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Henry Wilde

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Henry Wilde (1833–1919), electrical engineer and inventor from Manchester.

See Wilde and Co.

1919 Obituary [1]

HENRY WILDE, D.Sc, D.C.L., F.R.S., an Honorary Member of the Institution since 1898, died at his house, "The Hurst," Alderley Edge, Cheshire, on the 28th March, 1919.

He was born in Manchester in 1833, and was left without parents when he was 16, having the charge of a younger brother, aged 12, and a sister.

At an early age he was apprenticed to a mechanical engineer, and before his majority had attained a responsible position in the works. Keenly interested in the applications of electricity, he employed his leisure hours in making electrical machines, in experiments with electro-deposition, and with electric kites.

At 23 years of age he commenced in business as a telegraph and lightning-conductor engineer. In the latter capacity he established a local reputation, and in a Lancashire town was known as "the leeghtning and thunder mon." He noticed that gas and water pipes caused fires by furnishing a path for electrical flow alternative to that of the lightning conductor, and he strongly urged that the pipes should be connected metallically with the rod, which is now the general practice.

Several years were occupied in the design of an alphabetic telegraph, resulting in a number of patents relating to both the transmitter and the receiver. He succeeded in producing compact instruments and demonstrated their use at the International Exhibition held in London in 1862. The result of numerous experiments with magnetos led him to substitute permanent by electro-magnets.

In 1863 he secured a patent for an electromagnetic generator which gave alternating currents from a shuttle-wound armature, the field being excited by the current from a battery or from a small direct-current magneto placed on the same foundation as the alternator and driven by the same power. Wilde used this machine for arc lighting and other purposes.

Subsequently he provided this "electromagnetic machine" with a specially designed commutator so that direct currents could be produced. One of these generators with an armature 10 inches in diameter, when excited by a magneto having an armature 3 1/2 inches in diameter, would melt an iron, rod 1/4 inch in thickness and 14 inches in length.

With the view of obtaining a generator which could be run at a relatively low speed and would not heat so much when under load, Wilde designed an entirely different type of machine having two circles of electromagnets between the poles of which rotated a multipolar armature. The field magnets were excited by a "minor" current obtained by rectifying the alternating current from four of the armature bobbins. Normally the machine was an alternator, but it could be used to produce direct pulsating currents by a crown commutator. The output of the new machine was found much to exceed one of the earlier generators of the same weight. With two of the new alternators he made the important discovery in 1868 that it was possible to run them in parallel when synchronous. This was subsequently shown by John Hopkinson to be in accordance with mathematical theory.

Many machines of both types were built by Wilde and Co. at the works in Manchester for electro-deposition and arc lighting. He developed both uses and took out a number of patents.

Specially valuable was his patent of 1875 for making copper rollers for calico printing. He found that by giving a rotary motion to the electrolyte or the electrodes more powerful currents could be used and the rate of deposition be much increased. For electric lighting a number of arc lamps were designed. He used them for photographic and searchlight purposes.

In 1912 he summarized this early use of his lighting plants in two papers, read before the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, having the titles "On Searchlights for the Mercantile Marine," and "Searchlights and the Titanic Disaster," in which he described the installation of his machines and lamps in 1876 on battleships. His patents, especially those relating to electrodeposition, proved to be financially successful, and he was enabled to retire from business in 1884.

During the following 35 years of his life he published many scientific papers. Their nature was, as a rule, very different from his early publications. From experimental work he turned to philosophical and, finally, theological considerations. This change was a gradual one.

In 1886 he determined the velocity with which air rushes into a vacuum, and he directed his attention to aviation. He described his early experiments "On Aerial Locomotion" in 1900, in which paper he said, "during a somewhat lengthy career as an experimentalist I have accumulated a considerable stock of negative knowledge" - a remark very much to the point when his many unsuccessful experiments for producing flight are examined; nevertheless, his confidence in the ultimate solution of the problem remained unshaken.

Another subject which interested him was Terrestrial Magnetism, and he invented a "Magnetarium" which enabled him to reproduce the secular changes in the magnetic elements. He also published a number of papers on Atomic Weights and Astronomical subjects. His record as an inventor establishes him as one of the pioneers of electrical engineering, but in Science he was not able to make progress with the times, owing to fixity of views and the want of preliminary training in modern methods. He was the recipient of many honours.

In 1885 he was awarded a medal for his inventions at the International Inventions Exhibition held in London.

In the following year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

The honorary degree of D.Sc. was conferred upon him in 1900 by the Victoria University of Manchester, and three years later he received the D.C.L. degree of the University of Oxford. During 1894-6 he was President of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society.

Dr. Wilde was a liberal benefactor to public institutions. The full record of his gifts has not been declared. They include over £10,000 to the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society; £5,500 to the Paris Academy of Sciences for an annual International Prize for discoveries in Science; £10,000 for the endowment of a Readership in Mental Philosophy, £3,000 to establish a Scholarship in Mental Philosophy, and £4,000 to endow a lectureship in Natural and Comparative Religion; all at the University of Oxford. The residue of his estate - about £10,000 - also has been bequeathed to the same University. The Benevolent Fund of the Institution received from him a donation of £1,500 in 1900.

For many years he had been a widower, and he had no children.

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