Grace's Guide

British Industrial History

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James Keir

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James Keir FRS (1735–1820), chemist, geologist, industrialist and inventor

1735 September 20th. Born in Stirlingshire

Keir attended the Royal High School, Edinburgh, and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh where he met Erasmus Darwin.

1857 Keir joined the army and was commissioned into the 61st Regiment (now the Gloucestershire Regiment) at the age of 22, serving in the West Indies and rising to the rank of Captain before resigning his commission in 1768.

He settled at Hill Top, West Bromwich where he made amateur chemical experiments and studied rocks.

In 1772 (with others) he leased a long-established glassworks at Amblecote near Stourbridge, which he managed. The partners included Samuel Skey (who manufactured vitriol near Bewdley) and John Taylor (1711-1775) (a leading Birmingham manufacturer). While there, Keir continued his chemical experiments, particularly into the properties of alkalies.

In 1778 he gave up managing the glassworks, (though he retained a share in the business until at least 1789, in partnership with William Scott (of Stourbridge), a Stourbridge clothier and Skey's brother in law). He was then recruited to manage Matthew Boulton's Soho Manufactory near Handsworth.

In 1779 he patented a metal alloy made of copper, zinc and iron which could be forged hot or cold. Window frames made from this metal may still be found at Boulton's home, Soho House (now a museum).

In 1780, he and Alexander Blair (an old friend from his army days), set up a chemical works at Tipton to make alkali and soap. He and Blair opened a colliery, at Tividale, Dudley in 1794.

He and Joseph Priestley worked closely to investigate the properties of gases. Both were members of the Lunar Society.

Keir supported the French Revolution, for which he drew considerable criticism. Interestingly, he later served as a colonel in the Staffordshire militia.

1820 October 11th. He died at West Bromwich and is buried on All Saints Church, Charlemont, West Bromwich.

Almost all of his papers were lost in a house fire in 1845.

He is remembered by the Moonstones in Birmingham.

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