The gold stars
forgotten by the
Glasgow Science Centre
As national economies world-wide teeter on the brink of financial disaster, and the biggest debtor nation – oops, sorry, biggest and most important economy – seems to be spiralling via pig-headed unreason towards political dysfunction, the world price of gold reached a record 1,889 $US (£1,220) an ounce in mid-August, but slipped back to 1,656 $US (£1,071) at the end of last month. The price of silver has been rising at an even faster rate, and forecasts are running free; one HSBC expert has suggested that the gold price could reach £2,600 an ounce in the next few years.
The world that thought years ago that it was too sophisticated to 'bother' with gold has always nervously glanced over its shoulder when times became tough, and this time investor reliance on the old yellow metal seems more confident than ever. The less desirable signs and metaphors are reserved for the humblest of High Streets, with an increase in the number of pawn shops, instant cheque exchanges and 'we buy your old gold' establishments, some of which operate by post or from temporary kiosks. In this 'new competitive market', some of these businesses have attracted the attention of the Office of Fair Trading, accused of various sharp practices, and of deploying wildly differing purchase rates, varying from 85% to 20% of the market value of the gold offered by the public.
Scotland has an important place in the history of gold, and a potential stake in future extraction of the yellow metal which does not rust, tarnish or oxidise. Before the end of this year it is likely that a planning application will be approved for the revival of commercial gold-mining in Scotland. Scotgold Resources had an application refused last year for the mine at Cononish, in the hills above Tyndrum, largely due to environmental concerns over waste materials management at the mine, which lies within the boundary of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. However, a revised application has been submitted which seeks to address these concerns, and mining could begin early next year with a view to extracting 20,000 ounces of gold per year.
The shining, natural metal lying on or near the surface of the earth has been a passion par excellence; its fascination and value have successfully crossed continents, centuries and cultures, and revolutions both political and technological. It was sought with diligence, and sometimes, ferocity. 'Get gold,' said King Ferdinand of Aragon to his South American expeditions at the end of the 15th century, 'humanely if you can, but at all hazards get gold'. Men have lied, cheated, fought, killed and died for it, and it has often been a malign influence during at least 6,000 years.
That excitement intensified in the early 1880s, when the extraction of gold and silver faltered due to technical failure. Extraction rates were only 45% and falling, as the 'easy' metal had been exhausted, and 'difficult' ores had to be sought at increasing depths, and in ever more complex association with other, unwanted, minerals.
A successful process would have to operate in the most inaccessible parts of the world, in high mountainous areas without roads, electricity or water and using a wide range of ores. Several techniques had been developed in the USA, but none had been taken to the stage of practical application, far less commercial exploitation, and scores of others were being investigated worldwide. Glasgow became the focus of considerable activity in a world desperately seeking new technologies. The extraordinary industrialist Charles Tennant, and the fraternity of financiers who shadowed him, were keen to win the race to a viable process; if it could be achieved, it would make fortunes for many.
In 1884 a German-born American, Henry Renner Cassel, arrived in Glasgow with patents for an electrolysis process. He attracted the interest of Tennant, who paved the way for the establishment in Glasgow of the Cassel Gold Extracting Company, capitalised at £150,000 – the equivalent at today's values of about £7 million. Offices were in West George Street, with laboratories off Gray's Inn Road in London.
They cynically waited until MacArthur had proved the economic validity
of his process beyond all doubt, and then struck with a vengeance against
the legality of the patents.
It became shockingly clear within two years that the astute but occasionally incautious Tennant had been gulled. Cassel sabotaged the London laboratory, illegally sold his shares in the company and fled to America. The directors hired a train and raced to Liverpool in a failed attempt to intercept Cassel and his American lawyer before they set sail. There was panic at the Glasgow Stock Exchange, and one London journalist noted: '...I fear that Yankee cuteness has been too much for Scotch credulity'.
Tennant knew that a young chemist, John Stewart MacArthur, who worked for his Tharsis Sulphur & Copper Company, had a private research syndicate studying gold metallurgy with two doctors, the brothers Robert and William Forrest. Tennant persuaded MacArthur to rescue the Cassel Company, and this he did. The London laboratory was closed and transferred to Kinning Park in Glasgow, and MacArthur recruited new chemists to begin work based on his syndicate's researches.
Three years later, thanks to his insistence on diligent record-keeping, MacArthur's re-examination of the results of treating ores from India and California with potassium cyanide revealed the startling extraction rate of 93.4%. After a frantic period of confirming all that they had done, and checking historical records, MacArthur and the Forrests registered their patent, and a further one for a linked filtering process; both patents were assigned to the Cassel Company.
The new MacArthur-Forrest process was prepared in demonstration form and apparatus made ready for transport to all corners of the world. New chemists were recruited, trained and made ready for arduous voyages with their equipment, while patents and licences were arranged in foreign countries, and syndicates identified to supervise trials with the range of widely differing ores to be tackled. Even the matter of producing and exporting the necessary volumes of cyanide became a major logistical problem. Although the world was desperate for a successful process, it would have to be proved to sceptical, practical metallurgists, many of whom had financial interests in potential alternative methods.
In South Africa, the fabulously rich gold reefs of the Witwatersrand had been discovered in 1886, but when MacArthur first travelled to Johannesburg in 1890, the industry was already derelict for want of a capable process. However, South Africa was a political hotbed; the powerful Chamber of Mines meddled in everything, and resented the idea of paying royalties on a new British process. They cynically waited until MacArthur had proved the economic validity of his process beyond all doubt, and then struck with a vengeance against the legality of the patents.
The chamber charged MacArthur and the African Gold Recovery Company with a number of deficiencies in drafting the patents and demanded their cancellation in South Africa. When the case opened early in 1896 in the Palace of Justice in Pretoria, just six weeks had passed since the infamous Jameson Raid on Johannesburg (in which the Chamber of Mines was deeply implicated); and the chief justice had personal loans cancelled and was gifted shares in The Corner House, one of the biggest mining groups in the country. The die was well and truly cast, and President Paul Kruger was delighted that anti-British sentiment was at fever-pitch.
There was outrage in Glasgow and London when the verdict came nine months later; the patents were cancelled in South Africa, and the process became effectively royalty-free in that country. The venal behaviour of the 'randlords' was widely reviled, even in South Africa. MacArthur himself was stoical, continuing his work as a consultant metallurgist around the world, and later became a pioneer radium producer.
The Cassel Company latterly concentrated on producing cyanides for the worldwide mining industry, before being subsumed into the new giant ICI in 1926. It seems extraordinary that the company retained the reviled name of the American fraudster, but when production was moved to Billingham on Tees-side in 1932, the plant was known as the Cassel Works, and the name still survives. MacArthur died in 1920, and the science journal Nature noted the extraordinary economic growth that many countries had enjoyed as a result of his efforts: 'It is given to few men to discover a process which has had such a far-reaching effect in almost every branch of civilised life'. His process is still in use today.
The astonishing results of the efforts of those who toiled in the hothouse of West Scotland Street, Kinning Park – an area of Glasgow that was home to a surprising number of imaginative scientists and technologists at that period – have been forgotten and ignored. Despite its proximity, you will learn nothing at all about any of them at the Glasgow Science Centre. The name of MacArthur ought to be as celebrated as any of the 'greats' of Scottish endeavour and achievement; and the significance of the lustrous and rather mystical yellow metal to Scotland and the world is as great as ever.
David Harvie was a film editor in a past life, and now writes in a variety