13th July 1883

Paraffin Young dies at Wemyss Bay

James Young was born in Glasgow in 1811 and, in his 30s, discovered paraffin oil (or paraffine, with a trailing ‘e’, as he called it). The discovery came about when he noticed that oil dripping from the roof of a coal mine could be distilled and separated, the result of which could be used as fuel.

He was awarded a patent for his process and set up a refinery at Bathgate. In the mid-1860s, he set up a second plant at Addiewell. He soon had the nickname Paraffin Young.

Oil from coal

Two days after he died, London’s Evening Standard ran an obituary, which described him as the first manufacturing chemist to develop the manufacture of oil from coal. “In 1847 Professor Playfair informed him of a petroleum spring in a coal mine in Derbyshire, and he determined to discover by what means, if any, this natural phenomenon could be rendered useful to society. Submitting the oil to long and careful examination, he, with the aid of Mr Meldrum, the manager of the works at Alfreton, succeeded in obtaining from the spring a lubricating oil for machinery and a lighter oil for consumption in lamps.”

Benefits of paraffin

That lighter oil was the paraffin for which he became famous, and its benefits were obvious, with the London Evening Standard biography explaining that “the work for which a large portion of the people has to thank Mr Young was some years since described to be primarily the reduction of the price of light so that where a shilling was formerly spent on candles the same amount of light was to be obtained for one penny…”

Young had been a long-time friend of the explorer David Livingstone. When the latter went missing in Africa, Young funded an expedition to locate him, but this was recalled when news of Livingstone’s death arrived.



Other events that occured in July

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