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William Robert Grove

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Sir William Robert Grove (1811-1896). Lawyer and Scientist, known for the Conservation of Energy Law.

Born in Swansea on 11th July 1811.

1837 Married Miss Powles, who died in 1879.

1840 Appointed Professor of Experimental Philosophy at London Institution. Remained so for 7 years.

1842 Ran a series of lectures on the progress of physical science in which he advance the doctrine of the Conservation of Energy.

1846 Published a treatise on the Conservation of Energy.

Became a Fellow of the Royal Society.

1846 Received the Royal Society Medal for his Bakerian lecture on voltaic ignition and the decomposition of of water into its constituent gases by heat.

1871 Became Judge of the Common Pleas. [1]


1897 Obituary [2]

THE RIGHT HON. SIR WILLIAM ROBERT GROVE, M.A., D.C.L., LL.D., F.R.S., died at his residence, 115 Harley Street, on the 1st August, 1896, in his eighty-sixth year.

William Robert Grove, the son of Mr. John Grove, a Justice of the Peace and Deputy-Lieutenant of the county of Glamorgan, was born at Swansea on the 11th July, 1811.

His early education was received from private tutors, from whose hands he proceeded to Brasenose College, Oxford, where he graduated in 1830.

In 1835 Mr. Grove was called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn, but was temporarily prevented by ill-health from actively pursuing the profession. He at once devoted himself to physical study, for which he had always evinced a strong predilection, and for a time was absorbed in scientific research. His health having improved he returned to the Bar, where his practice rapidly grew. He was attached to the Chester and South Wales circuits, of which he was for some years the leader.

In 1853, at the comparatively early age of forty-two, he took silk, and his name appeared in connection with more than one of the celebrated cases of the next twenty years.

In November, 1871, Mr. Grove was created a Justice of the Common Pleas, and in the following February the honour of Knighthood was conferred upon him. In November, 1875, he became, through the operation of the Judicature Act, a Judge of the High Court, which office he held until 1887, when he retired from the Bench and was sworn a Member of the Privy Council. It had been thought that Mr. Justice Grove would be specially valuable in the trial of patent cases, but it was found that the judge was inclined to allow himself to become over-interested in the scientific aspect of the case. Instead of confining himself to the legal question of infringement or non-infringement, he was occasionally tempted to suggest an improvement or to discuss a principle, and thus to devote his powers rather to the furtherance of science than to the administration of the law. But it cannot be denied that he did excellent service as a judge, was able to hold his own among his brethren, and had the courage of his opinions in occasionally differing from the other members of the Court. He took part in many notable decisions and his judgments were concisely expressed and to the point.

It is, however, with Sir William Grove’s achievements in the realm of science that this notice is more nearly concerned. The statement of qualifications, upon which he was elected an Honorary Member of the Institution on the 4th March, 1884, sums up his claims to be regarded as a distinguished man of science and may well be cited here as a preliminary to a somewhat further notice of his investigations and researches. It runs as follows:-

Because of his important discoveries in Electricity and Optics ; of the production of the Voltaic Battery which bears his name; of his many learned contributions to the Royal Society, notably the Bakerian lecture “On Voltaic Ignition and on the Decomposition of Water into its Constituent Gases by Heat,” for which, in 1847, he received the Royal Medal; of his having been President of the British Association in 1866, when he selected for his address “The Continuity of Natural Phenomena as evinced by the Recent Progress of Science”: and of his celebrated treatise on “The Correlation of Physical Forces.”

It was, as already stated, ill-health which, by temporarily preventing Mr. Grove from practising at the Bar, gave him leisure to follow science. He turned his attention to electrical research and in 1839 succeeded in contriving the powerful voltaic battery, which at once obtained him recognition in the scientific world. In the following year he was appointed Professor of Experimental Philosophy at the London Institution, and it was during his five years’ tenure of that post that he laid the foundation of a great reputation for physical investigation.

In 1842 he delivered a remarkable lecture “On the Progress of Physical Science since the opening of the London Institution,” in which he first advanced the doctrine of the mutual convertibility of the various natural forces, heat, electricity, &C., and of their being all modes of motion or forms of persistent force. This doctrine he further developed in his well-known work “On the Correlation of Physical Forces,” the substance of a course of lectures delivered at the London Institution in 1843. This treatise, which was published three years later and has since been reprinted in the United States and translated into German and French, was regarded as a most important contribution to technical knowledge and at once stamped the author as a scientific thinker of the first rank.

Mr. Grove had meanwhile been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1846 that body, in order, no doubt, to mark its recognition of the distinguished place he had gained in the scientific world, invited him to deliver the Bakerian lecture. His subject- “On certain Phenomena of Voltaic Ignition and the Decomposition of Water into its Constituent Gases by Heat,” was one with which he was well qualified to deal, and the Society showed its appreciation of the value of the lecture by awarding him the Royal Medal.

In the following year he took an active part, as a Member of the Council, in the reform of the constitution of the Society, which was effected after a severe struggle. Of his numerous contributions to technical literature, some idea may be gained by a reference to the Royal Society’s “Catalogue of Scientific Papers,” in which, between 1839 and 1879, no less than sixty-three entries occur under his name.

In 1866 Mr. Grove was elected President of the British Association, and at the Nottingham meeting delivered an address, “On the Continuity of Natural Phenomena, as evinced by the Recent Progress of Science,” his object being to show that the changes in the organic world, in the succession of ,organised beings and in the progress of human knowledge, result from gradual minute variations. Twenty-two years later, at the age of seventy-seven and after his retirement from the bench, he delivered at the Royal Institution a lecture on “Antagonism,” in which, in the endeavour to prove that the equilibrium of nature is maintained by the conflict of various forces, he showed that weight of years had by no means impaired his mental activity and scientific insight. Of this he gave further evidence in 1891 in the course of a short address delivered on the occasion of the jubilee celebration of the Chemical Society, of which he was an original member.

Sir William Grove’s labours were not without recognition abroad as well as at home. In addition to the distinctions of D.C.L. and LL.D., which he received from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge respectively, he was created a Knight of the Imperial Order of the Rose of Brazil, and was elected a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Turin and of the Reale Accademia dei Lincei of Rome. He was appointed a member of the Metropolitan Commission on Sewers and of the Royal Commission on the Patent Laws.


1896 Obituary [3]




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