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
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
"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
"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
"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
"Shiels also led a double private life. In December 1902 he married
"An American niece wrote home describing the lavish lifestyle in
"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
"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
"Provost McFarlan urged the council to petition Parliament for permission to impound the waters of
"In the autumn of 1904, Shiels's mother wrote to her son Tom in
"INDEED it was. On the face of it, all was well. The three companies made their headquarters in The Hatrack,
"Shiels signed deeds of partnership with John Joseph Melville of Hampstead in
"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
"Next came allegations that a senior Kosmoid manager, who was being treated by Shiels at his
"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
"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
"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
"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
"Although the cobwebs will gather at the factory in Dumbarton before the roar of the bulldozers, the '
"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
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
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.
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
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
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
Even after his fall, Shiels
was not without supporters, as papers deposited at the Royal College of
Details from George Grandison Millar's elaborate
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
Frederick Soddy –a Fellow
of the Royal Society from 1910- moved on from his work in chemistry and
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
"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 email@example.com
NUMBER 37 of the 16
PENICUIK EH26 8HS