A brief history of the RISW

 

The Beginning of the Royal Institution of South Wales

 

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The RISW is one of Wales's oldest and most remarkable organisations. It was founded in 1835 as the Swansea Philosophical and Literary Society, at a time when Swansea was bustling with commerce and innovation. It helped make the town a world centre of industry and invention, through pioneering developments in geology, botany, fuel cell technology and photography.  Its members were also active, through its lecture and educational programmes, in helping people gain new knowledge of all kinds. In 1841 it opened Swansea Museum, Wales's oldest public museum, and installed in it a large library and a scientific laboratory.

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The RISW’s original aim was ‘the Cultivation and Advancement of the various Branches of Natural History, as well as the Local History of the Town and Neighbourhood, the Extension and Encouragement of Literature and the Fine Arts, and the general Diffusion of Knowledge’. In 1838 it changed its name to the ‘Royal Institution of South Wales’ when Queen Victoria was persuaded to give it her support. To mark the change it devised a new logo: a figure of the winged goddess Minerva, wearing on her arm a glass radiating enlightenment and bearing a flask – a sign of the scientific enthusiasms of the early members.

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The pioneers of the RISW included the naturalists Lewis Weston Dillwyn and John Gwyn Jeffreys; the geologists William Edmond Logan and Henry de la Beche; William Robert Grove, inventor of the fuel cell; and the pioneer photographer John Dillwyn Llewelyn. Women were also active in this Swansea scientific revolution: Thereza Dillwyn Llewelyn, John Dillwyn’s daughter, was a keen astronomer and his sister, Mary Dillwyn, was one of the earliest woman photographers. These pioneers and many others used the RISW as a powerful network for the transmission of ideas and learning – an early university, almost a hundred years before Swansea’s first university was established. In 1848 they succeeded in persuading the British Association for the Advancement of Science to hold its annual meeting in Swansea, and in the following year a guidebook reported that ‘there is a spirit of intelligence abroad’. Thanks to the RISW, in the words of the historian Louise Miskell, ‘Swansea’s reputation as a respectable, cultured and intelligent town began to blossom’.