James Roycroft Gordon enjoyed a long and illustrious career with Inco Ltd., rising through the ranks to become the company’s first Canadian-born president. However, his contributions as a scientist many of which were made before he joined the company’s senior management, are what stand out as his major achievements.
Long before environmental issues became a cause célèbre, Gordon developed metallurgical breakthroughs that allowed the company to capture significantly greater amounts of minerals from its ores rather than discarding those minerals with the tailings or burning them off.
He and his research team devised the matte flotation method of copper-nickel separation which replaced the Orford method, the first major improvement in nickel metallurgy since the Orford process was introduced 50 years earlier.
Gordon was born May 26, 1898, in Glenvale, Ont., near Kingston. He graduated from Queen’s University in 1920 with a B.Sc. in chemistry and returned 35 years later for an LL.D. (Hon.). After serving with the Canadian Field Artillery in the First World War, he landed his first job with M.J. O’Brien doing research on the complex ores from Cobalt, Ont., area. In 1929, he joined the young Ontario Research Foundation as assistant director.
His talents in industrial research flourished at the foundation where he pursued investigations into such diverse subjects as analysis of nickel-bronze, the applicability of low-temperature reduction to certain Ontario iron ores, the use of ammonia gas as a source of hydrogen for the production of reducing atmospheres, and the wear resistance of white case iron.
In 1936, he was hired by Inco to direct process research at its new laboratory at Copper Cliff, Ont., seeking higher efficiencies and recoveries. His first project was to reduce metal losses in stag, which he did. His next major achievement was to cut the cost of copper-nickel separation which led to the matte flotation process.
As well as the matte flotation process, the laboratory developed flash smelting of copper resulting in greater sulphur recovery, improved high-grade iron ore processing and the anode process of refining nickel.
He received the 1948 Medal of the Canadian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy for his contributions to process metallurgy in the smelting and refining of nickel. In 1957, he was awarded the James Douglas Gold Medal by the American Institute o Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers, also for his work in process metallurgy.
In 1941, Gordon was appointed assistant to the vice-president and entered the management stream that would ultimately take him to the top of the company. In 1960, at the first meeting of the company’s directors to be held at Thompson, Man., he was elected president of both International Nickel Company of Canada and its subsidiary, International Nickel Company of New York.
Gordon died in 1980.