The Production of Chemicals during the Industrial Revolution

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Although some debate whether the First Industrial Revolution was truly a revolution, meaning an immediate change, or more of a gradual evolution, one fact remains: The First Industrial Revolution shaped the world, its economy, and the very way of life its people enjoy. The invention of the steam engine kicked off the festivities, and textile production was one of the first to hit the ground running.

The advent of industrial-scale chemical production is an oft-overlooked outcome of the First Industrial Revolution. Thomas Henry of Manchester (1734-1816) is often given credit for launching industrial chemical manufacture, starting with "Henry's Genuine Magnesia." Magnesia was marketed for its medicinal properties, and Henry's further research revealed applications in the pottery industry, which was another product of the First Industrial Revolution.

Henry also worked on the large-scale production of mineral water, which was water impregnated with "fixed air" (known today as carbon dioxide.) His research showed that much more carbon dioxide could be dissolved in water when pressurized with a compressor, and he proposed using a pig's bladder for compression. The pig's bladder idea was considered impractical on a large scale, but Dr. Haygarth of Chester improved the technology by suggesting the use of a bellows. Thomas Henry used the idea and launched into large-scale manufacture of mineral waters.

An obvious next step was fermentation and brewing processes, since these processes result in carbon dioxide production. Breads and malt liquors were manufactured on a large scale. Meanwhile, Henry's study of fermentation and wine led to the production of "aromatic vinegar," or perfumes made by dissolving camphor and essential oils in acetic acid. Perfumeries manufactured aromatic vinegar, and the product was marketed for its medicinal qualities, fighting off infections due to bad air.

Textile manufacture was beginning to boom, and in particular, production of wool, silk, and cotton prevailed. As chemical production grew, its application to the textile industry was observed and reported by Henry. On a parallel path, French chemist Berthollet was making huge strides in the bleaching of textiles. Meanwhile, Henry observed that chemists did not study dyes, because these were considered artists' territory. Some research proved that dyes could be improved by studying textile structure and porosity, and developing fixing agents, which aided the dyes' affinity for certain fabrics.

Henry's sons also worked on some tangential projects, based on their roots in chemical manufacture. Thomas Junior entered the field of sulfuric acid production, which was known at the time as vitriol. Peter Henry conducted research on removing oils from various colorants. William Henry, the most successful of the sons, went into partnership with his father, making advances in the study of fermentation, extraction of metals from their ores, the manufacture of glass and porcelain.

The advances in chemical manufacture during the First Industrial Revolution were a crucial part of the overall advancement of industry. Many of the industries that grew during that time, including pottery, textiles, and fermented products, relied on the advances made by Thomas Henry and his contemporaries. Their work laid the foundation for the chemical manufacturing industry that exists today.

Resource: Musson, Albert Edward and Robinson, Eric (1969). "Science and technology in the Industrial Revolution". University of Manchester at the University Press.

More about this author: Michelle Tuesday

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