Part Three: A high point and a lost opportunity

 

Part 3: A high point and a lost opportunity

 

In a letter dated 27 February 1844, the English polymath William Whewell (1794-1866) wrote to the geologist Roderick Murchison (1792-1871) reminding him of one of the main aims of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, he urged;

You ought to go to the frontier of Wales, to Swansea or Gloucester, where you are within reach of your own Siluria; to Shrewsbury, where you can see into Cambria. If you cannot go to some of these places the main use of the B.A. is at an end.

When Swansea applied to be the venue for the 1845 Annual meeting of the BAAS it was able to support its bid with the backing of five Fellows of the Royal Society who were from the local area. This is indicative of the level of the scientific and technical activity that blossomed in Swansea during the first part of the nineteenth century and is further illustrated by Swansea’s representation on the British Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1848 out of 620 members of the BAAS, 25 were from Wales and out of that 25 there were 16 from the Swansea area including Lewis Weston Dillwyn and John Gwyn Jeffreys. Even so, there were members who were reluctant to accept Swansea’s application including Murchison (1792-1871), who amongst others believed that the annual meeting primarily reflected the status and prestige of the Association and that its venues should reflect that principle. Yet, there was increasing enthusiasm to spread the mission of the BAAS to places away from the main English cultural centres. 

The main promoter of a BAAS annual visit to Swansea was a local scientist, William Robert Grove (1811-1896), a fellow of the Royal Society and the appointed professor of experimental philosophy at the London Institution. Grove’s reputation as a physicist was established and he was settled in London when he initiated a successful campaign to bring the BAAS to his home town of Swansea, with the backing of the Swansea Corporation, the RIAS, the magistracy and prominent scientists such as De la Beche. Grove’s effort was appreciated as the President of the BAAS, the Marquis of Northampton noted in his opening address of the 1848 meeting:

To those members of the Association who were at Southampton and Oxford it would be quite superfluous to allude to the eloquent terms in which the advocate of Swansea, Prof. Grove, like a potent magician, or like a representative of the Bard and Druid of ancient Britain, summoned us to the shores of the Bristol Channel.

By the time of the BAAS visit to Swansea, Grove was held in high esteem as a physicist in Britain as well as on the continent with the chemist C. F. Schoenbein (1799-1868) arranging for Grove’s election as a corresponding member of the Philosophical Society of Basle in Germany, and later in 1844 the university awarded him an honorary doctorate. Grove’s recognition was due to his investigations in electrochemistry and his construction of a working fuel cell which Grove detailed in a paper dated 29 October 1842 in The Philosophical Magazine and concluded:

This battery is peculiar in having the current generated by gasses...; it is therefore, theoretically more perfect than any other form.... it exhibits such a beautiful instance of the correlation of natural forces.

Grove undertook a series of lectures under the collective title ‘The Correlation of Physical Forces,’ later published as a book that received positive reviews from a wide range of readers from George Elliot to Charles Darwin, and considered by many to be one of the seminal works of nineteenth century science. While the scientific work of Grove had given him recognition and status, the effort he made to ensure that Swansea was the venue for the 1848 annual meeting awarded him great respect which was further enhanced during the meeting by his role as vice-president of the Chemical Science section.

 

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