My books on manufacturing

My books on manufacturing
My books on manufacturing history

Sunday, August 7, 2022

The British Chemical Industry comes of age

 In the aftermath of WW2, the British Chemical Industry would have been unrecognisable to a time traveller from the 21st century. Plastics were Bakelite, Perspex was for the windscreens of Spitfires and polythene for the insulation of cables for radar. The chemicals required were derived from the fermentation of molasses from sugar beet, most of which was produced by the Distillers Company which had suffered from a decrease in the consumption of whisky after WW1. The textile industry was still dependent on a constant supply of chlorine for bleaching. Fertilisers were being manufactured, but effective pesticides and weedkillers were still very much in the laboratory.

The industry comprised ICI, which had brought together in 1926 the major British manufacturers of explosives, alkali and dyestuffs. There were then Albright & Wilson with a near monopoly of phosphorus, Fisons, and a string of other smaller producers. Laporte was producing Hydrogen Peroxide, then identified as a rocket fuel

Absent were the oil majors. 

In the USA the story was different, for there were plentiful local reserves of oil which Union Carbide explored to find uses for the lighter distillation of crude oil, naphta. They built crackers adjacent to refineries to exploit these gases. Interestingly it was ICI which first made Perspex and polythene using chemicals derived from molasses. The USA could lay claim to nylon, although, again, it was the British in the small Manchester firm of British Calico Printers that produced the first terylene. ICI took this on, given their much larger capacity. 

The British exploitation of chemicals from oil came first during WW2 with the Derby company, British Celanese which built their own cracker to replace the acetate they produced for the manufacturer of rayon. They were followed in the late forties by BP in partnership with Distillers at Grangemouth, Shell at Stanlow and ICI at their vast Wilton complex. 

I write about the early days of the chemical industry in How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World which you can buy by following this link . Later years will be covered in the sequel volume.

How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World is now available to pre-order

Phil Hamlyn Williams has completed his sixth book beginning an exploration of British manufacturing. His great-grandfather exhibited at the ...