Papers and correspondence of Oswald John Silberrad, 1878-1960

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

Biographical material includes student notebooks from Finsbury Technical College, diaries dating from 1912 to 1926, and, of especial interest, several drafts of an unpublished biography of Silberrad by his sister Dora and of a revised version by the Hon.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 of which shed light on his work at the Research Department, Woolwich, and his relations with the War Office. Correspondence with prominent scientists, 1918-1921, relates to his unsuccessful Royal Society candidature.

Documentation of Silberrad's research and consultancy work is extensive and covers the period 1898 to 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 ship's 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 the Director-General of Explosives Supply, 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 positions 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 and the results obtained by blasting with his new dynamites.

Publications and lectures material is slight, though there are sets of original patents obtained by Silberrad in Great Britain and overseas covering the period 1910 to 1942. There is a significant record of both Silberrad's private financial affairs and the business of the Silberrad Research Laboratories in the form of income tax papers, account books and receipts, dating from 1905 to the years immediately before his death in 1960. There is extensive correspondence, which illustrates the diversity of Silberrad's research, consulting and business interests, and covers the period 1905-1951. 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.

Administrative / Biographical History

Oswald John Silberrad was born in 1878 at Buckhurst Hill in Essex. He studied chemistry at the City and Guilds Technical College, Finsbury, before attending the University of Würzburg, Germany, from 1898 to 1900. 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 turned his attention to the application of chemical discoveries to industry, his first consulting post being Research Chemist to W.J. Bush&Co., working principally on essential oils. However, his German training, with its emphasis on original practical work, brought Silberrad to the notice of the newly-formed Explosives Committee which had been set up to investigate the shortcomings of British munitions exposed during the Boer War (1899-1902). Silberrad, at the age of twenty-three, was appointed Chemist to the Explosives Committee in December 1901 and, shortly afterwards, head of the Committee's research establishment at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich.

Silberrad undertook research on the most urgent problem identified by the Committee in the aftermath of the Boer War: the failure of high explosive shells filled with lyddite to detonate properly. He devised a means of detonating lyddite using trinitophenylmethylnitramine (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 became its Director and Superintendent. However, he saw his efforts to eliminate inefficiency in the department frustrated 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 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 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. He improved the method for manufacturing lyddite, which was needed to supplement the inadequate supplies of TNT to the front. He 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.

A new agent for chlorinating organic compounds and a new method of shooting oil wells were among his discoveries in the years following the war. 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 Royal Society candidature met with failure in 1921. He never received any official recognition for the discoveries he made while in the service of the government 1901-1906 and 1915-1918. He died on 17 June 1960.

Arrangement

By section as follows: Biographical, Research and consultancy, Publications, patents and lectures, Financial papers, Correspondence. Index of correspondents.

Conditions Governing Access

48 hours notice required (stored off site).

Other Finding Aids

Printed Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Oswald John Silberrad, 1878-1960: NCUACS catalogue no. 94/7/00, 215 pp. Copies available from NCUACS, University of Bath.

Custodial History

The papers, which were presented to the Science Museum by Silberrad's son, John, were received for cataloguing in December 1994 by the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists. They were returned to the Science Museum in 2000.