Foster, George Carey

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(b. Sabden, Lancashire, England, 20 October 1835; d. Rick-mansworth, Hertfordshire, 9 February 1919),

chemistry, physics, laboratory education, electrical standards.

A self-effacing practitioner and teacher of precision laboratory technique, George Foster achieved an early reputation in organic chemistry, especially the analysis of alkaloids. Extending his quantitative expertise to the new discipline of physics, he introduced systematic experimental training to physics undergraduates in Britain, inaugurating the first purpose-built laboratory for teaching. His skill in instrumental practice led to a significant refinement of resistance measurement techniques, and he played a leading role in the development of national electrical standards of measurement.

Early Career: Chemistry . The only son of George Foster, calico printer and justice of the peace in Lancashire and West Yorkshire, George Carey Foster was educated at private schools before enrolling at University College London (UCL) in 1853. At UCL Foster studied chemistry before graduating with a prize in 1855 and becoming assistant to Alexander Williamson at UCL’s chemistry laboratory. Foster presented his first paper in 1857 to the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), proposing systematization of nomenclature in organic chemistry; although published by the Philosophical Magazine, it was not widely adopted. Two years later his wide-ranging survey of the constitution of formulas in organic chemistry took a more prominent place in the BAAS annual report. By then Foster was undertaking research in organic chemistry with August Kekulé at Ghent, and under his direction Foster soon published two analyses of organic acids in the Journal of the Chemical Society(1861 and 1862). He also studied with Adolphe Wurtz and Jules Jamin in Paris and with Robert Bunsen and Georg Quincke in Heidelberg before his return to London in 1861.

Foster produced two papers in 1865 criticizing the confusion generated by the common use of the term “oxide” to denote an acid. His most important work in chemistry was a series of three papers on alkaloid chemistry undertaken in collaboration with his London colleague Augustus Matthiessen and published by the Royal Society (1863, 1867, 1868). Their analysis of narcotine was judged by contemporaries to be “classical” in accuracy and indeed the epitome of alkaloid chemistry.

Having already been introduced to the investigation of heat, light, and electricity by Williamson as extensions of chemical knowledge, Foster was appointed professor of natural philosophy at Anderson’s University in Glasgow in 1862. Soon he produced two very substantial articles on the subject of “Heat” for Watts’ Dictionary of Chemistry(1863), and these established his expertise in the physical (vis-à-vis organic) domain of chemistry. This move to Glasgow transformed his life and career: Not only did he encounter the scheme of student-assisted laboratory research that William Thomson organized at Glasgow University, but he also met MaryAnn Frances Muir of

Greenock, whom he would marry in 1868, a marriage that produced four sons and four daughters. Meanwhile, however, Foster was called back to London in August 1865 to take up the chair of experimental physics at UCL, where he became a cherished if not greatly competent lecturer.

Experimental Physics . Foster established a students’ physical laboratory at UCL in 1866 that became the model for many others to follow. In the ensuing thirty-two years his most eminent students were the distinguished physicist Oliver Lodge and the electrical physicist/engineers William Ayrton and John Ambrose Fleming. Foster’s commitment to physics education extended to his editing of some important textbooks. In 1866 he revised the popular Handbook of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy by Dionysius Lardner, UCL’s first natural philosopher. Foster also coedited the London Science Class-Books Elementary Series with Philip Magnus from 1877 to 1896. And in that latter year he worked with his fellow chemist-turned-physicist Edmund Atkinson to translate and revise Jules Joubert’s Traité élémentaire d’électricité, publishing it in three editions of the widely read Elementary Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism.

In 1866 Foster joined the BAAS committee on electrical standards, frequently serving as its chairman over the next three decades. He thus came to collaborate with Thomson, Charles Wheatstone, and others in refining the science of measuring electrical resistance and current flow, especially needed for the fast-developing field of telegraphy. As the outcome of investigations on how to accomplish reproducible results in electrical standards, Foster adapted the Wheatstone bridge, which measured ratios of resistance, to a new device that measured instead small differences of resistance—a much more useful characteristic for high-precision comparative work. Subsequently known as the “Carey Foster bridge,” this important innovation was first presented at the newly formed Society of Telegraph Engineers in 1871 and widely used thereafter in both physics laboratory and telegraphic work.

In recognition of his work in both chemistry and physics Foster was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1869, serving twice as vice president (1891–1893, 1901–1903). He was president of BAAS section A (1877) and BAAS general treasurer (1888–1904). Foster had been one of the founding members of the Society of Telegraph Engineers in 1871 (the Institution of Electrical Engineers from 1888) and served as its president in 1880–1881. Similarly he was a founding member of the Physical Society of London in 1873 (later the Institute of Physics), serving as its president from 1876 to 1878. At UCL he served as dean of the faculty of sciences from 1874, achieving BSc status for experimental physics in 1876. In conjunction with his electrical engineering colleague Ambrose Fleming he helped to design important new laboratories in 1893, the physics wing of which was renamed as the Carey Foster Laboratory after his retirement in 1898. He became the first principal of University College in 1900. Up to the time of his death from heart failure in 1919, Foster worked vigorously as the editor of the Philosophical Magazine, which remains a leading periodical in theoretical, experimental, and applied physics.



“On Chemical Nomenclature, and Chiefly on the Use of the Word Acid.” Philosophical Magazine 29 (1865): 262–269; 30 (1865): 57–59.

As editor. Handbook of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy: Electricity, Magnetism, and Acoustics, by Dionysius Lardner . Rev. ed. London, 1866.

With Augustus Matthiessen. “Researches into the Chemical Constitution of Narcotine and of Its Products of Decomposition, Part 2.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 157 (1867): 657–668.

“On a Modified Form of ‘Wheatstone’s Bridge’ and Methods of Measuring Small Resistances.” Proceedings of the Society of Telegraphic Engineers 1 (1872–1873): 196–208.

Report of the [BAAS] Committee Appointed for the Purpose of Constructing and Issuing Practical Standards for Use in Electrical Measurements. London: Office of the [British] Association, 1892.

With Edmund Atkinson. Elementary Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism Founded on Joubert’s “Traité élémentaire d’électricité.” London: Longmans, 1896.


Bellot, H. Hale. History of University College, London, 1826–1926. London: University of London Press, 1929.

Brock, William. “George Carey Foster.” In Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century British Scientists, edited by Bernard Lightman, vol. 2, pp. 718–720. Bristol: Thoemmes Continuum, 2004.

Fison, A. H. “George Carey Foster.” Journal of the Chemical Society, Transactions 115 (1919): 412–427.

Fox, J. W. (Bill). From Lardner to Massey: A History of Physics, Space Science and Astronomy at University College London, 1826 to 1975. Available from

Gooday, Graeme. “Precision Measurement and the Genesis of Physics Teaching Laboratories in Victorian Britain.” British Journal for the History of Science 23 (1990): 25–51.

———. The Morals of Measurement: Accuracy, Irony, and Trust in Late Victorian Electrical Practice. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Harte, Negley, and John North. The World of University College, London, 1828–1978. London: University College, 1978.

Lodge, Oliver. “George Carey Foster, 1835–1919.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 96A (1919–20): xv–xvii.

———. Past Years: An Autobiography. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1931.

Graeme J. N. Gooday

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