John Bryson Orr - Orr`s Zinc White, a basic paint pigment.

The Industrial Revolution in Scotland did not happen overnight but the Scots already had a reputation for the design of agricultural implements and the improvement of machinery, such as Small`s new plough design ( 1763) Andrew Meikle`s power driven threshing machine (1786) and Patrick Bell`s horse drawn reaper (1826). In America Hugh Orr (1717 - 1798) of Lochwinnoch was responsible for the introduction of the first tilt hammer, new ploughing tools - and guns for the American revolutionaries. The Scots also acquired a reputation for proactive thinking and the middle classes of the day were rapidly becoming entrepreneurs, developing new ways of manufacture and grasping the opportunities that arose from the Industrial developments in the Scottish Lowlands.

Following the American War of Independence there was an impetus to the cotton industry in Scotland and the use of new technology brought from Lancashire. This saw the likes of Neil Snodgrass of Glasgow inventing the scutching machine used in wool preparation (1792); William Kelly of New Lanark who applied power to Compton`s mule (1790 ) and Archibald Buchanan who built the first integrated cotton mill (1807) This expansion led to other demands in bleaching, dying and printing thus the Vale of Leven enjoyed greater prosperity and saw the foundation of the St Rollox chemical works, the biggest chemical works in the world in its day, making bleaching powder.

From my perambulations round the internet I knew of the US patent Office index and had noted some six patents held by Orrs all in the field of industrial chemistry. I was therefore delighted when a fellow researcher gave me information of a privately printed book `Orr`s Zinc White - The First Fifty Years ` printed by the Imperial Smelting Corporation in 1948. and the story of an innovative home grown chemist. - John Bryson Orr (1840 - 1933) born in Blantyre, Lanarkshire.

JBOrr.gif (48864 bytes)J. B. Orr developed and patented a process for the manufacture of a paint pigment. ` Orr`s Zinc White ` ( Patent 517 of 1874) which had a novel manufacture as it included a calcining process (heat treatment) of the basic chemicals . His process led to a major change in the pigment and paint industry. Perhaps older members can recall with me the task of `whitewashing` or ` liming ` the walls of the detached toilet ( closet, dry earth type ) and the walls of the backyard because it brought a brightness and sense of space to it. J B Orr was the creator of `Duresco` the first washable distemper widely used on both internal and external walls.

J B Orr was the son of a dyer and was apprenticed to the firm of Lewis, McLellan and Co., Oil and Colourmen and Drysalters in Glasgow. where he studied chemistry at the Andersonian College. He travelled widely and was in Europe on the outbreak of the Franco German war so he acted as an unofficial war correspondent for a Glasgow newspaper. He returned to Glasgow and in 1872 set up a factory for the manufacture of ` lithopone ` which meant merely a white mineral product prepared artificially rather than occurring naturally.

Black is white .... sometimes

An amusing aspect of the earlier products was ` a chamelion like behaviour in bright sunlight `. rather like the silver compounds used in photographic film. There is the case of a policeman on point duty in a supposedly white rubber coat but which was in fact black on the sunny side and white on the shady. And that of the farmer whose freshly painted white gate turned black at noon but was white again when the puzzled painter was brought to the scene in the late afternoon. J B Orr`s invention produced a lightfast product and in time became the basic pigment for the paint industry. In 1930 the company was merged with the Imperial Smelting Corporation Ltd of which he was a director until his death on 23 September 1933.

The significance of the invention to the town of Widnes was great. Until 1898 J B Orr had devoted himself to the colour trade but in that year he expanded into industrial development at the Vine Works, Widnes. Workers of the area were long used todjworr.jpg (43242 bytes) handling chemicals and with a good hinterland for raw materials, Widnes was a prime location for the manufacture of a product that grew to over a quarter of a million tons annually. The works was a significant employer and one renowned and way ahead of its time, for conferring benefits of pensions, welfare, forums for discussion, and opportunities for job enhancement and advancement.   
                                                                                                                                                                                           D J W Orr


Widnes.jpg (62373 bytes)

Plan of the Widnes Works


Orr Name Study Ulster Scots Reference material