Wednesday, 8 February 2017

95 Sir William Grove physicist

95 Sir William Grove

The site of Swansea’s divisional police headquarters in Grove Place used to be occupied by the Fire Station, and previously had been the site of a fine townhouse called The Laurels.  There in June 1811 on the slopes of Mount Pleasant, which was then a rural setting with a number of large newly-built houses for wealthy citizens, was born the eminent physicist Sir William Grove.  Their near neighbours at The Willows included Lewis Weston Dillwyn, owner of the Cambrian Pottery.  Grove’s father was a local merchant involved in civic affairs, and a substantial property owner.  Formerly members of the family had lived on a farm in Reynoldston. 

William Grove was privately educated by the headmaster of Swansea Grammar School, and subsequently in Bath by Rev. J. Kilvert.  In the autumn of 1820 Grove went up to Oxford to study at Brasenose College, and subsequently on to Lincoln’s Inn, being called to the Bar in 1835.  He had an interest in science from the age of twelve, and being in London afforded him opportunities to benefit from the various scientific institutions, notably the Royal Institution, established in 1799, of which both L.W. Dillwyn and copper master John Henry Vivian were Fellows.  An interest in science was a common feature of the new industrial middle class, for in Swansea Grove, along with Dillwyn, Vivian and geologist Henry de la Beche, was among the eleven founders of the town’s Philosophical and Literary Society, later the Royal Institution of South Wales, which built Swansea Museum.  On several occasions Grove lectured to the Society, demonstrating original work rather than merely what was gleaned from the research of others.

William Grove married in 1837 and continued his scientific interests during a honeymoon tour of the continent.  He developed a novel form of electric cell, the Grove cell, in 1839 - “the first to effect the actual combination of the gases oxygen and hydrogen by a feeble electric current.”  He also invented the first incandescent electric light, later perfected by Thomas Edison.   

His reputation was made when at Michael Faraday’s invitation he presented his discoveries to the Royal Institution at one of their prestigious Friday Evening Discourses in 1840.  Grove was appointed the first professor of experimental philosophy at the London Institution, where his father-in-law was one of the proprietors, and where he had his own laboratory with funds to purchase apparatus.  Crucially he developed the first fuel cell, which he called a “gas voltaic battery”, and his major book “On the Correlation of Physical Forces” (1846) went through six editions during his lifetime, even being recommended to Engels by Karl Marx.

Grove was instrumental in persuading the British Association for the Advancement of Science to hold their 1848 meeting in Swansea, notwithstanding that Brunel’s Great Western Railway had not then reached the town.  The Museum was used for many meetings, along with the Town Hall (now the Dylan Thomas Centre), the Assembly Rooms in Cambrian Place, and the now demolished Girls’ School in York Street.  Among the excursions was one to Penllergare to see John Dillwyn Llewelyn's experiments with a boat powered by an electric motor.  The whole week was a great success.

Subsequently his legal career gradually took precedence over scientific work, for he was appointed a Queen’s Counsel in 1853.  Knighted in 1872, Sir William Grove became a privy councillor before he died aged 85 at his home in Harley Street, London, in 1896 after a long illness.  The blue plaque on the wall of Swansea’s central police station was unveiled in January 2015, while a statue of "The Father of the Fuel Cell" stands in Woking Park, Surrey, home of Britain’s first combined heat and power unit.  
His invention is utilised by NASA, for fuel cells provide power and water for manned space flights.  Nevertheless the full potential of Grove’s fuel cell in reducing environmentally harmful emissions has yet to be implemented.

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