Grace's Guide

British Industrial History

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James Marsh

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was a chemist who invented the Marsh test for detecting arsenic.

  • 1794 James Marsh was born on 1 September, in Woolwich.
  • 1820s Marsh assisted Peter Barlow, who taught mathematics at the Royal Military Academy, with his work on electromagnetism, including the invention of Barlow's wheel.
  • 1822 He occupied the junior position of practical chemist at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich
  • 1829 He became assistant for the chemical lectures that Michael Faraday delivered at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. Marsh also worked as an assistant to Michael Faraday at the nearby Royal Military Academy from 1829 to 1846.
  • 1830 He developed the screw time fuse for mortar shells and the percussion tube.
  • 1832 HMS Castor was the first ship to have her guns modified with these innovations.
  • 1833 In November, Marsh was asked to test some coffee of which a certain Mr George Bodle had partaken shortly prior to his death. Marsh discovered the presence of arsenic. He testified at the inquest, and the jury returned a verdict of murder against Bodle's grandson. When shown to the jury the samples had deteriorated, allowing the suspect to be acquitted due to reasonable doubt. Though acquitted at his trial, the grandson later admitted his guilt.
  • 1836 Marsh had become fascinated by the detection of arsenic. He had developed a method of combusting arsenic so that it could be unmistakably deposited on cold porcelain. His experiments earned him the gold medal of the Society of Arts.
  • 1837 Marsh was a skilled and inventive scientist who held the post of Ordnance Chemist at the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich. He invented a percussion cap for naval guns for which he won the silver medal of the Society of Arts and was rewarded financially by the Admiralty.
  • 1845 His gun modifications were approved for the Army, when Woolwich began their manufacture - for coastal artillery only. They were in use until 1866, when they became obsolete.
  • 1846 Marsh died at Beresford Street, Woolwich, on 21 June.


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