KOSMOID

Why the Kosmoid name for this website?  Because, as you’ll see, Kosmoid is a fascinating story.  One you can keep coming back to.  There’s always a piece of the jigsaw to pick up, and an expert friend – David I. Harvie - to talk to about it.  Another good tale worth exploring is that of Alexander Robertson (1846-1933) the Scots minister in Venice, patron of Pound and devotee of Victor Emmanuel III and Mussolini –that story is pursued with another expert friend, John E. Law.  But Kosmoid is the story that concerns us here.  It’s almost a myth.  And it swirls around the charismatic Alexander Shiels (1865-1907), a Glasgow medical man.

On 24 May 1992 David Harvie wrote about Alexander Shiels in The Herald, Glasgow.  In its Inside Story feature, under the headline: "The Alchemist of Kosmoid Hall" with an image of "A man of mystery: Alexander Shiels" looking like a young Rennie Mackintosh, the newspaper announced: "As the Babcock and Wilcox plant at Dumbarton closes its doors, David Harvie looks back on the legend which surrounds the previous owners - the tale of a secret society reputed to have dabbled in an ancient art." Secret society? More société anonyme in the business sense.

Here's what David wrote:
"THE closure was recently announced of the Babcock and Wilcox plant at Dumbarton, almost a century after its construction. This factory was the focus of one of Britain's most bizarre scandals. It was alleged that the princes of Scottish business were persuaded to connive - knowingly or otherwise - in the commercial production of gold from lead and copper from pig-iron. According to the legend -nurtured by years of lazy journalism- Lord Kelvin - Europe's most celebrated physicist - was the leading proponent. Aided and abetted by suppression of facts and a peculiar novel, the myth outgrew the equally grotesque truth.

"In January 1906 the Daily Express made a startling revelation:
'A mysterious looking document, apparently of American origin. reached the Express office for publication yesterday. It stated that the secret of the Philosopher's Stone and the transmutation of metals had been discovered by a young
Glasgow doctor. A new metal called Cuferal, a mixture of copper and iron, is being manufactured by Kosmoid Ltd. The process, which is a secret one, was invented by Dr Alexander Shiels of Glasgow and London, and is carried out by Kosmoid Ltd, whose headquarters are at Glasgow.'

"The affair embarrassed some of the most influential families in Scottish engineering, shipbuiding, and commercial circles.

"'It is suggested that the real secret of Kosmoid was not the method of making Cuferal. but the transmutation of metals and declared that such eminent men as Lords Kelvin, Overtoun and lnverclyde, having had ocular demonstration of the manufacture of gold, silver, and copper from lead and iron, had become shareholders. The initials of the names of the shareholders, said the document, form the word KOSMOID. They are Lord Kelvin, Lord Overtoun, Dr Shiels, GG Millar, Lady Overtoun, Lord Inverclyde and Denny Brothers of Dumbarton. '

"Hopes and aspirations were raised and dashed an a grand scale; a Parliamentary Inquiry collapsed in bitter recrimination; the events were described in a novel which had a strange publishing history; and there was an allegation of attempted murder. But how much was true?

"Alexander Shiels was born in 1865 at Earlston in Berwickshire. Having graduated in medicine from
Glasgow University in 1890 and 1891, he lived with his mother at 190 Bath Street, where he opened consulting rooms.

"With his brother in law, William Elliot of Lanark (father of Walter, later Secretary of State for Scotland) he developed a wide range of engineering patents, registering more than a hundred British patents for a huge range of engineering processes. He opened nursing homes at
Park Crescent in London (where a neighbour was Lord Lister), and at No 12 Claremont Terrace near Glasgow's Charing Cross.

"Shiels also led a double private life. In December 1902 he married
Georgina Clark, daughter of a wine merchant, at St Pancras Registry Office. They later had two children, and apparently kept the whole matter secret from his mother.

"An American niece wrote home describing the lavish lifestyle in
Bath Street: dining with the aristocracy, servants, carriages, fine furniture and even a private railway sleeping car in which Shiels travelled weekly to and from London.

"In
Glasgow, the jealous medical fraternity regarded Shiels as charlatan. To some he became 'the most polished humbug and trickster ever met or heard of -- his capacity for fraud almost unlimited'.

"During 1904, Shiels established three related companies, Kosmoid Ltd., Kosmoid Locks Ltd., and Kosmoid Tubes Ltd., with a combined share value of about 8 million pounds at today's values. The companies were established to exploit Shiel's 'special facility to introduce patents'.

"The list of those who became directors or principal shareholders reads like Scotland's industrial roll of honour: James, Peter, Archibald, John and Leslie Denny of the Dumbarton shipbuilding family, William Donaldson ironmaster and chairman of J&G Thomson (later John Brown's shipyard) Archibald Coats, of the Paisley threadmaking family; AD Wedgwood, forgemaster of Dumbarton and Sheffield, Alex Walker, the Kilmarnock distiller; Walter Brock and Daniel Jackson, eminent marine engineers, and many other of the most significant individuals in industry and commerce. Unquestionably, neither Lords Kelvin, Inverclyde or Overtoun were ever involved in any Kosmoid venture.

"Shiels organised a secretive organisation to control the companies. The Metallurgical Syndicate was a private association with capital of about 1.5 million pounds at today's values. The 18 members included Shiels, GG Millar (Art Publisher), Charles
W Fulton (textile manufacturer), Archibald Coats, William Donaldson, Archibald Denny, James Denny, Walter Brock, Peter Coats and William Coats.

"The principal object of this organisation was utterly astonishing. --'the commercial development of the products of certain secret processes known to Alexander Shiels, known respectively as the Quicksilver Process and the Copper Process, by which quicksilver could be produced from lead and copper from iron'.

"What did they think they were doing, these merchant princes? In a move either of spectacular irresponsibility or naivete, the syndicate members agreed that Shiels could control finance, and any manufacture, or any buildings that might be erected and any persons employed in their venture. It was confirmed that the members would have 'no right of interference with or inquiry into the said process' and that they would not visit any of the premises to be built. Why did they abrogate their rights?

"The press reported the construction of a huge new factory being built on 53 acres of the Dumbuck estate at Dumbarton: '...the new works will be put down on the American principle; its equipment of machinery will be as near perfection as it is possible to make it; in fact, the new concern will be quite novel and wonderful for these parts.'

"One four-storey building attracted particular attention. The Fireproof Stores had walls of two-feet thick concrete, clad with armoured steel. The Burgh Council, especially the forward-looking Provost, Robert McFarlan, took a keen interest in the new development. Interest intensified when Kosmoid promoted a Garden City of 6000 cottages, with schools, library, churches, and public buildings. Dumbarton's
Lennox Herald observed of the Kosmoid directors that 'their capital seems to be unlimited, and nothing but the very finest material and workmanship pleases those in charge".

"Provost McFarlan urged the council to petition Parliament for permission to impound the waters of
Loch Sloy. This proposal (costing about 8 million pounds at today's values) was enormously controversial when information about Kosmoid was extremely vague: '...some aver that the principal part of the work will be the manufacturing of projectiles; others that a new motive power will be conserved that will revolutionise every existing energy.

"In the autumn of 1904, Shiels's mother wrote to her son Tom in
Texas, urging him to join the company. Her faith in supernatural guidance is touching. 'I can scarcely understand all that is taking place -- surely it is the work of the Lord. They are Secret patents and Alex being the only one in full possession of the Secrets must have a Nominee and no doubt the Lord in his great mercy and Kindness has planned it for you. The Company is composed of very wealthy Gentlemen such as the Dennys. It seems all too great to grasp.'

"INDEED it was. On the face of it, all was well. The three companies made their headquarters in The Hatrack,
Glasgow's famous Art Nouveau building in St Vincent Street. But under the surface, scepticism prevailed. Tom Shiels stayed only briefly before returning to Texas.

"Shiels signed deeds of partnership with John Joseph Melville of Hampstead in
London. He installed him in the vast Fireproof Stores, knowing that the directors were neutered. Catastrophically, Melville was a self-confessed alchemist.

"The Kosmoid directors contracted with the Dennystown Forge Company in Dumbarton over experimental processes. However, attitudes soon soured, and a forge director wrote to James Denny that: 'I say without fear of contradiction that our friends are romancing'.

"And Lord Kelvin, whom the legend improbably has steering the good ship Kosmoid, instructed his secretary to reply to a letter he had received: 'Lord Kelvin has received Mr Shiels's letter of June 15. He thinks you should not go on with your project as no result could come from it.'

"The Parliamentary Inquiry into the
Loch Sloy Water Scheme opened in May 1906, chaired by the Duke of Argyll. MacFarlan and the council were ridiculed by witnesses for their municipal megalomania. After several days of evidence and without bothering to hear most of the formal objections, the Commissioners threw out the council's Bill, amid great acrimony.

"Next came allegations that a senior Kosmoid manager, who was being treated by Shiels at his
Glasgow nursing home, had been systematically poisoned. With that, Shiels disappeared.

"Whether he fell or was pushed is uncertain, but he decamped to a small Northamptonshire village. The Kosmoid directors may have connived at his disappearance in order to remove him from the scene of their embarrassment and financial loss. Within a year, Shiels suffered a stroke and died, leaving about 5,000 pounds --hardly the swag of a man who had committed massive fraud.

"KOSMOID and Kosmoid Locks were quickly dissolved, while Kosmoid Tubes was reconstituted by James Denny before being restructured as the Dumbarton Weldless Tube Company, which in turn was subsumed by Babcock and Willcox in 1915.

"The rather mysterious Metallurgical Syndicate went into limbo, and a Judicial Factor for its sequestration was appointed by the Court of Session. Followers of conspiracy theory will be delighted that the papers of this process are missing from files in the Scottish Record Office.

"In 1910, 'The Gold Makers' by Nathaniel P. McCoy was published in
London. This rather bad novel tells the story of an eccentric doctor who persuades a number of influential businessmen to fund the US Multi-Patents Company to manufacture quicksilver and gold from base metals. The novel appears to mirror the scandal as perceived to surround the Kosmoid companies; the names are changed, and the setting is Boston, Massachusetts.

"The quirk is that 'Nathaniel P. McCoy' was apparently none other than George Grandison Millar, Kosmoid director and member of the Metallurgical Syndicate. His fellow directors supposedly bought up and destroyed most of the print run of the book, copies of which are rare.

"Did they really manufacture gold? It seems probable that they tried. John Joseph Melville, Shiels's alchemist collaborator, had a lifelong history of similar scandals. His first disgrace was in Tottenham, where he tried to make tin and gold from lead. There were further public outrages in 1923 in Battersea, and in 1928 in
Southend-on-Sea.

"MELVILLE made endless spectacular claims, among which, in 1924, was that: 'Gold can be made in large quantities, not only from mercury, but also from antimony, lead. copper, and silver, and I do not hesitate positively to affirm that with relatively simple plant, our debt to
America can be wiped out in 12 months.' Just before his death in 1928, he admitted that he had been trying to make gold in Dumbarton.

"There was confirmation of that extraordinary claim from a Kosmoid director and Metallurgical Syndicate member, Charles W. Fulton of Paisley and Launceston Place, South Kensington, who affirmed to the Daily Mail that: 'A special concrete building of four floors was erected for Mr Melville's process, the exact nature of which was kept secret. We in touch with him knew that he claimed to be able to produce copper from iron and quicksilver from lead, to say nothing of gold and silver.'

"There is no evidence that
Fulton's confirmation of attempted alchemy at Dumbarton was ever challenged by his fellow directors or anyone else.

"Although the cobwebs will gather at the factory in Dumbarton before the roar of the bulldozers, the '
Transmutation Building' of the novel (and of the resulting legend) still has a busy, working future.

"Perhaps there is an argument for the listing of the 'special concrete building of four floors' as being of unique architectural and historical interest. It is certainly unusual structurally, and there can be few equals in the country as the location of twentieth century alchemy."

Now, did Shiels have some tacit state backing for his Kosmoid venture, at least at the start?  It’s more than plausible. As chemical industry regulator, the Alkali Inspector R.F. Carpenter would almost inevitably have been involved in the early discussions about the factory.  A big investment like this couldn’t go unnoticed, and the garden-city pretentions of the promoters suggest something akin to the new naval township at Rosyth and the aluminium smelter town at Kinlochleven.  Scots-born Prime Minister Arthur Balfour was an ardent enthusiast for scientific progress and was having difficulties with the army's gun barrels at the time. The world’s largest new scientific laboratory exploring the frontiers of physics and the nature of materials was at Manchester University and Balfour led the government as a Manchester Member of Parliament.  No politician knew Dumbarton and the metal futures business more intimately than the Glasgow merchant who was Balfour's Trade Secretary -Andrew Bonar Law. He had traded in international metal futures for years and was a director of the city’s Clydesdale Bank.  He also wanted to see tariffs introduced.  Balfour's Committee of Imperial Defence was alert to the fact that Rutherford and Soddy in Canada had together discovered evidence of transmutation, and Soddy had been a research colleague of Sir William Ramsay, the Glasgow-born discoverer of argon, neon, krypton and xenon. Balfour's scientist brother-in law John William Strutt (1842-1919) (Lord Rayleigh) presided over the Royal Society and kept him informed.  Strutt, incidentally, had a chain of dairies so would have known of Shiels’ milking machinery --one of Alexander Sheils’ first successes had been his “patent pulsating cup” in the 1890s—in some ways this enigmatic Glasgow doctor was the father of the modern milking machine.

   

Arthur Balfour, Andrew Bonar Law and John Strutt (Lord Rayleigh) with Lord Rayleigh’s Dairy Depot at Hatfield Peverel

Frederick Soddy, the young chemist and future Nobel laureate who had spent some time working with Ramsay on krypton at Imperial College was brought to Glasgow as a lecturer in radio-activity. He was billeted at Glasgow University with George Beilby who as leading light of the anglo-american Society of Chemical Industry and the British Association for the advancement of science took an interest in the emerging field of atomic science.  Soddy’s school friend H.C.H. Carpenter was head of chemistry and metallurgy at the new National Physical Laboratory, and a nephew of R.F. Carpenter, the government alkali inspector and erstwhile assistant at the Royal Mint.  Both Carpenters were close colleagues of Beilby.  George Beilby’s daughter Winifred was also interested in radio-activity and became Frederick Soddy's wife. It was in the Beilbys’ house at University Gardens that the word “isotope” was first coined by their friend Margaret Todd.   Beilby –quiet, perceptive and persistent, his family devoted to hillwalking and women’s rights- had made his fortune and his reputation in oil shale and gold refining, and was a prime mover also in the aluminium company, which required huge infrastructure investments of railways, dams and hydro-electricity. His technological and business brains were at the disposal of the state, and later helped to lay the foundation of both British Petroleum and Imperial Chemical Industries.

 

Frederick Soddy and his father-in-law George Beilby

Direct involvement of Lords Kelvin, Inverclyde and Overtoun is unlikely –indeed Kelvin was notoriously difficult to convince of Ramsay and Soddy’s work on the transforming of atoms.  But any enterprise of this magnitude would have gathered some initial establishment reference points, however tentative, and some very solid progress with potential scientific and banking backers must have been made.  It’s hard to imagine that the local experts in the field like Beilby, Soddy, Ramsay or Carpenter did not have some role, offering confidential comment on the Kosmoid proposals, whether for or against.

Kosmoid's coat of arms indicated that it saw itself as essentially a chemical venture. There is no wonder that suggestions of magical alloys and indestructible new materials like kryptonite might be in the offing; all wild speculation, but fuelled by the prevailing spirit of the St Louis World’s Fair.  New forms of energy were hinted at when Kosmoid was building its works in Dumbarton. And the intriguing figure of television pioneer A. A. Campbell-Swinton flits across the story in publicly advocating the Loch Sloy part of Kosmoid's enterprise.

 

Sir William Ramsay                       Campbell Swinton’s x-ray hand

 

As well as chemistry, Kosmoid saw themselves as an engineering company. They may for a time have imagined a future exploiting American patents inside the British Empire's tariff wall (Singer at Clydebank had made much the same calculation). If so, they would indeed have become the 'US Multi-Patents Company'. But it was not to be. Balfour and Chamberlain's tariff wall didn't materialise, instead their Unionist government was unexpectedly swept away at the polls by Campbell-Bannerman’s Liberals.  Critically, this is the moment when the Kosmoid venture suddenly began to fall apart.

Alexander Shiels

The village where Shiels hid away -Earls Barton- was in cattle-rearing Northamptonshire, a county where his livestock-dealing Elliot brother-in-law may have had interests and where the Buccleuch family -Scots Unionists like Balfour and Bonar Law- were a local force. Shiels and his family took up a new arts-and-crafts house there, Grangefield.

Mark J Mactaggart Stewart MP in 1904

One of Shiels’ earliest business associates was the Conservative MP for dairy constituencies of Wigtown and later Kirkcudbright, Sir Mark J Mactaggart Stewart (1834-1923).  Stewart chaired the Thistle Mechanical Milking Machine Company Ltd of which Alexander Sheils MD CM was patentee and a co-director.  Stewart exhibited his estate’s dairy livestock and cheeses at the British Dairy Farmers Association Annual Show in 1895, where the Shiels Patent Thistle machine was the main attraction: by means of this contrivance ten cows are milked in a quarter of an hour. Stewart and Shiels successfully defended themselves in the Court of Session in December 1898. As a landed proprietor with estates across Dumfries and Galloway, a prize herd of Ayrshire cattle and a London residence at 1 Whitehall Gardens, Mactaggart Stewart was well-connected in the world of Scottish political grandees surrounding A. J. Balfour. Two of his daughters married into the families of the Marquis of Ailsa and of Sir Charles Dalrymple MP (of the Vaccination Commission, Scotland’s Grand Master Mason).  Dalrymple, elevated to the Privy Council in 1905, was MP for Ipswich and lived at New Hailes, Edinburgh; his older brother Sir James Fergusson of Kilkerran MP had been a Privy Councillor since 1868 and like Balfour represented a Manchester constituency until swept out by JR Clynes for Labour in 1906.

Even after his fall, Shiels was not without supporters, as papers deposited at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh testify.  His surgeon-collaborator Thomas Kennedy Dalziel had a distinguished career, and was the probably the first to see a connection between milk, paratuberculosis, and what later became known as Crohn’s disease.  Kennedy Dalziel went on to become a Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and Alexander Shiel's widow Georgina Shiels was pointed out as an RAMC nursing sister during the Great War, possibly at Glasgow’s Yorkhill Hospital.

In Scotland, Shiels’ brother-in-law and copatentee William Elliot promoted the International Air Show at Lanark in 1910.   Postcard publisher George Grandison Millar –the syndicate partner who in 1910 allegedly ghosted the Gold Finders novel about the Kosmoid debacle, died in Rothesay in 1913.

      

Details from George Grandison Millar's elaborate Glasgow offices : Alan Campbell           Kosmoid clockface by Rusmoid

In London, taking up Shiels’ work as an inventor and promoter, his erstwhile associates Frederic Montagu Russell and Alfred James Jung (of Jung & Dreydel) went on to develop mechanical devices.  The Times records that a Panther automobile with Kosmoid engine was put on show at Olympia by Russell in 1906.  Kosmoid time clocks continued to be used in Government offices through the Great War and beyond. They were produced and maintained by Russell’s successor company Rusmoid Ltd., with one of the Mocatta family on its board of directors.  Earlier, in New Zealand, a Taranaki farmer Cyril Gane had patented improvements to Shiels’ pulsating milking machine which were promoted by H.R. Jenkins through the Gane Milking Machine Company from 1907 onwards.

      

    Shiels’ nephew, Walter Elliot – an enthusiast for school milk                 Elliot’s protégé John Grierson

Alexander Shiels’ had raised his talented nephew Walter Elliot in his own household in Glasgow and the young man spent holidays in Texas with his Shiels cousins there. Like his uncle before him, Walter studied medicine at Glasgow University.  He served as a doctor with the Royal Scots Greys in the First World War, winning the Military Cross and Bar, became successively M.P. for Lanark, the Scottish Universities and Kelvingrove, and held government office as Minister of Agriculture (1932-36), Secretary of State for Scotland (1936-38) and Minister of Health and Local Government (1938-40). He was a patron of John Grierson and the Empire Film Board. As Secretary of State he helped Scotland emerge from the Great Depression -the Queen Mary was built in Clydebank for the Cunard Line in his term of office, he started the National Housing Company to build prefabs to replace the slums, and he was eager to introduce free school milk.  As Minister of Health he promoted the use of radium for treatment and research.   A keen Zionist, Elliot left Government in 1940 to make way for the influx of Labour and Liberal Ministers in Churchill’s coalition, but continued to be consulted behind the scenes as a respected backbencher till his death in 1958.  He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1935 and made a Companion of Honour in 1952.  He also served as Rector of Glasgow and Aberdeen Universities.  His uncle Tom Shiels’ remarkable house in Dallas, Texas, is now listed as a US national landmark.

Frederick Soddy –a Fellow of the Royal Society from 1910- moved on from his work in chemistry and radio-activity at Glasgow University to professorships at Aberdeen and Oxford. As a Labour supporter after the Great War,  Soddy was prominent when as King’s Messenger, with his wife George Beilby’s daughter Winifred, he transferred a large consignment of radium from the new state of Czecho-Slovakia into the joint care of the British government and Grigori Benenson’s Imperial and Foreign Corporation. This took place in the autumn of 1921 (as noted here).  Within a few years Imperial Chemical Industries was to be formed in combination with Beilby’s former chemical interests, and Soddy and Beilby’s former Glasgow laboratory assistant the radio-activity expert Alex Fleck was ultimately to lead it.  Prominent for his Nobel Prize in 1921, Soddy became an advocate of alternative approaches in economics and a form of social credit, charting a very individual (and often argumentative) course through new age ideas of Patrick Geddes, Victor Branford, and the Le Play Society, and finding a ready disciple in Labour politician Tom Johnston, Churchill’s inspired choice as Secretary of State for Scotland from 1941 to 1945.

Kosmoid tube technology continued to be developed for many years by Babcock & Willcox, initially in association with the Denny Brothers. 

 

Now more than a century away, the Kosmoid story, with its prescient focus on tube alloys, its hints of new materials and sources of energy, and its undertow of skulduggery, has the flavour of a John Buchan novel about it –the thirty nine steps of transmutation perhaps.  It was not long after these events (and a year before The Thirty Nine Steps) that John Buchan wrote The Power House in dedication to his friend and mentor Arthur Balfour.  Here are the words that Buchan puts into the mouth of the Balfour character, Andrew Lumley: 

His face was perfectly serious. His light wild eyes were intently watching me.  "Take one little instance," he said. "We are a commercial world, and have built up a great system of credit. Without our cheques and bills of exchange and currency the whole of our life would stop. But credit only exists because behind it we have a standard of value. My Bank of England notes are worthless paper unless I can get sovereigns for them if I choose. Forgive this elementary disquisition, but the point is important. We have fixed a gold standard, because gold is sufficiently rare, and because it allows itself to be coined into a portable form. I am aware that there are economists who say that the world could be run equally well on a pure credit basis, with no metal currency at the back of it; but, however sound their argument may be in the abstract, the thing is practically impossible. You would have to convert the whole of the world's stupidity to their economic faith before it would work.

   "Now, suppose something happened to make our standard of value useless. Suppose the dream of the alchemists came true, and all metals were readily transmutable. We have got very near it in recent years, as you will know if you interest yourself in chemical science. Once gold and silver lost their intrinsic value, the whole edifice of our commerce would collapse. Credit would become meaningless, because it would be untranslatable. We should be back at a bound in the age of barter, for it is hard to see what other standard of value could take the place of the precious metals. All our civilisation, with its industries and commerce, would come toppling down…”

 

Roger Kelly   info@kosmoid.net
 

 

Sir George Thomas Beilby FRS (1850-1924)

 

Frederick Soddy FRS (1877-1956)

 

 

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