Catalogue description Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Oswald John Silberrad (1878-1960), industrial chemist

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Title: Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Oswald John Silberrad (1878-1960), industrial chemist











The material in the collection covers the period ca 1891-1965 and is presented in five sections.


Section A, Biographical, covers the period ca 1891-1960. There are lecture notebooks from Silberrad's years at Finsbury Technical College, a childhood natural history notebook with sketches, and diaries dating from 1912 to 1926. Of especial interest are drafts of an unpublished biography of Silberrad by his sister Dora and of a revised version by the Hon. Hugh Fletcher Moulton. Included in the book are quotes from memoirs written by Silberrad; some are particularly valuable for the light they shed on his work at the Research Department, Woolwich, and his relations with the War Office. A group of correspondence with prominent scientists, 1918-1921, relates to his unsuccessful candidature for Fellowship of the Royal Society. A series of career files, mostly of miscellaneous material, includes testimonials written by college and university tutors and superiors in organisations in which he was employed. There is also a draft of a book (apparently unpublished) of fairy tales for children written by Silberrad and his sister Phyllis.


Section B, Research and consultancy, is extensive and covers the period 1898-1959. It provides significant documentation of much of Silberrad's wide-ranging consultancy work for industry and the government, his patenting of discoveries and business interests. Little material, however, survives from his years at the Research Department, Woolwich. Large groups of correspondence and papers relate to his research on the erosion of ships' propellers and his innovative work on explosives during the period 1911 to 1918 which included the development of ammonium perchlorate dynamites, the 'Hotchkiss-Silberrad Fuse' and a 'flashless' artillery powder. Among the correspondents during the years 1915 to 1918 are Lord Moulton, the War Office and other government departments. Silberrad's involvement in Ergite Ltd is well documented among the papers relating to dynamites. Other topics covered in this section include the manufacture of dyestuffs and cellulose acetate and research on an erosion-resisting gunsteel. There is a series of forty notebooks, 1904-ca 1951, containing details of various experimental work with analysis. A few earlier lecture notebooks date from his years as a student at the University of Würzburg. Other papers document legal cases arising from a few of Silberrad's consulting posts and some in which he appeared as an expert witness. There are also more than one hundred photographic prints, the greater part showing experiments with the 'flashless' artillery powder he developed between 1915 and 1917. Others show laboratories and buildings at Woolwich, 1901-1906. Silberrad's own laboratories in their early development, and the results obtained by blasting with his new dynamites.


Section C, Publications, patents and lectures, is slight. The publications material includes Silberrad's printed treatise on the stability of nitro-cellulose, 1904, and a draft of an article on artificial rubber which appeared in a German publication. Sets of original patents obtained by Silberrad in Great Britain and overseas cover the period 1910 to 1942. There are drafts of three lectures by him of which one can probably be dated to 1902-1906. No significant details concerning the relevant venues or occasions for these exist.


Section D, Financial papers, comprises income tax papers, account books and receipts etc, dating from 1905 to the years immediately after his death in 1960. The material relates to both Silberrad's private financial affairs and the business of the Silberrad Research Laboratories.


Section E, Correspondence, is extensive, and illustrates the diversity of Silberrad's research, consulting and business interests. The main series, 1905-1951, is arranged alphabetically by correspondent within each year. The correspondents are chiefly scientists, including Sir Phillip Watts, Sir William Crookes, Cecil Desch and Sir Andrew Noble, family members, principally his brothers Charles and Harold, companies for which he worked, patent agents, solicitors and suppliers. There is also a small group of miscellaneous correspondence, 1922-1926, n.d., which was separated from the above sequence.


Compiled by Simon Coleman and Peter Harper


The work of the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists, and the production of this catalogue, are made possible by the support of the following societies and organisations:


The Biochemical Society


The British Crystallographic Association


The Geological Society


The Higher Education Funding Council for England


The Institute of Physics


The Royal Society


Trinity College Cambridge


The Wellcome Trust

Date: [ca1891]-1965
Held by: Science Museum Library and Archives, not available at The National Archives
Language: English

Silberrard, Oswald John, 1878-1960, scientist and industrial chemist

Physical description: ca 5300 items
Access conditions:










Immediate source of acquisition:

The papers, which were presented to the Science Museum by Silberrad's son, were received for cataloguing in December 1994.

  • Chemistry
Administrative / biographical background:

Oswald John Silberrad was born in 1878 at Buckhurst Hill in Essex. His family, German in origin, had been resident in England since the 18th century. Despite showing exceptional promise in science at school, Silberrad's inaptitude at classics ensured that the doors of all English universities were closed to him. He studied chemistry at the City and Guilds Technical College, Finsbury, before attending the University of Würzburg, Germany, from 1898 to 1900. Such were his family's straightened financial circumstances that his studies in Germany would not have been possible without the generosity of his uncle, Sir Charles Wyndham. At Würzburg, studying under such professors as A.R. Hantzsch and W.C. Roentgen, Silberrad proved himself to be unusually innovative at experimental work and took his thesis 'Uber die polymerisations producte aus Diazoessigester' in a remarkably short time.


On leaving Würzburg Silberrad worked for a short period at the Davy Faraday Laboratory at the Royal Institution, experimenting on hydrotetrazines and triazoles. He then began to turn his attention to the application of chemical discoveries to industry. His first consulting post was as Research Chemist to W.J. Bush & Co., working principally on essential oils. However, Silberrad's German training, with its emphasis on original practical work, brought him to the notice of the newly-formed Explosives Committee which had been set up to investigate the shortcomings of British munitions exposed during the Second Boer War. In December 1901, at the age of twenty-three, he was appointed Chemist to the Explosives Committee and, shortly afterwards, head of the Committee's research establishment at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich.


Silberrad immediately commenced research on the most urgent problem identified by the Committee in the aftermath of the Boer War: the lamentable failure of high explosive shells filled with lyddite to detonate properly. He devised a means of detonating lyddite using trinitrophenylmethylnitramine (or 'tetryl'), known as 'Silberrad's explosive' when it was introduced into the British Service in 1903. He then found that Trinitrotoluene, or 'TNT', could also be used as a detonator and possessed certain advantages over tetryl. In addition to these important discoveries, he succeeded in producing a 'flashless' powder for certain types of artillery. Through Silberrad's energy and organisational ability a new Research Department at Woolwich was formed and he become its Director and Superintendent. However, in his efforts to eliminate inefficiency in the department, he was frustrated by continual obstruction and meddling by officials at the War Office which led to his acrimonious departure from Woolwich in 1906. He later cited the reasons for the attitude of the officials towards him as being his extreme youth and his 'contempt for inefficiency'.


In 1907 Silberrad founded the Silberrad Research Laboratories at Buckhurst Hill (later moving to Loughton) and for the rest of his career worked as a consulting chemist. In 1908 he solved the problem of the erosion of warships' bronze propellers, which had baffled all previous investigations, by developing a new bronze alloy which withstood erosion. His research on dynamites before the outbreak of World War I resulted in the development of a new range of powerful explosives based on ammonium perchlorate. In order to exploit these products commercially, Silberrad helped to set up and manage a dynamite-manufacturing company in north Wales, Ergite Ltd.


From 1915 until the end of World War I Silberrad served as Honorary Consultant to Lord Moulton, Director-General of Explosives Supply, despite suffering serious injuries in an explosion in June 1915 at the Ergite factory which had started to manufacture TNT for the war effort. He himself performed an invaluable service to the country by improving the method for manufacturing lyddite which was desperately needed to supplement the inadequate supplies of TNT to the front. Silberrad also produced a 'flashless' artillery powder (no steps had been taken by the War Office to develop his initial research on 'flashless' powders carried out at Woolwich) which he demonstrated to be effective in most guns. The War Office, however, raised a series of objections to the new powder and it was not used during the war. The problem of what to do with large quantities of dangerous TNT residues was also referred to Silberrad who found that they could be converted into valuable dyestuffs.


Other significant research carried out by Silberrad before World War I produced an erosion-resisting gunsteel and an improved method for the retting of flax. After 1918 he continued to devise and patent new processes which made an impact in a number of industrial sectors. Among his discoveries were a new agent for chlorinating organic compounds and a new method of shooting oil wells. Being interested in the commercial possibilities of chemical discoveries, he held a number of company directorships and took part in some business ventures.


Despite having the strong backing of a number of distinguished scientists, including Sir Phillip Watts and Sir William Crookes, Silberrad's candidature for Fellowship of the Royal Society met with failure in 1921. He never received any official recognition for the discoveries he made while in the service of the government in 1901-1906 and 1915-1918.


Silberrad took a keen interest in social and economic matters and believed that high taxes sapped the nation's industrial strength. He died on 17 June 1960.

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