Mercer, John

Mercer, John
b. 21 February 1791 Great Harwood, Lancashire, England
d. 30 November 1866 Oakenshaw, Lancashire, England
English pioneer in textile chemistry.
Mercer began work at the age of 9 as a bobbinwinder and then a hand-loom weaver. He had no formal education in chemistry but taught himself and revealed remarkable ability in both theoretical and applied aspects of the subject. He became the acknowledged "father of textile chemistry" and the Royal Society elected him Fellow in 1850. His name is remembered in connection with the lustrous "mercerized" cotton which, although not developed commercially until 1890, arose from his discovery, c. 1844, of the effect of caustic soda on cotton linters. He also discovered that cotton could be dissolved in a solution of copper oxide in ammonia, a phenomenon later exploited in the manufacture of artificial silk. As a youth, Mercer experimented at home with dyeing processes and soon acquired sufficient skill to set up as an independent dyer. Most of his working life was, however, spent with the calico-printing firm of Oakenshaw Print Works in which he eventually became a partner, and it was there that most of his experimental work was done. The association was a very appropriate one, for it was a member of this firm's staff who first recognized Mercer's potential talent and took the trouble in his spare time to teach him reading, writing and arithmetic. Mercer developed manganese-bronze colours and researched into catalysis and the ferrocyanides. Among his innovations was the chlorination of wool in order to make it print as easily as cotton. It was many years later that it was realized that this treatment also conferred valuable shrink-resisting qualities. Becoming interested in photochemistry, he devised processes for photographic printing on fabric. Queen Victoria was presented with a handkerchief printed in this way when she visited the Great Exhibition of 1851, of which Mercer was a juror. A photograph of Mercer himself on cloth is preserved in the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester. He presented papers to the British Association and was a member of the Chemical Society.
Principal Honours and Distinctions
FRS 1850.
Further Reading
Obituary, Manchester Memoirs, Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society.
Dictionary of National Biography.
E.A.Parnell, 1886. The Life and Labours of John Mercer, F.R.S., London (biography). 1867, biography, Journal of the Chemical Society.
A.E.Musson and E.Robinson, 1969, Science and Technology in the Industrial Revolution, Manchester (includes a brief reference to Mercer's work).

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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