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British Industrial History

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John Roebuck

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Roebuck (1718–1794) of the Carron Co, English inventor

1718 September 17th. Baptised in Sheffield, the second of five sons of John Roebuck (1680-1752), a successful merchant, and Sarah Roe.

After attending the grammar school at Sheffield and Dr Philip Doddridge's academy at Northampton, he studied medicine at Edinburgh, where he developed a taste for chemistry from the lectures of William Cullen and Joseph Black.

1742 He finally graduated M.D. at the University of Leiden. He started practice at Birmingham, but devoted much of his time to chemistry, especially in its practical applications.

1746 Among the most important of his early achievements in this field was the introduction, of leaden condensing chambers for use in the manufacture of sulphuric acid.

1749 Together with Samuel Garbett, he built a factory at Prestonpans, in Scotland, for the production of sulphuric acid and for some years they enjoyed a monopoly - see Samuel Garbett and Co. Eventually his methods became known, and, having omitted to take out patents, he was unable to prevent others making use of them.

1760 He next became involved in the manufacture of iron, and established the Carron Co ironworks at Carron, Stirlingshire. There he introduced various improvements in methods of production, including the conversion (patented in 1762) of cast iron into malleable iron "by the action of a hollow pit-coal fire" urged by a powerful artificial blast.

1768 December 5th. Surrendered his share in the Carron Co

His next enterprise was less successful. He leased a colliery at Bo'ness to supply coal to the Carron works, but in sinking for new seams encountered such quantities of water that the Newcomen Engine which he used was unable to keep the pit clear. Hearing of James Watt's engine, he contacted its inventor. This engine, then at an early stage of its development, also proved inadequate, but Roebuck became a strong believer in its future and in return for a two-thirds share in the invention assisted Watt in perfecting its details.

His troubles at the colliery, aggravated by the failure of an attempt to manufacture alkali, brought him into financial difficulties, and he parted with his share in Watt's engine to Matthew Boulton in return for the cancellation of a debt of £1,200.

Subsequently, though he had to give up his interest in the Bo'ness works, he continued to manage them and to reside at the neighbouring Kinneil House, where he occupied himself with farming on a considerable scale.

1794 July 17th. Died

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