William Grove

Thu 22nd Oct

On 22 October RISW members heard the story of the scientist William Robert Grove from a researcher who has made a special study of the man and his times, Prof. Iwan Morus of Aberystwyth University.

Grove was born in 1811 in Swansea. His family, which may have had its origins in Gower, belonged to the mercantile elite of the town. He was privately educated, in Swansea by Evan Griffiths, the head of the local grammar school, and then in Bath and the University of Oxford, which he left without taking his degree. It was an educational progress typical of a product of the gentrifying commercial class.

In 1831 Grove studied for the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in London, but he had already developed a taste for scientific enquiry. By 1835 he was a member of the Royal Institution, the leading scientific institution in Britain, and in Swansea he was a founder member of the Swansea Literary and Philosophical Society, which later became the Royal Institution of South Wales. In 1837 he married Emma Diston Powles, whose family wealth may have allowed him the time and opportunity to experiment and lecture on scientific subjects. His special interest was the storage of electrical energy, and in 1839 he made a breakthrough through his invention of a nitric acid battery. Though batteries had existed for decades, none of them was able to supply a constant or powerful current over a lengthy period. Grove’s version proved influential, and timely – telegraphy was exciting interest, for example among railway owners.

In 1842 Grove followed with a gas battery, the ancestor of the modern fuel cell. Though this had less immediate commercial impact, he described it as ‘a beautiful instance of the correlation of natural forces’. Grove was now at the zenith of his scientific career. He was appointed as Professor of Experimental Philosophy at the London Institution, one of the few salaried posts available to scientists in the UK at the time. Here he had his own laboratory. He left his post in 1846, on the publication of his book On the correlation of physical forces, and channelled his energies into the politics of the Royal Society, siding with the reformers who campaigned to limit the number of Fellows.

Grove maintained his Swansea connection, and it was he who, in the face of some scepticism, persuaded the British Association for the Advancement of Science to hold its annual meeting in 1848 in the town. In the end, though, he seems to have tired of the world of science, discouraged perhaps by his failure to become Secretary of the Royal Society, and returned to the law, becoming a judge in 1871.

By the time of his death in 1896 Grove’s reputation, so substantial at the height of his scientific career, had fallen considerably, and it is only recently that the significance of his remarkable contribution to the physics of electrical storage – so crucial to our own technological age – has become fully appreciated. Prof. Morus is writing a biographical study of Grove, one of a new series of books, ‘Scientists of Wales’, to be published by the University of Wales Press.




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