Roebuck, John

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(b. Sheffield, England, 1718; d. Borrowstounness, West Lothian, Scotland, 17 July 1794) chemistry, technology.

The third son of John Roebuck, a prosperous Sheffield cutler, manufacturer, and merchant, and Sarah Roe, Roebuck was educated at Sheffield The third son of John Roebuck, a prosperous Sheffield cutler, manufacturer, and merchant, and Sarah Roe, Roebuck was educated at Sheffield Grammar School and Dr. Doddridge’s Academy, Northampton. He did not join the family business but elected to study medicine at Edinburgh, where he met William Cullen, David Hume, Joseph Black, and other Scottish intellectuals. From Edinburgh he went to Leiden, where he graduated M.D. in 1742. His dissertation, dated 1743, is entitled “An Investigation Into the Effects of Rarefied Atmosphere on the Human Body.”

Following graduation Roebuck settled as physician in Birmingham. He disliked medical practice, however, and turned progressively to chemistry as manufacturer and consultant, finally becoming a refiner (recoverer) of gold and silver for the Birmingham jewelry trade. By 1746, in conjunction with the Birmingham merchant Samuel Garbett, Roebuck was established as a metal refiner and consultant chemist. Later he began to produce sulfuric acid, made in lead instead of glass vessels, which greatly reduced the cost.

In 1749 Roebuck and Garbett opened a second vitriol works at Prestonpans, near Edinburgh; the market for sulfuric acid there was probably as a “sour” in bleaching. An export trade soon built up with the Low Countries. Roebuck and Garbett did not register a patent until 1771, but their application in Scotland was rejected by the Court of Session on the ground that the process had been used in England since 1756. Despite setbacks, the Prestonpans vitriol works prospered. Roebuck added ceramic production and, most important, after carefully weighing the prospects, founded the Carron ironworks near Falkirk, Stirlingshire, in 1759. His partners were his brothers Benjamin. Thomas, and Ebenezer Roebuck; Samuel Garbett; and the Cadells of Cockenzie, shipowners and timber traders who had already attempted iron production. Carron was the real foundation of the Scottish iron industry. The first furnace, in which coke replaced charcoal, was blown on 1 January 1760; and the same year John Smeaton installed a blowing engine. Malleable iron was produced from 1762 (B.P. 1762 no. 780). In 1773 George III granted the Carron works a royal charter, and from 1779 it made the ordnance known as “carronades.”

The Success of the Carron works led Roebuck to lease coal mines and saltworks at Borrowstounness, West Lothian. The pumping engines there were inadequate; Roebuck brought in James Watt, and they experimented with Watt’s improved engine. Watt owed Joseph Black £1,200 and Roebuck took over the debt in exchange for a two-thirds share in Watt’s patent (B.P. 1769 no. 913); but this transaction, coupled with other activities, overtaxed his financial resources. He was forced to withdraw capital from his Birmingham, Prestonpans, and Carron firms. Matthew Boulton of Birmingham canceled a loan in exchange for the two-thirds share in Watt’s patent and so led to the foundation of the firm of Boulton and Watt. Roebuck remained at Borrowstounness, where he managed the coal mines and saltworks and engaged in various scientific experiments, including an attempt to produce synthetic alkali.

Roebuck was a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and of London and a freeman of Edinburgh.


I. Original Works. Two of Roebuck’s articles are “A Comparison of the Heat of London and Edinburgh,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 65 (1775), 459–462; and “Experiments on Ignited Bodies,” ibid., 66 (1776), 509–5 10. Copies of his M.D. dissertation, “An Investigation Into the Effects of Rarefied Atmosphere on the Human Body,” are in the University of Leiden’s archives and at St. Bartholomew’s Medical College, London.

II. Secondary Literature. General Register House, Edinburgh, contains the Customs House returns from Prestonpans and specifications of patents and drawings for the period 1767–1787. Birmingham Reference Library has Soho MSS, the correspondence of Boulton and Watt; documents relative to a suit by the Carron Ironworks Company against Samuel Garbett (1777–1779); and a thesis by P. S. Bebbington, “Samuel Garbett, 1717–1803.” The Patent Office Library, London, has preserved abridgments of specifications relating to various inventions.

See also A. Clow and N. L. Clow, “John Roebuck (1718–1794),” in Chemistry and Industry, 61 (1942), 497–498; and “Vitriol in the Industrial Revolution,” in Economic History Review, 15 (1945), 44–55; Henry Hamilton, “The Founding of Carron Ironworks,” in Scottish Historical Review, 25 (1928), 185–193; R. Jardine, “An Account of Dr. John Roebuck, M.D., F.R.S.,” in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 4 (1798), 65–87; and Journal of the House of Lords, 34 (1774–1776), 76, 217.

For additional information, see Henry M. Cadell, The Story of the Forth (Glasgow, 1913), 143–194; A. Clow and N. L. Clow, The Chemical Revolution (London, 1952), 93–95, 133–143, 181, 333–341; Henry Hamilton, An Economic History of Scotland(Oxford, 1963), 140–141, 180, 193–214; Samuel Parkes, Chemical Essays, 4 vols. (London, 1815), 11, 377–378, 399; IV, 17; Richard B. Prosser, Birmingham Inventors and Inventions (Birmingham, 1881), 16; Arthur W. Roebuck, The Roebuck Story (Don Mills, Ontario, 1963), 6–18; and Samuel Smiles, Industrial Biography (London, 1863), 135.

Archibald Clow

Roebuck, John Arthur

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Roebuck, John Arthur (1801–79). Radical MP for Bath (1832–7, 1841–7) and Sheffield (1849–68, 1874–9). Born in Madras, raised in Canada, and qualified as a barrister, Roebuck was nicknamed ‘Tear 'Em’ for his fierce attacks on aristocracy, privilege, and inefficiency. As a Benthamite and friend of J. S. Mill, Roebuck proposed a system of state education, supported the New Poor Law, and helped Lovett draft the Charter. In 1855 he moved for a committee of inquiry into the conduct of the Crimean War, which resulted in the fall of Aberdeen's government. From the exposure of military inefficiency, Roebuck went on to campaign for administrative (civil service) reform. He believed in laissez-faire, and opposed sabbatarianism, factory legislation, and trade unions. As he grew older, Roebuck became increasingly interested in foreign causes and his radicalism became nationalistic. He advocated overseas colonization and supported the South in the American Civil War.

John F. C. Harrison

Roebuck, John

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Roebuck, John (1718–94). An entrepreneur and inventor, Roebuck was born in Sheffield, studied in Edinburgh, and took a medical degree at Leiden. His early efforts in Birmingham led to a partnership with Samuel Garbett to produce sulphuric acid. He then set up a factory at Prestonpans to make sulphuric acid, then pottery, and finally cast iron. In 1760 he opened the Carron ironworks near Stirling, using pit-coal rather than charcoal, and specializing in ordnance. For many years Carron was the largest British foundry. Roebuck's later venture into coal-mining proved disastrous, despite collaboration with James Watt to try to prevent flooding. His grandson was the radical MP John Arthur Roebuck.

J. A. Cannon