The Living Age 2221, 15.1.1887
* The Life And Letters of John Mercer, F. R. S. By Edward A. Parnell. London: Longmans and Co. 1886.From Nature.
The subject of this memoir was one of the most remarkable men of his time. A son of the soil, and almost wholly self-taught, he effected what was practically a revolution in one of our staple industries by his discoveries in technical chemistry and by his application of chemical principles to dyer's art. With no laboratory training other than that which he gave himself, he by his skill and sagacity as an experimentalist added enormously to the resources of a great indurstry; owing nothing to academies, and uninfluenced by schools of learning, he made himself master of the chemical philosophy of his time, and by the acuteness and originality of his speculations he has permanently influenced the development of theoretical chemistry. In Lancashire, the scene of his work, the name of John Mercer is held in hardly less esteem than that of John Dalton; and probably to many people in Cottonopolis the director of the Oakenshaw Print-Works was a far more important personage than the old Quaker in George Street, who gave lessons in the "New System of Chemical Philosophy" at the rate of half-a-crown an hour. The atomic theory has doubtless contributed much to the intellectual greatness of Manchester, and Manchester men are not ungrateful; they have named one of their streets after its illustrious author. Still calicoes and calico-printing are what they have to live by, and although they have not yet, so far as we know, named a street after John Mercer, they have shown, by the wide-spread adoption of his processes, a very practical appreciation of the value of his labors.
John Mercer is the Palissy of calico-printing. Not that there was anything in the least degree tragic in the life of the Lancashire dyer; his career was one of almost uninterrupted success, and his domestic peace was unclouded. But he had the great potter's indomitable will and fixity of purpose; his unwearied patience and unremitting industry. Both men had the same high ideal of their art and the same contempt for false work. Each began his life at the bottom rung of the social ladder, and each found his life's work in a direction other than that in which he set out. Both were men of strong religious feeling, and both left the faith of their forefathers in compliance with the dictates of principle, but with this difference, that whilst the Huguenot artist found the Bastille and death, John Mercer could build his Sunday schools in peace and quietness, and find contentment in a standard of doctrine which Mr. Matthew Arnold has characterized as the product of a mind of the third order.
John Mercer was born on February 21, 1791, at Dean, near Blackburn. His father was originally a hand loom weaver, but the development of the factory system had led him to take to agriculture. He died when the son was barely nine years old, and John was set to work as a "bobbin-winder." A pattern-designer belonging to the Oakenshaw Print-Works, in which Mercer was destined to play so considerable a part, gave him his first lessons in reading and writing; and the excise surveyor at th esame works (it was in the days when each square yard of printed calico paid an excise duty f threepence) taught him the elements of arithmetic. He soon became noted for his aptitude at figures, and later on for his skill in music; and for a time he found a congenial exercise for his artistic faculty in the band of a militia corps. Music remained a passion with him throughout his life, and although, we are told, a man of great self-possession, he was sometimes entirely overcome by it. Mercer was sixteen years of age, and had settled down apparently to the work of a hand-loom weaver, when a very slight incident - as slight as that which made Palissy a potter - gave an entirely new direction to his thoughts. His mother, it appears, had married again. Visiting her one day, John was so much struck with the orange color of the dress of his little step-brother on her knee, that, to use his own words, he "was all on fire to learn dyeing." He had no means of obtaining instruction; he had no book on the subject, nor could he procure any receipts. He found, however, that the dyers of Blackburn, some five miles distant, obtained their materials from a certain druggist in that town. Mercer repaired to him, and requested to be supplied with materials for dyeing.
"What do you want?" inquired the shopman.
"I can't tell you," replied John; "will you tell me the names of all the different materials you sell the dyers here?"
"Oh, I sell them peachwood, Brazil wood, logwood, quercitron, alum, copperas, and others," mentioning their names. Mercer reckoned his money, and found he could afford three-pence for each dye-stuff. Armed with these articles he returned home, "full," as he says, "of dyeing and dyeing materials." He seems to have been fortunate in obtaining the use of a convenient place for his experiments, where he had all the necessary apparatus for small trials. Here he commenced entirely by "rule of thumb;" but by industry and close observation he acquired considerable knowledge of the properties of dye-stuffs, and ascertained the methods of dyeing in most of the colors then in vogue.
To become a dyer was now the dominant idea of Mercer's life. Everything comes to him who waits, and fortunately for Mercer, as it seemed at the time, he had not to wait long. The Messrs. Fort, the proprietors of the Oakenshaw Print-Works, heard of the success of his dyeing experiments, and offered him an apprenticeship in the color-shop of their factory. It was one thing to get inside a color-shop and quite another to get any information there. No workmen are more jealous of their arcana than the foremen of color-shops; their knowledge even to-day is almost entirely empirical, and their secrets are invested with a degree of mystery which is frequently ludicoursly disproportionate to their value. After ten months' irksome labor Mercer's indentures were cancelled. The Continental disturbances of 1810 reacted disastrously upon all industries connected with the cotton manufacture, and the "Berlin decree," which led to the destruction of all printed calicoes and other goods of English manufacture then in bond in certain European States, was severely felt by the Lancashire printing establishments. Mercer was forced dor a time to abandon the calling of a color-mixer, and to return to his work at the hand-loom. But his brains were still among his color-pots. It was characteristic of the man that, being in Blackburn to procure a marriage license, he should be led to a second-hand book-stall in the market-place to search for printed matter relating to his favorite art. At a time when Mary Wolstenholme might properly consider him as more anxious about the res angusta domi, he was engaged in negotiating the purchase of "The Chemical Pocket-Book; or, Memoranda Chemica, arranged in a Compendium of Chemistry, by James Parkinson, of Hoxton." This nook, together with "The Tables of New Nomenclature, proposed by Messrs. De Morveau, Lavoisier, Berthollet, and De Dourcroy, in 1787," opened out a new world to him. He had, at the very outset of his trial, convinced himself that it was only by a thorough knowledge of the properties of dyeing materials, and of their behaviour under varying conditions, that the operations of the dyer can be intelligently carried on; he now saw that all this knowledge must primarily depend upon chemical science, and that it was on chemistry that the extension of his art must ultimately rest. This view of the relations of science to practice strengthened with Mercer's experience. Years afterwards, when he had attained to fame, he was called upon the express his opinion concerning the necessity of technical education in this country. "I entirely concur with you," he wrote to a friend, "that for the preservation and ben[e]fit of the British arts and manufacturers, the masters, managers, and skilled artisans ought to be better instructed in the rationale and scientific principles involved in their operations. Chaptal remarked that 'practice is better than science' (i. e., abstract princioles, ' but when it is necessary to solve a problem, to explain some phenomenon, or to discover some error in the complicated details of an operation, the mere artisans is at the end of his knowledge, he is totally at a loss, and would derive the greatest assistance from men of science.' Probably no person would, from his own experience, confirm the above remark, as regards the art of calico-printing, more heartily than myself."" He observed that, "as regards good practical men, no district could excel Lancashire; but in all the processes, from the grey piece to the finished print, embracing thirty to forty operations, both the science and practical experience of the cleverest are requisite to keep all things straight and to detect the cause of, and rectify, mishaps. ...An amusing volume might be written about ludicrous mistakes, and equally ridiculous attempts to rectify them."
Mercer's first important invention in calico-printing was made in 1817, and curiously enough it was in the application of a color akin to that which he fired his ambition to become a dyer. He found in the alkaline sulphantimoniates an excellent medium for procuring a bright orange color on cotton fabrics. Heretofore no good orange suitable for the use of the calico-printer was known. The best orange was made from a mixture of quercitron yellow and madder red, but it was difficult to adapt it to other colors in the styles then in demand. Mercer's antimony orange supplied the want; it was not only a fine color in itself, but was capable of being combined and interspersed in a great variety of styles. This discovery led to his re-engagement at the Oakenshaw Works; after a seven years' service he was admitted as a partner, having as a co-partner, for a while, Richard Cobden; and he remained connected with the firm until its dissolution in 1848, when he retired from business with a moderate fortune.
It would be difficult in the space at our disposal to do full justice to the many discoveries and improvements which Mercer introduced into the art of dyeing and printing. His skill and energy led not only to the invention of new styles and new colors, but to the development even of new branches of chemical industry. His application, for example, of chromium compounds practically created the manufacture of bichrome; when Mercer first began experimenting with this substance its cost was half-a-guinea an ounce; it is now produced by the hundreds of tons, and may be bought retail at less than six-pence per pound. Some of his processes are, of course, obsolete, but many are still in use; the manganese bronze, for example, which he introduced in 1823, seems to re-appear about every ten years, and was in large demand some three or four years since. Mercer was an indefatigable experimenter; nothing is more extraordinary than his skill and inventiveness in the application of his new colors to the creation of fresh styles or novel combinations; his genius in this respect was almost kaleidoscopic.
One of the greatest improvements made by Mercer in the operations of the dyer was his introduction of the alkaline arseniates in what is called the "dunging" operation, the object of which is to remove that portion of teh mordant which has not become insoluble and firmly attached to the fabric by the process of "ageing." The loosely attached mordant, unless previously removed, would dissolve in the dye-bath, to the injury of the whites and the deterioration of the dyeing liquor. Of scarcely less importance was his method of preparing mixed cotton and woollen fabrics so as to enable the mixed fibres to acquire coloring-matter with equal readiness. His observation of the extraordinary facility with which certain "lakes," or compounds of alumina with organic coloring-matters, re dissolved by oxalate of ammonia led to the introduction of a method of using aluminous color-precipitates in steam color-work, which was extensively employed in the East Lancashire print-works. And lastly, his method of preparing stannate of soda was not only of service to the calico-printer by greatly cheapening an indispensable agent, but was of considerable pecuniary benefit to himself.
Mercer's skill and knowledge were ungrudgingly given to the fellow-workers in his art, and he was constantly appealed to by the calico-printers and chemical manufactures of Lancashire for assistance and advice. His acqaintance with the literature of the abstract chemistry of his time was very remarkable. He had indeed all the essential qualities and instrincts of the scientific mind; there was a certain comprehensiveness about the man, a certain cigorous grasp of general principles, and a largeness of view which made his influence felt at once among men of science. There is no question that had Mercer devoted himself to pure science he would have attained hardly less distinction than he has secured as a technologist. His method of work was essentially scientific. Thus no sooner did he become acquainted with the doctrine of chemical equivalents than he had the strengths of his chemicals and reagents adjusted to a simple relation of their equivalents. Mercer indeed was one of the earlierst workers in volumetric analysis; in 1827 he devised a method of valuing bleaching-powder and bichrome by means of standard solutions .His speculations on the nature of white indigo, on the constitution of bleaching-powder, and on the ferrocyanides and nitro-prussides were much in advance of his day. His theory of catalysis, which he illustrated by many striking and original examples, was extended by Playfair, and has been subsequently worked out by Kekulé as the only satisfactory explanation yet given of a very remarkable and interesting group of phenomena. Graham's early experiments on the heat of chemical combination and the nature of solution induced Mercer to test the practicability of effecting the partial separation of different hydrates by some process of fractional filtration. These experiments, made from a purely scientific standpoint, resulted in the discovery of the mode of action of the caustic alkalies on cellulose, and led to the process which has come to be known as "mercerizing," in which cotton fabtics are "fulled" by their contraction on treatment with caustic soda. Mercer appears to have been the first to notice the remarkable solvent action of an ammoniacal copper solution on cotton, which could be reprecipitated as almost pure cellulose by the addition of an acid. His habit of searching for first principles led him, as far back as 1854, to speculate on the relations among the atomic weights of the chemical elements, and the constitution of chemical compounds; he brought his views before the Leeds meeting of the British Association in 1858. He was an early worker on photography, and devised several modifications of the cyanotype process adapted to printing on cambric and similar fabrics.
Mercer was one of the original fellows of the Chemical Society, and he was a juror of the Exhibitions of 1851 and 1862. In 1852 he was elected into the Royal Society. He died, ripe in years and rich in the contentment afforded by the retrospect of a well-spent life, on November 40, 1866.
T. E. Thorpe.