PARAFFIN YOUNG by Jean Currie
we consider the recent fluctuations of the history of the oil industry we
think of oil sheiks or TV’s ‘Dallas’, but in reality the genius who
instigated this industry was a modest carpenter’s son from Glasgow.
James Young is to be thanked for founding the first commercial oil works
in the world in 1851, a chemist with the humorous but deserved name of
‘Paraffin Young’. The young apprentice carpenter decided to
self-educate by attending evening classes at Anderson’s College, now
known as University of Strathclyde. There he met Professor Thomas Graham,
a Chemistry lecturer who later appointed his student as his assistant.
Young studied and became a brilliant chemist who saw the potential of
devising a method of refining oil from cannel coal deposits from
residue heaps, or ‘bings’, can still be seen against the skyline in
places like Shotts in Lanarkshire. As a child reared in that area when
snow seemed to last from November till Easter the bings were ready-made
playgrounds for sledging. Later Young transferred his whole operation to
oil-bearing shale in areas around West Lothian where it is claimed there
are still ample reserves. Shale was cheap and relatively easy to extract
and for fifty years from 1865 three million tonnes of oil shale were mined
each year. Only one ‘red ashy bing’ existed near our home and it had
special status to us as children because of its bright colour, but a
scolding always followed a slide down it because of the stain it left on
Young opened a refinery near Addiewell where the raw material from the
shale mines was heated to almost 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. This vaporised
the oil content, which was then distilled to form the base of crude oil
for the manufacture of products such as lubricants, oil for heating and
lighting, candles, fertilisers, and waterproofing for paper and textiles.
When Dr Young ‘s master patent still had a few years to run in 1859, the
world’s first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania. It was decided by
the American courts that Royalties had to be paid to Young’s company
called, ‘Young’s Paraffin Light and Mineral oil Company’, later to
become part of the BP Group in Grangemouth which was mainly fed from North
Sea oil. These Royalties extended for several years to enforce due
payments from backsliders.
1864, after the British patents had expired, rival Scottish companies
started up in local shale fields employing 10000 men in the first year.
Mines and refineries were started in villages such as Pumpherston, Oakbank,
Broxburn, Winchburgh, Kingscavel, Tarbrax and Addiewell which became a
substantial industrial complex and the largest chemical works at that
time. The works at Addiewell covered a huge area with storage sheds,
furnaces and towering chimneys. By the 1900s two million tons of shale
were being extracted annually employing 4000 men, producing boom villages.
In 1866 Dr Young sold the Addiewell plant to the major ’Young’s Light
and Mineral oil Company’, and although he remained in the business he
took no active part in running it.
Scottish shale oil industry, however, could not match the low production
costs of foreign oil wells whose operators simply drilled a hole and
allowed streams of raw oil to flow freely. The hundred and twenty
company-owners who had rushed to the shale fields in company-built
villages found their businesses coming to an end. After hard times, wage
reductions, strikes and closures in the 1920s, the Scottish shale oil
industry persevered until 1962, causing massive unemployment and hardship
at its closure. Skilled workers were later fortunate to gain employment
with BP in Grangemouth and were said to be the backbone of the plant.
Young now turned his skills and energies to other scientific pursuits and
enjoyed a more leisurely existence with his family in yachting and
travelling. In 1872 Dr Young made significant discoveries in rustproofing
ships, practices later adopted by the Royal Navy. Being aware that bilge
water was acidic, he suggested that quicklime could be used to prevent it
corroding iron ships. He also worked with Professor George Forbes around
1880 on the speed of light. In his lifetime he received many honours for
his scientific works including being elected a Fellow of The Royal Society
of Edinburgh in 1861.
nine years he was President of Anderson’s College and founded the Young
Chair of Technical Chemistry, never forgetting the debt he owed as an
evening class student and the support from Professor Thomas Graham.
attending the college he had met and become a close friend of David
Livingstone, a friendship which lasted until the explorer’s death. He
had generously donated funds to Livingstone during his exploits in Africa.
When the explorer disappeared his friend provided the means for a search
expedition but sadly Livingstone had died before he was found. His friend
James Young financed a statue of Livingstone in George Square in Glasgow.
become a wealthy man, he never forgot his debt to Professor Thomas Graham,
his friend and mentor in his early days at Anderson’s College, and
erected a statue in his memory at Glasgow Cathedral. If the world’s oil
wells eventually run dry, what better legacy could be paid to Paraffin
Young, the carpenter’s son from Glasgow, than to re-assess the potential
deposits of oil left in the ground as well as in ‘The Five Sisters’ of
the Bathgate area?