Book review: The Dyes – Scotland’s dyestuff pioneers and a century of chemical manufacturing in Grangemouth

Article by Alan Harper CEng FIChemE

John Blackie; ISBN: 978-1-9993700-0-8; Dyes Publishing; 2019; £15

IN 1981, a young engineer joined the Grangemouth Works of ICI. John Blackie’s talents were quickly recognised and developed through increasingly demanding assignments, all completed excellently.

John’s career works as a metaphor for the development of the Grangemouth site, which experienced its own continuing succession of challenges that were met and triumphed over repeatedly. The site started as a branch of Solway Dyes and then experienced an era as “The Dyes” through the late 1920s and 1930s. However, spurred by urgencies and rigours of conflict the site moved into fine chemicals and pharmaceutical manufacture during the 1940s and 1950s. In contrast to other parts of ICI, Grangemouth produced anti-malarials, antibiotics, anaesthetics and camouflage dyes and pigments. Ultimately, a defensive and protective portfolio.

John’s book outlines the history of a community, which for a time included the author of this review. The book showcases a workplace, a band of brothers and sisters, a professional scientific cadre and particularly a spirit of achievement and innovation coupled to commercial realism. It is a labour of love. 

It is notoriously difficult to combine social history together with a technical and industrial explanation. However, the author has succeeded, largely breaking the story into identifiable timeframes. Two chapters are particularly interesting for the general reader: one on the evolution of the chemical industry in Scotland, and the other on the legacy of Grangemouth Works. Most of the rest of the book focuses on the people, the products and the processes while relating the internal works experience to national and world events. Boom followed by bust followed by slower or faster recovery to new strengths.

ICI’s record-keeping makes it a historian’s delight. Since innovations in manufacture are generally dependent on patent protection, great care is devoted to documenting experimentation and invention. Many iconic ICI products and their successors were “invented or made here first”, so as the ‘nursery’ of the industry, the Grangemouth site’s records are kept for critical reference and posterity. Solutions to quality and safety problems have been provided by reference to decades-old records in lab books.

A lot of ephemera and trivia have been preserved by several individuals and societies such as the Anthraquinone Club and the Foreman’s Association. Quotations from speeches by Company Chairs and Chief Executives at their annual dinners illustrate the broader picture of industrial and international affairs. Even more informative are speeches and articles authored by employee representatives through the Works Council and other bodies. Really the only criticism that this reviewer has of the book is the lack of direct references and an index. Readers will just have to get through the entire work to count the mentions of themselves.

The primacy of safety is repeatedly evident in this book.  Even before the advent of HAZOP, HAZAN, STOP and other methodologies there was a strong evolutionary push for a better way of doing everything, summed up as “whatever we are doing, do it safely”. Taking the example of protective clothing (ie overalls, boots, and gloves) the evolution was cross-fertilised with experience in mining, explosives, and specifically military operations for respirators and head protection.

Even in the early days, hazards from the varieties of sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid and various caustic substances provided potential risks that had to be “prevented, minimised or rendered harmless”. Most of the periodic table from hydrogen down to bismuth and from alkali metals to halogens was handled at some time or other with a nod towards the noble gases for leak detection and welding. The halogens and hydrogen halides form a continuing background for process and safety developments. On-site production of cyanogen chloride and phosgene to minimise inventories on the basis of “if you don’t have it you can’t lose it” came in the late seventies to nineties.

With all the hazards of toxicity and corrosivity came challenges in materials and construction. Pitch-pine tanks lasted nearly to the end of the century but sadly were too fragile to preserve for the future. The whole range of copper, iron and nickel alloys were used over the years and later fluoropolymers and pyrolytic carbon. Glass-lined vessels were common in later years, some vessels were lead-lined, and many were tile-lined.

But the science, processes and hardware do not make up the whole. It is the people who form the core of the story of Grangemouth Works. Many miners, shipbuilders and ex-servicemen formed the original workforce, with the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow raided for scientific talent. Over the years the Works grew with and within the wider community seeing successive generations of sons and daughters joining the company their parents had made.

This is an excellent book for an appreciation of the culture of an industrial organisation and the community surrounding it. It will stand as a record and memorial for “The Dyes” community for the future.

Article by Alan Harper CEng FIChemE

Founder Director of Horizon Proteins

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