James Keir
James Keir FRS  was a Scottish
Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain, it shares a border with England to the south and is bounded by the North Sea to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, and the North Channel and Irish Sea to the...

A chemist is a scientist trained in the study of chemistry. Chemists study the composition of matter and its properties such as density and acidity. Chemists carefully describe the properties they study in terms of quantities, with detail on the level of molecules and their component atoms...

, geologist
A geologist is a scientist who studies the solid and liquid matter that constitutes the Earth as well as the processes and history that has shaped it. Geologists usually engage in studying geology. Geologists, studying more of an applied science than a theoretical one, must approach Geology using...

, industrialist, and inventor, and an important member of the Lunar Society
Lunar Society
The Lunar Society of Birmingham was a dinner club and informal learned society of prominent figures in the Midlands Enlightenment, including industrialists, natural philosophers and intellectuals, who met regularly between 1765 and 1813 in Birmingham, England. At first called the Lunar Circle,...

 of Birmingham
Birmingham is a city and metropolitan borough in the West Midlands of England. It is the most populous British city outside the capital London, with a population of 1,036,900 , and lies at the heart of the West Midlands conurbation, the second most populous urban area in the United Kingdom with a...


Life and work

Keir was born in Stirlingshire
Stirlingshire or the County of Stirling is a registration county of Scotland, based around Stirling, the former county town. It borders Perthshire to the north, Clackmannanshire and West Lothian to the east, Lanarkshire to the south, and Dunbartonshire to the south-west.Until 1975 it was a county...

, Scotland, in 1735 as the eighteenth child of John and Magdaline Keir. James attended the Royal High School
Royal High School (Edinburgh)
The Royal High School of Edinburgh is a co-educational state school administered by the City of Edinburgh Council. The school was founded in 1128 and is one of the oldest schools in Scotland, and has, throughout its history, been high achieving, consistently attaining well above average exam results...

, Edinburgh
Edinburgh is the capital city of Scotland, the second largest city in Scotland, and the eighth most populous in the United Kingdom. The City of Edinburgh Council governs one of Scotland's 32 local government council areas. The council area includes urban Edinburgh and a rural area...

, and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh
University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh, founded in 1583, is a public research university located in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The university is deeply embedded in the fabric of the city, with many of the buildings in the historic Old Town belonging to the university...

 where he met and formed a lasting friendship with Erasmus Darwin
Erasmus Darwin
Erasmus Darwin was an English physician who turned down George III's invitation to be a physician to the King. One of the key thinkers of the Midlands Enlightenment, he was also a natural philosopher, physiologist, slave trade abolitionist,inventor and poet...


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
Alexander Blair
Alexander Blair was a British industrialist who was notable for his major influence on the Industrial Revolution across Britain during the late 18th century and early 19th century....

, afterwards a captain in the 69th regiment of foot. While in the army Keir wrote a treatise
A treatise is a formal and systematic written discourse on some subject, generally longer and treating it in greater depth than an essay, and more concerned with investigating or exposing the principles of the subject.-Noteworthy treatises:...

 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
Polybius , Greek ) was a Greek historian of the Hellenistic Period noted for his work, The Histories, which covered the period of 220–146 BC in detail. The work describes in part the rise of the Roman Republic and its gradual domination over Greece...


Keir ultimately settled at Hill Top, West Bromwich
West Bromwich
West Bromwich is a town within the Metropolitan Borough of Sandwell, in the West Midlands, England. It is north west of Birmingham lying on the A41 London-to-Birkenhead road. West Bromwich is part of the Black Country...

, Staffordshire, and devoted himself to chemistry and geology. In 1772, with others, Keir leased a long-established glassworks at Amblecote
Amblecote is an urban village in the Metropolitan Borough of Dudley in the West Midlands, England. It lies immediately north of the historic town of Stourbridge, extending about one and a half miles from it. As such, it is on the southwestern edge of the West Midlands urban area...

 near Stourbridge
Stourbridge is a town within the Metropolitan Borough of Dudley, in the West Midlands of England. Historically part of Worcestershire, Stourbridge was a centre of glass making, and today includes the suburbs of Amblecote, Lye, Norton, Oldswinford, Pedmore, Wollaston, Wollescote and Wordsley The...

, which he managed. Partners included Samuel Skey (who manufactured vitriol near Bewdley
Bewdley is a town and civil parish in the Wyre Forest District of Worcestershire, England, along the Severn Valley a few miles to the west of Kidderminster...

) 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
Royal Society
The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, known simply as the Royal Society, is a learned society for science, and is possibly the oldest such society in existence. Founded in November 1660, it was granted a Royal Charter by King Charles II as the "Royal Society of London"...

 by his friend George Fordyce
George Fordyce
George Fordyce was a distinguished Scottish physician, lecturer on medicine, and chemist, who was a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians.-Early life:...

 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 at London in two quarto volumes. In 1777 he issued a Treatise on the Different kinds of Elastic Fluids or Gases (new edition, 1779). Keir had become friends with Matthew Boulton
Matthew Boulton
Matthew Boulton, FRS was an English manufacturer and business partner of Scottish engineer James Watt. In the final quarter of the 18th century the partnership installed hundreds of Boulton & Watt steam engines, which were a great advance on the state of the art, making possible the...

, and in the autumn of 1768 he first met James Watt
James Watt
James Watt, FRS, FRSE was a Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer whose improvements to the Newcomen steam engine were fundamental to the changes brought by the Industrial Revolution in both his native Great Britain and the rest of the world.While working as an instrument maker at the...

 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, Birmingham near Handsworth
Handsworth, West Midlands
Handsworth is an inner city area of Birmingham in the West Midlands, England. The Local Government Act 1894 divided the ancient Staffordshire parish of Handsworth into two urban districts: Handsworth and Perry Barr. Handsworth was annexed to the county borough of Birmingham in Warwickshire in 1911...

. 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 an alloy of copper
Copper is a chemical element with the symbol Cu and atomic number 29. It is a ductile metal with very high thermal and electrical conductivity. Pure copper is soft and malleable; an exposed surface has a reddish-orange tarnish...

, zinc
Zinc , or spelter , is a metallic chemical element; it has the symbol Zn and atomic number 30. It is the first element in group 12 of the periodic table. Zinc is, in some respects, chemically similar to magnesium, because its ion is of similar size and its only common oxidation state is +2...

, and iron
Iron is a chemical element with the symbol Fe and atomic number 26. It is a metal in the first transition series. It is the most common element forming the planet Earth as a whole, forming much of Earth's outer and inner core. It is the fourth most common element in the Earth's crust...

, which could be forge
A forge is a hearth used for forging. The term "forge" can also refer to the workplace of a smith or a blacksmith, although the term smithy is then more commonly used.The basic smithy contains a forge, also known as a hearth, for heating metals...

d hot or cold. It has been said to be almost identical with what later became known as Muntz metal
Muntz metal
Muntz metal is a form of alpha-beta brass with about 60% copper, 40% zinc and a trace of iron. It is named after George Fredrick Muntz, a metal-roller of Birmingham, England who commercialised the alloy following his patent of 1832....


In 1780 Keir, in conjunction with Alexander Blair (then retired from the army), established a chemical works at Tipton
Tipton is a town in the Sandwell borough of the West Midlands, England, with a population of around 47,000. Tipton is located about halfway between Birmingham and Wolverhampton. It is a part of the West Midlands conurbation and is a part of the Black Country....

, near Dudley, for the manufacture of alkali from the sulfates of potash and soda, to which he afterwards added a soap manufactory. The method of extraction proceeded on a discovery of Keir's. A nearby road was called Soap Factory Road, though it is now called Factory Road.

When Joseph Priestley
Joseph Priestley
Joseph Priestley, FRS was an 18th-century English theologian, Dissenting clergyman, natural philosopher, chemist, educator, and political theorist who published over 150 works...

 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 gas
Gas is one of the three classical states of matter . Near absolute zero, a substance exists as a solid. As heat is added to this substance it melts into a liquid at its melting point , boils into a gas at its boiling point, and if heated high enough would enter a plasma state in which the electrons...

es. On 3 May 1787 Keir 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. It was translated into German later the same year by Augustin Gottfried Ludwig Lentin
Augustin Gottfried Ludwig Lentin
Augustin Gottfried Ludwig Lentin was a German chemist. He was a lecturer at the University of Göttingen and subsequently inspector of saltworks, and a writer and translator of works on chemistry and metallurgy.-Early life and education:...

 as Versuche und Beobachtungen über die Auflösung der Metalle in Säuren ...

About 1794, Keir and Blair purchased land in the Tividale
- History :The village was in the parish of St Michael named after the church built there. It was created in 1878 as an extension of the town of Tipton in the county of Staffordshire, England...

 area, on the borders of Dudley
Dudley is a large town in the West Midlands county of England. At the 2001 census , the Dudley Urban Sub Area had a population of 194,919, making it the 26th largest settlement in England, the second largest town in the United Kingdom behind Reading, and the largest settlement in the UK without...

 and Tipton
Tipton is a town in the Sandwell borough of the West Midlands, England, with a population of around 47,000. Tipton is located about halfway between Birmingham and Wolverhampton. It is a part of the West Midlands conurbation and is a part of the Black Country....

, 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
Humphry Davy
Sir Humphry Davy, 1st Baronet FRS MRIA was a British chemist and inventor. He is probably best remembered today for his discoveries of several alkali and alkaline earth metals, as well as contributions to the discoveries of the elemental nature of chlorine and iodine...

, 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 neighborhood.

Keir died at West Bromwich on 11 October 1820, and was buried there at All Saints Church, Charlemont
Charlemont and Grove Vale
Charlemont and Grove Vale is a political ward in the Metropolitan Borough of Sandwell, in the English Midlands constituency of West Bromwich East....

. 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.

Selected non-scientific writings

In 1791 Keir wrote, at the special desire of the widow, a memoir of his friend Thomas Day
Thomas Day
Thomas Day was a British author and abolitionist. He was well-known for the children's book The History of Sandford and Merton which emphasized Rousseauvian educational ideals.-Life and works:...

, author of "Sandford and Merton". 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, such as the "Extinguisher Maker", "T. Sobersides", and "High Church Politics". In 1793 Keir published a pamphlet entitled 'The Martial Character of Nations,' arguing that the French were not likely to become so pacific as to make national defense less necessary. Ten years later he wrote Reflections on the Invasion of Great Britain by the French Armies; on the Mode of Defence; and on the useful application of the National Levies (1803).

Keir, who frequently amused himself by writing poetry, suggested to Darwin many improvements (afterwards adopted) for the second part of the Botanic Garden. The most valuable portion of his correspondence was destroyed by the fire at his daughter's residence, Abberley Hall, Worcestershire, on 25 December 1845. A selection from what was saved, with a sketch of his life, was printed for private circulation in 1859.

Honours and memorials

  • Keir was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London on 8 December 1785.

  • Keir is remembered by the Moonstones
    Lunar Society Moonstones
    The Moonstones are a set of eight carved sandstone memorials to various members of the Lunar Society. Made in 1998, they can be viewed in the grounds of the Asda supermarket in Queslett, Great Barr, Birmingham, England...

    in Birmingham.

External links

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