Monday 17 February 2020

Sir Frederick Abel - Woolwich based chemist


The Gunpowder and Explosives Study Group recently looked at the hitherto unknown family papers of Sir Frederick Abel. This nineteenth-century chemist has been unduly neglected, in part because of a dearth of original manuscript material on him.

The career of Frederick Augustus Abel has a three-fold significance for the development of modem British science. As a charter student in the Royal College of Chemistry, Abel was one of the first professionally-trained chemists in England. The Royal College of Chemistry, founded in 1845, was based on the model of research training in chemistry that had recently been developed in German universities. Secondly, Abel was one of the earliest scientists in Britain to spend virtually his entire career in government service, working for the military arm as 'Chemist to the War Department '. And thirdly, he carried out investigations in areas that became particularly prominent in the late nineteenth and twentieth century, such as metallurgy, petroleum chemistry, and electricity. But the focus of his research was unquestionably in military chemistry, particularly explosives and munitions.

His research in these areas falls rather neatly into the three principal decades of his career. In the 1860s, he worked at purifying and stabilising 'gun cotton ' (frinitrocellulose), initially as a military propellant but then for other military uses (mines and torpedoes) and as a blasting agent in civilian mining and construction activities. In the 1870s, Abel carried out the most comprehensive scientific study of gunpowder undertaken up to this time. In the late 1880s, he was appointed president of an Explosives Committee to develop a smokeless propellant. The committee succeeded in developing a double-base powder (nitrocellulose, nitro-glycerine), based on a similar powder of Nobel ('ballistite'), which they patented under the name of 'cordite '. 

Although Abel was never an academic chemist he possessed the prestige of a fully professional scientist, as shown by the numerous offices he held in scientific societies and his publications in the most prestigious scientific journals and he took out patents for a number of results of his scientific investigations. But his attempts to develop some of these patents commercially raised serious issues of conflict of interest since he was a government-employed scientific expert and advisor. These issues were highlighted in two conflicts with Alfred Nobel over dynamite versus gun cotton around 1870, and then, twenty years later, OVCF ballistite versus Cordite. This latter resulted in a patent-infringement suit brought by Nobel's Explosive Company over cordite. 

One of the problems in studying the life of any scientist is establishing the details of his career, especially the early years, which are often poorly documented. In the case of Abel, there has been uncertainty about the precise details of his career before he became Chemist to the War Department in 1855. Documents in the newly discovered archive provide complete clarification and are complemented for the early years by a copy of Abel's letter of 9 February 1852, in which he applied for the position of Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. It also provides an invaluable account of how Abel created a niche for himself as a government military chemist. 

When the chemical establishment of the War Dept (Ordnance) was created in 1854, no special duties were assigned to the chemist, on whom depended the development of the Department. During the first few years they were chiefly connected with the purchase and inspection of stores for the Manufacturing Establishments. Abel went on to delineate in great detail the very complex functions that he and his staff took on. Although space constraints preclude illustrations of them, this and similar documents will afford the researcher information on Abel and, more generally, on the development of government scientific activities in nineteenth century Britain.

As a sign of the success with which Abel established his position as a government scientist, he came to move in the very highest social circles. This was recognised by his quondam opponent, Alfred Nobel. In a letter of Nobel to the General Manager of Nobel's Explosives Company of 19 January 1892, over the impending patent- infringement lawsuit over cordite, Nobel cautioned that 'one of the opponents is on very friendly terms with a powerful Prince '. Nobel was undoubtedly referring to Abel and the Prince of Wales, and this royal friendship is borne out in correspondence.

By Wayne Cocroft

Sir Frederick Abel as the War Office chemist was usually based at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. In the early 1860s, while he was carrying out his important work on the manufacture of gun cotton he designed a new chemical laboratory, one of the earliest Purpose-built chemical laboratories in the country. The building comprised offices and a double storey laboratory with a galley walkway at first floor level, such an arrangement both provided a light and airy environment, and a platform that allowed Abel to observe the work going on below. The building is Listed Grade II and has recently been converted into flats.

This piece first appeared in the November 2005 GIHS Newsletter

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