Josiah Wedgwood’s colourful chemistry experiments

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Collection: Powerhouse Museum. Purchased with funds donated by Josiah Wedgwood & Sons (Australia) Pty Ltd, 1986.

Josiah Wedgwood, who founded the Wedgwood company in 1759, carried out thousands of experiments to determine which chemicals and processes were needed to make porcelain-like ceramics in a range of colours. He called this new material jasper ware. His company made this jasper medallion around 1790. The sage green is due to chromium oxide, the blue to cobalt oxide, and the lilac to manganese oxide. The yellow probably comes from a salt of antimony, and the black from iron oxide. The medallion is on display in the chemistry section of our Experimentations exhibition.

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Collection: Powerhouse Museum. Purchased with funds donated by the Powerhouse Members Organisation, 1990.

Wedgwood’s sky blue jasper ware was so popular that the colour became known as Wedgwood Blue. It was usually decorated with white jasper, which is translucent when applied thinly – just like thin pieces of naturally occurring jasper, a form of quartz that is used for decorative purposes. This elaborate vase was made between 1784 and 1790 and is decorated, like the medallion, with classical figures.

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Collection: Powerhouse Museum. Purchased with funds donated by Josiah Wedgwood & Sons (Australia) Pty Ltd, 1986.

Wedgwood was a friend, customer and business partner of James Watt and Matthew Boulton. Wedgwood also befriended Joseph Priestley and funded his chemical experiments. These men discussed new ideas in science and industry at meetings of the Lunar Society of Birmingham. Wedgwood was an early adopter of Boulton and Watt’s rotative engine, and Boulton made steel mounts for Wedgwood’s jasper jewellery. The photo shows the small display of steel-mounted Wedgwood jewellery behind our Boulton and Watt engine.