Science & Innovation – James Ballantyne Hannay

James Ballantyne Hannay – Chemist and ‘inventor’ of artificial diamonds

On January 1st 1855 James Ballantyne Hannay was born in Glasgow, his father was Alexander Hannay who owned the Grand Theatre in the Cowcaddens, Glasgow.

James was apparently a brilliant chemist and scientist and from 1879 onwards produced papers, which were read to the Royal Society on many scientific matters, and he also patented many inventions connected with industry. He had a dye works in Hamburg, which specialised in aniline dyes and a private laboratory in Sword Street, Glasgow.

James Hannay had apparently many excellent and useful inventions and papers to his credit but it is the making of diamonds, which caused a considerable “approar” which continues to this day.

In 1880 the Royal Society published Hannay’s paper on the synthesis of diamond. Hannay had claimed that he had made diamonds by heating a mixture of paraffin, bone oil, and lithium to red heat in sealed wrought-iron tubes. The minute particles he claimed to have produced were handed over to the Mineral Department of the British Museum where they still remain.

A letter to the Editor of The Times, from the British Museum, which appeared in that paper on February 20, 1880, read as follows (abridged):

A few weeks since I had to proclaim the failure of one attempt to produce the diamond in a chemical laboratory. To-day I ask a little space in one of your columns in order to announce the entire success of such an attempt by another Glasgow gentleman. That gentleman is Mr. J. Ballantine Hannay, of Woodbourne, Helensburgh, and Sword Street, Glasgow, a Fellow of the Chemistry Society of London, who has to-day sent me some small crystallized particles presenting exactly the appearance of fragments of a broken diamond. There is no doubt whatever that Mr. Hannay has succeeded in solving this problem and removing from the science of chemistry an opprobrium so long adhering to it ; for, whereas the larger part of the great volume recording the triumphs of that science is pre-occupied by the chemistry of carbon, this element has never been crystallized by man till Mr. Hannay achieved the triumph which I have the pleasure of recording to-day. His process for effecting this transmutation, hardly less momentous to the arts than to the possessors of a wealth of jewellery, is on the eve of being announced to the Royal Society.

At the time of his discovery it is said that Hannay was offered a very large sum if he would drop the whole thing and it is also said that the Stock Exchange and the Amsterdam Diamond Bourse were distinctly “het-up” by the report.

The local reputation Hannay has left behind him is of a well-educated, well-connected man who squandered most of his money. He died in a mental hospital in Glasgow in March 1931.