Keir, James

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Keir, James

(b. Edinburgh, Scotland, 29 September 1735; d. West Bromwich, England, 11 October 1820)


A pioneer industrial chemist, Keir developed the first commercially successful process for making synthetic alkali and did much to disseminate chemical knowledge. The youngest of the eighteen children of John Keir and the former, he was educated in Edinburgh, at the Royal High School and Ediburgh University’s medical school; at the latter, during the session 1754–1755, he met Erasmus Darwin and became his lifelong friend. Wishing to travel, he left without taking a degree, purchased a commission in the army, and served during and after the Seven Years’ War; he resigned with the rank of captain; in 1768.

Keir had retained an interest in chemistry acquired at Edinburgh and had corresponded with Darwin on scientific matters; through the latter, who had settled in practice at Lichfield, near Birmingham, he was soon drawn into the group (which included Matthew Boulton, Josian wedgwood, James Watt, and later Joseph Priestley) which constituted the Lunar Society and exercised such a profound influence on the course of the industrial revolution.1 In 1770 he married Susanna Harvey and settled in West Bromwich.

Shortly before, Keir had begun translating P. J. Macquer’s Dictionnaire de chymie (Paris, 1766),2 adding notes and new articles, particularly on the recent work of Black and Cavendish. He also translated the second edition, adding an appendix (later published separately) that summarized recent work on gases. To keep with the rapidly accelerating development of the science, he prepared a new dictionary of his own, of which only the first part was published.3 At this time (1789) Keir, like his friend priestly, was a phlogistonist; unlike Priestley, however, he later abandoned the theory.

From 1771 to 1778 Keir managed a glass factory at Stourbridge. The first and most important of his three papers read to the Royal Society (he became a fellow in 1785) was based on his observations of the crystallization of glass during slow cooling; it included an early and reasoned suggestion that basalt was of volcanic origin.

At least as early as 1771 Keir had, in common with many others, begun to experiment on the production of soda from common salt.4 The course of his experiments is not known because of the destruction of most of his papers in a fire in 1845; but in 1780, in partnership with a former fellow officer, Alexander Blair, he founded the Tipton Chemicall Works, where (more than forty years before the establishment of the Leblanc process in Britain) alkalies were manufactured from sodium and potassium sulfates, waste products from the manufacture of hydrochloric acid. The process was never published but has recently been elucidated by a descendant of Keir.5 The sinking of a coal mine in 1794 to supply the Tipton works led to a paper on the geology of Staffordshire.

Liberal in politics like many of his associates, Keir supported the French Revolution— until dismayed by its excesses. A well-informed man of great common sense, his advice was frequently sought; his tact and diplomacy were valuable attributes in keeping the Lunar Society together.


1. See R. E. Schofield, the Lunar Society of Birmingham (Oxford, 1963), pp. 75–82 and passim; for opposed views on the membership and duration of the Lunar Society see E. Robinson, “The Lunar Society: Its Membership and Organization,” in Transactions. Newcomen Society for the Study of the History of Engineering and Technology, 35 (1962–1963 [1964]), 153–177.

2. See D. McKie, “Macquer, the First Lexicographer of Chemistry,” in Endeavour, 16 (1957), 133–136; R. G. Neville,“Macquer and the First Chemical Dictionary,” in Journal of Chemical Education, 43 (1966), 486–490.

3. For a discussion of these works (details in bibliography) see W. A. Smeaton, “The Lunar Society and Chemistry: A Conspectus,” in University of Birmingham Historical Journal, 11 (1967), 51–64.

4. For the background of these early experiments see R. Padley,“The Beginnings of the British Alkali Industry,” ibid., 3 (1951–1952), 64–78.

5. See J. L. Moilliet, “Keir’s Caustic Soda Process.”


I. Original Works. Keir’s books include his trans. (although his name is not given) of P. J. Macquer, A Dictionary of Chemistry (London, 1771; 2nd ed., London, 1777), prepared from sheets supplied by Macquer and published the year before the French ed.; A Treatise on the Various Kinds of Permanently Elastic Fluids or Gases (London, 1777; 2nd ed., 1779), in which the use of the word “gases” instead of “airs” was a break with convention; The First Part of a Dictionary of Chemistry (Birmingham, 1789); and An Account of the Life and Writings of Thomas Day, Esq. (London, 1791)—Day (1748–1789) was a social and political reformer and member of the Lunar Society.

His articles include “On the Crystallizations Observed in Glass,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society,66 (1776), 530–542; “Experiments on the Congelation of the Vitriolic Acid,” ibid., 77 (1787), 267–281 (he discovered the crystalline hydrate H2 SO4.H2 O); “Experiments and Observations on the Dissolution of Metals in Acids; and Thier Precipitations; With an Account of a New Compound Acid Menstruum, Useful in Some Technical Operations of Partine Metals,” ibid., 80 (1790), 359–384; and “Mineralogy of the South-West Part of Staffordshire,” in S. Shaw, The History and Antiquities of Staffordshire, I (London, 1798), 116–125.

An unpublished MS. a chemistry “primer” for Keir’s only child, Amelia, is in the possession of his descendants (see Moilliet, 1964).

II. Secondary Literature. The main biographical source is Amelia Moilliet, Sketch of the Life of James Keir, Esq., With a Selection From His Correspondence (n.d.; preface dated 1868), compiled by his daughter and edited after her death in 1857 by her grandson, J. K. Moilliet. See also J. L. Moilliet, “Keir’s ‘Dialogues on Chemistry’—an Unpublished Masterpiece,” in Chemistry and Industry (1964), 2081–2083; and “Keir’s Caustic Soda Process—an Attempted Reconstruction,” ibid. (1966), 405–408; B. M. D. Smith and J. L. Moilliet, “James Keir of the Lunar Society,” in Notes and Records. Royal Society of London,22 (1967), 144–154; and S. Timmins,“James Keir, F.R.S., 17354–1820.” in Transactions of the Birmingham and Midland Institute, Archaeological Section, 24 (for 1898; pub. 1899), 1–5.

E. L. Scott

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