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The Kerosene Cases The discoveries of the chemist have astonished the world, and from his laboratories have originated the most beautiful as well as useful inventions of the day. Probably no more useful branch of discoveries have been made than those tending to the production of materials for artificial light. . . . [B]ut it was not until within a very few years past that the idea of obtaining oil from coal was conceived. The chemist, in his experiments for other materials, at last hit upon this, and to his astonishment produced an oily substance from coal. Experimenting still further, a result was obtained highly gratifying, and which has been and will be, productive of immense profits. —“Kerosene Oil,” New York Commercial Advertiser, 24 August 1859 During the winter of 1858–1859, as Kerosene was fast becoming the best-selling lamp oil in America,a legal dispute erupted in the United States and Great Britain. On one side was Abraham Gesner, the inventor of “Kerosene,” and on the other stood James Young, a Scot, who held a United States patent for “Paraffine.” The high-stakes cases were about which patent, Kerosene or Paraffine, covered coal oil. But more than legal rights were in the balance. The dispute revealed great tensions in the relations between inventors and men of science. Coal oil was both a scientific discovery and a new commercial product. How“scientific”and how “new” and “commercial” became matters of debate. In their patents, Gesner and Young had laid claim to inventions and to discoveries. What troubled many observers was the nature of those discoveries. Were they scientific, practical , or economical? Were there any meaningful distinctions among the three? Obviously, patents covered intellectual property. But what kind of knowledge was being owned? And who would“own”the knowledge—the discoverer or the patentee? Nor was it agreed on who should do the patenting.As the participants 162 CHAPTER 6 dug into the history of coal oil, they exposed the foundations of what could and often did divide inventors and men of science. To continue the metaphor, the controversy became a sort of social archaeology uncovering the assumptions, ascriptions, and prejudices about the roles that men of science (and science in general) played, and could play, in invention and business. So,at one level,the Kerosene cases were about profits and priority;at another, they revealed a struggle over the control of invention and innovation; and, at yet another, they delved into the meaning of science. Such wide-ranging significance was not missed by contemporaries. The cases made newspaper and journal headlines in America and Britain. Kerosene became a cause célèbre and brought into sharp focus the manufacturers,men of science,and inventors,who laid claim to coal oil. The experts once again (or, perhaps, as usual) disagreed. Men of science had been criticized in the past for their mercenary behavior, but the Kerosene cases cut deeper into their much-vaunted disinterestedness and heightened anxieties about ethics, propriety, and objectivity. The Patent James Young described himself as a chemical manufacturer and practical chemist.1 He had been introduced to chemistry by Thomas Graham (1805– 1869), professor of chemistry at Anderson’s Institute (now the University of Strathclyde) in Glasgow in the early 1830s. Young became a favorite student of Graham’s and,in time,his laboratory and lecture assistant.In 1837Young moved to London when Graham became professor of chemistry at University College. An accomplished experimentalist with a sound theoretical foundation, Young was nonetheless dissatisfied with his subordinate position and future prospects. In the fall of 1838 he decided to leave the university for a career in the Lancashire chemical industry.2 Young began as a manager (1839–1844) for James Muspratt’s new sodamaking plant in Newton and then joined Tennants, Clow and Company as its consulting chemist (1844–1851). In addition to overseeing its plant at Ardwick Bridge, Young traveled to all the Tennants’s subsidiaries to advise on dyestuffs, bleaching agents, and other heavy chemicals. In much the same role that Gesner played at the fledgling Kerosene Oil Company, Young took over responsibilities for designing improvements to production processes and introducing new products, one of which he patented.3 After more than a decade,Young had not only acquired the managerial, financial, and technical experience necessary to work in the biggest and most advanced companies in the chemical industry but also gained valuable knowledge of how to...


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