James Young (1811-1883) was a Scottish chemist was born in Glasgow, the son of a joiner and carpenter. At the age of 19 he began to attend evening classes at the nearby Anderson's College (now Strathclyde University) and in 1832 became assistant to Professor Thomas Graham and followed him to University College, London in 1837.
While at Anderson's College he met and befriended the famous explorer David Livingstone. This relationship was to continue until Livingstone’s death in Africa many years later.
He joined the chemical works of James Muspratt in 1838 and Tennants, Clow & Co. in 1844. In 1848, he established a small business refining a natural oil seepage in a Derbyshire Colliery at Alfreton, with James Oake and in 1850 he patented a process of extracting oil from cannel coal.
As the seepage gradually dried up, Young cast around for other sources of oil and he found what he wanted in a special coal from Bathgate in West Lothian. He entered into a partnership with Edward Binney and Edward Meldrum for the manufacture of oils from Boghead cannel coal at Bathgate.
This coal, Torbanite by name, gave a remarkable yield of crude oil when distilled in simple apparatus. After experiments with shale and bituminous coal Young found that by slow distillation he could obtain paraffin oil and paraffin wax, both of which were in universal demand, not only for lighting and heating but for many industrial processes. Young quickly patented the process, and established the first truly commercial oil-works in the world at Bathgate in 1851.
His fortune was quickly made selling paraffin oil, lubricants for all kinds of industries, wax, naptha and even fertilisers. When the reserves of Torbanite eventually gave out he moved on to oil-shale which was near at hand, abundant and cheap, but not so rich in oil as Torbanite. In 1862 the distillation plants began production and for over half a century 3,000,000 tons of shale and coal each year were mined and treated. In 1864 Young's patent expired. In 1865 he bought out his business partners and a year later formed Young's Paraffin Light and Mineral Oil Company with new works at Addiewell, near Bathgate. The company continued to grow and expanded its operations, selling paraffin oil and paraffin lamps all over the world and earning for its founder the affectionate nickname ‘Paraffin’ Young.
The first decade of the 20th century was a period of great prosperity for the Scottish oil-shale industry. This was due to a growing market for oil, and for the ammonium sulphate fertiliser produced as a lucrative by-product of the retorting process, but their fortunes changed rapidly during the first world war. The import of cheap crude oil from the Persian Gulf undermined the viability of the Scottish industry. Following the second world war most of the older oilworks were gradually closed.
In 1861 James Young was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. From 1868-1877 he was President of Anderson's College and founded the Young Chair of Technical Chemistry at the College. In 1873 Young was elected a Fellow of Royal Society and in 1879 he was awarded an Honorary LI.D of St. Andrews University.
Young retired from the operation of the company in 1870, and died at age 71 in his home Kelly, near Wemyss Bay, on May 13 1883, and was buried at Inverkip.
Statues of his old professor, Thomas Graham, and of his fellow student and lifelong friend, David Livingstone, which stand respectively in George Square, Glasgow, and at Glasgow Cathedral, were erected by him.
He lived at Limefield House Polbeth since 1855. A sycamore tree which Livingstone planted in 1864 is still flourishing in the grounds of Limefield House. There too one can see a miniature version of the "Victoria Falls", which the missionary discovered in the mid-19th century. It was built, as a tribute to Livingstone, by Young on the little stream which runs through the estate.