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David Forbes

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David Forbes (1828-1876), Secretary of the Geological Society, Foreign Secretary of the Iron and Steel Institute

1876 Obituary [1]

[THE Council of the Iron and Steel Institute have the melancholy duty of recording the death of the late Foreign Secretary, Mr. David Forbes, which took place December 5th, 1876. The valuable services which Mr. Forbes rendered to the Institute, and the zealous interest he at all times took to promote its success, are well known to the members. His work for the Institute was done in the most self-sacrificing spirit, and almost in a purely honorary capacity. The following memoir has been written by one of the deceased gentleman's intimate friends:—Professor John Morris, F.G.S., of University College, London.]

"For many years past the names of its oldest and most eminent members have, one by one, been removed from the list of the Geological Society, and we have looked around, almost in despair, for men to fill the front benches, once distinguished by the presence of a Murchison, a Lyell, a Scrope, a Sedgwick, or a Phillips. Now, alas! we have to record with sorrow the loss of one of those younger members from whom we had fondly looked for many years of active scientific work.

The name of Forbes had already become well known and honoured in association with the Geological and other learned Societies by the scientific labours of the late Prof Edward Forbes, brother of the subject of our present memoir; and when David Forbes returned to England, after nearly twenty years of his life had been spent abroad in Norway and South America, he was cordially welcomed as a fellow-worker by his brother geologists, and speedily took an honoured place among them.

Born at Douglas, in the Isle of Man, in 1828, he was partly educated there, and subsequently at Brentwood in Essex. His school days over, he was removed to the University of Edinburgh, where, in Dr. Wilson's laboratory, he laid the foundation for those chemical and physical studies which so distinguished his later years.

At an earlier period, and even when at school, he showed a strong predilection for chemistry and the allied sciences.

The knowledge of this chemical bias evidently influenced Edward Forbes, who was many years his senior, and who was anxious for the future welfare of his younger brother David, thus to write about him to Dr. Wilson, in 1843 :- 'Yesterday, I had a note from Goodsir, in which he delivers a message from you regarding a little brother (David) of mine whom I formerly spoke of making into a chemist. I much wish your advice on the subject, as it is time I should be thinking of it. The lad is fourteen, very talented, but very versatile, of an enthusiastic disposition as regards science, but given, like myself, to meddle with too many subjects. Chemistry is, however, his hobby, and the knowledge he has picked up is surprising, considering that he managed to make himself acquainted with it in the Isle of Man. Of course, much of this being irregular, would have to be unlearned. At present he is at school in Essex for the winter, working up, I hope his mathematics, as I lectured him strongly on the importance of that branch of science to chemistry.'

An early opportunity was afforded him of turning this chemical and scientific training to good account, and before he was 20 he accompanied Mr. Brooke Evans to explore the mineral resources, and afterwards to superintend extensive mining and metallurgical works at Espedal, in Norway, a post which he held for some years. During this period he travelled much, and lost no opportunity of increasing his store of scientific knowledge, as his writings testify. David Forbes was a man of a resolute and determined courage, and when in Norway, in 1848, and a revolutionary movement threatened the country, he armed 400 of his men to aid the Government. For this service the king sent for Forbes and thanked him personally, and ever afterwards remained his friend.

During this time he became a partner in the well-known firm of Evans and Askin, nickel smelters, Birmingham, and it was in connection with them that he visited Chile, Peru, and Bolivia, in search of nickel and cobalt. His investigations into the mineral resources of these countries extended over six years. During the years 1857-60, he made a special geological exploration of certain districts in South America, the first part of which, entitled " On the Geology of Bolivia and Southern Peru," was communicated to the Geological Society in 1860.

The paper is full of interesting details, and although many points may appear to have been neglected, this is not the result of oversight, but, as the author truly observes, is " due to the great difficulties, and frequently severe privations, encountered in exploring a country in many parts entirely uninhabited, or, in next to a savage condition; and, further, by having been limited as to time and pecuniary resources, and hampered by other occupations, and by the political state of the country." A second communication was to have embodied the Geology and Mineralogy of the neighbouring Republic of Chile and the Argentine provinces, which would have strengthened his previous conclusions, especially, as several of the geological formations, not well developed or studied in the districts, described in his first paper, were seen by,Forbes much better and more characteristically exhibited further south: From South America he made an expedition to the South Sea Islands, and spent some time in studying their volcanic formations and minerals.

During four years he traversed Chile in all directions from considerably south of Santiago, northwards up to the frontiers of Bolivia in the Desert of Atacama.

He inspected all the principal, and some of the lesser, mining districts along the range of the Cordilleras; from these he collected a valuable and extensive series of minerals, including about 190 species, of which .he published a list (much more copious than that given in the second edition of Domeyko's Mineralogy), together with a classification, according to the mode of their geological occurrence, in his paper "On the Mineralogy of Chile," (see Phil. Mag., 1865).

It was with the same view that during his long residence in Norway, Forbes studied the Mineralogy of the several districts in that country, viz., with especial reference to the circumstances under which each mineral occurred, and the causes which led to its appearance. (See the Edinb. Phil. Journ.; 1856-7, and Quart. Journ. Geol. Soc., Lond., 1855).

His cabinets are replete with abundant and carefully selected rocks and minerals, all intended to illustrate the association, paragenesis, and mode of occurrence of minerals in connection with the origin and formation of the rock-masses or mineral veins in which they are found imbedded.

On his return from Bolivia, in 1860, he was requested, previous to his departure, by a committee representing the chief commercial and mining interests of that country, to address a letter to Lord John Russell urging the re-appointment of a representative of the British Government to protect British interests. This letter was accompanied by a memorandum on the resources of the Republic. Although the official appointment was not then deemed necessary, it must have been some satisfaction to Mr. David Forbes to know that a number of influential persons connected with mining enterprises requested Sir Roderick Murchison to use his influence to secure the appointment of Mr. David Forbes to the vacant post in that country.

Igneous and metamorphic phenomena, and the resulting changes in rock-formations were among David Forbes's especial and favourite studies, and he lost no opportunity during his extensive travels in Europe and Africa, but especially in Mexico and South America, of observing the effects of modern volcanic action, and their relation to similar phenomena in past time.

Having ample opportunities in Norway, in connection with metallurgical operations, he was enabled to submit various rocks to very high temperatures and pressures for longer or shorter periods, and thus imitate metamorphic action in the production of various forms of rock-structures. The results of these experiments were partly embodied in his paper to the Geological Society in 1855, "On the Causes producing Foliation in Rocks." Bearing also on this subject are his papers "On the Chemical Composition of some Minerals from the South of Norway " (Brit. Assoc. Rep., 1854, Edinb. New Phil. Journ., 1855-57), "On the Igneous Rocks of Staffordshire " (GEOL. MAG. Vol. III. p. 23), "On the Contraction of Igneous Rocks in Cooling" (GEOL. MAG. Vol. VII. p. 1), and in his lecture "On Chemical Geology," delivered to the Chemical Society (Feb. 20, 1868).

Besides his researches on the mineral characters of rocks, David Forbes devoted considerable attention to the microscopic structure of rocks, and was among the first of English geologists in directing attention to the study of micro-geology. His paper on " The Microscope in Geology," in the Popular Science Review, was re-published in some German periodicals, and lie was in frequent communication with Prof. Zirkel and other foreign geologists on this subject, with a view of ultimately embodying it in a work which he was preparing on Petrology.

Mr. Forbes was a Fellow of the Royal, the Chemical, and the Geological Societies. Of the latter he had been the active Honorary Secretary for some years past, and attended the last meeting of the Society before his death, and took part in the discussion. As Foreign Secretary of the Iron and Steel Institute, he has prepared for six years (1871-76) careful and elaborate details of the progress of the iron and steel industries in foreign countries, in which his knowledge of languages materially assisted him. Nor did geological science and mineralogy alone interest him, for as a member of the Ethnological Society he contributed an interesting and elaborate paper " On the Aymara Indians of Bolivia and Peru."

Upwards of fifty papers have been communicated by Mr. David Forbes to the Scientific Societies and Journals, as the Chemical News, the Transactions of the IRON AND STEEL INSTITUTE, the PHILOSOPHICAL MAGAZINE, &c. Sixteen of Mr. Forbes's articles and letters have appeared in the GEOLOGICAL MAGAZINE from 1866-72. They all indicate the tendency of his mind to study the bearings of chemistry on igneous and cosmical phenomena. Forbes felt that whilst in other departments of Geology Great Britain was foremost, she was far behind in the study of Chemical Geology, and he hoped that others might be induced to devote themselves to this most interesting and prolific branch of scientific inquiry. His views were expressed in this paper on " Chemical Geology " Chemical News,1867 and 1868; Popular Science Review, 1868; GEOL. MAG., 1868, Vol. V., p. 366, and in his Lecture to the Chemical Society (1868), and also in his paper on the " Chemistry of the Primeval Earth," (GEOL. MAG.. 1867, Vol. IV., p. 433; and 1868, Vol. V., p. 105), in which he criticised certain opinions of Dr. Sterry Hunt, published in his lecture at the Royal Institution (1867) on the same subject (GEOL. MAG., 1867, Vol. IV., p. 357).

His most important papers are already quoted in the body of this memoir, to which may be added the following:—

  • "On the Relation of the Silurian and Metamorphic Rocks of the South of Norway." Minh. New Phil. Journ. 1856, iii., p. 79.
  • "On the Causes producing Foliation in Rocks." Quart. Journ. Geol. Soc. 1855, xl., p. 166.
  • "Mineralogical Researches in Norway." Quart. Journ. Geol. Soo. 1855.8.
  • "On the So-called Primitive Formation of the South Coast of Norway." Quart. Journ. Geol. Soc. 1858, xiv.
  • "On the Geology of South America." Quart. Journ. Geol. Soc. 1860, Vol xvii.
  • "On the Application of the Blowpipe to the Quantitative Determination of Certain Minerals,"—a series of papers in the Chemical News, 1867.
  • "Researches in British Mineralogy." Phil. Mag. 1867 and 1868.
  • "The Nature of the Interior of the Earth." P gyp. So. Review, 1869.
  • " The Structure of Rock Masses." Pop. Sc. Review, 1870.

The following articles were also contributed by him to the GEOLOGICAL MAGAZINE:-

  • 1866. "Appearance of Gold in the Earth's Crust." "Gold bearing rocks of South America." "Igneous Rocks of Staffordshire."
  • 1867. "Chemistry of the Primeval Earth." "The Microscope in Geology." "On the alleged Hydrothermal origin of Certain Granites and Metamorphic rocks."
  • 1868. "On some Points in Chemical Geology." "Study of Chemical Geology." "Dr. T. Sterry Hunt's Geological Chemistry." " Polytelite in Cornwall." "Researches in British Mineralogy."
  • 1870. Lecture on Volcanos." "On the Contraction of Igneous Rocks in cooling."
  • 1871. "Nature of the Earth's Interior."
  • 1872. " On the Geology of Donegal" " On Meteorites."

Mr. Forbes devoted himself almost entirely to his professional and literary pursuits, and took but little physical exercise, and it is to be feared that his too sedentary habits, together with the sad domestic loss he had recently suffered, depressed his spirits, and broke up a constitution already to some extent enfeebled by recurrent fever caught in South America, and so accelerated his end.

His loss is keenly felt by those friends who really knew his genial and social character; whilst his scientific associates, who had hoped for the further prosecution and publication of his researches and observations on rocks and minerals will all regret his vacant place in their midst.

Removed from us at so early a period in his career, when his future promised a devotion to his favourite studies and the arrangement and publication of the numerous scientific notes he had so earnestly collected, some of which it is hoped may still be rendered available, although we fear, with regard to a large proportion, the mind of the master whose hand penned them could alone -render them useful for scientific purposes. Endowed with, great mental activity, although partly impaired of late by the state of his health, he seems to have acted' on the motto of the great Swedish naturalist— "Num.., DIES ma LINEA." J. M."

1877 Obituary [2]

MR. DAVID FORBES, F.R.S., late Secretary of the Geological Society, Foreign Secretary of the Iron and Steel Institute, &c., was born in Douglas, Isle of Man, on the 6th of September, 1828.

He was the fifth son of the late Mr. Edward Forbes, banker, and the younger brother of the late Professor E. Forbes. His earlier education was conducted at the Athole Academy, Isle of Man. When only nine years of age he was very studious, and took more pleasure in reading the works of Wollaston and other celebrities than in joining his younger brother and companions in their play; and even thus early showed the strong predilection for scientific subjects for which he became so distinguished in after years.

Writing to his sister Jane (Mrs. M. Attwood) from Ballaugh, Isle of Man, on the 15th of August, 1842, he says: “I am busy learning short-hand from Mark Howard, and I can write it slowly; but I expect to write it better by practice. I write in a scrap-book every day, and have just finished a short life of W. H. Wollaston, a celebrated chemist, which I began to write an August 3rd, and I have made a task for myself as long as the holidays continue. I have now begun to write a small life of Sir Humphry Davy, which I dare say I shall have finished by the end of the holidays.”

Soon afterwards Forbes left the Isle of Man, and was sent to school at Brentwood, in Essex, whence he moved to the University of Edinburgh in October 1844, to study under Dr. Wilson and other eminent men. Although only sixteen years of age, he had shown at school such a remarkable talent for, as well as practical knowledge of chemistry, that Dr. Wilson appointed him at once to the position of assistant chemist at the University.

In 1846 he accepted a position under Dr. Percy (from whom he acquired much valuable metallurgical skill), in Birmingham, and remained there until 1847, when he was fortunate enough to obtain a still better situation under the large and extensive firm of Evans and Askin, smelters and refiners of nickel, cobalt, &c. The firm having then upwards of ten nickel mines in Norway, he accompanied the senior partner, Mr. Brooke Evans, to that place, to assist in the examination of their mineral resources. Shortly after Mr. Forbes took charge of the construction of mining and smelting works necessary to extract and reduce the ores obtained from the Andreasberg and other adjacent mines situated in the valley of Espedal, in the province of Gulbransdal, about 2,000 feet above sea-level, and in the centre of the Norwegian Alps; and he there obtained his first practical experience in engineering science.

Having managed successfully for upwards of nine years these extensive properties, he became a partner in the firm of Evans and Askin. During the above period he travelled extensively in Norway and Sweden and on the Continent, and acquired the great knowledge of languages for which he became so celebrated.

Scientific investigations occupied all his spare moments, and his pen was constantly employed in writing up the observations which he most carefully made during his travels.

After leaving Norway he resided for a short time in Birmingham, when, in 1857, the business affairs of the firm called him away to South America, and he was there enabled to pursue one of the greatest pleasures of his life, i.e. scientific research in nearly all its branches. He travelled continuously for six years, and traversed Chile in all directions from considerably south of Santiago, northwards to the frontiers of Bolivia, in the Desert of Atacama. He inspected all the principal and some of the lesser mining districts along the range of the Cordilleras; and from these he collected a valuable and extensive series of minerals, including about one hundred and ninety species, of which he published a list in 1865, classifying them according to their mode of geological occurrence in an important Paper “On the Mineralogy of Chile.”

In December 1857 he was heard from at Panama, on the way to Chile; and in March 1858 from Santiago, when he complained of fever, having been on horseback for six weeks under a strong sun, and sleeping on the ground up in the Andes.

On the 1st of February, 1858, he wrote from Valparaiso: “My last to you was from Panama; since then I have coasted along and visited Guayaquil, Lima, Copiapo, Coquimbo, &c., and arrived here some three weeks ago ; and since then have been a journey up in the centre of the Andes, of great difficulty, but also of great scientific interest, and managed to ascend to the height of 18,000 feet, which is nearly the highest yet ascended by man.”

Again, from Santiago in September 1858 he says: "I have just returned from a journey of 1,500 miles on horseback, which took two months and a half, during which time I was on the ground, with the exception of a few days when I had a bed.”

In April 1859: "On account of the revolution I only managed to reach here a few days back with much difficulty, escaping at night with some friends in an open coal barge, a small boat, and sailing along the coast until we got into Bolivian territory, having previously been a sort of prisoner. At Copiapo I had to serve in the foreign legion which was formed to protect the town, and hard work it was at first, I being in the cavalry, and thirty-three nights in command, and never was in a bed or had my clothes off.”

He was next heard of on board the “Dart,” off Valparaiso, the 7th of May, 1859, going to Tahiti and the Fiji Islands with an exploring expedition ; whence he writes on the 30th of May, 1859; "We are under way for Pitcairn’s Island and Chile."

In 1860 he returned home for a short time, leaving, however, by the next steamer for Peru, Bolivia, and Rio de Janeiro; subsequently proceeding to Monte Video and Buenos Ayres, then across the Pampas to Mendoza, Santiago, Valparaiso, Copiapo, Cobija, and Arica; and then across the Andes to the Brazilian side of the continent. In crossing the Pampas he arrived at Mendoza only four days after its almost total destruction by an earthquake, and was detained there more than a month making a report on the terrible catastrophe to the authorities. The photographs that he took with his travelling camera, representing the ruins of the once flourishing town, are most interesting.

Mr. Forbes wrote from San Baldomero, in Bolivia, on the 8th of October, 1862, complaining of the difficulties surrounding his investigations owing to the country being again in a state of revolution, and that he had been nearly killed in La Paz, and received two bayonet wounds, which, however, were not very bad. He also mentioned that Mendoza was not yet rebuilt, and so much the better, as there was another still more severe earthquake that year, which would certainly have again wrecked it.

In September 1863 Mr. Forbes returned from a journey in Missouri and other places in the United States and Canada, where he made some extensive scientific investigations. He afterwards visited Egypt, and spent a large portion of his time in Spain, Germany, and Norway, examining mineral deposits and mining works. Mr. Forbes collected and brought home from the many different countries through which he travelled extensive collections of minerals and rocks, which he classified with great care, and on many of which he wrote valuable papers.

During the last twelve years of his life he was busily employed as Consulting Mining Engineer for many large and extensive mining companies, both in Europe and abroad, and in that capacity he was also employed by the Imperial Government of Japan to make estimates, plans &C., for large iron-smelting works and rolling mills in Nippon. As foreign secretary of the Iron and Steel Institute he prepared for six years (1871-1876) careful and elaborate details of the progress of the iron and steel industries in foreign countries. He contributed upwards of fifty papers 60 various scientific societies and technical journals, the most important of which are:-

[List not transcribed]

Mr. Forbes devoted himself almost entirely to his professional and literary pursuits, and took but little physical exercise, and it is probable that his too sedentary habits, together with a sad domestic loss he had recently suffered, depressed his spirits and broke up a constitution already to some extent enfeebled by intermittent fever caught in South America, and so accelerated his end. But notwithstanding, he continued to work until within a week of his death, which occurred on the 5th of December, 1876, at the comparatively early age of forty-eight years.

He was elected an Associate of the Institution on the 1st of February, 1853, and served on the Council during the session 1872-73.

Being an old traveller, Mr. Forbes was a most entertaining and sociable companion, and his genial manner made him many friends wherever he went. His home was the resort of men of science from all parts of the world, and a place where they were always certain of a kind and hospitable welcome.

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