James Keir

James Kier

1735 (Edinburgh) – 1820 (West Bromwich, England)

Keir was a significant member of the group who kick-started the Industrial Revolution, and established the world’s first soap factory. He and Darwin, a close lifelong friend (he suggested helpful improvements to Darwin’s poetry), met as students in Edinburgh; through Darwin he met Wedgwood and other Lunar Society members. Among those who became good friends, he worked closely with Priestley, managed Boulton and Watt’s business (unpaid) while they were away, loved Small affectionately, and wrote a biography of Day. Black and Berthollet were among his correspondents. Davy described him as both amiable and great.

John Wilkinson

1728 (Clifton, England) – 1808 (Bradley)

Wilkinson’s technological advances made him an influential pioneer of the use of cast iron, and a significant developer of precision machine tools. He was a generous supporter of Priestley (married to Wilkinson’s sister), and had a close working relationship with Watt and Boulton, until Watt discovered he was pirating his own steam-engine designs. He supported Telford, and worked with Darby in the construction of the world’s first iron bridge. Young joined Watt and Wilkinson to help choose the design for a new London Bridge. While many of Wilkinson’s innovations were widely influential, his cast-iron shoes did not catch on.

Alfred Nobel

1833 (Stockholm) – 1896 (San Remo, Italy)

It is an over-simplification to think of Nobel only in terms of explosives, much as they overshadow his patents for such things as artificial silk and leather. Zinin was engaged by Nobel’s father Immanuel as a private tutor when the family lived in Russia. Nobel later worked in Pelouze’s laboratory for a year. Zinin reminded him of the disconcerting discovery of another of Pelouze’s students, Ascanio Sobrero: nitroglycerine. Nobel managed to stabilise it, and commercially exploited it as well as other discoveries of his own, e.g. gelignite. Hugo, perhaps an unlikely friend, called Nobel the richest vagabond in the world.

Alfred Nobel knew…

Josiah Wedgwood

1730 (Burslem, England) – 1795 (Stoke-on-Trent)

The point about Wedgwood as a pioneer industrialist was his endless pursuit of quality and innovation, whether in manufacture, design or social care. His close friend Darwin collaborated on several ventures and suggested the name ‘Etruria’ for his new factory. He funded his friend Priestley’s experiments, helped Beddoes with his Pneumatic Institute and Stubbs with his enamelled paintings, and was prompted by Flaxman to copy a historic vase. His friend Franklin praised his abolitionist medallions. Banks got him clay from Australia and corresponded about his innovative pyrometer, while Lavoisier enquired about high-temperature crucibles.

Robert Owen

1771 (Newtown, Wales) – 1858 (Newtown)

In Manchester, Fulton lodged with Owen, and got him to back his proposed digging-machines; Owen also clashed there with the young Coleridge (becoming friends), and met his great friend and discussion-partner Dalton. Engels, a great admirer, wrote for his newspaper. Bentham backed him. He enjoyed philosophical argument with Godwin, Malthus, Wilberforce and Ricardo, all admirers of his New Lanark achievements. Pictet hosted a trip to Paris, introducing Cuvier, Humboldt and Laplace. Maclure, Lesueur, Say and Neef were all involved in his utopian adventure in America, two of his sons marrying Neef’s daughters.