by Professor Iwan Rhys Morus, author of William Robert Grove: Victorian Gentleman of Science
On 22 October 1842 the Swansea-born natural philosopher William Robert Grove sent a letter to Michael Faraday describing a new philosophical toy he’d been playing with in his laboratory at the London Institution. Grove called this experimental curiosity the gas battery. We now consider his invention to be the first fuel cell, a technology that promises to be a revolutionary new source of clean energy. If that promise comes true, then more than 120 years after his death in 1896 a Welshman will turn out to have been the inventor of the most significant new energy technology since the Scotsman James Watt invented his improved steam-engine, or the German Rudolf Diesel invented the internal combustion engine. What will it do to our perception of the place of science and technology in Welsh history if that happens, I wonder?
No-one, Grove least of all, thought about the gas battery in such terms in 1842, of course. Grove was already famous then as the inventor of another powerful battery. His nitric acid cell would be a key technology in the communications revolution of the second half of the nineteenth century. A few years later he wrote The Correlation of Physical Forces which went through six editions during his lifetime. He also played a key role in reforming the way the Royal Society elected its fellows.
Grove is largely forgotten now (though he won’t be if the fuel cell takes off), but was a well-known public figure during his own lifetime. Looking at his life is an instructive way of reminding ourselves that – historically – science and technology were central to Welsh culture, and that Wales and the Welsh matter to the history of science. His here yesterday, gone today, and (maybe) back tomorrow reputation offers hope that the place of science in Welsh culture might undergo a similar revival.
Iwan Rhys Morus is a Historian of Science and Professor of History at Aberystwyth University.