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James Beaumont Neilson

(1792—1865) engineer and inventor of the hot blast in iron manufacture


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(1792–1865), inventor of the ‘hot blast’ which revolutionized the production of iron in Scotland (see economy, secondary sector: 2). After a basic education, Neilson went to work in the Glasgow Gas Works where he became manager and head engineer. It was during this time that he became interested in the scientific application and manufacture of gas. In addition to his own observations in the Gas Works, Neilson attended courses at the Anderson University in Glasgow which augmented his scientific skill. His invention of the hot blast contravened accepted wisdom in the smelting of iron ore. It was believed that cold air assisted the process, based on the observation that smelting performed better in winter than summer. Neilson contended that the reason for this was that there was less moisture in the air in winter and that during the summer it was this dampness which held back the process. Neilson tested his theory by piping hot air, rather than cold, at the Clyde Iron Works in 1828. The result was a startling success. The greater efficiency of the hot blast meant that the abundant supplies of indigenous coal and blackband ironstone could be freely used in the production of iron. Neilson's invention removed the bottleneck which had held back the expansion of the Scottish iron industry and this is reflected in its spectacular growth from 5 per cent of British production in the early 19th century to 25 per cent in 1850. Unfortunately, Neilson did not benefit much from his invention. The idea was copied and attempts to use the legal machinery to acknowledge his patent proved fruitless. Also, many companies, such as Bairds of Gartsherrie, took out licences but did not pay.

From The Oxford Companion to Scottish History in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: British History.


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