Edwin John Beer

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Edwin John Beer (7 February 1879 – 24 September 1986) was a chemist, geologist, mineralogist, archeologist, historian and librarian. He is noted primarily as a pioneer of the first man-made fibre which later became known as Viscose Rayon. The first stocking of "artificial sik" was made in his Kew laboratory.

During the First World War he prospected in India for fresh sources of industrial minerals (particularly tungsten) since the Germans had cornered essential supplies almost everywhere else. He located vast deposits of limestone suitable for making cement, which became a profitable export for India. Elected to the Geological Society of London, he later became the senior fellow. H G Wells and several other notables from that period were among his friends.[1][2]

Personal life and family[edit]

Edwin Beer was born on his grandfather's estate at Hounslow, the son of Samuel Beer, Commodore of the Clan Line, with whom the young Beer travelled more than once to India as a boy. His first voyage was at the age of 7. He was registered at St Dunstan's College, Catford on the opening day of that establishment, and later attended St Paul's School, where G K Chesterton was among his seniors. He was expelled for returning late one autumn term from Calcutta.

Beer married his first wife, Margaret Finney in 1922, who accompanied him on all his trips around the world but died of tuberculosis after ten years of marriage. In 1927 he eventually settled in Devon and in 1934, married Phoebe Hill, born in the Prestwich area. The couple had two sons, Michael (born 1935) and Lionel (born 1940).

Edwin Beer died on 24 September 1986 aged 107½, and was reputedly the oldest member of the National Trust. Phoebe died aged 99 on 18 September 2008.

Viscose Rayon[edit]

After a short time working in a public analyst's office and for an East India merchant in the city, Beer joined C F Cross's Viscose Spinning Syndicate at Kew in 1897. He became the chief works chemist, housed in a mews near Kew Gardens railway station and played a key role in the conversion of viscose from a chemical curiosity to a valuable commercial material. The eam had discovered viscose but were unable to discover how it might be spun. Beer solved that puzzle with acid fixing treatment to secure the requisite strength, softness and lustre.[3] The silken substance could then be used to create thread suitable for numerous applications in the clothing trade,[4] though further development was needed to make the process reliable. In addition, pyroxyline was introduced from which collodion could be produced in thin sheets, which when shaped and carbonised would be used in electric lamps, textile fabrics and even insulating thread.[4]

The first artificial silk stocking was produced in his laboratory there. He exhibited the material in the Paris Exhibition of 1900, where the German Empress ordered a gown made from the new material. In addition he made viscose filaments for electric lamps designed by Edison and Swan. "Sir Joseph Swan said the substance looked like artificial silk and it was he who suggested we should manufacture it.[5]

Courtaulds eventually bought the patent rights on 22 August 1904 from The Syndicate and Beer found himself redundant without any compensation. At the time, Courtaulds did not appreciate Beer's painstaking efforts in experimenting with Viscose over seven years and almost failed to consolidate their acquisition.[6][failed verification]

As it was a new industry, no textbooks existed to guide them, but the situation was saved when someone found in a cupboard, all the exact and detailed records of Beer's experiments.[citation needed]

Later, Edwin Beer became disgruntled by what he perceived as all the "incorrect histories" of the man-made fibre industries, and in 1962 he and his wife Phoebe published "The Beginning of Rayon". This book evokes a world where the practice of science was not yet a respectable profession. Beer had to work for long, irregular hours, at even more irregular pay, in a laboratory, formerly a stable, slimy with caustic soda, and reeking of carbon di-sulfide.[1][7]

His Viscose Rayon samples were donated to the Science Museum, Kensington, in 1997.[citation needed]


By 1899, aged 20, Edwin Beer was already an established geologist as well as an industrial chemist. In 1908 he took a post in Bombay analysing manganese ores and assaying gold. For a while he was unemployed. "Nothing", he said, "was supposed to be more demeaning in the days of the British Raj than for a white man to be employed in India".[5] The following year, on the way to a new job as prospector in India, he was suspected of being a French spy, and arrested.[citation needed]

During the First World War, and harassed by further arrests, he continued prospecting in India for fresh sources of industrial minerals (particularly tungsten) vital for Britain's war effort since the Germans had cornered essential supplies almost everywhere else. He also filled in the last blank space of the geological map of India for which he was awarded the Silver Medal of the Mining & Geological Institute of India in 1918.[citation needed]

Beer located 13 vast deposits of limestone suitable for making cement, which became a profitable export for India. In 1924 he visited Tasmania, New Zealand and the Cook Islands.[citation needed]

In 1926, after spending some months with a mineral dealer in California, he returned to Devon for a "look around", and settled there, marrying Phoebe Hill in 1934. He took an interest in the Torquay Natural History Society, taking over the Geological section in 1928. Edwin Beer was elected President of the TNHS for two years in 1949, and in 1965 became Senior Fellow of the Royal Geological Society of London.[citation needed]

A reminder of the extraordinary span of Beer's geological career is the story of the specimen from a Devonshire cave that he sent to London for identification, and which evoked a response more than 70 years later that he had indeed identified it correctly as palygorskite.[citation needed]

Beer's considerable collection of rocks and minerals went to the Geology Department of the University of Leicester.[citation needed]

H G Wells[edit]

Edwin's first love was Amy Robbins, a girl who afterwards became notorious as the pupil and then the mate of H G Wells, at a time when he was already married to his own cousin.

"He [HG] never called her Amy, disliking the name," recalled Beer, "so invented various names for her, mostly pet-names such as "Bits". .... A golden girl, to me she was the prettiest one in the world, though I admit that upon re-meeting her during the confused time when HG had both Mrs Robbins and Amy in his house without having broken with his wife and cousin - I did not even recognise her.

"After my return from India in 1895, Amy wrote me to come down to Woking 24/1/96. I went straight away for HG knew all about the Royal College of Science, and that is where I so much wanted to be, but couldn't afford it. He had brilliantly taken a scholarship, but he warned me of the horrid way the authorities had there - after your free first year. If you assed about and wouldn't work, and wasted in their view the opportunities given you, remembering others more eager but too poor, they would say, 'We simply won't stand it,' and weed you out.

"This didn't concern me. I was a swot, and only recognised the poignancy of this cautionary tale long after when I read his [HG's] candid biography and learned that HG himself proved a waster and had too late realised with dismay that he was stranded. Hence his struggles, he became a tutor in biology, imbued pupil Amy with unorthodoxy, indoctrinated against marriage. They lived together without any quarrel with his wife, but ostracised by former friends and relations, so that when eventually his cousin got a divorce, against all their principles, they immediately married and through all his eccentricities and unfaithfulness she made him a dutiful efficient wife.

'His early writings in the Jules Verne tradition were written, he said, to gain popularity, and money so that he could let himself go later and give full expression to his freelove and Socialist ideas. Stretching a point, Ann Veronica - if I dare mention such a naughty book - was believed by many to be Amy Robbins. Though most of his books were best-sellers he writes to me in 1896 of his struggles with 'with publishers and such-like evil men.'"


  1. ^ a b Daily Telegraph obituary 18 October 1986
  2. ^ Devonshire Association obituary 1986
  3. ^ Coleman, D. C. (1969). Courtaulds: An Economic and Social History. Volume 2, Rayon. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 17. ISBN 978-0-19-920111-2. In an effort to secure the requisite strength, softness, and lustre an acid fixing treatment was introduced in 1902, probably by Beer ... The process as a whole had one serious defect: it was wholly unreliable.
  4. ^ a b Handford, Ian L. (November 2014). "Man of Travel & Triumphs". Devon Life. p. 139.
  5. ^ a b Western Morning News, 8 Feb 1982, page 3
  6. ^ Coleman, D. C. (1969). Courtaulds: An Economic and Social History. Volume 2, Rayon. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 32–36, 52, 54, 55, 57. ISBN 978-0-19-920111-2. p. 32: "Having by the autumn of 1904 ... taken on Beer as a chemist, Tetley [co-Managing Director of Courtalds] ..." p. 33: "Experimental work at Kew, much of it carried out by Beer to Guthrie's instructions ... As Beer noted in his diary on 30 May 1905" p. 52: relates diary entries by Beer from June 1905 through January 1907 about working for Tetley p. 54: "[Guthrie] told the Board in December 1905, ... 'Napper and Beer, are practically acting as foremen.'" p. 55: "Changes, voluntary and involuntary, were made, including the departure of Beer in May 1907." p. 57: "Even Beer, who had not much more affection for Johnson that for Tetley, paid testimony to this. In February 1907, 'the general atmosphere now under Johnson was so different'.
  7. ^ Beer, Edwin J.; Beer, Phoebe (1962). The Beginning of Rayon. Devon: Paignton. OCLC 1156329.

Further reading[edit]