work on fuel came prominently before the public when in 1903 he reported at some length to the Royal Commission on Coal Supplies, with considered and valuable estimates of the consumption of coal in the several services in which it is used, and of the order of magnitude of the economies that seemed possible in each by the adoption of improved methods. He was also a member of the Royal Commission on Fuel and Engines for the Navy, 1912-13.
The outbreak of the European War directed attention to the findings of that Commission in the matter of developing a native source of oil supply by the adoption of low-temperature carbonisation of coal. His help in war matters was sought when it had been decided to reply to the German gas attacks in 1915. He gave it immediately and ungrudgingly. All the wide manufacturing knowledge that he possessed or that was among the trade secrets of his companies was placed unreservedly at the disposal of the Government. He became a member of the War Office Committee then formed to devise and test materials for offensive chemical warfare. On the formation of the Ministry of Munitions this branch of research was transferred to the new Ministry. Throughout these years he gave his whole time to work for the Government, mainly in the Trench Warfare Department and its successor, the Chemical Warfare Department.
In 1915, when the Privy Council set up its Committee for Scientific and Industrial Research, he was asked to serve as one of its first members. He subsequently accepted the Government's invitation to become Chairman and Director of the Fuel Research Board. The institution of the Board was followed rapidly by a decision to erect the Fuel Research Station, in every detail of the design of which he was personally concerned. Outside his work on fuel, he devoted close attention to certain aspects of metallurgy, contributing notably to the theory of flow of metals. He investigated the effects of various forms of mechanical work on the crystalline structure of metals - for example, the disturbances which occur in the processes of polishing and burnishing. He made an experimental study of a number of solids in various states of aggregation. His researches in this field, which were ingeniously planned and most accurately carried out, were of an entirely novel kind. He gave an account of this work in the May Lecture which he delivered to the Institute of Metals in 1911. In his book, "The Aggregation and Flow of Solids" (1921), he published collected records of his work on this subject, including his more recent investigations, based on most careful work and on observations repeated time and again. These and the theory of the hard and soft states of metals which he put forward in 1911 had a profound influence for several years on the development of metallography, and gave rise to a variety of researches designed to test the range of application of his theory. In view of recent researches on the constitution of matter it is difficult to judge the precise form of the theory which will ultimately be accepted, but there can be no two opinions as to the magnitude of the service he rendered to the elucidation of the changes produced in metal crystals by mechanical work of all kinds. He received the honour of knighthood in 1916. He was a Doctor of Laws of Glasgow and Birmingham, and a Doctor of Science of Durham.
He was elected a member of the Iron and Steel Institute in 1900.
"THE LATE SIR GEORGE BEILBY.
We regret to record the death of Sir George Beilby, F.R.S., which took place at his house at Hampstead on the 1st inst. He had been ill for some little time, but the seriousness of his illness was not realised until shortly before he died. He was born in Edinburgh in 1850, and was thus in his 74th year.
Educated privately and at Edinburgh University, George Thomas Beilby went into the service of the Oakbank Oil Co in 1869, and from then was engaged continuously in technical industry, until he retired from it early in the war through pressure of national work. To the general public, and perhaps even to most of our readers, he was best known by what he did in the last ten years of his life; but, eminent as were his public services during that period, his previous career had been distinguished and successful alike in his private and his public activities. His chemical knowledge and insight' enabled him to introduce into the Scottish shale oil industry improvements in the processes of distillation, such as that by which he converted spent material into a valuable source of ammonia. He made prolonged investigations about the same period into the distillation of shale at a relatively low temperature in a current of steam. Little profit was obtainable on each product and success depended on cumulating the small profits on a well-balanced aggregate of useful' commodities. He was not less successful in the other industrial enterprises with which he was associated, notably the Castner Kellner and Cassel Cyanide Companies; and as far back as 1910 he was engaged in experimenting at the Maryhill works of the latter company on carbonising coal at from 400 to 500 deg. C. and on briquetting the coke.
His private industrial enterprises and technical work did not, however, exhaust his energy and interests, though in many matters they added special authority to his influence. He became, for example, a prominent and trusted supporter of the Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College, which in 1886 amalgamated Anderson’s College, the College of Science and Arts—the first Mechanics’ Institute in the country—and the Atkinson Institution. He was a governor of this ancient foundation up to his death, and its chairman for many eventful years, during which it became in 1912 the Royal Technical College, Glasgow, and in 1913 was affiliated to the University of Glasgow. It is housed in buildings that provide over 7 acres of floor space, and with equipment cost some £400,000, and it has a development fund of over £60,000 for the prosecution of research.. The buildings are well equipped and provide facilities for the work of the College unequalled in Great Britain, especially in the Engineering and Technical Chemistry Departments. Last year, in its 127th session, it was attended by over 1,200 day students and over 5,000 evening students, of whom the majority were over 19 years old. It is no secret that in all this remarkable development, even to the skilful designing of the new buildings by which the natural difficulties of the site were not only faced but turned to useful account, the College was indebted to Sir George more than to any other individual. Apart from his personal contributions from his own means, he gave it without stint unwearied labour, unfailing tact in prolonged ' and sometimes difficult negotiations, and the benefit of his wide experience of scientific and industrial matters.
The scope of the College is by no means confined to Glasgow, for over half its day students and nearly a third of its evening students come from other parts of Scotland, and over 100 come from England and other parts of the world. Sir George did not confine his public activities to the College. Apart from his personal work in chemistry and microscopy, he had wide scientific interests, and when in 1900 the National Physical Laboratory was instituted, under the control of the Royal Society and the direction of Sir Richard Glazebrook, he was a member of its first committee, and exerted an active and useful influence in procuring for it a fair start. He was also on its committee when its administration was taken over in 1918 by the Research Department, and remained a member until his death. In 1903 he reported at some length to the Royal Commission on Coal Supplies, with considered and valuable estimates of consumption of coal in the several services in which it is used, and of the order of magnitude of the economies that seemed possible in each by the adoption of improved methods. He was a member of Lord Fisher’s Commission on Fuel and Engines for the Navy in 1912-13. Though he was thus a well-known figure in scientific and administrative circles in London, his chief work was done and his life and recreation were centred in Glasgow, until he became absorbed in the public duties that he assumed during the war.
His help in war matters seems to have been asked on the occasion of the first gas attack, when the leaders of German civilisation introduced the use of poison into international warfare. He gave it immediately and ungrudgingly. All the wide manufacturing knowledge that he possessed or that was among the trade secrets of his companies was placed unreservedly and without charge at the disposal of the Government. With Sir Joseph Thomson and Sir Charles Parsons, he became a member of Lord Fisher’s Board of Inventions and of the Trench Warfare Committee. In 1915 when the Privy Council set up its Committee for Scientific and Industrial Research, and he was asked to act as one of its first members, he gave up his Glasgow home and for the rest of the war and long after resided in a London hotel. From the outset his work, especially on trench warfare, occupied seven long days a week; but the fuel situation was causing the Government the gravest anxiety, and Lord Crewe, just before his retirement, in 1916, from the Presidency of the Privy Council, asked him to undertake the organisation of the Government’s fuel programme on a national basis, instead of leaving it to the uncoordinated co-operation of the industries. No man saw more clearly than Sir George that even the results of co-operative research would be of small service to the great industries unless the fuel position were put on a sound basis. When to this assured general conviction was added the urgent need for home supplies of fuel oil for the Navy, he recognised that the subject was of much greater importance to the safety of the country even than those on which he was engaged, and accepted the Government’s invitation to become chairman and director of a Fuel Research Board, of which Sir Charles Parsons, Sir Richard Redmayne, and Sir Richard Threlfall were to be the other members. The institution of the board was followed rapidly by the decision to erect the Fuel Research Station, in the design every detail of which Sir George was personally concerned. Within a year of its completion he had worked out to a practical result his method of making coals from unsuitable seams serviceable for low-temperature carbonisation by blending them in appropriate mixtures, and had produced a retort in which, effectively if not economically, the method could be applied in practice. The end of the war made it unnecessary to apply it; but the result of this work was that, if the war had continued, the whole of the coal supplies could have been converted into low-temperature coke before being used, and a large part of the fuel oil required by the Navy could have been supplied without importation.
It is hardly necessary in these columns to recite again the work that the Fuel Research Board has done through Sir George Beilby’s inspiration. The need for fuel oil was, indeed,- the immediate occasion of its inauguration, and it is still pursuing both the scientific and practical investigations, and the qualitative as well as quantitative survey of national coal resources that he initiated. But, as has appeared abundantly in these columns from time to time, the Board’s work extended to many other subjects—carbonisation in vertical retorts with steam and the sale of gas by its heating value, are prominent examples—and his work extended to details as well as to the original conception.
Part, indeed, of his personal equipment was his rare ability to combine a wide and sensitive imagination with a tenacious and clear-headed attention to the practical details by which it might be made use of in the best possible way. This doubtless was a valuable gift, but it imposed on him a vast amount of work that men of less ability would not have undertaken. It seems, however, to have been directly responsible for the unusual success that attended his work in the many varieties of activity he undertook. It involved, of course, a strict economy of his personal time. He was a distinguished microscopist, whose investigations led him to the theories of the aggregation and flow of solids, developed in well-known papers and re-stated in 1921 in his work under that name. These theories are in part accepted and in part controversial; but the microscopic work from which they resulted was adopted as one of his pursuits, because it could be fitted in to odd intervals of his other occupations. He was an accomplished musician, distinguished by singular expression as an executant; he built his organ— all but the pipes—with his own hands, and when recently he disposed finally of his Glasgow house and set up his new home in London, he took the organ down himself, and had already begun to re-erect it and to add to the many devices with which he had graced it when he was taken ill. Incidentally, he was an expert in colour photography, an art in which his natural sense of beauty led him to remarkable results.
A notable feature of the great work he did during the last nine years was the fact that he did not accept any sort of remuneration, or even the reimbursement of his personal expenses. On the contrary, the trade information that he gave and the patents he took out were all transferred to the Government gratuitously. He was often to be seen on bitterly cold mornings sitting with a principal officer of the Research Department in a Greenwich omnibus on his road to the Research Station, because he declined to allow a Government car to be placed at his disposal, or even to use his own because of the scarcity of petrol. He had a sensitive appreciation of the abilities and aspirations of other men, and incidents without number have leaked out—for on such matters he was utterly reticent—testifying to the generous sincerity with which he would give help in every form to those to whom he thought it would be of service and to movements for their benefit.
Knighted in 1916, he was a Doctor of Laws of Glasgow and Birmingham, a Doctor of Science of Durham, a past president of the Society of Chemical Industry, the Chemical Section of the British Association, of the Institute of Chemistry, and of the Institute of Metals, and an Associate Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers. He died within a few days of the announcement that the Government had decided to press on with the coal survey he had instituted and with the testing of promising plant in private hands, as is now known, by an additional grant of 30,0001. on next year’s estimates. By a coincidence, the first visit of a party of Members of Parliament to the Fuel Research Station was paid on the day he died.
Sources of Information
- The Engineer 1916/03/31
- The Engineer 1924/08/08
- 1924 Institute of Metals: Obituaries
- 1924 Iron and Steel Institute: Obituaries
- Engineering 1924/08/08