James Young

(1811—1883) chemist and philanthropist

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‘Paraffin’ (1811–83), founder of the Scottish shale oil industry, scientist, and inventor. Born in Glasgow, the son of a self-employed carpenter, Young was educated at Sabbath school, the Mechanics' Institute, and Anderson's University. In 1832 he became assistant to Thomas Graham, professor of Chemistry. When Graham transferred to University College, London, in 1837 he took Young with him. There Young decided to enter industrial management, joining James Muspratt in St Helens before going in 1844 to Tennants of Manchester. One of his friends, Lyon Playfair, drew his attention to an oil spring in a coal mine at Riddings in Derbyshire. Young refined some of this oil and realized that saleable products—naphtha, lubricants, and lamp-oil—could be made from it; he therefore established the first oil refinery in Britain in 1848. Mistakenly thinking that the petroleum had its origins in the coal measures, he began to experiment with the distillation of coals. This error made his fortune for it led him to the Scottish cannel (candle) coals and oil-shales, notably torbanite (a geological freak midway between coal and oil-shale and the richest oilbearing mineral ever discovered). Close to rich deposits of torbanite Young's Bathgate oil-works was established in 1851, using his patent enrolled in 1850. This venture was known to be highly profitable; infringers entered the industry, but Young defended his patent successfully in the courts; yet the technology was applied worldwide. After the expiry of his patent in 1864 a Scottish oil mania developed; 97 firms were founded in Scotland by 1870 but increasingly this industry was faced with American competition. Young turned to philanthropy, scientific experiments, and collecting works on alchemy. He became president and benefactor of Anderson's University and supporter of his friend, David Livingstone, the explorer (see Africa). In politics he was active in the Liberal Party (see Liberalism).

From The Oxford Companion to Scottish History in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: British History.

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