Andrew Ure

Andrew Ure

Andrew Ure, the son of Alexander Ure, a cheesemonger, and his wife, Anne, was born in Glasgow on 18th May 1778. Born into a wealthy family, Ure received an expensive education. After periods at Glasgow University and Edinburgh University, he became professor of chemistry and natural philosophy at Anderson College. According to his biographer, Donald Cardwell: "Ure gave evening lectures on chemistry and mechanics, which he encouraged working men and women to attend. The lectures were most successful, attracting audiences of up to 500; they later inspired the foundation of mechanics institutions throughout Britain."

In 1807 Ure married Catherine Monteath, of Greenock. The couple had had two sons (one of whom became a London surgeon) and a daughter. In 1808 he became director of the Garnet Hill observatory, run by the Glasgow Society for Promoting Astronomical Observations. Ure also worked as a consultant for the Irish linen board. Here he devised his alkalimeter for volumetric estimates of the true alkali contents of various substances used in the linen industry. He also built up a reputation as a highly competent practical chemist.

In December 1818 he created a public sensation when he announced that he had been carrying out experiments on a murderer called Clydsdale after his execution. Ure claimed that by stimulating the phrenic nerve, life could be restored in cases of suffocation, drowning or hanging. It has been claimed that Mary Shelley used Ure as a model for her main character in the book, Frankenstein (1818).

Ure discovered that his wife was having an affair with Granville Sharpe Pattison, professor of anatomy at Anderson College. There followed, in 1819, a much publicized divorce. In 1821 Ure published his book, Dictionary of Chemistry. It was considered such an important book that it was translated into French (by J. Riffault) and German (by K. Karmarsch). His next book, New System of Geology(1829), he pointed out the importance of chemistry and physics to the geologist.

In 1834 Ure travelled around industrial Britain. His main concern was the four textile industries: cotton, wool, linen, and silk. His book The Philosophy of Manufacturers was published in 1835. In the preface of the book he claimed that he had written the book so that "masters, managers, and operatives would follow the straight paths of improvement" and hoped that it would help "prevent them from pursuing dangerous ideas".

This illustration of power loom weaving appeared in EdwardBaines's The History of Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain (1835)
This illustration of power loom weaving appeared in Edward
Baines's The History of Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain (1835)

Ure praised conditions at Quarry Bank Mill that was owned by Samuel Greg: "At Quarry Bank, near Wilmslow in Cheshire, is situated the great firm of Greg and Son. At a little distance from the factory, on a sunny bank, stands a handsome house, two stories high, built for the accommodation of the female apprentices. They are well fed, clothed and educated. The apprentices have milk-porridge for breakfast, potatoes and bacon for dinner, and meat on Sundays."

Ure's book, The Philosophy of Manufacturers, was condemned by factory reformers as it claimed that child workers were treated well in the factories and mills. For example, this is what he said about his visit to Manchester: "I have visited many factories, both in Manchester and the surrounding districts, during a period of several months and I never saw a single instance of corporal punishment inflicted on a child. The children seemed to be always cheerful and alert, taking pleasure in using their muscles. The work of these lively elves seemed to resemble a sport. Conscious of their skill, they were delighted to show it off to any stranger. At the end of the day's work they showed no sign of being exhausted."

Ure attacked the factory reformers for exaggerating the health problems of industrial workers: "On my recent tour through the manufacturing districts, I have seen tens of thousands of old, young and middle-aged of both sexes earning abundant food, raiment, and domestic accommodation, without perspiring at a single pore, screened meanwhile from the summer's sun and the winter's frost, in apartments more airy and sulubrious than those of the metropolis in which our legislature and fashionable aristocracies assemble."

Ure criticised the theories of Adam Smith. His biographer, Donald Cardwell, argues: "Adam Smith's eulogy of the division of labour was, he argued, out of date. Indeed, the lesson of what Ure called ‘the automatic factory’ was that human skill had been banished. Employees were merely machine minders. What had happened in textiles must happen in all manufacturing industries. Machines would displace labour and skill. He recognized that in addition to mechanical innovations there had been major, and irreversible, changes in social and commercial organization. The factory system required that the immemorial rural custom, whereby people worked when it suited them, must go. Everyone must go to work at a fixed time and leave at a fixed time. Ure vigorously defended the new factories against numerous criticisms, particularly those from landowners. He considered that earnings in Lancashire cotton mills were far higher than those in agriculture, and conditions were incomparably better than those in coalmines."

Cardwell points out that according to Ure: "The main hindrances to progress, in Britain, were trade unions - combinations of workers whose aims were to increase wages and to exclude outsiders. He showed to his own satisfaction that such combinations defeat their own ends. According to Ure, trade union leaders were evilly disposed while employers were usually long-suffering philanthropists." It has been argued that Ure's political opinions influenced his analysis. For example, he claimed that: "Workers in cotton mills were less liable to cholera than the rest of the population and that working at a temperature of 150 °F was not harmful. Such ills as afflicted the workers were due to their inordinate taste for bacon."

In 1836 Ure published Account of the Cotton Industry. This was followed by Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures and Mines (1839), The Revenue in Jeopardy from Spurious Chemistry (1843) and The General Malaria of London (1850).

Andrew Ure died in London on 2nd January 1857 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery.

Primary Sources

(1) Andrew Ure, The Philosophy of Manufactures (1835).

At Quarry Bank, near Wilmslow in Cheshire, is situated the great firm of Greg and Son. At a little distance from the factory, on a sunny bank, stands a handsome house, two stories high, built for the accommodation of the female apprentices. They are well fed, clothed and educated. The apprentices have milk-porridge for breakfast, potatoes and bacon for dinner, and meat on Sundays.

(2) Andrew Ure, The Philosophy of Manufactures (1835).

I have visited many factories, both in Manchester and the surrounding districts, during a period of several months and I never saw a single instance of corporal punishment inflicted on a child. The children seemed to be always cheerful and alert, taking pleasure in using their muscles. The work of these lively elves seemed to resemble a sport. Conscious of their skill, they were delighted to show it off to any stranger. At the end of the day's work they showed no sign of being exhausted.

(3) Andrew Ure, The Philosophy of Manufactures (1835).

On my recent tour through the manufacturing districts, I have seen tens of thousands of old, young and middle-aged of both sexes earning abundant food, raiment, and domestic accommodation, without perspiring at a single pore, screened meanwhile from the summer's sun and the winter's frost, in apartments more airy and sulubrious than those of the metropolis in which our legislature and fashionable aristocracies assemble.

(4) Sarah Bakewell, Fortean Times (2000)

Doctor Frankenstein undoubtedly needed a strong stomach and nerves of steel to bring his creature into the world. What is less clear is exactly what sort of laboratory equipment was required. The animation scene in Mary Shelley’s book is as vague about this as it is melodramatic about atmosphere: “With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning [..] when, by the glimmer of the half extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”

Despite the lack of details, we naturally tend to picture this as an electrical moment, with force fields humming and electrodes crackling as the body on the slab comes to life. This image derives entirely from movie versions, and is not directly supported by the book. Yet Shelley does give us a few hints. As well as using evocative phrases such as “spark of being”, she tells us that as a child, Victor Frankenstein received his own spark of inspiration from the sight of a tree being struck by lightning.

Shelley herself took a keen interest in the science of her day, and especially in electrical matters. Her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley was even more enthusiastic, and had once accidentally killed the family cat whilst trying to give it electrotherapy. (He attempted something similar on his sister, but she was luckier and survived.) The Shelleys and their circle frequently discussed scientific subjects, and let their imaginations roam on the wilder shores of philosophy.

In the Preface to Frankenstein, Mary describes the particular conversation which gave her the idea for the story. First, someone mentioned an experiment thought to have been conducted by Erasmus Darwin – “who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion.” From this, they speculated that “perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.” There was then some talk of experiments by mysterious “German scientists.” That night, the impressionable 18-year-old suffered bouts of insomnia alternating with terrifying dreams, in which she saw “the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.” On waking, she sprang to her desk with the glee of a born horror writer (“What terrified me will terrify others”) and at once set to work on Frankenstein.

We know, then, that genuine experiments on life and electricity were going on behind Shelley’s famous story, and that she was well aware of them. So who were these mysterious galvanists, the real-life Frankensteins who had “given token of such things”?

The greatest of all Galvani’s supporters was his own nephew, a man named Giovanni Aldini. Aldini travelled all over Europe publicly electrifying human and animal bodies, and his performances were extraordinary theatrical spectacles. The most famous took place at the Royal College of Surgeons in London in 1803, on a hanged man named George Forster. (2) Anatomical dissection had formed part of Forster’s death sentence, but no one could have visualised quite the violation that Aldini was going to inflict on him.

Before a large medical and general audience, he took a pair of conducting rods linked to a powerful battery, and touched the rods to various parts of the body in turn. The results were dramatic. When the rods were applied to Forster’s mouth and ear, “the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened.” When one rod was moved to touch the rectum, the whole body convulsed: indeed, the movements were “so much increased as almost to give an appearance of re-animation”. And so it went on, with Aldini moving the two rods around the body in a different combinations like a switchboard operator.

According to newspaper reports of the time, some of the spectators genuinely believed that the body was about to come to life, and were suitably awestruck even though it did not happen. But Aldini himself gave no indication that he expected any such thing – although he did describe his ultimate aim as learning how to “command the vital powers.” In practice, he confined himself to concluding that galvanism “exerted a considerable power over the nervous and muscular systems.” He also noted that nothing could be done with the heart.

Another, more ambitious researcher of the time did appear to hope for something more. His name was Andrew Ure (1778-1857), and in Glasgow in 1818 he attempted an experiment modelled on Aldini’s. He took the corpse of another hanged murderer, Matthew Clydesdale – “a middle-sized, athletic, and extremely muscular man, about thirty years of age” – and applied electrified rods to incisions all over the body. Once again, the effects were startling.

When a rod was touched to a heel, “the leg was thrown out with such violence as nearly to overturn one of the assistants, who in vain attempted to prevent its extension.” Connecting the rods to the left phrenic nerve and the diaphragm produced a perfect imitation of breathing. Next, the supra-orbital nerve of the forehead and the heel were linked, and “most extraordinary grimaces” resulted: “Rage, horror, despair, anguish, and ghastly smiles, united their hideous expression in the murderer’s face”. This crazed welter of apparent emotion in the deceased was too much for some of the audience: “At this period several of the spectators were forced to leave the apartment from terror or sickness, and one gentleman fainted.” Any remaining onlookers were finished off by the final melodrama, when a rod was applied to the tip of a finger. It extended instantly, and “seemed to point to the different spectators, some of whom thought he had come to life.”

Ure came very close to saying in print that he believed full resuscitation could one day be possible. “We are almost willing to imagine, that if, without cutting into and wounding the spinal marrow and blood-vessels in the neck, the pulmonary organs had been set a-playing at first [..] life might have been restored. This event, however little desirable with a murderer, and perhaps contrary to law, would yet have been pardonable in one instance, as it would have been highly honourable and useful to science.” Yet in the end, Ure stopped just short of dropping the ‘almost’ in his claim.