Preface: The Pembrey Electrorefinery Technological Innovation and Realization in the Victorian Era

Additonal authors: Mackey, P.J.. Book title: Proceedings of the 58th Conference of Metallurgists Hosting Copper 2019. Chapter: . Chapter title:

Proceedings, Vol. Proceedings of the 58th Conference of Metallurgists Hosting Copper 2019, 2019

Jones, J. Protheroe

INTRODUCTION When Victoria became queen in 1837, that technical wonder of the 19th century—electricity— had progressed from being an exciting physical curiosity and was now a field of intense scientific investigation, invention and application. Its role in electrochemistry had been brilliantly quantified by Faraday in 1833–1834, and his earlier discoveries in electro-magnetism were to lay the foundations of electricity generation and the electric motor. In this age of electrical experiment, silver electro-plating emerged as a popular decorative art, at first using batteries to provide the deposition current, superseded by dynamos in the early 1840s. The decorative chemical and electroplating of precious metals was largely pioneered in England by the firm of G.R. Elkington and Co., founded in Birmingham by George Richards Elkington (1801–1865) in 1832, and protected by a series of patents which helped the company establish a leading position in the new field of ‘electrometallurgy’. In the same decade, the technique of electrotyping emerged, the first application of electro- forming by electrolytic deposition. Simultaneously invented by Spenser in England and Jakobi in Russia, but generally claimed for Jakobi, electrotyping involved plating a thick copper layer on to an electrically conducting mould wall embossed or incised with a pattern or profile which would consequently be replicated on the copper deposit—essentially a method of casting by electro-deposition with the mould wall as cathode. Woolrich’s invention of the low voltage magneto-dynamo in 1842 eliminated the need for batteries as a continuous source of deposition power, opening up the possibility of making more massive electroplated deposits, and by the mid-point of Victoria’s reign in 1869, the work of Wilde, Wheatstone and Siemens had produced the self-excited electro-dynamo, capable of higher voltages and yet greater deposition power. In this early Victorian period copper was extracted and refined by methods which had developed step-by-step over many decades. Only relatively rich copper ores containing more than, say, 6% Cu were economically useful, and the final copper product was far from pure. Copper production in Britain was located principally in the Swansea area of South Wales, based upon the ‘Welsh process’ of reverberatory batch smelting and refining, using locally mined coal and ore imported from Cornwall and elsewhere. Silver was an important by-product. Much of the output was exported and South Wales remained a principal supplier to the world copper market until the 1890s. It was here at Pembrey, a few miles west of Llanelli, that a new primary copper smelter was stablished in 1849 under the name Mason and Elkington, arguably to supply the Elkington company’s market for electrotype products.
Keywords: Copper 2019, COM2019
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