John James Patison (1828-1905)

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An inventor, experimenter, and proprietor of the Whiterigg Chemical Works, a small scale enterprise to the east of Airdrie.


(Note: This account of the life and work of J.J. Patison was written twenty years after his death, and more than fifty years after his experiments with retort technology. The claim that Patison was first to produce oil from "true shale" (i.e. oil shale) appears unlikely given that the shales and other materials used for oil production in the Airdrie district were forms of coal shale, not oil shale. Some other claims made in the article are similarly difficult to substantiate.)

John Patison of Airdrie

"Some Notes on a Neglected Worthy," by Mr David Brownlie, BSc (Hons), Lond., F.C.S., gave interesting details of the life of John Patison, of Airdrie, who, he said, was one of the many original, and today unrecognised, workers who helped to build up the carbonisation industries. His main achievements were the production of the first practical internal screw conveyor horizontal carbonisation retort, and his labourers in the evolution of the shale oil industry. In the work of collecting his large amount of information regarding Patison, the author acknowledged the assistance rendered by various persons – among them Mr Archibald Kellock, Engineer and Manager of the Burgh of Airdrie Gas-Works.

John James Patison, to give him his full name, said Mr Brownlie, was born in Leith in 1828, and ultimately lived in Airdrie, at Barblues Cottage, where he commenced experiments with the carbonisation of shale. His first experiments were carried out by grinding the shale, putting it in the bowl of a common clay pipe, covering the charge with wet clay, and then heating the bowl in a fire - collecting the oil that came off from the end of the stem. Following upon these early experiments he started shortly afterwards a chemical works at Stand, near Airdrie, which was subsequently removed - either in 1856 or 1857 – to Whiterigg, also near Airdrie, being known as the Whiterigg Chemical Works. The first process carried out was the distillation of shale refuse for the production of oil, and Patison was one of the earliest practical workers in the commercial development of the Scotch shale oil industry. It is known that shale, torbanite, cannel, and similar material, has, like coal, been carbonised from the earliest times. One of the practical pioneers of modern shale carbonisation, and certainly the founder of the Scottish shale carbonisation industries, was James Young, who took out in 1850 his patent which inaugurated the shale oil industry in Scotland. In partnership with Meldrum and Binney, Young set-up his first works at Bathgate the same year, and continued to use torbanite until 1862, when the supply failed. As a result, the much inferior shale had to be employed instead; and it has generally been understood that the first to do this on a large scale was Robert Bell, at the Broxburn Oil Works, in 1862. If, however, Patison carbonised true shale (say) somewhere about 1855 or 1856 at Stand or Whiterigg, of which there seems to be no doubt, he was long before Robert Bell, though James Young must have experimented in the laboratory with shale about 1850.

Both Young and Patison first used ordinary horizontal ∩ shaped retorts. Finally however, Young, in 1860, adopted a vertical, externally-heated, intermittent, tapering, cast-iron retort. Patison's first British patent for the internal screw conveyor retort was dated 1870. This was of horizontal cast-iron construction, externally heated, with a cast-iron screw conveyor, specially intended for the carbonisation of spent dyewood residues and the manufacture of charcoal.

The design was of an extremely efficient and well thought out character for the purpose. It is not known when he first began to carbonise wood on a commercial scale, but apparently it was before 1870, and presumably he must have used at the commencement the ordinary intermittent type of closed retort, such as was then in vogue, subsequently inventing the much improved and more complicated internal screw continuous installation. His second patent, dated 1873, is of more particular interest, because it related to an internal screw externally heated continuous retort intended for the carbonisation, not only of wood and other similar material, but also of coal and shale or mixtures of these.

Screw conveyors were used at an earlier date for feeding coal into retorts, but they were not actually operating at high temperatures. As to the internal screw conveyor carbonisation retort, the first definite use appears to Mr Brownlie to be by Wilhelm Ziervogel, of Prussia (whose British patent was taken out in 1858), for use mainly in connection with the Saxon lignite carbonisation industry, though intended also for shale. This was a vertical retort of very efficient design; the screw being intended to assist the downward travelling charge. There was a hollow perforated large-diameter screw shaft, to act as the discharge for the gaseous and volatile products evolved. In 1865, James Lougan used a horizontal screw conveyor retort with a hollow shaft through which heated gaseous products were passed; and in 1866 James Young devised a horizontal continuous retort for shale which acted on the same principle as a screw conveyor retort, except that the horizontal cylinder revolved bodily, and there was fixed inside a special steel blade or projection in a spiral form.

One of the chief difficulties with the internal screw conveyor retort for plastic and swelling material has always been the jamming of the screw by the charge; and it was claimed by the author that Patison was the first man to devise apparatus for overcoming this trouble. He said said further: "It is very clear also that Patison intended to use this retort either for low temperature carbonisation, so as to give the maximum yield of liquid products, or at a much higher temperature, if illuminating gas was to be the chief requirement, with the liquid products of little importance. If this is the case as applied to coal, Patison was one of the earliest workers in low temperature carbonisation; but the facts are not clear, though there seems to be no doubt that many investigators from the very earliest times were well aware of the difference in the quality of the tar obtained according to the temperature of carbonisation". an installation of twelve of these Patison retorts for shale continued in use for a number of years, but ultimately they were replaced by the Henderson vertical retort. While the screw conveyor retorts were economical in labour, wear and tear and consequent cost of maintenance proved a difficulty.

Another subject on which Patison appears to have carried out a large number of experiments is the distillation of tars mixed with common salt or potassium chloride. Patison in his private memoranda stated his conviction that "not only does salt added to tar improve the products, but potassium chloride gives much better results than common salt itself, the yield on fractionation giving different and superior oils".

All his life Patison remained keenly interested in the shale oil industry. He carried on the Whiterigg Chemical Works along with his son until 1886, when he retired from active business; and he died at Inverkeithing, in Fifeshire, in July, 1905.

The Journal, 4th February 1925