Thesis ID: CBB499957808

A New Narrative for "Keir's Metal": The Chemical and Commercial Transformations of James Keir's Copper Alloy, 1770-1820 (2018)


In the 1770s, the chemist and industrialist James Keir (1735–1820), along with the English manufacturer Matthew Boulton (1728–1809), developed an alloy of copper, zinc, and iron that became known as “Keir’s metal”. The material was initially marketed for ship parts, but later became the “Eldorado metal” of Georgian windows and décor. Production of Keir’s metal ceased in the 1820s, which has led to the assumption that it was a failed material of the early Industrial Revolution. Seemingly short-lived materials, however, can still be important inroads for histories of chemistry, consumption, and technology. Upon closer inspection, “Keir’s metal” is a label that has been applied to iterations of the same substance. Because the material was a product of different sites of inquiry and industry, the alloy had unique functions and meanings imparted to it over several decades. Hence, the alloy is a multifaceted material in need of a new historical narrative. I argue that Keir’s metal is a complex substance whose nuanced identities resulted from movement between sites of production and application, where chemical, social, and technological factors shaped the alloy’s properties and purposes. This new narrative for Keir’s metal unfolds in three parts. The first chapter demonstrates the centrality of Matthew Boulton’s Soho Manufactory in producing, protecting, and promoting the new material. The second part analyzes the collaboration of Keir and the London-based coppersmith William Forbes as they improved Keir’s metal between two different sites of industry and reintroduced it to the Navy Board for ship bolts. The third chapter examines the intentional transformation of Keir’s alloy into the Eldorado metal of neoclassical architecture through a new name, location, and marketing strategy. As an object on the move, Keir’s metal prompts analyses of the perceptions of eighteenth-century materials, the influences of place and space in material production, and the interface of science and technology (knowledge of the head and hand). Investigating the provenance and use of this metal reveals a wealth of relatively underexamined sources on James Keir and is important for present-day conservation of period buildings by restoration architects and decorators.

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Authors & Contributors
Klein, Ursula
David Williams
Paul Wilcock
Žmolek, Michael Andrew
Morin, Bode J.
Miskell, Louise
Technology and Culture
Rittenhouse: Journal of the American Scientific Instrument Enterprise
Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science
Noesis: Travaux du Comité Roumain d'Histoire et de Philosophie des Sciences
Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker, Fachgruppe Geschichte der Chemie
Llull: Revista de la Sociedad Española de Historia de las Ciencias y de las Técnicas
University of Tennessee Press
MIT Press
Johns Hopkins University Press
Copper and copper industry
Materials science
Crafts and craftspeople
Schönbein, Christian Friedrich
Ruprecht, von Anton
Priestley, Joseph
Pearson, George
Guillet, Léon
Geitner, Ernst August
Time Periods
19th century
18th century
17th century
Early modern
20th century
16th century
Prussia (Germany)
United States
New Spain
École Centrale de Paris

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