Nobel in Stevenston
Nobel's Explosives Company
by John E.
Unlike most inventors Alfred
Nobel combined technical creativity with commercial flair, both to a very high
degree. A lack of capital proved no hindrance to Nobel and having borrowed it he
had, within ten years, founded an international group of dynamite companies in
Sweden, Finland, Germany and Norway before turning his attention to the United
States, Great Britain and the rest of Europe.
Outline map of Scotland showing location of Ardeer.
very lucrative Nobel found Great Britain one of the most difficult of all his
ventures mainly for bureaucratic reasons.
Nitroglycerine as a
blasting explosive was first advertised in the U.K. in 1865. The first recorded
demonstration was in Cornwall in 1865 at the exhibition held by The Royal
Cornwall Polytechnic Society. The first practical trial with the liquid was
carried out at West Hoe Quarry in April 1866. It was also in use in North Wales
in the Glyn Rhowy Slate quarry at Llanberis later in the same year.
Nobel took out a British patent for dynamite in May 1867. He came over to
England a third time and began a vigorous public relations exercise to convince
the authorities and potential users of the safety of his new explosive. The
first demonstration was carried out at Merstham Quarry, Surrey in the south of
England in July of 1867. During this demonstration Nobel set fire to sticks of
dynamite, threw packets of the explosives from a cliff, and detonated it in
various ways to demonstrate both what it could do and its safety. The
demonstrations, however, failed to persuade the authorities at this time.
At this time the law relating to explosives in the United Kingdom was governed
by the Gunpowder Act of 1860 which pre-dated Nobel's use of
nitroglycerine (blasting oil) and the terms of the Act were, therefore,
technically completely out of line with the new explosive. In 1866 Parliament
attempted to deal with inadequacies by passing the Carriage and Deposit of
Dangerous Goods Act. This Act failed to provide any means of enforcement
and, through lack of understanding, failed completely to address the real
problem of safety and sensitivity. The authorities cautious approach was
unfortunately re-enforced in the U.K. by an explosion of a consignment of liquid
nitroglycerine which came in through Liverpool and blew up at Caernarvon (9th
July 1869) and the Government of the day passed an act totally prohibiting the
manufacture, transport or sale of nitroglycerine or any product containing it in
the U.K. (Explosives Act of 1869).
Nobel, however was not to be deterred. He persisted and after two very
frustrating years was able to persuade the authorities of the efficacy and
safety of dynamite as distinct from liquid nitroglycerine and got an easing of
the strict regulations but was still unable to obtain permission to establish
his business in England. Eventually he turned to Scotland where he found a
receptive group of entrepreneurial businessmen with whose help, and principally
assisted by John Downie, then the General Manager of the Glasgow shipbuilding
firm the Fairfield Engineering and Shipbuilding Company, Nobel set up a company
with a factory site on the west coast of Scotland some 30 kilometres south of
Glasgow on the Clyde Estuary at Ardeer in April 1871 with the rights to work his
patents under the name of The British Dynamite Company. John Downie was
appointed the first General Manager and Secretary, a post which he held until
his untimely death in a tragic accident when destroying some defective dynamite
in Southern Ireland.
nitration - sitting on the 3 legged stool !! the
first Hill in 1875.
The factory was designed by
P.A. (Alarik) Liedbeck, Nobel's friend and the engineer who had assisted him
with the Heleneborg plant and who was the manager of his first factory at
Vinterviken in Sweden. The factory at Ardeer therefore benefited substantially
from the experience already acquired from Nobel's earlier factories. The
equipment installed was a considerable improvement on the early systems. From
the very start nitroglycerine was produced on the batch process plant which,
with its "one-legged stool" (to prevent the operator falling asleep) is now
almost a logotype for dynamite manufacture. The first 336 kilo charge of nitroglycerine was produced at Ardeer on the 13th January 1873.
The first batch of dynamite was produced later that year by hand mixing the kieselguhr and nitroglycerine in brass-lined wooden boxes in 45 kilo lots. The
cartridging had the benefit of the already developed dynamite cartridging
machine. All these process houses had sand floors which had full Government
approval on the somewhat dubious grounds that the Ardeer sand was of "such a
fine quality that it did not constitute 'grit' within the meaning of the
Explosives Act of 1875". Another peculiar "safety" precaution was that
girls who operated both these processes worked in their bare feet.
Ardeer, in the 1880s.
The kieselguhr with
which nitroglycerine was mixed to produce dynamite was found in substantial
deposits in Scotland at Loch Cuithir on the Isle of Skye and in Aberdeenshire.
The supply of acid for the nitration process was at first obtained from The
Westquarter Chemical Company near Falkirk, half way between Edinburgh and
Glasgow and conveniently on the banks of the Grand Union Canal at Laurieston.
Nobel bought into this company and entered into partnership with its director,
Mr. McRoberts who, in 1874, became his chief chemist and, eventually, Ardeer's
factory manager. McRoberts' name has become synonymous with the design of early
gelatine mixing and cartridging machinery some of which is still in use today.
In 1877 the company name was changed to Nobel's Explosives company.
It was to the Westquarter factory that Nobel turned when he determined to
manufacture detonators in Scotland in 1876. When manufacture began in that year
only six workers were employed using mercury fulminate brought in from abroad.
However, in 1878, Nobel decided to produce the fulminate requirement on site and
a small factory for this purpose was built at Redding-Moor about half a
kilometre south of the Westquarter factory and on the other side of the Grand
Union Canal. As soon as the decision to build this factory had been taken Nobel
sent to Sweden for another young assistant, C.O. Lundholm to take charge of the
technical production. Lundholm completed the job in twelve months and then, in
1879, went to Ardeer as assistant manager where he became a household word. From
these small beginnings the Westquarter factory grew until, at its peak, 1,700
people were employed producing some 73 million detonators.
It was about this time that McRoberts moved to Ardeer and sold his house
"Hawthorn Cottage" in Laurieston to Nobel to serve as his residence when in
Scotland. "Hawthorn Cottage" is still standing and occupied today and is, in
fact the only building directly associated with Alfred Nobel remaining in
'Hawthorn Cottage' - Nobel's house in Lauriston.
The company prospered during
the latter part of the 1880's developing an impressive overseas trade and, had
by the time of Nobel's death become the largest exporter of explosives in the
world. This had been achieved through diversification into and the development
of new products, including blasting gelatine in 1879, gelignite in 1881,
ballistite in 1887, guncotton in 1892 and cordite in 1895.
The export trade was greatly facilitated by the access to the sea which was
fully exploited by loading from the beach (a process in which it was "all hands
to the pumps", even the factory girls assisting) into the sailing vessel "The
Jeannie" (named after the wife of Mr. McRoberts, Nobel's Factory Manager).
Later, the acquisition of the harbour facilities at Irvine provided quayside
loading for coasters and, over the years, a succession of explosives steamers
was acquired or built and owned to serve the overseas trade, each, with one
famous exception, named after the wives of company dignitaries:
The Alfred Nobel
The Lady Gertrude Cochran
The Lady Tennant
The Lady Anstruther
The Lady Dorothy
The Lady McGowan
The Lady Helen.
Nobel protested about the naming of the "Alfred Nobel" pointing out that a ship
was a "She" and not a "He", adding the comment that "she is in any case much
too elegant to be named after an old wreck like me."
At its foundation in 1871, the British Dynamite Company began with a plot of
only 400,000 square metres, but expansion was rapid, and by 1907, Nobel's Ardeer
factory was reputed to be the largest explosives factory in the world.
The Ardeer site proved to be ideally suited to the manufacture of high
explosives. When Alfred Nobel moved to the area in 1871, he described it vividly
in a letter to his brother.
"Picture to yourself everlasting bleak sand
dunes with no buildings. Only rabbits find a little nourishment here; they eat a substance which quite unjustifiably goes by the name of
grass. It is a sand desert where the
wind always blows often howls filling the ears with sand. Between us and America, there is nothing but water
a sea whose mighty waves are always raging and foaming. Now you will have some
idea of the place where I am living. Without work the place would be
In reality, Ardeer was the perfect location for Nobel's factory. Apart from
being an easily accessible location for shipping, and being conveniently close
to the thriving industrial heart of central Scotland, it was relatively
isolated, being situated on a natural peninsula with the Firth of Clyde on its
west side, the River Garnock to the east, and the mouth of the River Irvine to
the south. Perhaps more important still was the suitability of the land itself,
the sandy surface providing a perfect material for the raising of embankments
and mounds to protect the danger zones within the factory, which themselves
could be separated by wide safety distances.
The new factory, as Nobel's colourful description implies, was very remote, a
very favourable point in the eyes of the nervous public, but its isolation meant
that there were no roads only a dirt track through the sand dunes. Equally there
were no services and, from the very outset, the factory had to be
self-sufficient. Steam was no problem as a single boiler house was soon built at
the factory entrance. The water supply did, however, cause problems. Factory
water was pumped from a nearby coal mine, the Lucknow Pit, but it was very muddy
and formed a thick scale in the boiler which had to be chipped away every six
weeks and was totally unfit for drinking. Drinking water was obtained from a
natural spring about a kilometre away and had to be carted up the track by hand.
In spite of these sparse resources one of Nobel's first actions was to build a
research and test centre which established the Ardeer research tradition which
was to become a legendary centrepiece of technical excellence.
Research laboratory in Ardeer around 1880.
The first Nitroglycerine Hill,
dynamite plant, nitric acid unit and laboratory (converted to the works
manager's house in 1879) were all contained in the original 400,000 square
meters of the landward section of the site. The addition of a second Hill and a nitrocotton plant in 1881, and the construction of a third Hill in 1882 resulted
in the expansion of the site to just over 1 square kilometre.
The period from 1887 to 1896 witnessed tremendous developments at the factory.
During that time groups of buildings each associated with additional product
developments grew up around the original factory, each one a considerable
factory in its own right. In 1887 a branch railway line of the Glasgow and South
Western Railway was laid right into the heart of the factory linking up with the
national railway routes and opening up a whole new era of access. In the 1890s a
further three Nitroglycerine Hills were established bringing the total to six.
Finally, in the year and month of Alfred Nobel's death, the workers were given
the luxury of direct train access to a private railway station established at
the factory and the period of isolation was over.
By 1902, the factory had grown to cover about one 1.5 square kilometres with 450
separate structures within which 1,200 people were employed. The growth had been
assisted by the rapid expansion in export trade.
By this time, process steam was provided by an impressive central boiler house,
and electricity and compressed air by the factory's own power station. Narrow
gauge railways were built to connect most parts of the site, which were also
linked to the national railway network by the factory's own sidings and
marshalling yards. However, a large proportion of the factory's output was now
exported directly via its own jetty at the south-east end of the peninsula.
The factory continued to grow after Nobel's death. Subsequent expansions
enveloped the land to the north and the east of the original 400,000 square
meters, crossing the River Garnock, the company even acquiring the Bogside
Racecourse, once the venue for the Scottish Grand National. At its peak the
factory covered an area of approximately 8 square kilometres. The employee
payroll increased from the mere handful of 50 at its beginning to over 13,000 in
its heyday, manufacturing all its own requirement of acids, ammonium nitrate and
components importing only the very basic of raw materials and having an enviable
independence from outside contract trades. The infrastructure was equally
impressive, the site having its own power station, road and narrow gauge railway
network as well as direct national rail links and marshalling yards.
The technological revolution that Nobel's detonator and dynamite triggered was
immediate and far-reaching and the embryonic industries he established had a
meteoric rise which inevitably engendered intense commercial and corporate
rivalry. Nobel's Explosives Company and Ardeer were inevitably caught up in this
corporate battlefield. The rivalry and competition reached a climax by 1883 in
which year a palace revolution took place in Nobel's Explosives. The then
General Manager, A. A. Cuthbert resigned, and Thomas Reid was appointed Chairman
and in 1884 was joined on the board by Charles Tennant, the head of the great
Glasgow heavy chemicals firm based at St. Rollox: two strong personalities who
had a profound effect on the emerging situation. Meanwhile Nobel's other
European enterprises had also prospered and, with equally strong personalities
at the helm, antagonisms developed the solution to which was, as Nobel saw it, a
fusion of all the Nobel Companies in Europe under a single overall control.
Thomas Reid is credited with the idea that the best way to handle this situation
was to set up a Trust Company. In this Nobel and Reid were of the one mind but,
in the event, it was decided to set up two trust companies one in Paris the
other in London. Thomas Reid together with Charles Tennant worked towards the
implementation in the U. K. and set up the first trust company in London in
1886, The Nobel-Dynamite Trust Company.
This proved to be a very advanced form of business organisation the like of
which had never been seen before in London. It was a holding company which
effectively controlled the disposal of the assets of the members and had
absolute authority over them even though the members were themselves separate
corporate bodies. The group brought together:
Four German union companies
The Mexican Nobel company
The Brazilian Nobel company
The Pacific Nobel Company
The Alliance Explosives Company
The South Wales Explosives Company
The Trust was an instant
success and continued (with some changes) until the First World War when it was
formally disbanded in 1915 for obvious reasons.
Finally the year 1926 saw the greatest fusion of chemical industries in the
United Kingdom to that date in the merging of Nobel Industries with the other
major chemical companies of Great Britain:
Brunner Mond and Company Ltd
British Alkali Company Ltd
British Dyestuffs Corporation Ltd
IMPERIAL CHEMICAL INDUSTRIES (ICI).