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William Robert Grove


Sir William Robert Grove PC QC FRS (11 July, 1811 – 1 August, 1896) was a British lawyer, judge and physical scientist who anticipated the general theory of the conservation of energy and was a pioneer of fuel cell technology.


Early life

Born Swansea in Wales, Grove was the only child of John, a magistrate and deputy lieutenant of Glamorgan, and his wife, Anne née Bevan. His early education was in the hands of private tutors before he attended Brasenose College, Oxford to study classics though his scientific interests may have been cultivated by mathematician Baden Powell. Otherwise, his taste for science has no clear origin though his circle in Swansea was broadly educated. He graduated in 1832 and was called to the bar by Lincoln's Inn in 1835. In the same year, Grove joined the Royal Institution and was a founder of the Swansea Literary and Philosophical Society, an organisation with which he maintained close links.[1]

Scientific work

At the Royal Institution, Grove met Emma Maria Powles (died 1879) and married her in 1837. Groves's health was never strong and the couple embarked on a tour of the continent for their honeymoon. This sabbatical offered Groves an opportunity to pursue his scientific interests and resulted in his first scientific paper[2] suggesting some novel constructions for electric cells.[1]

In 1839, Grove developed a novel form of electric cell, the Grove cell, which used zinc and platinum electrodes exposed to two acids and separated by a porous ceramic pot. Grove announced the latter development to the Académie des Sciences in Paris in 1839.[3] Later that year, he gave another account of his development at the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Birmingham where it aroused the interest of Michael Faraday. On Faraday's invitiation, Grove presented his discoveries at the prestigious Royal Institution Friday Discourse on 13 March, 1840.[1]

Grove's presentation made his reputation and he was soon proposed for Fellowship of the Royal Society by such distinguished men as William Thomas Brande, William Snow Harris and Charles Wheatstone. Grove also attracted the attention of John Peter Gassiot, a relationship that resulted in Grove becoming the first professor of experimental philosophy at the London Institution in 1841. Grove's inaugural lecture in 1842 was the first announcement of what Grove called the correlation of physical forces, in modern terms, the conservation of energy.[1]

In 1842, Grove developed the first fuel cell (which he called the gas voltaic battery), which produced electrical energy by combining hydrogen and oxygen, and described it using his correlation theory.[1] In developing the cell and showing that steam could be disassociated into oxygen and hydrogen, and the process reversed, he was the first person to demonstrate the thermal dissociation of molecules into their constituent atoms.[4] The first demonstration of this effect, he gave privately to Faraday, Gassiot and Edward William Brayley, his scientific editor.[5] His work also led him to early insights into the nature of ionisation.[6][7]

Also in the 1840s, Grove collaborated with Gassiot at the London Institution on photography and the Daguerreotype[8] and calotype[9] processes.[10] Inspired by his legal practice, he presciently observed:[10]

It would be vain to attempt specifically to predict what may be the effect of Photography on future generations. A Process by which the most transient actions are rendered permanent, by which facts write their own annals in a language that can never be obsolete, forming documents which prove themselves, — must interweave itself not only with science but with history and legislature.

London Institution, 19 January 1942

In 1852, he discovered striae, dark bands that occur in electrical breakdown, and investigated their character, presenting his work in an 1858 Bakerian lecture.[11]

On the Correlation of Physical Forces

In 1846, Grove published On The Correlation of Physical Forces[12][13] in which he anticipated the general theory of the conservation of energy that was more famously put forward in Hermann von Helmholtz' Über die Erhaltung der Kraft (On the Conservation of Force) published the following year.[4] His 1846 Bakerian lecture relied heavily on his theory.[14][1]

James Prescott Joule had been inspired to his investigations into the mechanical equivalent of heat by comparing the mass of coal consumed in a steam engine with the mass of zinc consumed in a Grove battery in performing a common quantity of mechanical work. Grove was certainly familiar with William Thomson's theoretical analysis of Joule's experimental results and Thomson's immature suggestions of conservation of energy. Thomson's public champion, Peter Guthrie Tait was initially a supporter of Grove's ideas but later dismissed them with some coolness.[15]

Though Groves's ideas were forerunners of the theory of the conservation of energy, they were qualitative, unlike the quantitative investigations of Joule or Julius Robert von Mayer. His ideas also shaded into broader speculation, such as the nature of Olbers's paradox, which he may have discovered for himself rather than through a direct knowledge.[16]

... it is difficult to understand why we get so little light at night from the stellar universe, without assuming that some light is lost in its progress through space - not lost absolutely, for that would be an annihiliation of force - but converted into some other mode of motion.

On the Correlation of Physical Forces (1874)

Grove also speculated that other forms of energy were yet to be discovered "as far certain as certain can be of any future event."[16]

The probability is that, if not all, the greater number of physical phenomena are, in one sense correlative, and that, without a duality of conception, the mind cannot form an idea of them: thus motion cannot be perceived or probably imagined without parallax or relative change of position ... in all physical phenomena, the effects produced by motion are all in proportion to the relative motion. ... The question of whether there can be absolute motion, or indeed any absolute isolated force, is purely the metaphysical question of idealism or realism.

On the Correlation of Physical Forces (1874)

Royal Society politics

Straight from his becoming a Fellow in 1840, Grove was a critic of the Royal Society, deprecating its cronyism and the de facto rule of a few influential Council members. In 1843, he published an anonymous attack on the scientific establishment in Blackwood's Magazine[17] and called for reform. Grove was elected to the Council of the Royal Society in 1846 and was heavily involved in the ongoing campaign to modernise its charter in addition to campaigning for the public funding of science.[1]

A charter committee had already been established and Grove joined it. Groves's fellow campaigners included Gassiot, Leonard Horner and Edward Sabine and their principal objectives were for the number of new Fellows to be subject to an annual limit and limitation of the power of nomination to the Council. The reformers' success in 1847 led to the resignation of several key conservatives and the establishment of Grove and his associates with domination of the Council. To celebrate, the reformers founded the Philosophical Club.[1]

Though the Philosophical Club succeeded in ensuring that William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse was appointed next President, they failed to get Grove appointed as Secretary. Grove continued to campaign for a single home for all the scientific institutions at Burlington House.[1]

Legal career

From 1846, Grove started to reduce his scientific work in favour of his professional practice at the bar, his young family providing the financial motivation, becoming a QC in 1853.[1] The bar provided him with the opportunity to combine his legal and scientific knowledge, in particular in patent law[4] and in the unsuccessful defence of poisoner William Palmer in 1856.[18] He was especially involved in the photography patent cases of Beard v. Egerton (1845-1849),[19] on behalf of Egerton, and of Talbot v. Laroche (1854). In the latter case, Grove appeared for William Fox Talbot in his unsuccessful attempt to assert his calotype patent.[10]

Grove served on a Royal Commission on patent law and on the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers.[20]

He was made judge of the Court of Common Pleas in 1871 and appointed to the Queen's Bench in 1880.[1] He was a careful, painstaking and accurate judge, courageous and not afraid to assert an independent judicial opinion. However, he was fallible in patent cases where he was prone to become over interested in the technology in question and to be distracted by questioning the litigants as to potential improvements in their devices, even going so far as to suggest his own innovations.[20] He retired from the bench in 1887.


Groves's daughter Imogen Emily (died 1886) married William Edward Hall in 1866.[21] His daughter Anna married Herbert Augustus Hills (1837–1907) and was mother to Edmond Herbert Grove-Hills ("Colonel Rivers"),[22] and John Waller Hills[23]

Grove, his health perpetually troubled, died at home in London after a long illness.[1] He was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery.[citation needed]


  • Royal Society:
    • Fellow, (1840);[1]
    • Royal Medal, (1847);[1]
  • Vice-President of the Royal Institution (1844);[1]
  • Knighthood, (1872);[1]
  • Privy Councillor (1887);[1]
  • The lunar crater "Grove" is named for him.[24]
  • The Grove Fuel Cell Symposium and Exhibition is organised by Elsevier


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Morus (2004)
  2. ^ Grove, W. R. (1838). "On a new voltaic combination". Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science 13: 430.
  3. ^ "Note sur une pile voltaïque d'une grande énergie, construite par M. Grove; communication de M. Becquerel", Comptes Rendus (1839), 8 497
  4. ^ a b c [Anon.] (2001) "Grove, Sir William Robert", Encyclopaedia Britannica Deluxe edition, CD-ROM
  5. ^ Hays, J. N. (2004) "Brayley, Edward William (1801/2–1870)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, accessed 8 August 2007 (subscription required)
  6. ^ Moore, C. E. et al. (1985). "The proton". Journal of Chemical Education 62(10): 859-860.
  7. ^ Grove, W. R. (1852). "VII. On the electro-chemical polarity of gases". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 142(I): 87.
  8. ^ Grove, W. B.[sic] (1843). "On a voltaic process for etching Daguerreotype plates". Proceedings of the London Electrical Society: 94–99.
  9. ^ Grove, W. G. "On photography", British Association Report, for 1844, part 2, 37
  10. ^ a b c Wood (1975)
  11. ^ Harrison, W. J. (2004) "Gassiot, John Peter (1797–1877)", rev. Iwan Rhys Morus, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, accessed 5 August 2007 (subscription required)
  12. ^ Grove, W. R. (1874). The Correlation of Physical Forces, 6th ed., London: Longmans, Green. 
  13. ^ The usage of terms such as work, force, energy, power, etc. in the 18th and 19th centuries by scientific workers does not necessarily reflect the standardised modern usage.
  14. ^ "On certain phenomena of voltaic ignition and the decomposition of water into its constituent gases by heat"
  15. ^ Smith (1998) pp60, 176
  16. ^ a b Crowther (1965) pp92-93
  17. ^ [Anon. - Grove, W. R.] (1843). "Physical Science in England". Blackwood’s Magazine 54: 514-25.
  18. ^ Knott, G. H. (1912). The Trial of William Palmer, Notable English Trials, Edinburgh: William Hodge & Co., 319. 
  19. ^ (1849) 8 CB 165, 19 LJCP 36, 13 Jur 1004, 13 LTOS 426
  20. ^ a b Crowther (1965) p.98
  21. ^ Holland, T. E. (2004) "Hall, William Edward (1835–1894)", rev. Catherine Pease-Watkin, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, , accessed 17 August 2007
  22. ^ Hutchins, R. (2006) "Hills, Edmond Herbert Grove- (1864–1922)’", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, online edn, accessed 17 August 2007
  23. ^ Green, E. H. H. (2004) "Hills, John Waller (1867–1938)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, accessed 17 August 2007
  24. ^ Cocks, E. E. & Cocks, J. C. (1995). Who's Who on the Moon: A Biographical Dictionary of Lunar Nomenclature. Tudor Publishers. ISBN 0-936389-27-3. 


  • Obituaries:
    • The Times, 3 August 1896
    • Nature, 27 August 1896
    • Law Journal, 8 August 1896

  • Bonney, T. G. (1919). Annals of the Philosophical Club of the Royal Society Written from its Minute Books. London: Macmillan. 
  • Cantor, G. (1976). "William Robert Grove, the Correlation of Forces, and the conservation of energy". Centaurus 19: 273-90.
  • Cooper, M. L. & Hall, V. M. D. (1982). "William Robert Grove and the London Institution, 1841–1845". Annals of Science 39: 229–54.
  • Crowther, J. G. (1965). Statesmen of Science. London: Cresset Press, 77-101. 
  • Edwards, E. (1863–7). in L. Reeve and E. Walford: Portraits of Men of Eminence in Literature, Science and the Arts, with Biographical Memoirs, 6 vols. 
  • Lyons, H. G. (1938) Notes and Records of the Royal Society London, 1:28–31
  • Morus, I. R. (1991). "Correlation and control: William Robert Grove and the construction of a new philosophy of scientific reform". Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 22: 589–621.
  • — (2004) "Grove, Sir William Robert (1811–1896)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, online edn, May 2005, accessed 25 July 2007 (subscription or UK/ Ireland public library membership required)
  • Smith, C. (1998). The Science of Energy: A Cultural History of Energy Physics in Victorian Britain. London: Heinemann. ISBN 0-485-11431-3. 
  • Vernon, K. D. C. (1966) Proceedings of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, 41:250–80
  • Webb, R. K. (1961). "Sir William Robert Grove (1811–1896) and the origins of the fuel cell". Journal of the Royal Institute of Chemistry 85: 291.
  • Wood, R. D. (1975). The Calotype Patent Lawsuit of Talbot v. Laroche 1854. Bromley, Kent: privately published. ISBN 0-9504377-0-0. 
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "William_Robert_Grove". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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