Air Reduction Company, Inc. (BOC Group)

Air Reduction Company, Inc. (BOC Group)

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Air Reduction Company, Inc. (BOC Group)
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Beautifully engraved certificate from the Air Reduction Company, Inc. issued in 1965-71. This historic document was printed by the American Banknote Company and has an ornate border around it with a vignette of an allegorical man and woman sitting beside a globe. This item has the printed signatures of the Company’s President and Treasurer and is over 32 years old.
Certificate Vignette Although the Brin brothers were behind its commercial development, oxygen had, in fact, been discovered about 100 years earlier. In 1774, Joseph Priestley heated red calx of mercury and found that the "dephlogisticated air" it gave off supported combustion and respiration. Some 25 years later, Dr Thomas Beddoes and Sir Humphrey Davy were administering oxygen - the only element that supports respiration - to patients at the Pneumatic Institute. Despite its known therapeutic attributes, however, its commercial development remained almost entirely unexploited, largely because of production problems. In the 1850s, a French chemist, Boussingault, discovered that at a temperature of 1,000 ¡F (538 ¡C) the monoxide of barium (BaO) absorbed oxygen readily from the atmosphere, resulting in the dioxide BaO2. At about 1,700 ¡F (927 ¡C), the oxygen was given off again and could be stored for use. Based on this discovery, Boussingault tried to develop the barium oxide process for large-scale oxygen preparation, but without success. Thirty years later, though, two of his pupils, Arthur and Leon Brin, saw enough potential in the idea to continue where Boussingault left off. They introduced refinements, protected them with patents and began the task of commercialising the process. As a major industrial power in the world, Britain in the late 19th century thrived on new ideas. At the Inventions Exhibition in South Kensington, London, in 1885, the brothers took a stand and built a demonstration plant in the hope of attracting financial backing. In Henry Sharp, a stoneware manufacturer, they found someone who was sufficiently interested to persuade friends and members of his family to help form a company to develop the Brins' process. Thus it was that on 26 January 1886, Brin's Oxygen Company Ltd came into being. A week or so later, the company held its first meeting, elected officers and set in train plans to build a factory in Horseferry Road, Westminster. In June of that year, the company appointed its first works foreman, a young Scotsman called Kenneth Sutherland Murray, at a princely salary of £2 a week. In the years to come, Murray was to prove a key figure in the company's success - and 39 years later became its chairman. But all that was in the future. For the moment, Brin's Oxygen Co had its work cut out producing oxygen in any reliable quantity at all. The Horseferry Road factory was beset with technical problems, largely connected with damage to the furnace caused by temperature fluctuations. Eventually, Murray redesigned the entire plant. Despite the strain on finances caused by these problems, however, the company kept going. In 1887, the factory produced 142,116 cu ft (4,024m3) of oxygen. In 1888, when Murray's new plant came into operation, output rose to 686,405 cu ft (19,437m3). And in the following year another clever piece of engineering by Murray, this time in the form of an automatic gear, enabled output to rise to 953,213 cu ft (26,992m3). Production was one thing - marketing was quite another. The fact remained that as the company entered the 1890s, it still had only one serious outlet for its product - the limelight box or "magic lantern" used for the popular lantern lectures of the time and for limelight in theatres and music halls. The company was unlikely to make its fortune from this application alone. New markets had to be found. Various ideas were tried - bleaching sugar and textiles, oxidising oils and fats, the manufacture of saccharin, vinegar and linoleum, maturing whisky and iron and steel production. At the time, however, none proved practicable. One idea that did enjoy success, though, was oxygenated water. Sold in syphons or champagne bottles, it became a fashionable health drink, widely prescribed by doctors as a remedy for almost anything and favoured by the temperance reformers of the time. But the limelight box remained the only significant market. One big problem for the company was distribution. The gas bags used then were particularly inefficient. The oxygen quickly leaked from them. At first, they were replaced by the iron cylinders used for storing nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide but these were found to be unsuitable for oxygen, which needed a much higher pressure. A far better cylinder, made of mild steel, lap-welded or seamless, was introduced by the company around 1890. It went on to become the recognised standard all over the world. Although it was a big improvement, it was still far heavier and more valuable than the product it contained and, for that reason, economics dictated that delivery distances were short. This led to companies opening in Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow, operating the Brin process under licence. New oxygen-related products sprang up, too, such as valves and fittings, machines for making soda water in syphons and bottles, and even tyre inflators (until it was found that the gas permeated the rubber and the tyres deflated). The company also began exporting. Its first big overseas order for oxygen was to Australia, for medical use. In addition, Brin plants opened in France, Germany and the US. Even so, progress was slow in the company's first decade, due largely, as Edward Ellice-Clark noted at the AGM in 1896, to a lack of any real advance in industrial uses for oxygen. But, as the century drew to a close, a radically different process for extracting oxygen from air was under development not only in the UK but in France and Germany.


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