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Scientists of Wales: William Robert Grove

(March 01, 2015)


William Robert Grove (1811-1896)

William Robert Grove

The international film industry recently (February 22nd) held its Oscars ceremony for 2015 in Hollywood, USA. On this annual occasion the names are announced of winners of various categories of achievement, on the basis of choices made by members of the industry’s Academy from lists of nominations. I am not a frequent visitor to cinemas, despite a boyhood during which I was an avid patron of my local Welfare Hall. Consequently, I am only able to recall but a few significant films or film actors of the past twenty years. I am totally blank on names of directors, producers, writers of scripts and music or any whose skills lie in the technicalities of film productions. However, this year, my attention was alerted to two nominations for Best Film, namely, The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game. Both are about scientists of distinction. I am always interested to know more about public, non-academic presentations of science. We are well familiar with science programmes on television, very often presented by practising scientists, but films are different and rarer. This year’s two Oscar nominations are not mainly about the topics of their titles but about the lives of the main characters. Presumably, for reasons of commercial appeal, the chosen titles were deemed more attractive to the paying public than ‘aspects in the life of ...’

The main character depicted in The Imitation Game is Alan Turing (1912-54), a brilliant mathematician born in London who made huge contributions to the development of computer science. He is best remembered by the public for his work on deciphering codes during World War 2. However, the focus of the film is on his experiences, in social persecution and legal prosecution, as an alleged homosexual, a condition that was deemed criminal in his time. These experiences contributed to his suicide at the age of 42. I have not seen the film, but I understand that his family are deeply upset because of the inaccuracies of historical facts about Turing. Such is entertainment and the permissible scope of artistic film licence.

Such criticism has not been made against The Theory of Everything, which is about the early life of Stephen Hawking, the cosmologist born in 1942 and until recently Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University. He is often seen in public and frequently on television, largely, I suspect, because, for several years, he has been confined to a wheelchair unable, because of motor neurone disease, to move or to communicate other than through medical technology. The film is about his family life in the years of the early onset of his affliction. By all accounts it is a very good film; it did not win the Best Film Oscar, but the Best Actor Oscar went to Eddie Redmayne who plays Hawking.

Within science the theory of everything has tantalised physicists and mathematicians of the highest calibre, including Einstein, since 1900. Up to that time, two theories dominated explanations of phenomena, namely gravitation (with Isaac Newton as its chief exponent) and electromagnetism (with James Clerk Maxwell as its author). Both theories were and are highly successful. Nevertheless the belief/conviction has remained that there ‘ought’ to be a single, all-embracing explanation for everything. To date, nothing of the kind has appeared, despite much endeavour by many scientists of huge repute and achievement in their particular disciplines – Hawking among them.

So, while it is not possible to speak of the existence of a theory of everything, it is possible to speak of a very successful principle underlying the functioning of everything, thanks to the remarkable contribution of the subject of this article. It was in 1846 that Grove published a book with the title On the Correlation of Physical Forces in which he propounded the Principle of the Conservation of Energy; many people will recall from school science its familiar form – Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only take different forms. Grove was the first to give formal expression to what is a fundamental law of all processes, natural and man-made. It seems to be a feature of the human condition to wish for something for nothing, better still, everything for nothing, but Grove’s declaration deems this to be a futile quest.

William Robert Grove was born on 11th July 1811 in Swansea. His early education was conveyed by private tutors and enabled him to become a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University. Here he studied Classics and displayed no significant aptitude for science. However, soon after leaving Oxford, his latent scientific ability blossomed and he gave his whole-hearted commitment to various aspects. The largely unstructured organisation of science and education in the mid-nineteenth century was such that the polymathic talent of individuals such as Grove could flourish unfettered It was the era for individuals He moved in the same circles as many others who would become giants of science such as Michael Faraday. By 1841 (30 years of age) he became the first Professor of Experimental Philosophy at the London Institution.

A further indication of his range of talents, but also of the flexibility of arrangements for individuals to be accepted into various careers, is the fact that in 1835 (aged 24) Grove was called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn, presumably on the strength of his student successes at Oxford. But is seems that at this point he turned from practising law to practising science. In the light of what is known of his later career it is tempting to imagine that he was aware of his innate ability and put his legal ambitions ‘on hold’ while he completed his ‘missions’ in science.

During his period as a professor of physics not only did he excel at the theoretical aspects, almost philosophical, but he was a gifted inventor. Among his conquests was the first incandescent electric light, later perfected by Edison. But his fame nowadays, only recently being appreciated by the general public and science community, rests on his invention of the fuel cell, a device that produces electricity from the interaction of hydrogen and oxygen. In recent modern times the desire for sources of clean, cheap energy has stimulated a good deal of research into improved versions of Grove’s first cell. It seems to offer the ultimate something for nothing, but Grove’s law of energy remains supreme. For his science eminence he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1840 and was influential in reforming that august body.

In 1846 when he was 35 he abandoned his science work and took up the practice of law. Here, too, he achieved great distinction and was made a judge in 1871, noted for his patience and independent stances, with occasional lapses of neutrality in cases of dispute with regard to patents claimed for inventions. Perhaps his own experiences of inventing devices caused him to become too involved to exercise neutrality.

For his legal eminence he was made a Queen’s Counsel in 1853, selected to be a judge in lower courts in 1871 and to the High Court of Justice where he served for twelve years (1875-87). During his time as a Q.C. he specialised in Patent Law especially with respect to photography, doubtless drawing on his earlier science work.

He was knighted in 1887 and made a Privy Councillor in 1887. He died on August 1st, 1896.

By any judgement Grove was a man of distinction, all the more remarkable because of the diversity of disciplines at which he excelled. Within formal textbooks and articles of science his deserved place as the first author to publish the crucial law of the conservation of energy has not been properly honoured, often not mentioned at all. Perhaps the history and development of the fuel cell will correct the wider injustice.

Neville Evans, March 2015


If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Dr Neville Evans, in his series Scientists of Wales:


     ERH Jones; December 2016
Elwyn Hughes
; September 2016
Gareth Roberts
; June 2016
Ezer Griffiths; March 2016

Handel Davies; December 2015
Mathematicians of Wales; September 2015

Professor Eleri Pryce; June 2015

William Robert Grove; March 2015

Frank Llewellyn-Jones; December 2014

Professor Julie Williams; September 2014

Ieuan Maddock, F.R.S.; June 2014

John Houghton, F.R.S.; March 2014

David Brunt, F.R.S.; December 2013

Professor John Beynon; September 2013

John Meurig Thomas; June 2013
Robert Recorde and William Jones; March 2013
Richard Tecwyn Williams, F.R.S; December 2012

Lyn Evans; September 2012
E G Bowen; June 2012

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