Connecting Science and History pg. 2


Part One: Connecting Science and History (continued)


The progression of science had a fundamental impact on where research and experimentation took place, with well equipped laboratories and facilities becoming a necessary part of scientific progress in many fields. Laboratory research was particularly relevant for the science of chemistry in the early part of the nineteenth century, yet as the work of many natural philosophers /scientists crossed the disciplines or ventured into experimental areas it followed that laboratory facilities became increasingly sophisticated. It took until 1873 for Swansea to have a Public Laboratory which was established by Mr. W. M. Morgan, the Public Analyst, and was the first fully equipped and functioning laboratory in Wales. It is described as being as well fitted as any provincial laboratory of the time;

The laboratory proper is a large, airy and well-fitted room, with all kinds of apparatus required for chemical investigations and sufficient space for the experimental work of twenty-five students....and a fine assortment of the more remarkable scientific instruments, such as spectroscopes, microscopes, telephones, microphones, electrical apparatus, balances of great delicacy etc.

The new laboratory experiments were an essential factor in establishing ambitious but practical uses of natural forces and elements. The positive aspects of the alliance of science and commerce is clearly illustrated by the Swansea scientist, William Grove’s supposition of the power of electricity, as the ultimate source of continuing economic power and progress. Indeed, during the first half of the nineteenth century natural philosophy became increasingly interconnected with the complex systems of production and consumption. The physical evidence of this in Swansea is the conformation of a working industrial laboratory at the Landore Siemens’ Steel Works. It was noted in the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s official guide book of 1880 that ‘a series of very remarkable experiments were undertaken at Landore’ which resulted in the production of the finest quality of steel. However, in historical accounts of industrial research there is often no acknowledgement at all of the early research being conducted in Swansea laboratories during the latter half of the nineteenth-century, only evidence of research in the English chemical industry.

There were negative aspects of industrialization and a major one was the effect of pollution on the town, especially the problem of smoke from the Hafod copper works. As one individual remarked;

Inhabitants were the victims of the most dreaded aerial pollution from the copper and zinc smelters at Landore. The vegetation surrounding the factories withered and died and gravestones in the nearby churchyards stood in weedless, flowerless rows. The only ‘visitors’ it attracted were metallurgists, industrialists and scientific associations.’

Polluting smoke from the copper smelting process was a significant problem for the copper industry and the people who lived in the polluted areas, with scientific experimentation by the leading chemists of the day, Michael Faraday, Sir Humphry Davy and Richard Phillips failing to solve the problem. Faraday had visited the Hafod copper works on his tour of Wales in 1819 and commented in his diary on the extensive copper and coal industries with the ‘immense cloud of sulphurous smoke,’ with a droll reference to his ferry crossing in the area as the Charon of Swansea. For all their research and experimentation these scientific and industrial competitors, especially the Vivians who spent a small fortune, failed to achieve the £1,000 competition prize money that had been allocated to alleviate the smoke problem. The problem was not solved until the Gerstenhöffer process was installed in 1865. This process of kiln roasting was a considerably more labour intensive and costly process than pile or stall roasting, which made its use only advantageous in the manufacture of sulphuric acid and the alleviation of polluting copper smoke. Another set back to the Gerstenhöfer’s furnace was that it was costly to construct, though Henry Howe in his paper Copper Smelting of 1885 referred to it as a ‘beautiful furnace.’ Consequently, while the Gerstenhöffer kiln was installed at the Vivian Hafod Works many of the copper smelters stayed with the traditional deposit flues and tall chimneys. The repercussions of copper-smoke are discussed in Sir Henry de la Beche’s report of 1849 on the sanitary condition of Swansea, though he questions the severity of the effects of copper-smoke from the contemporary data available. De la Beche notes that;

The influence of climate and of the copper-smoke, though such influences can scarcely be doubted, is not very clearly seen from known data. Taking two rural districts of the Swansea Union, both to the westward of, and therefore scarcely affected by, the copper-smoke, namely Gower and Llandilo-Talybont, but still under the influence of the same general climate, we find that, with a united population of between 11,300 and 11,500 persons, the per centage of deaths is 1.43.

De la Beche continues in his report to compare the mortality rates of the twelve districts of South Wales and further notes;

The superior health of Swansea also appears by comparison with the district of Haverfordwest, of equal population, where the mortality is 20.4 and Carmarthen, where it is 18.3 in the 1,000.


 Next Page, Connecting Science and History, pg.3