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Sunday, 9 August 2009

George Lowe

In 1819 a letter was published in the scientific press from a George Lowe. It was written from Derby where Lowe was the son of a brewer. He had undertaken experiments on his father's premises there. The letter described experiments, which he had done on ammoniacal liquor "to ascertain its constituents and the quantity of ammonia it contained". In doing this he had obtained a number of substances that had aroused his curiosity. After adding muriatic acid he obtained "a precipitate .. a compound of sulphur and carbon", following evaporation a ‘waxy’ precipitate that gave a ‘permanent brown dye’, and ‘globules of a beautiful red, or rather lake colour’. He wrote his letter in the hope that ‘the foregoing hints... stir up others with more ability and opportunity than myself’.

The main outcome of this letter was that Lowe soon found himself in the employment of the Chartered Gas Company from which base he enjoyed a distinguished career as an innovative and important gas engineer. There is, however, little evidence that the gas industry, or Lowe himself, developed any manufactures based on the experiments that he undertook on ammoniacal liquor in his father's Derby works. His research may well have been limited by a lack of knowledge of organic chemistry. In undertaking these experiments in his father's laboratory Lowe was typical of many young men who were excited by what they read in the scientific press and set about experimenting for themselves. This episode is well known because the experimenter became well known - there may well have been many, many more.

Lowe's experiments may appear to foreshadow the coal tar dye industry. Although he was not to be closely involved in the industry, he was nevertheless an early supporter of the Royal College of Chemistry at a time when the theoretical basis of coal tar dyes were being developed there. None of the attempts at experimentation with ammoniacal liquor seem to have come to anything. None of those who undertook the experiments are recorded as future purchasers of liquor. No more is minuted about direct sales to dyers and the company seems to have concentrated on turning the liquor into salts.

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