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Friday, 7 August 2009

Laming, Hills and the oxide process

The tangle of patents and processes held by Croll, Laming and Hills are very complex. The details were followed in the gas press and have since been briefly outlined by Farrar in an article about Richard Laming.61 The following, drastically abbreviated, account illustrates the ruthlessness with which these chemical manufacturers were prepared to act to get valuable by-products.

In 1848 Laming entered into a partnership with Frank Hills to exploit an, unspecified, process for purification62 that he had developed in Paris. This process was offered to the City,63 Phoenix64 and the Chartered65 gas companies. Laming explained that 'his material consisted of muriate of lime and carbonate of manganese evaporated to dryness in combination with sawdust'. 'Half a bushel of this material' he said 'would purify the same quantity of gas as a bushel of lime'.66 He also told them that the 'resulting dry powder' should be exposed to the air to absorb 'a further portion of oxygen'. Unfortunately for Laming this statement, which might have proved his case for priority of invention, lay forgotten in the Phoenix Company minute books. Laming returned to Paris in 1849. Before he went he lodged a caveat against any other patent being granted which involved revivification. In February 1849 he finally patented the revivification process in France but not in England. What is not clear is what had happened to the tests he had undertaken for the Phoenix Company nor to the fate of his partnership with Frank Hills.

The Chartered Gas Company agreed to test the new process at Westminster in August 1849, having reminded Laming that 'it was an experiment and therefore at his own expense'. He was given facilities and the assistance of F.J. Evans, the Westminster superintendent. Considering Laming's ex-partnership with Hills and his account of revivification to the Phoenix Company, in the following series of events the truth seems to have bent by some, or all, of the parties involved. They were related by Lewis Thompson and have been repeated often. He was clearly an interested party himself. Even more significantly his employers, Hawes, may also have been interested parties. Within a year of this incident, Benjamin Hawes, Snr., already in his late 80s was Governor of the Chartered Company. William Hawes (son of Benjamin senior and patentee of soap making processes] was a partner in the brewery next door to the Westminster Gas Works. William Hawes had numerous industrial interests. His brother, Benjamin Jnr., married to Sophie Brunel, was to become Under-Secretary for War. Their sister Caroline was married to Bryan Donkin Jnr - who was also involved with Frank Hills!

During the tests at Westminster Gas Works, Evans emptied the purifiers and noticed the change of colour as the material 'revivified'. This it was said, was the moment of discovery.

Lewis Thompson's account also suggested that Evans knew well what he was doing and that he had run the same process in Berlin while working for the Imperial Continental Gas Association. ICGA, in Berlin, had connections with the Beneke family of bankers. ICGA ran the European gas industry on behalf of British interests many of who were also involved in the British gas and chemical industries. A description of their other connections with English business and the British chemical industry would make this account even more complicated than it is already.

As Laming ran his experiments, or rather demonstration, at Westminster, various interested parties came to see what was going on. One of these, of course, was Lewis Thompson. Thompson publicly warned Evans not to tell Frank Hills about their discovery of the 'revivification' part of the process because 'he will put it in his patent'. There are several versions of this story in transcripts of the trial and articles in the gas press. In essence they are all the same - the circumstances differ slightly. Hills, of course, put in a patent application which he registered in November 1849. Evans and Laming took out a joint patent in April 1850 but Frank Hills had got there first.

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