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Le Blanc, Nicolas

LE BLANC, NICOLAS (1742-1806), French chemist, was born at Issoudun, Indre, in 1742. He made medicine his profession and in 1780 became surgeon to the duke of Orleans, but he also paid much attention to chemistry. About 1787 he was attracted to the urgent problem of manufacturing carbonate of soda from ordinary sea-salt. The suggestion made in 1789 by Jean Claude de la Metherie (1743-1817), the editor of the Journal de physique, that this might be done by calcining with charcoal the sulphate of soda formed from salt by the action of oil of vitriol, did not succeed in practice because the product was almost entirely sulphide of soda, but it gave Le Blanc, as he himself acknowledged, a basis upon which to work. He soon made the crucial discovery which proved the foundation of the huge inrtustry of artificial alkali manufacture that the desired end was to be attained by adding a proportion of chalk to the mixture of charcoal and sulphate of soda. Having had the soundness of this method tested by Jean Darcet (1725-1801), the professor of chemistry at the College de France, the duke of Orleans in June 1791 agreed to furnish a sum of 200,000 francs for the purpose of exploiting it. In the following September Le Blanc was granted a patent for fifteen years, and shortly afterwards a factory was started at Saint-Denis, near Paris. But it had not long been in operation when the Revolution led to the confiscation of the duke's property, including the factory, and about the same time the Committee of Public Safety called upon all citizens who possessed soda-factories to disclose their situation and capacity and the nature of the methods employed. Le Blanc had no choice but to reveal the secrets of his process, and he had the misfortune to see his factory dismantled and his stocks of raw and finished materials sold. By way of compensation for the loss of his rights, the works were handed back to him in 1800, but all his efforts to obtain money enough to restore them and resume manufacturing on a profitable scale were vain, and, worn out with disappointment, he died by his own hand at Saint-Denis on the 16th of January 1806.

Four years after his death, Michel Jean Jacques Dize (1764-1852), who had been preparateur to Darcet at the time he examined the process and who was subsequently associated with Le Blanc in its exploitation, published in the Journal de physique a paper claiming that it was he himself who had first suggested the addition of chalk; but a committee of the French Academy, which reported fully on the question in 1856, came to the conclusion that the merit was entirely Le Blanc's (Com. rend., 1856, p. 553).

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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