JAMES KEIR, 20th September 1735 - 11th October 1820, Fellow of the Royal Society
Keir was born in Stirlingshire in 1735 as the eighteenth child of John and Magdaline
Keir. James attended the Royal High School, Edinburgh, and studied medicine at the
University of Edinburgh where he met and formed a lasting friendship with Erasmus
At the age of 22, Keir joined the army and was commissioned into the 61st Regiment
(now the Gloucestershire Regiment.) During the Seven Years' War he was stationed
with his regiment in the West Indies. He became Lieutenant on 31 March 1759, Captain-Lieutenant
on 16 May 1766, and Captain on 23 June of the same year. In the spring of 1768 he
resigned his commission, being disappointed at not meeting with more sympathy in
his studies from his brother-officers. He found, however, one congenial friend in
Alexander Blair, afterwards a Captain in the 69th regiment of foot. While in the
army Keir wrote a treatise on the art of war, which was accidentally burnt at his
publishers, and a pamphlet addressed to the Marquis of Granby in favour of the sale
of commissions. At this same period he used to rise at four o'clock in the morning
to read the classics and military writers, and he translated many chapters of Polybius.
Keir ultimately settled at Hill Top, West Bromwich, Staffordshire, and devoted himself
to chemistry and geology. In 1772, with others, Keir leased a long-established glassworks
at Amblecote near Stourbridge, which he managed. Partners included Samuel Skey (who
manufactured vitriol near Bewdley) and John Taylor (a leading Birmingham manufacturer.)
While there, Keir continued his chemical experiments, particularly into the properties
of alkalis. A paper by him ‘On the Crystallisations observed on Glass’ was communicated
to the Royal Society by his friend George Fordyce and printed in the Society's Philosophical
Transactions in 1776.
Early in the same year Keir completed his translation of Macquer's ‘Dictionnaire
de Chimie’ with additions and notes, published in London in two quarto volumes. In
1777 he issued a ‘Treatise on the Different kinds of Elastic Fluids or Gases’ with
a new editionbeing published in 1779. Keir had become friends with Matthew Boulton,
and in the autumn of 1768 he first met James Watt at Boulton's house.
In 1778 Keir gave up his glass business to undertake, in the absence of Boulton and
Watt, the sole charge of their engineering works at Soho. He declined, however, the
offer of a partnership on account of the financial risk, and limited his connection
with the firm to the letter- copying machine department.
In 1779 he invented and took out a patent for a metal made of copper, zinc, and iron,
which could be forged hot or cold. It has been said to be almost identical with what
is now sometimes referred to as "Muntz metal."
About 1780, in conjunction with Alexander Blair, then retired from the army, Keir
established a chemical works at Tipton, near Dudley, for the manufacture of alkali
from the sulphates of potash and soda, to which he afterwards added a soap manufactory.
The method of extraction proceeded on the basis of a discovery of Keir's.
When Joseph Priestley came to Birmingham in 1780, he found an able assistant in Keir,
who had discovered the distinction between carbon dioxide gas and atmospheric air.
Keir worked closely with Priestley to investigate the properties of gases. On 8th
December 1785, James Keir was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. On 3 May
1787 he communicated to the Royal Society some ‘Experiments on the Congelation of
the Vitriolic Acid’ and on 1 May 1788 ‘Remarks on the Principle of Acidity, Decomposition
of Water, and Phlogiston.’ Another paper, on ‘Fossil Alkali’ appeared in 1788 in
the Transactions of the Society of Arts. Keir published the first part of his ‘Dictionary
of Chemistry’ in 1789. He discontinued it upon becoming convinced of the weakness
of his theory of phlogiston.
On 20 May 1790, Keir communicated to the Royal Society ‘Experiments and Observations
on the Dissolution of Metals in Acids, and their Precipitations, with an Account
of a new compound Acid Menstruum, useful in some technical operations of parting
metals.’ This paper contains suggestions which may have contributed to the discovery
of the electro-plate process.
In 1791, following the death of Thomas Day, and at the request of Day’s widow, Keir
wrote and published a biography of his fellow Lunatick: ‘An Account of the Life
and Writings of Thomas Day, Esq.’ During the same year Keir's avowal of sympathy
with the French revolution at a public dinner on 14 July exposed him to much virulent
abuse. He defended himself and Priestley in various pamphlets. He later served as
a Colonel with the Staffordshire Militia.
About 1794, Keir and Blair purchased land at Tividale, near Dudley, on which they
established the Tividale colliery. Keir had long studied the mineralogy of Staffordshire
and, in 1798, wrote an article upon it for Stebbing Shaw, who was about to publish
his ‘History of Staffordshire.’ He also gave Shaw valuable information respecting
the manufactures of Staffordshire. Sir Humphry Davy, while visiting Gregory Watt
at Birmingham in 1800, was introduced to Keir. In February 1811 Keir forwarded to
the Geological Society ‘An Account of the Strata in sinking a Pit in Tividale Colliery’
accompanied by a number of specimens.
On 19 December 1807, while Keir was staying with Blair at Hilton Park, his house
at West Bromwich was burnt, though most of his books and papers were saved. For a
time he lived at a small farmhouse in the neighbourhood.
Keir died at West Bromwich on 11 October 1820, and was buried there at All Saints
Church, Charlemont. By his marriage in 1770 to Susanna Harvey, 1747-1802, he had
an only child, Amelia, 1780-1857, who in 1801 married John Lewis Moilliet of Geneva,
afterwards merchant and banker of Birmingham.