John Roebuck (1718–94)

From around the mid-eighteenth century, the chemist and entrepreneur John Roebuck influenced important developments in the British Industrial Revolution, particularly in the manufacture of sulphuric acid, iron production and the invention of the steam engine. He helped to establish central Scotland as a heavy industrial region.

Roebuck grew up in the city of Sheffield in northern England, where his father was a merchant. After grammar school and a nonconformist academy he studied medicine at the universities of Edinburgh and Leiden. He began practising as a physician in Birmingham but gave time increasingly to his own scientific and technical investigations, which proved helpful in the local gold and silver trades. With the entrepreneur Samuel Garbett he set up a precious-metals refinery. One of the substances they used was sulphuric acid, for which there was increasing demand. Roebuck developed a new method to make it in large lead-lined chambers, which was more economical than existing processes. He and Garbett decided in 1749 to establish a works to produce sulphuric acid on a large scale at Prestonpans near Edinburgh. After several years of successful operation, the lead chamber process became known and taken up in other countries but Roebuck did not benefit as he had not taken out a patent. It continued to be used for two centuries.

In 1759 Roebuck started an ironworks near Falkirk in Scotland that was to become one of the most important of the era. He provided a quarter of the capital alongside two of his brothers, Garbett and two local merchants, William Cadell senior and junior. The Carron Ironworks, as it was known later, confidently applied new methods on a large scale. It was fuelled by coal when almost all of the iron industry still relied on charcoal and it was unique in being built with multiple blast furnaces from the start. Carron became a leading producer of pig iron but the works struggled financially for some years and Roebuck gave up his partnership in 1768.

In the 1760s Roebuck took a lease on estates with coal mines and a salt works at Kinneil, about 10 km east of Carron, though he could raise enough capital to develop the industries as intended. At the same time, he went into partnership with the young inventor James Watt and helped him to build his first operational steam engine. Roebuck owned a two-thirds share of Watt’s first patent, dated 1769. This might have made him extremely wealthy but he went bankrupt in 1773 and lost his share in the patent to Watt’s new business partner, Matthew Boulton. He continued to struggle for lack of money, pursuing scientific research, farm improvement and pottery manufacture until his death some 20 years later.