Dundonald, Archibald Cochrane, Earl of

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Dundonald, Archibald Cochrane, Earl of

(b. Culross Abbey [?], Scotland, 1 January 1749; d. Paris, France, 1 July 1831)


Dundonald was the eldest son of Thomas Cochrane of Culross and Ochiltree, eighth Earl of Dundonald, and his second wife, Jane Stuart. Following family tradition he entered on a military career but subsequently transferred in turn to the navy and back to the army. He inherited his title in 1778 but little else other than saltpans and mineral rights on the Culross Abbey estate on the north shore of the River Forth. Dundonald spent most of his long life attempting to apply science to the art of manufactures; he achieved considerable technical but little commercial success.

In 1781 he returned to Culross Abbey, where he associated with such Edinburgh intellectuals as Joseph Black, James Hutton, and John Hope. By this time Dundonald had conceived the idea of a substitute for wood tar made from coal, and he built kilns at Culross Abbey. In 1781 he was granted a patent (B.P. 1781 No. 1291) covering not only coal tar but “essential oils, volatile alkali, mineral acids, salts and cinders (coke).” The kilns are described in The Statistical Account of Scotland, and there is a drawing, probably by Dundonald, in the Boulton and Watt Collection (Reference Library, Birmingham). In 1782 Dundonald founded the British Tar Company to operate the patent and build kilns associated with various ironworks. He failed, however, to interest the British Admiralty in coal tar. Coal-gas lighting was almost a by-product of the same experiments, but Dundonald missed the possibility.

Failure with coal tar led to interest in other materials: first alum, a mordant used by dyers and by silk and calico printers (B.P. 1794 No. 2015). His chief contribution to late eighteenth-century industrial chemistry was the production of soda from common salt (B.P. 1795 No. 2043), which solved one of the major technical problems of the late eighteenth century: to find a synthetic substitute for the dwindling supplies of barilla, kelp, wood ash, and weed ash that were essential to the soap, glass, and textile industries. In 1790 Dundonald had gone to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where William Losh and Thomas Doubleday were trying to make alkali from the ash of marine plants by a LeBlanc-like process. Losh was sent to Paris and in 1796, following his return, The Walker Chemical Company, at Walker-on-Tyne, County Durham, was established to operate Dundonald’s patent. Similar works were subsequently established near Newcastle and Glasgow. His other patents cover the manufacture of white lead (B.P. 1779 No. 2189); a variety of heavy chemicals (B.P. 1798 No. 2211) including soda, saltpeter, sal ammoniac, alum, Epsom salts, potassium chloride and sulfate, and sodium phosphate, and the production of alkali from vegetable sources (B.P. 1812 No. 3547).

Dundonald’s other interests included making bread from potatoes; the substitution of potatoes for grain in alcohol production; finding a substitute for gum Senegal; paint, pottery, and textile production; and iron and coal mining. His treatise on the connection between agriculture and chemistry foreshadowed much of Humphry Davy’s Elements of Agricultural Chemistry, including the recognition of phosphorus as an essential plant nutrient.

So speculative and widespread were his enterprises that he was known in Scotland as “Daft Dundonald.” Unhappily none of them helped his family fortunes; he died in poverty in Paris in 1831.


I. Original Works. Dundonald’s writings include Account of the Quality and Uses of Coal Tar and Coal Varnish (London, 1785); The Present State of Manufacture of Salt Explained (London, 1785); Letters of the Earl of Dundonald on Making Bread from Potatoes (Edinburgh, 1791); A Treatise Showing the Intimate Connection That Subsists Between Agriculture and Chemistry (London, 1795); and Directions by Lord Dundonald for Extracting Gum From Lichen and Tree Moss (Glasgow, 1801).

See also “Dundonald Papers Concerning The British Tar Company,” National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh); “Boulton and Watt Papers.” Assay Office Library (Birmingham, England); “Session Papers 241/25,” Library of the Writers to H. M. Signet (Edinburgh); Abridgments of Specifications Relating to Acids, Alkalis..., Patents Office Library (London); and “Newcastle: Chemical Manufacturers in the District,” British Association Report (1863), p. 701.

II. Secondary Literature. On Dundonald and his work, see W. G. Armstrong, ed., The Industrial Relations of the Three Northern Rivers, Tyne, Wear, and Tees (London, 1864); Archibald and Nan L. Clow, “Lord Dundonald,” in Economic History Review, 12 (1942), 47; “Archibald Cochrane, 9th Earl of Dundonald,” in Chemistry and Industry, 24 (1944), 217; The Chemical Revolution (London, 1952); Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, Autobiography of a Seaman (London, 1860); and John Sinclair, ed., The Statistical Account of Scotland, X (Edinburgh, 1791–1799), 412.

Archibald Clow