William Robert Grove: Victorian Gentleman of Science, by Iwan Rhys Morus

The inventor of the fuel cell deserves a biography, but more detail of his work and his life would be welcome, says Richard Joyner

March 2, 2017
William Robert Grove
Source: Alamy

A good biography of a scientist presents a vivid account of the subject’s persona and of their science. For me, Iwan Rhys Morus’ study of Swansea-born chemist William Robert Grove (1811-1896) disappoints on both counts. His subject’s personality scarcely emerges in this slight volume.

Grove (pictured above) fully deserves a biography. He made two significant contributions to electrical technology. He wrote an influential theoretical treatise. He was involved in converting the Royal Society into something close to its present, elite form. As president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, he brought its annual meeting successfully to the town of his birth, and he later had a prominent career as a lawyer.

His paramount contribution to Victorian technology was the nitric acid battery, which utilised the reaction:

Zn + H2SO4 + 2HNO3 → ZnSO4 + 2H2O + 2NO2(g)

It gave a superior output of 1.9 volts and was widely used, notably as a power source in the US telegraph network. I would have welcomed detail on its construction, its development and its commercialisation (which Morus does not discuss).

Grove is justly celebrated today for his invention of the fuel cell, which he more accurately called the “gas battery”. Conventional batteries contain fixed quantities of reagents and, so, inevitably die. Grove showed how, using gaseous fuels, it was possible to make a device that produced electricity for as long as the gas supply is maintained. His fuels were hydrogen and oxygen, combining in the environmentally friendly reaction 2H2 + O2 → H2O. The economic and environmental potential of the fuel cell is obvious, but it has proved remarkably hard to commercialise, largely because of the difficulty of making efficient catalysts for the anode and cathode. Nonetheless, across the past 50 years it has regularly been touted, as it is here by Morus, as the technology of the future. It now seems close to gaining widespread application.

It was during his time as professor at the London Institution (1841-45) that Grove developed the fuel cell. This book does not, unfortunately, offer detail on how the invention was made, how it was constructed or its impact. Morus has a degree in natural sciences (which Grove did not) and so must understand the scientific and technical issues involved. He would have done well to follow a welcome trend in contemporary science writing and entrust to his readers the full, gory details.

Morus is at his best when describing the public Grove. The battle to unseat the Royal Society’s reactionary president Lord Northampton and its secretary Peter Mark Roget is well known, but it deserves reiterating here because of Grove’s significant contributions. The prolonged politicking caused him much personal stress. His 1866 address as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was expected to record recent advances across science, and it is interesting to read the adroit way that he dealt with the controversial subject of Darwinism. Grove did not believe that a gentleman should benefit financially from patents, but he nonetheless acted as junior counsel when his friend William Henry Fox Talbot brought action to defend his “calotype” photographic process. Grove was clearly a figure of wide influence and acquaintance.

Richard Joyner is emeritus professor of chemistry, Nottingham Trent University.

William Robert Grove: Victorian Gentleman of Science
By Iwan Rhys Morus
University of Wales Press, 192pp, £16.99
ISBN 9781786830043
Published 15 January 2017

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