Artists' views of ICI from 1956

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down south
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Artists' views of ICI from 1956

Post by down south » Fri Nov 26, 2010 4:39 pm

With ICI and its old site so topical at the moment, I thought it would be a good moment for a look at these artists' views of its operations in its prime back in the 1950s; when according to an accompanying article it was the largest explosives factory in the British Empire, covering 200 acres , and with 7000 employees producing these and associated chemicals.They appeared in the 1956 Ardrossan Academy school magazine, the result of a visit by a party of senior pupils.

I have in fact shown this first one already: the Pint and Half-Pint water coolers, by F. Bramble. These must have been very early examples of that sort of thing; I presume the big one associated with the Nylon Plant , which famously later collapsed, wasn't built until the 1960s.

Pint and Half Pint Cooling Towers ICI 1956 by F Bramble.jpg

This next picture shows Africa House,which used to be the staff canteen; by Hugh Copland. I noticed that on the recent roll-call of Stevenston listed buildings, and I believe I've seen further mention elsewhere that it IS one of the few structures still left standing. Is it still in the sorry state suggested here ? ... 451#p26451

Africa House ICI 1956 by Hugh Copland.jpg

Next comes a view of the Ammonia Oxidisation Plant, by Sally Munro.

Ammonia Oxidisation Plant ICI 1956 by Sally Munro.jpg

More pictures in my next post.

Last edited by down south on Tue Jul 18, 2017 3:14 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: Artists' views of ICI from 1956

Post by down south » Sun Sep 06, 2015 3:44 pm

The young people visited various of the departments connected with explosive manufacturing, including the nitro-cellulose and acid plants, grinding house, box factory and safety fuse section, though not any of the more hazardous areas. Here's a worker emptying a centrifuge in the nitrocellulose plant, by M Breckenridge :

Nitrocellulose Plant ICI 1956 by May Breckenridge.jpg

and a view of the printing press in the box factory, by M Logan:

Box Factory ICI 1956  by M Logan.jpg

Many of these activities, and some of the work in the research departments, were described in some detail, with something of the science behind them, in the article, written by others of the pupils, that went with the pictures. But it's quite a lengthy one ( nearly three times as long as the one that came with the Shell Refinery pictures, which I've posted in the past ); so could anyone SERIOUSLY interested to see it let me know.


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Re: Artists' views of ICI from 1956

Post by down south » Tue Jul 18, 2017 3:14 pm

I showed the pictures above rather a long time ago; and at the time I was too daunted by the length of the accompanying article to undertake the major amount of typing involved in posting it.

But thanks to the miracles of scanning as text, I am after all now able to bring you that article about the ICI factory as it was in 1956, that I mentioned in the previous post. Startling to realise this is now verging on sixty years ago; the latter part of the article introduces the concept of silicones for waterproofing etc as the latest cutting-edge science...very old hat indeed today.

So here it is :


The aim of these special articles is to make pupils of the Academy better acquainted with the Industrial and Commercial concerns in their own neighbourhood, to establish a link between the Academy and those concerned in an industry in which many pupils are later employed and to give some idea of the varied products of this part of Northern Ayrshire. Visits have already been made to the Ardrossan Dockyard Co. and the "Shell" Refining and Marketing Co., Ltd. This year the survey is of Nobel Division I.C.I.

Ayrshire has long been well-known for its great stretches of sand dunes—round, yellow hillocks covered with patches of marram grass giving a very bleak and desolate aspect to the coast. This Dutch feature of our county has always been an attraction to people. Naturalists have found great interest in the formation of the dunes and in the vegetation which clings precariously to its weak hold, sports­men have derived great pleasure from the famous golf links, and industrialists have realised the possibilities of the waste ground for commercial development.

Thus in 1873, Alfred Nobel, in his search for ground to localise explosions and rivers for dumping effluent material, came to the conclusion that Ardeer was ideal for nitro-glycerine and dynamite production. In those far-off days, the factory, when built, covered 100 acres. However, nowadays, the increase in demand, especially the need for munitions of war, has led to the utilisation of an area exceeding 2,000 acres. With more than 7,000 employees, it is the largest explosives factory in the British Empire.

However, Alfred Nobel did not place his factory in a part of the world where the production of chemicals was unknown; the saltpans of Saltcoats; the soapworks, hydrochloric acid manufacturing and tar distilling of Irvine all had existed beforehand, and some of them are still in evidence to-day.

Thus he could easily obtain employees used to the type of work demanded in such a factory. Good communications by road, rail and sea,via the gaps in the hills and the ports of Ardrossan and Irvine, as well as the abundance of the waste and non­agricultural land with plenty of opportunities for dumping waste materials and localising explosions all helped to found the Nobel factory on a firm basis which in turn led to the immense success of the concern.

To say that this is an explosives factory is not to imply that only explosives are produced. A wide range of heavy chemicals, acids, and food preservatives are manufactured and by-products from chemicals processes such as potassium nitrate and barium nitrate are sold at home and abroad.

A visit has been paid to this magnificent area of industrial concentration by some of the Magazine committee and by a few of our art pupils.

Most of the departments which we visited were in some way or another connected with explosives manufacturing—the nitro-cellulose, acids, grinding house, box factory and safety fuse sections.

Nitro-cellulose production is in two distinct divisions, in one of which it is manufactured for explosives, and in the other it is produced for use in non-explosive products. Visitors to the manufacturing parts are always supplied with transparent eye-shields and rubber boots for protection against acid splashes.

Nitro-cellulose can be made basically from wood-pulp, imported from Sweden and Finland, or from cotton linters which are the broken cotton fibres useless for textile production, and which are imported mainly from the United States.

However, wood-pulp is mainly used for the pro­duction of industrial nitro-cellulose. It is laid out in huge sheets resembling blotting paper; diced, and then pneumatically conveyed through pipes to the top floor of a large building where it is nitrated with sulphuric and nitric acids. The acid is then recovered elsewhere and the nitro-cellulose, as it can now be termed, is "drowned" in purified water. If this drowning process were not carried out at once, decomposition might result.

Despite the thoroughness of the processes, there still remains acid to be removed and the viscosity or "treacliness," as it may be called, to be adjusted. The acid is removed in a stabilising plant where the nitro-cellulose is put through several hot and cold washes. For the viscosity adjusting, it is boiled under great pressure in spherical kiers. It is inter­esting to note that when the kiers are in use no one can remain in the vicinity as the temperature rises to 142 degrees centigrade or 287 degrees fahrenheit.

The nitro-cellulose has now been nitrated, the excess acid removed, the viscosity adjusted, and finally any water present is removed. It is now ready to be put into bags for transport to other parts of the factory or to firms outside Ardeer for further processing. It is used for making nail varnish, paints, cellophane paper and plastic wood.

As has been stated before nitro-cellulose is an important feature in the production of gunpowder for explosives. In this part of the factory it, is known as nitro-cotton or gun cotton and its main use is as an absorbent for the liquid nitro-glycerine which cannot be used in explosives unless it is absorbed in some solid material.

Apart from the gunpowder, nitro-cellulose has many uses within the factory such as in the section where it is made into lacquers.

Its largest use is for wood finishing. When sprayed on to wood or metal with strong, silver coloured sprays, a job which requires a fair amount of skill and which some of us had the opportunity of trying for ourselves, it gives a fine shiny appearance and at the same time colours the material in any of a variety of brilliant shades. When sprayed on paper it puts on a gloss and also makes it waterproof and non-inflammable.

When cardboard is treated with the cellulose lacquer it becomes a much stronger material, which is used for cases. Ordinary cloth, when treated, gives artificial leather used in, among other things, wallet or similar articles and in bus or car seats.

The acids department employs between three and four hundred workers and is divided into two sec­tions, one dealing with sulphuric acid. the other with nitric acid, both being components of the mixed acids used in explosives.

The nitric acid starts as ammonia liquor which i;; distilled off into ammonia gas and then converted with the help of a platinum catalyst into nitrous gases which are further cooled and concentrated into strong Nitric Acid or put into cardboard tubes.

Ferric sulphide, or pyrites, is the base for sulphuric acid and is dried, ground and roasted so that the sulphide becomes sulphur dioxide. The latter is cleaned, dried and converted into sulphur trioxide with the help of a vanadium catalyst. After being transmitted into oleum towers it condenses to form 95 per cent. sulphuric acid.

We have seen how some of the constituents of explosives are prepared; the actual mixing of the powder and packing into cartridges and boxes takes place in the Blasting Department, which is divided into a danger area and a smaller non-danger area.

Needless to say, our visit was confined to the latter division where the raw materials are prepared for cartridge packing.

The constituents are many and varied and are combined in different proportions according to the nature of the explosive which is wanted. However, there are some materials common to all, such as peat, woodmeal and ammonium nitrate.

Like the guncotton, peat and woodmeal are used for absorbing the nitro-glycerine. Lanarkshire is the main source of the peat which on arrival at the factory is too damp to be used. Its moisture content is lowered to 5 per cent. in steam jacket driers. This drying results in a brittle fibre which breaks into a powder which is so fine when sieved that workers filling the bags must wear masks.

Much of the wood used for the meal consists mainly of shavings from Coats' thread mills in Paisley where the bobbin production results in much waste wood. The wood after being ground into a fine meal is too damp like the peat and goes through a similar drying processes. Both peat and woodmeal, after a uniform moisture content has been achieved, are ready for use.

Ammonium nitrate is used for its own explosive qualities and for the gases which it produces. When left exposed to the air it absorbs moisture and becomes caked, with the result that it is very difficult to use. An Ardeer physicist discovered a way of overcoming this by inserting a very tiny quantity of acid magenta into the nitrate. The amount is too small to affect the chemical nature of the substance but at the same time it is sufficient to allow it to run freely. Thus although a white substance in our own laboratory, ammonium nitrate is a magenta or reddish coloured substance in Ardeer.

Chalk and salt are other ingredients; these being used as cooling agents during the explosion. If the temperature is too high, a flame will result during the detonation and the consequences can be serious if' certain gases are present. Thus cooling materials are most necessary.

There are, of course, dozens of other substances which may or may not be used, depending on the nature of the explosive.

Thus the nitro-cellulose and the gun-cotton have been prepared and mixed with the nitro-glycerine and subsidiary components to make highly effective explosives, which in bulk are sent to another section within the blasting department, where they are packed in paper or shells and finally into boxes.

The cartridge, when completed, can in be packed any of three ways : wrapped in paper which has been printed in a Timson machine, extruded into shells of paper made by reels on a Mecem machine or put into cardboard tubes.

The finished article is now ready for packing in boxes. These are made from Swedish wood and it is fascinating to watch the skilful speed of the workers who make the boxes from rectangles of wood which are lock cornered, four to a box, and joined, and the rough edges removed by a disc planer. To ensure that the contents are kept waterproof, paraffin waxed bitumen craft paper must be inserted as case liners before the cartridges are packed.

Of course an explosive cannot be detonated without some form of fuse and miles and miles of this essential product are manufactured in, and exported from a separate department of the Factory known as the Safety Fuse Section. The basis of safety fuse is blackpowder which is poured down tubes to spinning machines where jute yarus are wound round the blackpowder as it emerges from a nozzle on each machine. Simultaneously, two moistened cotton threads which help to hold the powder grains together are introduced into the centre of the powder core. Another layer of jute yarns is then wound in the opposite direction to the first layer. The jute yarn has been wound into bobbins in another part of this department. In this state, the fuse is known as "semi-fuse" and is not completed until it has been checked for powder charge, examined for faults, and passed through two electrically heated tanks of bitumen and a similar tank of rubber compound called gutta percha. White cotton yarn is then spun round the column which is finished off with a coating of glue and china clay. The finished fuse, which is an attractive looking white cord about 0.2in. in diameter, is wound on to large drying wheels which are 48ft. in circumference.

A length of the completed fuse is cut off and halved for two tests. The first is to measure the burning time, this being vitally important. The usual time required is one-and-a-half minutes per yard. The rest of the fuse is left in a tank of water for 24 hours to see if it is completely waterproof.

When these tests have been carried out, the fuse is prepared for packing. Some of the fuse is packed in drums containing 3000 feet spools and some in wooden cases containing 6ft. lengths. These 6ft. cases are appropriately called "coffins." Other cases contain 24ft. coils made up into bundles.

Ardeer exports 95 per cent. of the safety fuse produced and most of that percentage is bought by the Union of South Africa for use in the gold mines.

Nowadays, the force of explosion is invaluable in dozens of industries, especially in the search for oil. Explosions are used to produce artificial earthquakes in that they are detonated to generate shocks in the earth's crust; shocks which can be recorded on instruments known as seismographs placed at varying distances from the explosion.

One method of oil detection makes use of the fact that in hard materials, shock waves travel much faster than they do in softer ones. Thus a measuremept of speed will lead to an exact calculation of the nature and depth of the various strata. Once these facts have been discovered, the geologist can apply his knowledge in detecting the likely places in the strata for the presence of oil.

This use for the cartridge is one of many, all of great importance and almost indispensible in or modern world.

When our visit is summed up it appears that the main theme was explosive manufacturing. However some of us had the good fortune to be shown round some of the research laboratories. We were taken to the nitro-cellulose section where we were shown its non-explosive uses which have been described in a preceding paragraph. The other area of special interest was the Silicone Department where in one spotless laboratory we had demonstrated to us the many and wonderful uses to which these silicones can be put and just how advantageous they are.

They were discovered in 1890 by a scientist from Nottingham, Professor Kipping.

In the manufacturing process the element silica is mixed with finely divided copper which, in the heating with methyl chloride gas, acts as a catalyst. The silicones resulting from this reaction can be divided into three main groups : fluids, resins, and rubber-like materials or elastomers.

If it were at all possible to view the atomic structure with the naked eye, we would notice that silicon atoms were linked alternately with oxygen atoms, a feature which gives the compound many useful and highly interesting properties.

Anything treated with a silicone fluid becomes water repellent; with the result that walls of houses and materials like textiles can be advantageously coated with it. We were shown a fairly openly woven piece of lace which had been treated and which, when water was poured on it, let none through whatsoever, the liquid remaining as a mercury-like globule on the surface. Silicone resins have also a great heat resistance and thus in jet planes they are very useful in the machinery where conditions of great heat are experienced.

Another property is its non-adhesive nature. When rubber moulds or baking tins are coated with it, there is no difficulty in removing the finished product. Silicones do not conduct electricity and thus are invaluable for insulation purposes in electric cables. When hanks of wool are dyed under normal conditions foam forms rapidly and hinders the process. However a silicone will prevent this. Examination of more expensive floor polish will reveal that this product is one of the ingredients; here its polishing effect is being put into use.

We were shown two pieces of rubber, one treated and one in its normal state, inserted into a thermos flask of extremely low temperature. After a few minutes they were brought out and bent, the ordinary rubber cracking and the treated material retaining its resilience. In the same way a high temperature has no major effect on the treated rubber, whereas the untreated rubber becomes quite tacky. Substances treated like this can remain in their normal state at temperatures as high as 250 degrees Centigrade and as low as minus 85 degrees Centigrade.

Thus it is evident that silicones are of immense use in modern society and that they will become more and more prominent in the future. At the moment the main restrictive element is their price which is about £2 per pound weight.

As you may have gathered, our visit was most interesting, informative and indeed, stimulating. We realised that what appears to be a dull and rather ugly sight from distance is in fact a magnificent area of concentrated industry from which are exported material that have made Ardeer a name well known throughout the world and respected for the high quality of its workmanship.

In a short article like this, it is impossible to do justice to such a place, its workers and its organisation. What we should like to do, is to thank all the people who have taken such trouble to make visits s interesting and enjoyable as they have been.

The Editors

( The editors of the Ardrossan Academy magazine that year were Anne S Baillie, Jeanette T A Smith, and William M Mathew. )


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Re: Artists' views of ICI from 1956

Post by Retsum » Tue Jul 18, 2017 4:39 pm

Hugh Copland to whom you attribute Africa House, joined the Academy in the Fourth year from Eglinton and was in my year. He went on to Glasgow School of Art and I remember travelling in the train with him on a number of occasions. I lost touch with him after that.

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Re: Artists' views of ICI from 1956

Post by robinmcclure » Sun Feb 10, 2019 8:52 am

This is fascinating. I've been trying, through Shell, but with no success to research an "Artist in Industry" placement my father, the artist David McClure was awarded in 1954 to paint at the Ardrossan Refinery. From his own records we know that Shell Petroleum acquired two of the works in 1955 but sadly no-one knows their current whereabouts. A number of these will be shown at The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh in April 2019. Any information anyone has about his time there would be greatly appreciated.

Robin McClure
WP332 Overhead Pipes and Railway Shed , Ardrossan (FRAMED) copy.jpg
IMG_4788 copy.jpg
147. Tanks and Pipes, Ardrossan II. copy.JPG

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