Historical Markers
Samuel Wetherill Historical Marker
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Samuel Wetherill

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
North side of Columbia between Webster and Adams Sts., Bethlehem

Behind the Marker

Sometimes the contributions of scientists can be all around us but go largely unnoticed. Such is the case of Samuel Wetherill (1821-1890) who was descended from a Quaker family of scientists and industrialists that helped to make Pennsylvania a center of chemical production and paint manufacture.

Companies founded by the first Samuel Wetherill (Samuel I, 1736-1816) supplied the colonists, the Continental Army, and the first Americans with cloth, dyes, chemicals, and white lead. Those enterprises also fueled the economic growth of Philadelphia and the surrounding region. Later generations of Wetherills were industrialists, community leaders, and scientists. John Price Wetherill (1794-1853) was vice-president of the Academy of Natural Sciences from 1834 to 1853, a time when it was involved in the century's great exploring expeditions and when the discovery of extensive mineral deposits of Pennsylvania and New Jersey heralded the beginning of American mineralogy. Samuel Wetherill II (1821-1890) conducted experiments on regional zinc deposits that led to his invention of a method for producing white zinc (zinc oxide) from zinc ore, an advance that by improving paint production and reducing production costs, facilitated the development of ready-made paints in the late-1800s.

Exterior lithograph of the works.
Wetherill and Brothers' white lead manufactory and chemical works. Corner of...
Working as a Philadelphia weaver, Samuel I became a chemist and made his own dyes in the 1760s when Britain imposed taxes on imported dyes to recoup its expenses from the French and Indian War. In 1775, he was one of the founding members of the United Company of Philadelphia for Promoting Manufactures to encourage domestic industry. When he openly supported the Revolution, he was expelled from the pacifist Religious Society of Friends in 1777. Samuel I promptly helped form a new sect for like-minded believers known as the Free Quakers or the "Fighting Quakers." His chemical and drug business flourished after the Revolution, selling wholesale drugs, maintaining a drugstore, and providing medical supplies for the Lewis and Clark expedition. But chemical production was its mainstay, and in 1804 Wetherill built a plant to produce white lead. After his death in 1816, his sons carried on the business under the name of Wetherill and Brothers, making white and red lead, litharge ( yellow lead oxide), and other chemicals for glass and paint. By the 1830s, their Philadelphia factory at 12th and Cherry Streets was one of the nation's largest chemical and white lead works.

Exterior of works
Wetherill's White Lead, Red Lead, Chemical Glass, Drug and Dye Stuff store,...
During the American building boom of the early 1800s, wood was the great building material, for it was plentiful cheap, and easy to shape. The paint used to cover and slow its deterioration, however, was expensive, uneven in color, and had to be hand-mixed prior to use. The two main ingredients were linseed oil and white lead, which carried the color. By the 1840s, Wetherhill and Brothers could no longer keep up with the demand for paint chemicals. And it was this shortage that drove Samuel Wetherill II to develop zinc oxide as a less expensive and non-toxic substitute for white lead.

Samuel II - the first Samuel's great grandson - received his education in Philadelphia's public schools and at the University of Pennsylvania before entering the family business in 1845. A skilled chemist, he there began his experiments with zinc ore to determine its suitability as a white lead substitute. In 1850, Wetherill went to work for the New Jersey Zinc Company and in 1852 developed a process to extract white zinc (zinc oxide) directly from zinc ore by heating a mixture of ore and anthracite coal.

In 1853, he organized his own company, the Pennsylvania and Lehigh Zinc Company, with partner Charles T. Gilbert, to exploit the Saucon Valley ore, and constructed a facility on the Lehigh River in south Bethlehem to make zinc oxide using his new process. (The company and the town that grew up around it, named Wetherill to honor Samuel's father, was later absorbed by the city of Bethlehem.)

Three men and one male child are at work inside of a mine.
Mining zinc ore, circa 1910.
Wetherhill, however, was a better inventor than a businessman. By 1854 a small group of Quakers in Philadelphia had acquired majority control of the company's stock. To oversee their operations, they sent twenty-eight-year-old Joseph Wharton to Bethlehem, who quickly lost patience with the inventor. While the new company struggled to produce a quality zinc, Wetherill raced employees during lunch on an improvised horse track he built along the river and used the company's resources to develop his own process to make zinc metal. Unable to reach a workable solution, the company bought out Wetherill and Gilbert's interests and ended their association with the enterprise.

Having retained rights to valuable ore properties in Saucon Valley, Wetherill in 1856 organized the Wetherill Zinc Company and two years later produced the first ingot of spelter (pure metallic zinc) using a new method he had patented a year earlier. He abandoned the enterprise in 1859, but during the Civil War zinc produced by Wetherill's method was used to make the brass fashioned into buttons, belt buckles, rifle cartridges, weapons parts, and other materials.

During the war, Wetherill served with distinction in the 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry, and by its end had risen to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Meanwhile, the re-named Lehigh Zinc Company thrived, and after the war became one of the largest zinc metal producing plants in the country. In 1881, a group of investors, that included two of Wetherill's sons, purchased the company.

Samuel died in retirement in Oxford, Maryland, in 1890. Seven years later, Lehigh Zinc was consolidated into the New Jersey Zinc company in 1897. That same year, John Price Wetherill, (1844-1906, Samuel II's eldest son) invented the Wetherill furnace, an improved device for smelting zinc ore, and the Wetherill magnetic separator, which dressed marginal or mixed ores. Both inventions dramatically increased zinc production and quickly became the industry standard world wide. After it closed the Bethlehem plant in 1911, New Jersey Zinc constructed the world's largest output zinc plant on the Lehigh River twenty miles north of Bethlehem, in what became Palmerton.

Like the Sellers family of Upper Darby, the Wetherills had a major impact in Pennsylvania and the nation. Their accomplishments spanned the country's transformation from an agricultural economy to an industrial power.
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