Soda ash was an important industrial chemical in Renaissance Europe. It was used in the production of several products, including soap, paper and glass. The primary source of soda ash was from wood pulp. In the last half of the 18th Century, wood pulp was in short supply. Soda ash was imported from Spain, Russia and the Americas at high cost. In 1783, King Louis XVI of France offered a sizable cash reward for anyone who could produce soda ash from salt.
Leblanc discovered that if he added salt to sulfuric acid and baked the mixture with charcoal and limestone at high temperatures, soda ash crystals would form. The Leblanc process was quickly patented, giving Leblanc and partners the sole right to produce soda ash for 15 years. Leblanc built a soda ash plant and began what he hoped would be a lucrative business.
Shortly after he began operations, the French Revolution began. The new government ordered Leblanc to stop all production, closed his factory and ordered him off the premises. The government also refused to pay the prize money for the original process. Leblanc suddenly found himself nearly bankrupt. He continued to try to get his plant back, but could not until Napoleon's government allowed him to reopen the plant. By then, he did not have the money to begin operations and spent most of his time trying to collect past due funds from the government. His continued failures eventually got the best of him and he committed suicide.
You can also use soda ash for the Water into Wine chemistry demonstration or you can find out what else occurred on this day in science history.