John Mercer and the Cotton Mercerisation

John Mercer

John Mercer
(1791 – 1866)

On February 21, 1791, English dye and fabric chemist John Mercer was born. He invented the mercerisation process for treating cotton which is still in use today and was a pioneer in colour photography.

John Mercer grew up in Lancashire, England. He entered the textile industry as a bobbin-winder when he was still a boy. The art of dyeing came to Mercer’s interest approximately at the age of 16. He set up a dye laboratory at his home and experimented with mixing colors and soon began a partnership with an investor. They opened a small dyeing shop, which was considered quite successful. [1,2]

After several years of experience as a simple weaverMercer returned to the profession of a dyer and increased his enthusiasm in chemistryMercer managed to produce a new orange dye, which was found good for calico-printing. In the late 1810s, Mercer was employed by the Fort brothers, a textile printing company. Mercer was employed as a color chemist and after making progress with further colors including indigo, yellow, and orange, the chemist was made the company’s partner in 1825. [1]

Despite the profitable partnership with the Fort brothers, Mercer had no more chance to develop new chemicals for textile processing in his laboratory. He dissolved the partnership in 1848 and devoted all of his time and resources to pursue his own research. It is believed that Mercer had wondered about the effect upon cotton fabric of sodas, acids, and chlorides. He came to realize that the material became thicker and shorter when treated with these chemicals. These early experiments turned out to be Mercer’s most important. The process made the cotton stronger and more easily dyed. John Mercer called this process mercerization. It was patented in 1850. It became clear that mercerization could be easily applied to many other materials. To this day, mercerization is an important part of the cotton finishing process. John Mercer was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1850 and he was acknowledged the ‘father of textile chemistry’. [1,2]

Mercer was also interested in photography and especially photochemistry. He managed to develop processes for photographic printing on fabric

. [2]

At yovisto you may learn more about the Industrial Revolution in a lecture by John Merriman at Yale University.

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