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Sunday, 9 August 2009

Mr Kyan

The most famous wood preservation method was that of John Howard Kyan who patented a process using 'corrosive sublimate'. The term ‘kyanising’ was widely used but it was its methods, rather than the use of sublimate, which were copied by others. Sublimate is a particularly unpleasant and dangerous substance ‑ 'it has a sharp metallic taste and extremely poisonous ... it is used in medicine, especially in cases of syphilis and in surgery as an antiseptic in the form of a dilute solution'. Its connection with syphilis had given it a particularly bad reputation.

Kyan said in 1835 that he had taken 40 years to devise his patent -suggesting he must have begun in the 1790s. His antecedents are not clear ‑he may have been the J.H.Kyan who wrote to Boulton and Watt around 1800 as an Irish mill owner. He had a works in Pimlico where he lived at 'Gillingham Cottage' but later to moved to 'Nailsea Cottage', Twickenham.

He said that he had devised his process through work at the Old Street Vinegar Works. This works, on what is now the north east corner of the Old Street roundabout, was owned in the 1830s by members of the Champion family. Other Champion family members were involved in Walker and Ward's Islington White Lead Works in which Fishwick was also a partner. Enderby - who also had connections with Kyan, had brought Fishwick’s white lead process to London.

Kyan clearly had a reputation throughout the chemical community ‑the first name given to aniline on its discovery by the chemist, Runge, in 1834, was 'kyanol' ‑a clear compliment to Howard Kyan. Kyan took out a number of patents, all in the 1830s. Most were concerned with the preservation of a number of substances from decay but others covered the preparation of salts from gas industry by products and 'steam engines'.

In 1835 the Admiralty instigated an Enquiry into his process, having undertaken tests 'at Woolwich in the Foundry Pit and in pits at Margate Pier'. The process was tried in a number of other places. It was used in the building of a ship called the 'Samuel Enderby'. It was the second Samuel who probably built the first Enderby House and a print of the ship, built in 1834, hangs in the present building. A model of the ship is in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and her work in the South Seas whaling trade made her a particularly important testing ground for this new process.

Another place in which sublimate was tested was in the timber 'laid down in Mr. Pearson's father's house in Greenwich'. This was 'Ravensbourne House' the old mansion, rebuilt around 1800, belonging to the owners of the Greenwich copperas works. In the 1830s Charles Pearson, the copperas works owner, both bought tar and ammonia from the gas industry, and also acted as auditor to the Phoenix Gas Company.

Considering both Enderby and Pearson's interest in, and liaisons with, the early gas industry both of these testing places must be particularly significant. The new railway companies took up Kyan's system. Perhaps the most famous relationship in this context is Kyan's work with I.K. Brunel on the Great Western Railway. A timber preservation works was set up on the Grand Junction Canal at Bulls Bridge depot where the wood to be preserved was immersed in tanks full of sublimate.

A similar 'kyanising' plant in Battersea caught fire with disastrous results in 1847 but, in this case, the tanks were said to be full of tar. Thus 'kyanising' eventually came to be used to describe a process that used tar distillates - in particular creosote - for wood preservation and the dangerous sublimate ceased to be used.

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