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First beginnings

On 21 November 1879, Lancashire chemist John Hargreaves canvassed a meeting of chemists and managers in Widnes, St Helens and Runcorn to consider the formation of a chemical society. Modelled on the successful Tyne Chemical Society already operating in Newcastle, the newly proposed South Lancashire Chemical Society held its first meeting on 29 January 1880 in Liverpool, with the eminent industrial chemist and soda manufacturer Ludwig Mond presiding.

Sir Henry RoscoeBut it was not to retain its name for very long. At only the second meeting of the new society, in April that same year, it was proposed that the Society should not be confined to Lancashire, and that it should be called 'the Society of Chemical Engineers’.

As history shows, however, that name did not last long either. The title 'the Society of Chemical Industry’ was finally settled upon at a meeting in London on 4 April 1881, as being 'more inclusive'. Held at the offices of the Chemical Society, now the Royal Society of Chemistry, in Burlington House, this meeting was presided over by Henry Roscoe (pictured), appointed first president of SCI, and attended by Eustace Carey, Ludwig Mond, FA Abel, Lowthian Bell, William H Perkin, Walter Weldon, E Rider Cook, Thomas Tyrer and George E Davis. All were later to serve as SCI presidents, except Davis who became the first general secretary. See our Notable Chemists page for more details.

In for a guinea

For such an inclusive club, the original membership fee was very steep: The first subscription fee was set at one guinea, which would be equivalent to nearly £400 nowadays, and more than four times today's fee. Four grades of membership were agreed at the time (and have since been reviewed): member, associate, student and honorary, with most appointments made on the basis of a review of their 'eligibility' by council. In terms of the Society’s remit, the main objectives were:

  • To foster the meeting of and communication between persons in the chemical industries;
  • To publish the proceedings of meetings and relevant correspondence;
  • To hold general meetings at which the regulation of the affairs of the society be decided; and
  • To acquire and dispose of property in furtherance of the above.

The first headquarters of the newly fledged SCI was established in 1881 at Palace Chambers, Bridge Street, Westminster, and by the time of the Society’s first meeting in June that year it had attracted around 300 members. At this first SCI meeting, it was decided, among other matters, that a Journal should be started – later to become the Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry (JSCI) – and that geographic sections should be formed to facilitate local meetings. This first meeting also set a date for SCI's first annual general meeting (AGM): the second week of July 1882.

All of the details in the agenda for this first AGM are recorded in JSCI volume one, and focused more on the scientific topics of the day than on the organisation and running of the Society. One memorable discourse, for example, on the topic of brewing, by University College London professor Charles Graham, compared the temperatures involved in production of English beers (65°-72°F) and German lagers (35°-40°F), and concluded that lagers generally have less alcohol (3.8-4.9%) than English beers (4.1-8.5%). 'Thus it follows that a German can drink much more of his beer than we can of ours,' Graham noted, adding that 'we cannot use ours for conversational purposes, and in hot weather it is not a safe beverage to quench thirst'.

Appropriately, the first subject group was for chemical engineers, and it was on the initiative of this body that the Institution of Chemical Engineers was formed in 1922. Another major development was the formation of the Food Group in 1932. This later led to the establishment of the Institute of Food Science and Technology, after it was decided a qualification was needed for the field. A subject group for corrosion technology was established in 1951 and subsequently, SCI provided accommodation for the associated professional body, now the Institute of Corrosion.

Belgrave Square

Belgrave Square, LondonFour years later, after a series of changes of address, the Society finally moved to its fifth and present location at 14/15 – and initially 16 – Belgrave Square in 1955. Owned by the Duke of Westminster, along with the rest of Belgravia, the building was and still is part of the Grosvenor Estate and had recently been commandeered by the Ministry of Defence during World War II. Interestingly, the former Nazi commander Rudolf Hess is believed to have been interrogated in the building after he flew to Britain late in the war.

It was here in Belgrave Square that the Society celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1981, under the leadership of SCI president William Duncan. Reflecting on the past and present achievements of SCI in a special C&I supplement published that year, Duncan noted how the Society has also played an important role in the establishment of several other influential chemical bodies. In its early years, the Society fulfilled the function not only of a learned society, but also a trade association, Duncan wrote. 'During the First World War, when it became apparent that a separate trade association for the chemical industry was desirable, it was the Society’s London section, together with the Association of Dyers and Colourists, which initiated, in 1916, the Association of British Chemical Manufacturers, now the Chemical Industries Association.’

Duncan’s leadership of SCI came at a critical time for the Society’s future. In 1980, the year after he took office, the Chemical Society – based at nearby Burlington House – and the Royal Institute of Chemistry, together with the Faraday Society and the Society for Analytical Chemistry, merged to become the Royal Society of Chemistry, with a new Royal charter and the dual role of learned society and professional body. SCI, although involved in these talks, decided to remain independent, though as Duncan noted. ‘These talks caused the Society carefully to consider its role. It was obvious that an international multi-disciplinary society had much to offer the chemical industry, which was itself becoming ever more international and which needed to exploit new fields outside its traditional technology base. The Society decided, therefore, that it could best serve the industry by remaining independent and exploiting these advantages’.

That tradition of serving its members’ interests, and establishing a bridge linking science and business, has continued to this day. As well as its numerous and expanding range of meetings and networking events, SCI now has 24 technical and business interest groups, as well as 17 international and regional groups. SCI conferences and events take place regularly across the UK, while the society’s publications continue to grow in number and reputation. The Society’s membership also continues to diversify, with new opportunities and partnerships currently being sought not only in Europe and the US but also in Asia, where an SCI India headquarters was opened in 2008.

A track record in publishing

C&I Jubilee Number 1931With the exception of the Transactions of the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Chemical Society, 1868-1882, the Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry was the first in the UK devoted to the subject of applied chemistry. The first issue appeared in January 1882 and was edited by Watson Smith, lecturer in technological chemistry at Owens College, Manchester. Initially published monthly, the volume of the journal grew from 500 pages in 1882 to about 1000 pages in 1889 and about 1200 pages in 1902, when it was first published twice a month.

At first, much of the emphasis was on dyestuffs and new plants and processes, with the growing number of papers in applied chemistry over subsequent years reflecting the changing nature of the industry over this period. Some of the more notable contributions included papers on The production of clean coal by H Lewis, The inversion of reactions in catalysis by P Sabatier, Recent progress in the chemical study of the vitamins by JC Drummond, and The physical chemist in search of purity in an impure world by Ernst Cohen.

But apart from original scientific papers, the journal also carried other material of general chemical interest: notes on important industrial developments, trade reports, a correspondence column and short reviews of books. It was this review section, begun as an insert in 1918, which in its expanded and modified form was later to become the basis for the society’s magazine Chemistry & Industry, first published as a separate entity in 1923. The first editor was Stephen Miall, while the novelist JG Ballard was once numbered among its staff of more recent editors and sub-editors (see Ballardian).

JSCI was discontinued in 1950, largely because its vast coverage had made it too hefty, and was superseded initially by the Journal of the Science of Food & Agriculture (1950) and the Journal of Chemical Technology & Biotechnology (1951). These were later joined by Pest Management Science and Polymer International. Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biorefining and website www.biofpr.com were launched in 2007, and Greenhouse Gases: Science and Technology in 2011. (see Publications)

Since 1993/94 SCI has co-published its journals with John Wiley & Sons, a partnership that has helped the Society to navigate the major changes in science publishing over the past decade. Today, most readers find articles from SCI journals online rather than in their libraries. Top journal stories over the past few years include a study on diabetes prevention and soya beans, the prevalence of allergy-causing latex in food packaging and research indicating the health benefits of strawberry daiquiris.

By Ian Shepherd and Cath O'Driscoll

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