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John Arthur Phillips

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John Arthur Phillips (1822-1887)

1887 Obituary [1]

JOHN ARTHUR PHILLIPS, the son of Mr. John Phillips, was born at Polgooth, in the parish of St. Mewan, Cornwall, on the 18th of February, 1822, and received his early education partly at a school in St. Austell, and afterwards from the Rev. J. Rymell, then Rector of St. Blazey, whose teaching had a powerful influence in stimulating his taste for scientific pursuits.

In 1839 he was articled to Mr. R. Carveth of St. Austell, and was for some years engaged on Surveys for Poor-law valuations, and for the improvement of the high roads in the eastern part of Cornwall, where railway communications were not introduced until a much later period. During his pupilage he paid considerable attention to physical and chemical science, a cottage on his father’s property having been devoted to his use as a laboratory, which still bears the name of “Crucible Cottage.”

In 1844 he was admitted as a foreign student at the Ecole des Mines in Paris, and after going through the full course of studies, he passed out with considerable distinction in 1847. For a short time he occupied the then exceptional position for a foreigner of Assistant-Engineer at the coal-mines of Grand-Champ in Burgundy, where he constructed a short line of railway connecting the pits with the canal navigation of Central France.

On returning to England he was engaged for three years in conducting the experiments for determining the evaporative values of British coals, under the Commission, consisting of the late Sir H. T. de la Beche and Dr. (now Sir) Lyon Playfair, appointed to report on the coals suited to the Steam Navy. These experiments, made at the College for Civil Engineers at Putney, where Mr. Phillips was for a time Professor of Chemistry, were the first attempts at the systematic determination of the economic values of coal carried out publicly, and as such have served as the type of similar researches subsequently instituted by different European Governments, and in the United States. The results were presented to Parliament in three Reports, and have since been republished in the Memoirs of the Geological Survey.

On the conclusion of the Admiralty investigation, Mr. Phillips was for a short time engaged at the Chemical Works of Messrs. Pontifex and Wood; afterwards he commenced practice as a Consulting Mining Engineer, which he carried on actively for about twenty-five years, having been in partnership for ten years, 1855-1864, with Mr. John Darlington, but for the remainder of the time he worked alone. During this period he was engaged in the investigation of mineral deposits in many parts of Europe and in North America, having made numerous long and adventurous journeys. He was one of the first English engineers who worked in California or Nevada, his journeys to those countries having been made in the days before the Panama Railway had taken the place of canoes and saddle-mules in the transit across the isthmus.

While in partnership with Mr. Darlington he was engaged in the construction of lead and silver smelting-works at Wildberg in Rhenish Prussia, and of coking and patent fuel works at Sunderland; and after the death of Mr. David Forbes, F.R.S., he took part, as consulting engineer, in the development of the Rio Tinto reduction works.

In 1868 he built the Widnes Metal Works for the extraction of copper from burnt pyrites, and carried them on as Managing Director for several years, during which period he resided in the neighbourhood of Liverpool.

In 1870 his friend and comrade at the hole des Mines, Mr. E. Claudet, having invented a method of saving small quantities of silver and gold contained in Spanish pyrites, he developed the practical application of this process at Widnes with such success, that during the currency of this patent not less than 2,500,000 ozs. of silver and 12,000 ozs. of gold, which, according to the then method of working, would otherwise have been wasted, were recovered.

In 1878 Mr. Phillips gave up the residential direction of the works at Widnes and removed to London, where the remaining years of his life were passed. Without withdrawing entirely from practice, he declined all engagements involving long journeys, including those of the Rio Tinto Company, and thenceforth devoted himself largely to scientific pursuits, problems connected with the development of minerals in rock masses being among his most favourite subjects of study. The results of these investigations were mostly communicated to the Geological Society of London, in whose proceedings he took a very active part.

In addition to numerous scientific original communications, Mr. Phillips published several works on technical subjects. The most important of these, on "The Mining and Metallurgy of Gold and Silver,” which was the result of his Western American journey in 1864-1866, appeared in 1867, and still commands a considerable reputation as a standard authority on its subject. In 1884 he published "A Treatise on Ore Deposits,” which embodies the results of his investigations in different countries, and is regarded as the best systematic treatise on the subject in the English language. In 1852 he wrote a Manual of Metallurgy for the Encyclopedia Metropolitana. This was republished in 1854, and a third time in 1858.

In 1874 he extended it into the larger “Elements of Metallurgy,” a new edition of which was undergoing final revision at the time of his death, and has lately been published. Although an active scientific worker all his life, Mr. Phillips, owing to his long absence in foreign countries, took but little part in the proceedings of scientific societies until after his removal to London. He became a Fellow of the Chemical Society, of the Geological Society, and of the Royal Society. He was elected a Member of the Institution on the 6th of December, 1870, and sometimes presided at the supplemental meetings of students. His chief interest, however, was in the work of the Geological Society, of which he was a Vice-President at his death, and where his loss has been most deeply felt.

He died very suddenly from an attack of cardiac asthma on the morning of the 5th of January, 1887, and was buried in St. Mowan churchyard, close to his old home.

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