Sir Thomas Boverton Redwood: A Pioneer in Petroleum Engineering

Sir Thomas Boverton Redwood, arguably the father of petroleum engineering in Britain and a giant in the history of the petroleum industry, died 100 years ago in 1919. We take a brief look at his life and his contributions to oil and gas.
This article appeared in Vol. 16, No. 6 - 2019


Sir Thomas Boverton Redwood: A Pioneer in Petroleum Engineering

T.A.B. Corley, author of A History of the Burmah Oil Company, remarks that Redwood was “a walking encyclopedia of oil knowledge, some of which he put into his authoritative works on petroleum, while some he kept in his head.” Thomas Boverton Redwood was born on 26 April 1846, in London. His father Theophilus Redwood (1806–1892), who was born in Boverton in Wales, was a professor in the School of Pharmacy of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain and editor of the Pharmaceutical Journal. His mother Charlotte Elizabeth was the daughter of Thomas Newborn Robert Merson, who owned a pharmaceutical company in London. Thomas Boverton was the eldest in the family of six boys and two girls. He studied at the University College School, Hampstead from 1857–1862, and then worked in his father’s pharmaceutical laboratory. In 1866 he joined the Petroleum Association; three years later, he was appointed its secretary. This was a turning point in his life and he rose to become an eminent analytical chemist in the emerging oil industry. Redwood married Mary Elizabeth in 1873 and the couple had two daughters and a son.

Many Achievements

In 1877, Redwood joined Sir Frederick Augustus Abel (1827–1902) in conducting laboratory experiments to standardise methods of testing the flash points of various oil types. In the same year he went to the USA to undertake further research on the subject, which led to an improved Abel instrument. In 1881, Redwood investigated the effect of barometric pressure and climate on dissolved gases in oil, travelling to conduct these tests in the cold high Alps and in warm humid India.

In 1883, Redwood accompanied Colonel Vivian Majendie (1836–1898), Chief Inspector of Explosives to Queen Victoria, on a tour of Europe to study different methods of oil storage, and followed that a few years later with a trip to the USA for the same purpose. In 1885, Abel and Redwood submitted recommendations for the manufacturing of safe oil lamps to the Metropolitan Board of Works and in 1885–86 Redwood invented a new viscometer to measure the fluidity of various oils, which soon became the standard instrument in the British oil industry. 

Sir Frederick Augustus Abel (1827–1902). In 1889, Redwood and Sir James Dewar (inventor of, among other things, the vacuum flask) patented a process for distilling and condensing oil under high pressures. This enabled the production of lighter oil from the heavier grades, and laid the foundation of the modern cracking process.

Redwood visited Egypt in the early 1890s to investigate the possibility of transporting oil through the Suez Canal and, following this, in 1894 he designed an apparatus for testing the pressure of oil vapour in tanks, which was an important issue for the transport of oil by ship. This won him the Telford Medal from the Institution of Civil Engineers.In the same year, Redwood, together with his brother Robert and Mr. H. Barringer, invented the Redwood water finder, which determines the amount of water collected beneath the oil in tanks.

Redwood set up a petroleum consulting and service company in London – probably the first of its kind – and employed geologists and engineers who provided expertise to various petroleum companies both in the UK and overseas. In the 1900s, when oil companies cared little for geologists, Redwood’s initiative was ahead of its time. His work took him to various parts of the world, including continental Europe, Russia, India, Egypt, and the USA. He served as a technical advisor for a number of companies, most notably Burmah Oil, D’Arcy’s Concession in Persia, which developed into the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in 1908, as well as Weetman Pearson’s oil exploration in Mexico. He also served as an advisor to the Home Office, the Admiralty, the India Office, and the Colonial Office.

A Masterpiece

Redwood’s Petroleum: A Treatise, published in 1896, was the first major systematic book on various aspects of the petroleum industry, and trained several generations of petroleum experts in the early 20th century. The book is still a valuable source of historical information on oil. Sir Frederick Black, president of the Institution of Petroleum Technologists, in a foreword to the fifth (1923) edition of the book wrote: “This Treatise on Petroleum by Sir Boverton Redwood will always remain a monument to his very extensive expert knowledge of this widereaching subject. It is the recognised standard all the world over, and has become a classic in the libraries of all technical men in the petroleum history.” Redwood wrote more than 70 articles and reports related to different aspects of oil chemistry and engineering. He also published six books on petroleum. His first book, Cantor Lectures on Petroleum and Its Products (1886), was based on his lectures for the Society of Arts; the book was published (without the author’s consent) in New York in the same year. 

Redwood’s masterpiece Petroleum: A Treatise, first published in 1896, was a detailed description of the history, geology, chemical and physical properties, exploration, transportation, and uses of oil. Dedicated to the author’s father (“in whose laboratory I received my early instruction in practical chemistry”), the two-volume book ran to 900 pages. Its fifth edition in 1923 consisted of three volumes and 1,353 pages and cited 8,804 references (the bibliography for the second edition in 1906 was originally compiled by W. H. Dalton, a geologist working for Redwood (see Early Textbooks of Petroleum Geology, GEO ExPro, Vol. 8, No. 6). Redwood’s last book (with Arthur Eastlake), Petroleum: Technologist’s Pocket-Book, published in 1915, was also a comprehensive work with a second edition that came out in 1923.

World War I

Redwood had close relationships with academic, industrial and political circles in Britain. From this mediatory position, in the 1880s to 1900s he was able to play a leading role in the development of petroleum technology as well as Britain’s oil operations around the world. In 1912 he told an Admiralty committee that “every reasonable encouragement that is possible should be given to the development of supply of fuel oil under the British flag.” Geoffrey Jones in The State and the Emergence of the British Oil Industry (1981) writes that Redwood believed that Britain’s oil supply “should be developed by independent oil companies and not by the foreign combines. He developed a strong dislike for both Shell and Standard Oil, an attitude probably related to his long association with smaller British companies threatened by these giants.”

Redwood in a cartoon by Spy, 25 March 1908. When William Knox D’Arcy (1849–1917) obtained an oil concession in 1901 from the Persian government (now Iran), Redwood served as his technical consultant and suggested that he hired George Bernard Reynolds to lead the exploration and drilling in south-west Iran. After three years of unsuccessful drilling, D’Arcy wanted to sell his concession, even to non-British companies. But Redwood stepped in and orchestrated a deal between D’Arcy and Burmah Oil (a Scottish company operating in Burma, modern Myanmar), enabling the formation of a joint company, the Concessions Syndicates, and the continuation of oil exploration in Iran. The plan was supported by Sir John Fisher, who in 1904 became the First Lord of Admiralty and planned to convert all Royal Navy ships from coal to oil; the Admiralty was thus in need of a secure and cheap supply of oil. In 1908 an oil gusher put Iran on the world map and the Concessions Syndicate became the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, 51% owned by the British government (see GEO ExPro, Vol. 5, No. 5). Redwood was appointed a technical advisor to the Admiralty from 1904 to 1913.

In 1914, when World War I broke out, all that planning worked to the British advantage. Lord Curzon (1859–1925) once remarked that Great Britain and the Allies won the war because they “floated to victory on a sea of oil.” During the war, Redwood’s expertise was much in demand; he worked hard serving various committees for British government and parliament. Indeed, exhaustion from the work he undertook during 1914–1918 is believed to be largely responsible for his illness and death in 1919.

Late Years and Legacy

Theophilus Redwood (1806–1892), father to Sir Thomas Boverton Redwood. For his contributions to the British petroleum industry and interests, Redwood was knighted in 1905. 

Redwood was affiliated with a number of professional societies in the UK, USA and Russia. He was a founding member of the Institute of Petroleum Technologists and served as its first president from 1914–1915. (Renamed the Institute of Petroleum it still continues to operate in London and published the Journal of the Institute of Petroleum Technologists until 1973.) Redwood and his son Bernard loved automobiles and steam-yachts and Redwood was a founding member of the London-based Royal Automobile Club (RAC) in 1898.

Sir Thomas Boverton Redwood died on 4 June 1919 at his residence in London. Obituaries described him as a pleasant, polite, friendly, knowledgeable and reputed man who would take time to help young men starting their career in the petroleum industry. His wealth at death was about £165,013 (about $448,000 at today’s value). Redwood apparently looked like the British actor Sir Henry Irving (1835–1905), and people sometimes mistook him for the actor, which gratified him. 

The Redwood building, home to the school of pharmacy at Cardiff University in Wales, is named after the Redwood family, including Theophilus and his son Boverton, as well as Lewis Redwood, Theophilus’ younger brother, and his son Thomas Redwood, who were renowned medical doctors. Boverton Redwood’s younger brother Iltyd Isaac Redwood (1863–1910) was also an eminent chemist who wrote several books on petroleum chemistry. 

Only a few days before his death, Redwood was examining the results and samples of the first successful oil well in England – the Hardstoft No. 1 in Derbyshire, which was struck on 17 May 1919 – also a hundred years ago.


Related Articles