Roebuck, John

, an eminent physician and great benefactor to Scotland, was born at Sheffield in Yorkshire, in 1718. His father Whs a considerable manufacturer and exporter of Sheffield goods, and intended this his son for the same business, but perceiving his inclination to learning, determined to give him a liberal education, or such as was attainable among the dissenters, of which he was one of the strict sort. After sone school education, therefore, at Sheffield, he sent him to the academy kept by the | celebrated Dr. Doddridge at Northampton, where thd young man laid the foundation of that classical taste and knowledge for which he was afterwards much distinguished. From Northampton he was sent to the university of Edinburgh, where he studied medicine, and particularly chemistry. After the usual course of these studies here, he pursued the same at Leyden, then considered as the first medical school in Europe, and took his doctor’s degree in February 1743.

Soon after his return from the continent, some circumstances induced Dr. Roebuck to settle as a physician at Birmingham, where he met with great encouragement, and at his leisure hours was induced to turn his studies and industry to various objects besides those of his profession. Strongly attached to the rising science of chemistry, he conceived high views of extending its usefulness, and rendering it subservient to the improvement of arts and manufactures. With this view he fitted up a small laboratory in his house, in which he spent every moment of his time which he could spare from the duties of his profession. The first efforts of his genius and industry led him to the discovery of certain improved methods of refining gold and silver, and particularly to an ingenious method of collecting the smaller particles of these precious metals, which had formerly been lost in the practical operations of many of the manufacturers. By other chemical processes, carried on about the same time in his little laboratory, he discovered also improved methods of making sublimate, hartshorn, and sundry other articles of equal importance. In order to render these beneficial to himself, and useful to the public, he associated himself with Mr. Samuel Garbet, of Birmingham, a gentleman of abilities and enterprizing spirit, and established a laboratory upon a large scale, which was productive of many advantages to the manufacturers of that place, and of such emolument to themselves, as contributed greatly to the boldness of their future projects.

The extensive use of the vitriolic (sulphuric) acid irr chemistry, and the prospect of its application to some of the mechanic arts, had produced a great demand for that article, and turned the attention of the chemists to various methods of obtaining it. Dr. Ward had made great progress in this, and was the first who established a profitable manufacture, but the price of it was still high, arising from ther | great expence of the glass vessels, which he used in procuring it, and the frequent accidents to which they were liable in the process. Dr. Roebuck, however, who hucl been for some time making experiments on the subject, discovered a method of preparing it by substituting, in place of the glass vessels formerly used, lead ones of a great size, which, together with various other improvements in different parts of the process, completely effected his end. After the necessary preparations had been made, Messrs. Roebuck and Garbet established a manufacture of the oil of vitriol at Preston-pans in Scotland, in 1749, and not onlyserved the public at a cheaper rate than had ever been done formerly, but realized a greater annual profit from a smaller capital than had been done in any similar undertaking. The vitriol work is still carried on at Preston-pans; but long before Dr. Roebuck’s death, he withdrew his capital from it.

About this time Dr. Roebuck was urged, by some of his friends, to leave Birmingham, and to settle as a physician at London, where his abilities might have a more extensive field of exertion. But the chemical concerns, with which he was now deeply occupied, holding out to him the prospect of a richer harvest, determined him to give up the practice of medicine altogether, and to fix his residence for the greatest part of the year in Scotland. In the prosecution of his chemical experiments, he had been led to bestow great attention on the processes of smelting iron stone, and had made some discoveries, by which that operation might be greatly facilitated, particularly by using pit-coal in place of charcoal. This led him and his enterprizing partner to project a very extensive manufactory of iron; and such was the confidence which their friends reposed in their abilities and integrity, that a sufficient capital was soon procured. When all previous matters had been concerted, Dr. Roebuck began to look round for a proper situation, and after a careful examination of many places, at length made choice of a spot on the banks of the river Carron, as the most advantageous situation for the establishment of the iron manufacture. Here he found they could easily command abundance of water for the necessary machinery; and in the neighbourhood of it, as uell as every where both along the north and south coasts of the Frith of Forth, were to be found inexhaustible quarries’of iron-stone, liuie-stone, and coal. From Carron also, they could easily | transport their manufactures to different countries by sea. The communication with Glasgow at that time by land carriage, which opened to them a ready way to the American market, was short and easy.

Many other things, that need not be here enumerated, fell to Dr. Roebuck’s share in preparing and providing for the introduction of this new manufacture into Scotland, particularly with respect to the planning and erection of the furnaces and machinery. To insure success in that department, nothing was omitted which ability, industry, and experience could suggest. With this view he called in the assistance of Mr. Smeaton, then by far the first engineer in England, and from him received plans and drawings of the water-wheels and blowing apparatus, which, notwithstanding all the mechanical improvements which have been made since, remain unrivalled in any of the other ironworks erected in Britain. This was the first introduction of Mr. Smeaton into Scotland, and was the occasion of various other displays of the skill and experience of that celebrated engineer ia that part of the island. With the same view, and to the same effect, in a future period of his operations, he employed the celebrated Mr.jJames Watt, then of Glasgow, and had the merit of rendering that inventive genius in the mechanical arts, better known both in Scotland and England. The necessary preparations for the establishment of the iron works at Carron were finished in the end of the year 1759, and on Jan. 1, 1760, the first furnace was blown; and in a short time afterwards a second was erected. The subsequent progress of this great work, the many improvements introduced, and its vast importance to Scotland, are matters of local history and interest, on which we cannot enter in this place; but enough has been said to prove that it is to Dr. Roebuck that country owes these great advantages.

When the business at Carron sunk by degrees into a matter of ordinary detail, and afforded less scope for Dr. Roebuck’s peculiar talents, he was unfortunately tempted lo engage in a new and different undertaking, from the failure of which he suffered a reverse of fortune, was deprived of the advantages resulting from his other works, and during the remainder of his life became subjected to much anxiety and disappointment. This was his becoming lessee of the duke of Hamilton’s extensive coal and salt work* at Borrowstounness. The coal there was represented | to exist in great abundance, and understood to be of superior quality; and as Dr. Roebuck had made himself acquainted with the most improved methods of working coal in Kngiand, and then not practised in Scotland, he had little doubt of this adventure turning out beneficial and highly lucrative. In this, however, he was cruelly disappointed; and the result was, that after many years of labour and industry, there were sunk in this project, not only his own, and the considerable fortune brought him by his wife, but the regular profits of his more successful works: and along therewith, what distressed him above every thing, great sums of money borrowed from his relations and friends, which he was never able to repay; not to mention that from the same cause, he was, during the last twenty years of his life, subject to a constant succession of hopes and disappointments, to a course of labour and drudgery ill suited to his taste and turn of mind, to the irksome and teazing business of managing and studying the humours of working colliers. But all these difficulties his persevering spirit would have overcome, if the never-ceasing demands of his coal-works, after having exhausted the profits, had not also compelled him to withdraw his capital from all his different works in succession: from the refining work at Birmingham, the vitriol work at Preston-pans, the iron works at Carron, as well as to part with his interest in the project of improving the steam-engine, in which he had become a partner with Mr. Watt, the original inventor, and from which he had reason to hope for future emolument.

It would be painful to mention the unhappy consequences of this ruinous adventure to his family and to himself. It cut off for ever the flattering prospect which they had of an independent fortune, suited to their education and rank in life. It made many cruel encroachments upon the time and occupations of a man whose mind was equally fitted to enjoy the high attainments of science, and the elegant amusements of taste. As the price of so many sacrifices, he was only enabled to draw from his colliery, and that by the indulgence of his creditors, a moderate annual maintenance for himself and his family during his life. At his death, his widow was left without any proVision whatever for her immediate or future support, and without the smallest advantage from the extraordinary exertions and meritorious industry of her husband.

Dr. Roebuck had, some years before his death been | attacked by a complaint that required a dangerous chirurgical operation, which he supported with his usual spirit and resolution. In a short time he was restored to a considerable share of his former health and activity; but the effects of it never entirely left him, and several slighter returns of the complaint gradually impaired his constitution. He still, however, continued, until within a few weeks of his death, to visit his works, and to give directions to his clerks and overseers. He was confined to his bed only a few days, and died July 17, 1794, in the seventy-sixth year of his age, retaining to the last all his faculties, his spirit and good humour, as well as the great interest which he took, as a man of science and reflection, in the uncommon events which the present age has exhibited.

From a man so deeply and so constantly engaged in the detail of active business, many literary compositions were not to be expected. The great object which he kept invariably in view, and which gives him a just claim to the respect and gratitude of his country, was to promote arts and manufactures, rather than to establish theories and hypotheses. The few essays which he left, however, enable us to judge of what might have been expected from his talents, knowledge, and boldness of invention, if he had had more leisure for study and investigation. A comparison of the heat of London and Edinburgh, read in the Royal Society of London June 29, 1775; experiments on ignited bodies, read there. Feb. 1C, 1776; observations on the ripening and filling of corn, read in the Royal Society of Edinburgh June 5, 1784, are all the writings of his, two political pamphlets excepted, which have been published. 1


Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, vol. IV.