S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Quinan, Mr Kenneth Bingham (chemical engineering)

Born: 3 July 1878, East Orange, New Jersey, United States.
Died: 26 January 1948, Somerset West, South Africa.

Kenneth B. Quinan (known as "KBQ"), explosives technologist, was a son of Henry J. Quinan and his wife Julia Wyckham. After completing his schooling and spending some time on a sailing ship he started work at the Hercules Powder Works at Pinole (just north of Oakland, California), belonging to the California Powder Company, where his uncle, William R. Quinan* was the manager. Here he gained considerable experience in the manufacture of explosives and other aspects of chemical technology. He had no higher education.

William Quinan came to the Cape Colony in 1899 to set up the De Beers Explosive Works at Somerset West, of which he became general manager, and asked Kenneth to join him there. Kenneth arrived in April 1901. The factory started production in August 1903. By 1905 Kenneth was works manager, but as William's health became poorer he took over more responsibility for the running of the factory, which was renamed the Cape Explosives Works in 1906. He succeeded William as general manager in 1909. In 1912 he wrote an article on "Use of explosives for agriculture" in the Agricultural Journal of the Union of South Africa. An important development initiated by Kenneth was the erection of a glycerine refining plant at the Somerset West works. It started production in August 1912 and its production was important in the supply of nitro-glycerine to the mining industry during World War I (1914-1918).

As a result of his unique knowledge of the large-scale manufacture of high explosives Quinan left for England at the request of the British government in December 1914 to head the factories branch of the Department of Explosives Supplies in the Ministery of Munitions. In record time he designed and supervised the construction of a TNT plant at Oldsbury, completed in May 1915, and supervised various munitions and poison gas facories. He gained a reputation as an outstanding organiser and man of genius during the war years and produced many technical reports. For his war work he was made a Companion of Honour, received an honorarium of ?10 000, was thanked by the British Prime Minister in the House of Commons, and was awarded the French Croix de Guerre. Meanwhile he remained in charge of the Cape Explosive Works.

Quinan was a man of foresight and upon his return to Somerset West set about extending the product range of the Cape Explosive Works. His recommendation led to the purchase and installation of an American detonator plant in 1919. That same year he resigned as general manager of the works and was appointed development consultant to De Beers. He planned the addition of a large superphosphate plant to the works at Somerset West, which came into operation in 1921. Then in 1924 the works was amalgamated with the factories at Modderfontein and Umbogintwini and with the appointment of a new board of directors he retired from the company. The factory which he had managed thus became part of the second largest of its kind in the world and with its expansion into chemical fertilisers and other products made a significant contribution to the industrial and agricultural development of South Africa. Some of his inventions were patented in Europe and the United States.

Quinan became a member (later a life member) of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science in 1902. He was a member of the South African Chemical Institute from 1921 and was still a member by 1934. He served on the council of the University of Stellenbosch from 1918 to 1926. As an experienced hunter of big game, particularly lion, he was interested in the photography of wild life. A tall, well-built man with extraordinary drive and acumen, he was brilliant, dynamic, eloquent and charming. On 31 December 1923 he married Jean Buchan, with whom he had two sons. He became a naturalised South African citizen in 1939. Retiring to his fruit farm near Somerset West in 1924 Quinan concentrated on the production of table grapes for export. During World War II (1939-1945) he was appointed to the board of management of the ordnance factories at Klipfontein and Firgrove, near Somerset West.

List of sources:
Agricultural Journal (Union of South Africa), 1912, Vol. 3, article by Quinan.

Bozzoli, G.R. Forging ahead: South Africa's pioneering engineers. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1997.

Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 4, 1981.

Green, E., Ploeger, J. & Wood, V.C. USA & RSA in historical perspective. Lantern, special edition, June 1983, pp. 1-160 (whole number; see p. 94).

Rosenthal, E. Southern African dictionary of national biography. London: F.Warne, 1966.

South African Association for the Advancement of Science. Report, 1903, 1905/6, 1910, 1918: Lists of members.

South African Chemical Institute. Proceedings and list of members, 1921-1922 and 1933-1934.

Williams, A.F. American engineers in South Africa. Kimberley, 1902.

Compiled by: C. Plug