Bell, Sir Isaac Lowthian, first baronet 1816-1904, metallurgical chemist and pioneer in industrial enterprise, born at Newcastle-on-Tyne on 15 Feb. 1816, was eldest son (in a family of four sons and three daughters) of Thomas Bell (1774-1845), a native of Lowhurst, Cumberland, by his wife Catherine (d. 1875), daughter of Isaac Lowthian of Newbiggin near Carlisle. Of his brothers, Thomas (1817-1894), who followed him in the management of the Walker works, took an active part in the early development of the Cleveland salt deposits, whilst John (1818-1888), a practical geologist, gave valuable advice to Lowthian in connection with mining properties. His sister Mary Grace (d. 1898) married George Routledge [qv.], the publisher, and Katherine (d. 1905) married William Henry Porter (d. 1895), to whom the original idea of the patent anchor is due.
His father removed to Newcastle in 1808 to enter the service of Messrs. Losh & Co., merchants, who were then launching out into the manufacture of both alkali and iron. In after years he joined the firm, which became known as Messrs. Losh, Wilson & Bell, of the Walker Ironworks, Tyneside. The family of Bell's mother had long been tenants of the Loshes of Woodside, near Carlisle. To his parents' association with the Losh family (one of whose members in conjunction with Lord Dundonald had pioneered the Leblanc soda process in this country) Lowthian Bell owed his early introduction to chemical and metallurgical technology, then on the eve of a period of remarkable development and advance. His father, who early discerned the important bearing of physical science upon industrial problems, gave his son an adequate training in physics and chemistry. After completing his school education at Bruce's Academy, Newcastle, Bell spent some time in Germany, in Denmark, at Edinburgh University, and at the Sorbonne in Paris; finally he went to Marseilles to study a new process for the manufacture of alkali.
In 1835, at the age of nineteen, Lowthian Bell entered, under his father, the office of Messrs. Losh, Wilson & Bell, in Newcastle, and a year later joined his father at the firm's ironworks at Walker. In 1827 there had been erected at these works what was considered then to be a very powerful rolling mill capable of turning out 100 tons per week of bar iron; the puddling process was installed in 1833, and five years later there was added a second mill for rolling rails. John Vaughan, the superintendent of this mill, by virtue of his character and practical knowledge about iron, exercised on the young man a powerful directing influence. In 1842, owing to a shortage of pig iron, the firm decided to put down a blast furnace plant, the erection of which was carried out under Bell's superintendence. The first furnace was designed for smelting mill cinder, but on the addition of a second furnace in 1844 experiments were made, extending over twelve months, with Cleveland ironstone from the neighbourhood of Grosmont. The use of Cleveland ore was for the time abandoned, but these initial experiments at Walker prepared the way for the opening-up of the Cleveland iron industry some six years later.
In 1842 Bell married Margaret, second daughter of Hugh Lee Pattinson [qv.], the chemical manufacturer. In 1850, in partnership with his father-in-law, he started chemical works at Washington near Gateshead, where he built a house and resided for nearly twenty years.
About 1866 a single blast furnace adjoining the chemical works was built by Bell in partnership with others, and the exhaust steam from the blowing engines was utilised for heating water to be used in Pattinson's white lead process. The furnace was blown out in 1875. There was also established about 1860, at Washington, a manufactory of aluminium under a very ingenious process discovered by the distinguished French chemist St. Claire Deville. This was the earliest and for many years the only source of aluminium in this country. Improvements in manufacture rendered Deville's process obsolete, and the works were abandoned before 1880. In 1874 Bell sold his interest in the Washington business to his partners, who included Robert Stirling Newall [qv.], husband of his wife's sister.
Meanwhile Bell's main energies were occupied elsewhere. On 1 Aug. 1844 he and his two brothers, Thomas and John, leased a blast furnace at Wylam-on-Tyne from Christopher Blackett, thus inaugurating the firm of Bell Brothers, and next year, on the death of his father, Lowthian Bell also assumed the chief direction of the Walker works. The furnace at Wylam had been built in 1836 on lines typical of its epoch, and it continued in working until 1863, when it was finally blown out.
At Wylam the trials of Cleveland ore which Bell had begun at Walker continued under his direction. Before long Messrs. Bolckow & Vaughan, at their Witton Park furnaces (county Durham), commenced to smelt Cleveland ore with such success that they decided to erect three blast furnaces near Middlesbrough in close proximity to the new ore supplies. Bell was not slow to profit by this example. In 1852 his firm acquired a lease, from the Ward-Jackson family, of important ore supplies at Normanby, and ultimately, in 1854, they started their Clarence works, with three blast furnaces, on the north bank of the Tees opposite Middlesbrough, then a very small and newly incorporated borough. The only rival works in the district were those of Messrs. Bolckow, Vaughan & Company and of Messrs. Cochrane & Company. These three firms were the pioneers of the Cleveland industry.
Early difficulties arose over the carriage of the ore. Messrs. Bolckow & Vaughan supported the endeavour of the Stockton and Darlington Railway Company, an undertaking in which Messrs. Joseph and Henry Pease had a very large interest [see Pease, Edward], to monopolise the carriage of the whole of the Cleveland ironstone. In becoming lessees of the Normanby royalty and in building the works at Clarence the Bells had associated themselves with Ralph Ward Jackson, the younger brother of the tenant for life of the Normanby estate. Jackson had taken an active part in the development of the West Hartlepool Harbour and Railway Company, which had acquired collieries in the county of Durham. In the result Messrs. Bell joined Jackson in promoting the construction of another railway, the Cleveland Railway, to bring the ironstone to the banks of the Tees. The first portion of this railway, seven miles in length, ran from Normanby through the Jackson estate to the Normanby jetty on the river Tees, where the ironstone was shipped in barges to a wharf at Clarence on the Durham side. Parliamentary sanction was only obtained after repeated severe and expensive contests. It is said that the seven miles of railway cost the builders 35,000l. in Parliamentary expenses alone. A proposed extension of the railway from Normanby to Skelton and then to Loftus with a view to developing other property was again the subject of very severe Parliamentary contests. The result, however, was commensurate with the expenditure, for the great field of ironstone lying to the south and east of Guisborough was thereby opened. The Skelton extension of the railway enabled Bell Brothers to obtain in 1858 an important tract of ironstone on the Skelton estate. There the little-known bed of ironstone, ten feet thick, had been reckoned so far from any railway that it would ruin anyone who undertook to work it. Limestone quarries were also acquired in Weardale, until ultimately the firm owned all the supplies of raw material required for their Clarence works.
A great depression of trade followed the Cleveland developments. Jackson's speculative enterprises were ruined, and the West Hartlepool Harbour and Railway Company went into liquidation. Bell Brothers acquired certain of the company's colliery properties and these the firm subsequently developed largely and added others to them. The North Eastern Railway Company took over the railway and harbour, and also purchased by negotiation the Cleveland railway. As a part of the transaction Lowthian Bell became a director of the North Eastern in 1865, and held the office till death.
Subsequently Bell's firm turned its attention to the manufacture of steel. As a result of experiments on a large scale for the utilisation of Cleveland pig iron in the manufacture of steel, open hearth furnaces were erected at Clarence, and steel was first made there in Jan. 1889. After carrying on the manufacture for two years, Bell and his partners satisfied themselves of the feasibility of their plan, and entering into negotiation with Messrs. Dorman, Long & Co., a leading firm of manufacturers who were among the first to manufacture rolled steel girders in this country, they formed in 1899 an amalgamation, and important steel works were built at Clarence. The Clarence works are now producing about 1000 tons of pig iron daily, and 4000 tons of ingots and 2400 tons of finished steel weekly.
Yet another industry was added later to the wide range of the firm's activities. The discovery (during boring operations for water) of rock salt at a depth of 1200 feet below the surface on the south side of the river Tees by Messrs. Bolckow & Vaughan in 1862 induced Messrs. Bell Bros., in 1874, to sink a bore-hole near their Clarence works. The result was that salt was encountered at a depth of 1127 feet below the surface; the salt bed at this point being about eighty feet thick and estimated to contain about 200,000 tons to the acre. It was not, however, until 1881, when Thomas Bell suggested (after independent thought) the adoption of a special mode of winning the salt, which (as he subsequently found) had been long practised near Nancy, that the firm proceeded to realise this new asset. Two years later they were making 320 tons of salt per week.
The firm of Bell Brothers in all its branches became in Lowthian Bell's lifetime a gigantic concern employing in its mines, collieries, and ironworks some 6000 workpeople. Bell was always active in numerous directions beyond the immediate and varied calls of business. He constantly travelled abroad, and closely studied the conditions of iron manufacture in foreign countries, especially in America. His work in applied science almost excelled in importance his labours as an industrial pioneer. In both capacities his eminence was soon universally acknowledged. Taking an active part in the establishment of the Iron and Steel Institute in 1869, he filled the office of president during 1873-5, and was the first recipient of the Bessemer gold medal in 1874. He helped to found in 1888 the Institution of Mining Engineers, of which he was president in 1904. He was also president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (1884), of the British Iron Trade Association in 1886 and of the Society of Chemical Industry (1889). In 1895 he was awarded the Albert medal of the Society of Arts, and in 1900 the George Stephenson medal from the Institution of Civil Engineers, as well as a Telford premium for a paper on rails in Great Britain.
Bell's scientific attainments rank very high. For the last fifty years of his life he had few superiors in general knowledge of chemical metallurgy and he was an unrivalled authority on the blast furnace and the scientific processes of its operation (cf. Roy. Soc. Proc. 1907, p. xvii). Between 1869 and 1894 he embodied in papers in the Iron and Steel Institute's Journal the results of exhaustive experimental researches. Among the most important were: The Development of Heat and its Appropriation in Blast Furnaces of Different Dimensions (1869); Chemical Phenomena of Iron Smelting (1871 and 1872); The Sum of Heat utilised in smelting Cleveland Ironstone (1875); The Separation of Carbon, Silicon, Sulphur, and Phosphorus, in the Refining and Puddling Furnace, and in the Bessemer Converter (1877); The Separation of Phosphorus from Pig Iron (1878); and On the Value of Excessive Addition to the Temperature of the Air used in Smelting Iron (1883).
The outcome of Bell's experimental researches upon blast furnace practice, in which he was assisted by Dr. C. R. A. Wright, was published in 1872 in his classical Chemical Phenomena of Iron Smelting; an experimental and practical examination of the circumstances which determine the capacity of the blast furnace, the temperature of the air and the proper condition of the materials to be operated upon (translated into French, German and Swedish). In his research on the blast furnace he had taken full advantage of contemporary research and invention and advanced beyond them. He explained the economy of hot blast which James Beaumont Neilson [qv.] demonstrated in 1828, and indicated the limits beyond which it could not be pushed in practice; Bunsen and Playfair, by the analysis of the gases at various levels of the furnace, had proved the main source of avoidable loss in current blast practice, and had elucidated the chemistry of the process; Bell amplified and completed their work both by establishing a true basis for estimating the heat balance of the furnace, and by determining once and for all the main sequence of the chemical changes as the descending charge of ore, fuel, and flux met the ascending furnace gases; finally he supplemented the inventions of regenerative stoves made during 1860-5 by Edward Alfred Cowper (d. 1895) and Thomas Whitwell, which rendered high blast temperatures possible and led to the construction of much larger furnaces; Bell demonstrated on scientific grounds how far the furnace dimension could be increased in the interest of fuel economy, apart from any purely mechanical difficulties. In his book he fully expounded the various laws which regulate the process of iron-smelting. He showed that no advantage can possibly accrue from an increase in height or capacity of the furnace beyond the limits which would permit of the gases leaving the throat at a temperature of about 300 centigrade. The accumulated experience of the forty years since Bell wrote has abundantly confirmed the general validity of his conclusions.
Bell's next separate publications were the fruit of his study of the American iron industry. Their titles were Notes of a Visit to Coal and Iron Mines and Works in the United States (1875), and Report on the Iron Manufacture of the United States of America, and a Comparison of it with that of Great Britain (1877). To a volume on the American industry, published by the Iron and Steel Institute in 1890, he contributed a paper, On the American Iron Trade and its Progress during Sixteen Years.
In 1884 was published, in London and New York, Bell's second great scientific treatise, The Principles of the Manufacture of Iron and Steel, for which he received in 1892 the Howard quinquennial prize of the Institution of Civil Engineers. He had acted as a juror at the Paris Exhibition of 1878, when he received the legion of honour, and this work was his report made at the request of the board of management of the British Iron Trade Association, on the condition of the manufacture of iron and steel, as illustrated by the Paris exhibits. The book reviewed the economic condition of the industry as well as the scientific aspects of the actual manufacturing processes. At the close he made an authoritative comparison of the economic conditions of the principal iron-producing countries, a favourite subject of his study, while a suggestive review of the problems connected with the elimination of impurities from pig iron included an account of his own experiments on the phosphorus elimination in the manufacture of steel in the Bessemer converter [see Thomas, Sidney Gilchrist]. Bell evolved a method of elimination which was for a time used at Woolwich, at Krupp's works in Essen (where, however, it had been independently invented), and also in the United States. But it was superseded by the final development of the basic Bessemer process patented by Messrs. Thomas & Gilchrist in 1879.
Bell also found time for many offices in public life. He was twice mayor of Newcastle-on-Tyne, in 1854-5 and again in 1862-3, and deputy lieutenant and high sheriff for the county of Durham in 1884. In 1868 he contested in the liberal interest without success the constituency of North Durham, but was returned with (Sir) Charles Mark Palmer [qv.] on 14 Feb. 1874. This election was declared void on petition, and Bell was defeated at the following bye-election. On 29 July 1875 he was, however, returned for the Hartlepools, and he sat in parliament for that constituency till the dissolution of 1880, but took little part in its proceedings. In recognition of his many services to science and industry, he was elected F.R.S. in 1875, and on 21 July 1885, on the nomination of Gladstone, he received a baronetcy. He was made an hon. Doctor of Civil Laws of Durham (1882), Doctor of Law of Edinburgh (1893) and Dublin, and D.Sc. of Leeds University (1904). He was an active promoter and supporter of the Armstrong College at Newcastle, and a tower which he gave to the building is called by his name.
His intellectual vigour was unimpaired to the end of his long life; he died on 20 Dec. 1904 at his residence, Rounton Grange, Northallerton, and was buried at Rounton.
Bell's wife died in 1886, and in her memory he dedicated to public uses his house, Washington Hall, and its grounds; it is now used as a home for waifs and strays of that city under the name of Dame Margaret's Home. Of his two sons and three daughters his eldest son, Hugh Bell, succeeded him both in the baronetcy and in the direction of the firm. His second son, Charles Lowthian, b. 24 March 1853, died on 8 Feb. 1906. His second daughter married the Hon. Edward Lyulph Stanley, now Lord Sheffield.
Bell's portrait was twice painted by Henry Tanworth Wells—in 1865 and in 1894; the earlier picture now belongs to Lord Sheffield, and the later picture was presented by friends in Great Britain, Europe and America to the corporation of Middlesbrough. Sir Hugh Bell possesses a replica of the second portrait, together with a painting by Sir William Richmond, R.A., which was presented to Bell by the electors of the Hartlepools. A fifth portrait, by Frank Bramley, A.R.A., was painted for the North Eastern Railway Company, and is in the company's offices at York.
Proc. Roy. Soc., 1907, A. xv
Journ. Iron and Steel Inst., 1904, ii. 426
Trans. Inst. Min. Eng., 1905
Engineering, 23 Dec. 1904
also Mr. Greville Jones's papers, Messrs. Bell Bros. Blast Furnaces from 1844 to 1908 in Journ. Iron and Steel Inst., 1908, iii. 59
Contributor: W. A. B. [William Arthur Bone]