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Indigo Dreaming

Ian D. Rae

School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Vic. 3010, Australia. Email: iandrae@bigpond.com

Australian Journal of Chemistry - http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/CH14102
Submitted: 26 February 2014  Accepted: 24 March 2014   Published online: 10 April 2014

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An Australian chemist who worked in Britain’s munitions industry during World War I returned home nursing the ambition to break a German monopoly and establish the manufacture of synthetic indigo in Australia. Although he mastered the chemistry, municipal concerns about industrial pollution by sulfur dioxide fumes emitted during the oxidation of naphthalene thwarted his attempt to site a factory, and he was never able to attract sufficient financial backing. As an organic chemist trained by Roger Brown, and for many years his friend and colleague, I dedicate this story to the master, who also left some dreams unrealised.


[1]  R. F. C. Brown, I. D. Rae, Aust. J. Chem. 1965, 18, 1071.
         | CrossRef | CAS |

[2]  R. F. C. Brown, Chemobiography 2001 (Royal Australian Chemical Institute: Melbourne), p. 89.

[3]  L. W. Weickhardt, Australian Dictionary of Biography 1986, 10, 69.

[4]  R. M. MacLeod, Ann. Sci. 1989, 46, 45.
         | CrossRef |

[5]  Records differ on whether this family name was Grindrod or Grindgrod.

[6]  This and other information cited below is contained in National Archives of Australia file NAA:MT1139/1, Fletcher Joseph Francis Grindrod. The file MT1139/1 also contains information about other UK war workers.

[7]  Lead ores from Broken Hill mines were smelted at Port Pirie from 1889, with Broken Hill Associated Smelters (BHAS) taking over from the Broken Hill Proprietary Company in 1915.

[8]  Melbourne Argus, Wednesday 9 August 1916, p. 10. The advertisement appeared widely in Australian newspapers.

[9]  In the Central Laboratory: analyses of nitro-cake, nitroglycerine in waste liquor, producer gas, tar, and development of new methods, for example, de-arsenification of platinised asbestos by means of dry HCl gas. Sulphuric acid laboratory: acted as chemist in charge. Cordite laboratory: analyses of cordite consignments, cresol, ether, alcohol, recovered solvent, etc. Nitric acid laboratory: analyses of mixed acids.

[10]  The town of Eastriggs was established during the war, close to Gretna, to house munitions workers.

[11]  According to Institute records, Fletcher joined in August 1919, which was after he returned to Australia. He was still a member in 1927 but was not listed in the membership of 1939.

[12]  By July 1917, there were 11,576 women working at Gretna, many of them recruited from northern England and Southern Scotland. A. Wollacott, On Her Their Lives Depended. Munitions Workers in the Great War 1994 (University of California Press: Berkeley, CA).

[13]  R. Proudley, Circle of Influence. A History of the Gas Industry in Victoria 1987 (Hargreen: Melbourne), pp. 315–316.

[14]  Subsequent intermediates were phenylglycine carboxylic acid, indoxylic acid, and indoxyl. K. Heumann, Ber. Dtsch. Chem. Ges. 1890, 23, 3431.

[15]  K. Heumann, Zurich, ‘Artificial White Indigo’, U.S. Patent 534,560, 19 February 1895.

[16]  Archives at Swinburne University hold a letter from Fletcher, on Colonial Gas Association (Footscray Works, Footscray) letterhead dated 1 March 1921, to Mr Green of the Engineering Department, Swinburne College.

[17]  T. Newbigging, Handbook for Gas Engineers and Managers, 8th edn 1913 (W. King: London), pp. 106–112.

[18]  J. Lack, A History of Footscray 1991 (Hargreen: Melbourne).

[19]  Independent (Footscray), Saturday 18 February 1922, p. 8.

[20]  ‘The Dye Industry. A Tasmanian Chemist’s Success. Dye Industry for Australia. Secret Wrested from Germany’, The Mercury (Hobart), Friday 24 February 1922, p. 9.

[21]  ‘A Wonderful Discovery. Factory Site Wanted in Footscray. Will the Council be Antagonistic?’, Independent (Footscray), Saturday 4 March 1922, p. 3. Argus (Melbourne), Thursday 9 March 1922, p. 8. Independent (Footscray), Saturday 11 March 1922, p. 8.

[22]  ‘German Indigo Dye. Has the Secret been Discovered? Melbourne Chemist’s Claim’, Advocate (Burnie), Tuesday 26 September 1922, p. 3. Over the next few weeks, versions of this article also appeared in the Maitland Daily Mercury, the Singleton Argus, the Queensland Times (Ipswich), the Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), and the Daily News (Perth).

[23]  ‘Indigo Dye Synthesised in Australia’, Chemical Engineering and Mining Review, 5 November 1922, pp. 83–84.

[24]  T. Hashino, Kobe University Economic Review 2007, 53, 35. There was some local production of other dye types, which had begun before the war, but not of indigo.

[25]  A. S. Travis, The Rainbow Makers. The Origins of the Synthetic Dyestuffs Industry in Western Europe 1993 (Lehigh University Press: Bethlehem, PA), pp. 220–227.

[26]  I. D. Rae, Hist. Rec. Aust. Sci. 1984, 6, 469.
         | CrossRef |

[27]  Valder, born in 1931, was Roger’s contemporary and the two were acquainted because they went to the same grammar school (‘Shore’) and both studied at the University of Sydney. Valder was awarded the CBE (1981) for service to commerce, and AO (1991) for services to business, politics, and the community.

[28]  Lipases and Phospholipases: Methods and Protocols (Ed. G. Sandovai) 2012 (Humana Press: New York, NY).

[29]  W. Cooper, The Struggles of Albert Woods 1966 (Penguin: Harmondsworth, UK). ‘Cooper’ was the pen name of H. S. Hoff (1910–2002), a physicist colleague of C. P. Snow who also had a second career as a novelist.

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