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John Roebuck

This article is about the English inventor. For the 19th century British politician, see John Arthur Roebuck.

John Roebuck FRS (1718 – 17 July 1794) was an English inventor who played an important role in the Industrial Revolution and who is known for developing the industrial-scale manufacture of sulfuric acid.


Life and work

John Roebuck was born at Sheffield, where his father had a prosperous manufacturing business. After attending the grammar school at Sheffield and Dr. Philip Doddridge's academy at Northampton, Roebuck studied medicine at Edinburgh, where he developed a taste for chemistry from the lectures of William Cullen and Joseph Black. He finally graduated M.D. at the University of Leiden in 1742. Roebuck started medical practice at Birmingham, but devoted much of his time to chemistry, especially its practical applications. Among the most important of his early achievements in this field was the introduction, in 1746, of leaden condensing chambers for the manufacture of sulfuric acid.[1][2] Together with Samuel Garbett, in 1749 he built a factory at Prestonpans, in Scotland, for the production of the acid, and for some years they enjoyed a monopoly. Having omitted to take out patents, Roebuck's was unable to prevent others from making use of his methods as they eventually became known.

Roebuck next became involved in the manufacture of iron, and in 1760 established the Carron Company ironworks at Carron, Stirlingshire. There he introduced various improvements in methods of production, including the conversion (patented in 1762) of cast iron into malleable iron "by the action of a hollow pit-coal fire" urged by a powerful artificial blast.

Roebuck's next enterprise was less successful. He leased a colliery at Bo'ness to supply coal to the Carron works, but in sinking for new seams he encountered such quantities of water that the Newcomen engine used was unable to keep the pit clear. Hearing of James Watt's engine, Roebuck contacted its inventor. This engine, then at an early stage of its development, also proved inadequate, but Roebuck became a strong believer in its future and in return for a two-thirds share in the invention he assisted Watt in perfecting its details. Roebuck's troubles at the colliery, aggravated by the failure of an attempt to manufacture alkali, brought him into financial difficulties, and he gave his share in Watt's engine to Matthew Boulton in return for the cancellation of a debt of £1200. Subsequently, though Roebuck had to give up his interest in the Bo'ness works, he continued to manage them and to reside at the neighbouring Kinneil House, where he occupied himself with farming on a considerable scale.

Roebuck died in 1794 and was buried at Carriden Churchyard in Bo'ness.[3]

Honours and affiliations

  • 1764 - Fellow of the Royal Society of London



  1. ^ Derry, Thomas Kingston; Williams, Trevor I. (1993). A Short History of Technology: Earliest Times to A.D. 1900. New York: Dover. 
  2. ^ Kiefer, David M. (2001). "Sulfuric Acid: Pumping Up the Volume". American Chemical Society. http://pubs.acs.org/subscribe/journals/tcaw/10/i09/html/09chemch.html. 
  3. ^ Salmon, Thomas James. "Bo'ness - Who's Who Historically". http://www.bo-ness.org.uk/html/history/who-s-who/full_list.htm#john-roebuck. 

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