John Bennet Lawes is the world-famous inventor of the superphosphate fertilizer. This fertilizer is still widely used by farmers all over the world to increase the production and productivity of plants. By the way, he developed a method of producing the fertilizer which he patented in 1842. In this method, superphosphate is produced by mixing calcium phosphate (phosphate rock) with sulfuric acid to produce a superphosphate (Ca(H2PO4)2) substance.
Based on his history, John Lawes was born in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, England on December 28, 1814. But at the age of 8, his father died, and then he was raised by his mother until his adulthood. In the field of his education journey, he continued his studies at Eton College and Brasenose College, Oxford University, England but did not finish it. Specifically, in terms of science, he had an interest in chemistry and plants even though he aspired to enter Cambridge to study mathematics, but it doesn’t happen.
Various research and experiments in terms of plant chemistry were carried out by him. He does a lot of cultivating medicinal plants on his land in Rothamsted estates which is the result of an inheritance from his father covering an area of 250 acres (± 100 hectares). Due to his great interest in the field of chemistry, he also did a lot of research related to chemical applications in plants. In this case, specifically, he applied a lot of fertilizer from various sources to a plant. In the 1830s, he did a lot of field research regarding the application of various kinds of fertilizers to potted plants which later expanded to open field crops. Furthermore, Lawes also asked Henry King (his partner) to conduct a study on the application of bone ash as fertilizer to turnip fields between 1836 and 1838.
In 1842, after long experimenting with the result effects of fertilizer application on plants grown in pots and in open fields on his plantations, he discovered and patented the process of treating phosphate rock with sulfuric acid to produce superphosphate. At first, he tried to use the bones combined with sulfuric acid to be given to plants. The results show that there is a positive effect on plants. However, the availability of bone as a raw material is limited and expensive. In the end, he used the mineral calcium phosphate (Ca3(PO4)2) / rock phosphate because of its abundance and cheapness. The usage of this alternative mineral which is then mixed with sulfuric acid shows the same good results as the use of bone material. Effectively, the use of a mixture of calcium phosphate minerals with sulfuric acid could accelerate the growth of turnip plants (Brassica rapa) in the field.
This prompted him to market his findings on a wide scale by opening the first fertilizer factory in 1943. The opening of his fertilizer factory also marked the start of the artificial (synthetic) fertilizer industry. In making fertilizers, he uses his method, namely mixing phosphate minerals, namely phosphate rock with sulfuric acid to produce superphosphate. The chemical characteristic of this superphosphate is that it is rapidly absorbed and used by plants. Throughout his journey, Lawes managed his fertilizer business for approximately 30 years but sold it for £300,000. However, in 1969, the Lawes Chemical Company (a fertilizer company founded by John Lawes) was liquidated due to continuous financial losses.
In 1943, together with the chemist Sir Henry Gilbert, they began a collaboration that lasted for more than half a century. Henry Gilbert was a student of Justus von Liebig (a prominent German chemist famous for Liebig’s law of minimums) although John Lawes had different views regarding Liebig’s views on plant nitrogen. These two people are a complementary couple. John Lawes is a field man while Henry Gilbert is a laboratory man who loves detailed indoor work.
Along with the process of scientific experiments, they also jointly researched many things related to the use of various types of fertilizers on various plants. In addition, in terms of animal husbandry, they also research many things related to providing nutrition to livestock. Their collaboration over the years has also received appreciation from several parties. For their contributions, the Royal Society in 1867 awarded them the Royal Medal in the field of agricultural chemistry (agricultural chemistry). Regarding the research results, many of the results of their research were published in the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society.
During his lifetime, with various studies and trials, several positive contributions were made by John Lawes in the field of science. In addition to introducing his methods for the manufacture of superphosphate, he also left the Rothamsted Experimental Station, which is one of the oldest agricultural research facilities in the world. In addition, he is also a member of The Royal Society, the UK’s leading science organization
Source Reference John Bennet Lawes- The Inventor of Superphosphate Fertilizer
Holden, M. 1972. A Brief History of Rothamsted Experimental Station from 1843 to 1901. http://www.harpenden-history.org.uk/page/a_brief_history_of_rothamsted_experimental_station_from_1843_to_1901 accessed 9 February 2021
Arthur Duncan, ‘Superphosphate – Superphosphate history Teara – the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand accessed via http://www.Teara.govt.nz/en/superphosphate/page-1 on 9 February 2021.
Britannica. 2020. The Editors of the Encyclopaedia. “Sir John Bennett Lawes, 1st Baronet”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed via https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sir-John-Bennet-Lawes-1st-Baronet on 9 February 2021.
Holden, M. 1972. A Brief History of Rothamsted Experimental Station from 1843 to 1901. Accessed via http://www.harpenden-history.org.uk/page/a_brief_history on 9 February 2021
1 thought on “John Bennet Lawes- The Inventor of Superphosphate Fertilizer”
Superphosphate was invented by James Murray who started working on superphosphate before Bennet Lawes was born. Murray and Bennet Lawes both took out patents for superphosphate by pure chance on the same day. Bennet Laws accepted that Murray had the primary patent and he purchased Murray’s patent. Murray also invented Milk of Magnesia. The subject of the invention of superphosphate was thoroughly researched and published in the peer reviewed literature for the 100 anniversary of the invention of superphosphate. It is better to rely on peer reviewed scientific literature for accurate information than non peer reviewed articles in encyclopedias which are often just national hagiography collections.