Popular Science Monthly/Volume 7/July 1875/Sketch of William Robert Grove

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PSM V07 D270 William Robert Grove.jpg


THE subject of this sketch is a typical example of that remarkable class of men who achieve great eminence, both in business and in science; he is a very distinguished scientific investigator, having-not only made his name a household word in all chemical laboratories where galvanic batteries are used, but he was one of the early pioneers in establishing the grand doctrine of the correlation of forces and is known and esteemed throughout the scientific world for his share in this great movement. He has also been a hard-working professional lawyer, forcing his way to legal distinction among his countrymen, becoming queen's counsel, until at length, passing from the bar to the bench, and taking a distinguished rank among the judges of England.

William Robert Grove was born in Swansea, Wales, July 14, 1811, and received his early education at the Swansea Grammar-School. His father, who was a magistrate, intended him for the Church, and he was sent to Oxford in 1830, completing his university term with honor in 1833. He had conscientious scruples that were opposed to his father's desires, and he adopted the profession of the law. He also married about this time, and quitted England for a while to travel on the Continent for his health. In this leisure he took to the reading and study of electricity, soon followed by original experiments and important discoveries in this branch of science. In 1835 he became Professor of Natural Philosophy in the London Institution, a place which he held for five years. His scientific researches have been mostly in the field of electricity, and his contributions on this subject have been numerous in the "Philosophical Transactions," the Philosophical Magazine and other journals of science. In 1839 we find him communicating to the Académie des Sciences de Paris the fact that if a positive electrode be immersed, half in water, and the other half in a tube of hydrogen, and a negative electrode in water and oxygen, the water ascends in the tubes, the galvanometer is deflected, and the water is decomposed and recomposed by voltaic action. This same year he communicated to the French Academy his invention of the galvanic battery, now bearing his name, in which platinum is substituted for copper, and nitric acid for sulphuric. He also published in this connection a paper on the "Inaction of Amalgamated Zinc in Acidulated Water," in which this phenomenon was first satisfactorily explained. About the same time he discovered that if two pieces of gold are placed one in a cell of nitric and the other in one of hydrochloric acid, separated by an earthen-ware partition, no chemical action takes place; but, if the two pieces be connected by a wire, the acids immediately attack them. In 1840 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1841 he published a paper "On the Combinations, by the Voltaic Battery, of Azote and Hydrogen with Metals." This same year he excited a great deal of interest by exhibiting, before the Electrical Society, daguerreotype pictures engraved by electricity. The picture was joined with the positive pole of a battery, and placed in hydrochloric acid; the chlorine set free attacked the silver surface unprotected by mercury, and from this etched surface an electrotype was made to be printed from. Though now in active practice at the bar, he continued his electrical investigations. He brought out his voltaic gas-battery, and wrote a paper on its applications to endiometry; published a "Memoir on the Action of Phosphorus, Sulphur, and the Hydrocarbons in the Gas-Pile;" and a communication on the "Electric Action by the Approximation of Dissimilar Metals without Contact," in which he showed that when a disk of zinc and one of copper are approximated without touching, and then separated, the gold leaves of an electroscope diverge, proving the existence of a radiating force capable of exciting electrical disturbance. In January, 1842, Mr. Grove delivered a lecture at the London Institution "On the Progress of Physical Science," in which the doctrine of the correlation of physical forces was briefly but clearly enunciated. He delivered a course of lectures at the same place, in which he explained and illustrated the propositions briefly laid down the year before. The position he sought to establish was that heat, light, electricity, magnetism, chemical affinity, and motion, are all correlatives; that is, that either of them, as a force, may produce the others. As an illustration, in one of these lectures he used a train of revolving wheels; the smallest, or that which revolved most rapidly, was of metal, and contained a piece of phosphorus in it. While this revolved with great rapidity, the phosphorus remained cool, but by a contrivance the wheel was suddenly stopped, and the phosphorus took fire; the object of the experiment being to show that arrested motion becomes heat. In 1847 he issued his work "On the Correlation of Physical Forces;" and in 1852 he published a memoir in the "Philosophical Transactions," on the "Electro-Chemical Polarity of the Gases." In 1856 he experimented upon the application of electricity as a mechanical power, and showed that, when by electrical attraction or repulsion, a weight is suspended, it is at the expense of electric tension, and that the spark cannot traverse the same distance that it could traverse, with the same apparatus and charge, without the elevation of the weight. Other researches of his have been on "The Electricity of Flame" and the formation of a flame-pile capable of producing chemical decomposition.