Andrew Ure, the son of Alexander Ure, a cheesemonger, and his wife, Anne, was born in Glasgow on 18th May 1778. Born into a wealthy family, Ure received an expensive education. After periods at Glasgow University and Edinburgh University, he became professor of chemistry and natural philosophy at Anderson College. According to his biographer, Donald Cardwell: "Ure gave evening lectures on chemistry and mechanics, which he encouraged working men and women to attend. The lectures were most successful, attracting audiences of up to 500; they later inspired the foundation of mechanics institutions throughout Britain."
In 1807 Ure married Catherine Monteath, of Greenock. The couple had had two sons (one of whom became a London surgeon) and a daughter. In 1808 he became director of the Garnet Hill observatory, run by the Glasgow Society for Promoting Astronomical Observations. Ure also worked as a consultant for the Irish linen board. Here he devised his alkalimeter for volumetric estimates of the true alkali contents of various substances used in the linen industry. He also built up a reputation as a highly competent practical chemist.
In December 1818 he created a public sensation when he announced that he had been carrying out experiments on a murderer called Clydsdale after his execution. Ure claimed that by stimulating the phrenic nerve, life could be restored in cases of suffocation, drowning or hanging. It has been claimed that Mary Shelley used Ure as a model for her main character in the book, Frankenstein (1818).
Ure discovered that his wife was having an affair with Granville Sharpe Pattison, professor of anatomy at Anderson College. There followed, in 1819, a much publicized divorce. In 1821 Ure published his book, Dictionary of Chemistry. It was considered such an important book that it was translated into French (by J. Riffault) and German (by K. Karmarsch). His next book, New System of Geology(1829), he pointed out the importance of chemistry and physics to the geologist.
In 1834 Ure travelled around industrial Britain. His main concern was the four textile industries: cotton, wool, linen, and silk. His book The Philosophy of Manufacturers was published in 1835. In the preface of the book he claimed that he had written the book so that "masters, managers, and operatives would follow the straight paths of improvement" and hoped that it would help "prevent them from pursuing dangerous ideas".
Ure praised conditions at Quarry Bank Mill that was owned by Samuel Greg: "At Quarry Bank, near Wilmslow in Cheshire, is situated the great firm of Greg and Son. At a little distance from the factory, on a sunny bank, stands a handsome house, two stories high, built for the accommodation of the female apprentices. They are well fed, clothed and educated. The apprentices have milk-porridge for breakfast, potatoes and bacon for dinner, and meat on Sundays."
Ure's book, The Philosophy of Manufacturers, was condemned by factory reformers as it claimed that child workers were treated well in the factories and mills. For example, this is what he said about his visit to Manchester: "I have visited many factories, both in Manchester and the surrounding districts, during a period of several months and I never saw a single instance of corporal punishment inflicted on a child. The children seemed to be always cheerful and alert, taking pleasure in using their muscles. The work of these lively elves seemed to resemble a sport. Conscious of their skill, they were delighted to show it off to any stranger. At the end of the day's work they showed no sign of being exhausted."
Ure attacked the factory reformers for exaggerating the health problems of industrial workers: "On my recent tour through the manufacturing districts, I have seen tens of thousands of old, young and middle-aged of both sexes earning abundant food, raiment, and domestic accommodation, without perspiring at a single pore, screened meanwhile from the summer's sun and the winter's frost, in apartments more airy and sulubrious than those of the metropolis in which our legislature and fashionable aristocracies assemble."
Ure criticised the theories of Adam Smith. His biographer, Donald Cardwell, argues: "Adam Smith's eulogy of the division of labour was, he argued, out of date. Indeed, the lesson of what Ure called ‘the automatic factory’ was that human skill had been banished. Employees were merely machine minders. What had happened in textiles must happen in all manufacturing industries. Machines would displace labour and skill. He recognized that in addition to mechanical innovations there had been major, and irreversible, changes in social and commercial organization. The factory system required that the immemorial rural custom, whereby people worked when it suited them, must go. Everyone must go to work at a fixed time and leave at a fixed time. Ure vigorously defended the new factories against numerous criticisms, particularly those from landowners. He considered that earnings in Lancashire cotton mills were far higher than those in agriculture, and conditions were incomparably better than those in coalmines."
Cardwell points out that according to Ure: "The main hindrances to progress, in Britain, were trade unions - combinations of workers whose aims were to increase wages and to exclude outsiders. He showed to his own satisfaction that such combinations defeat their own ends. According to Ure, trade union leaders were evilly disposed while employers were usually long-suffering philanthropists." It has been argued that Ure's political opinions influenced his analysis. For example, he claimed that: "Workers in cotton mills were less liable to cholera than the rest of the population and that working at a temperature of 150 °F was not harmful. Such ills as afflicted the workers were due to their inordinate taste for bacon."
In 1836 Ure published Account of the Cotton Industry. This was followed by Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures and Mines (1839), The Revenue in Jeopardy from Spurious Chemistry (1843) and The General Malaria of London (1850).