Grove, William Robert

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Grove, William Robert

(b. Swansea, Wales, 11 July 1811; d. London, England, 1 August 1896)

electrochemistry, physics

Grove was the only son of John Grove, magistrate and deputy lieutenant for Glamorganshire, and his wife, Anne Bevan. He was educated privately and at Brasenose College, Oxford, graduating B. A. in 1832 and M. A. in 1835. He became a barrister, but apparently because of ill health soon turned from law to science, toward which he had always had an inclination. He soon gained a reputation in the comparatively new but rapidly growing science of electrochemistry, particularly with his development of the Grove cell, an improved form of voltaic cell which became very popular. It was used, for example, by Faraday in his lecture demonstrations at the Royal Institution.

Grove was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1840 and from 1841 to 1846 was professor of experimental philosophy at the London Institution. In 1837 he had married Emma Maria Powles, who died in 1879; they had two sons and four daughters. In order to meet the financial needs imposed by a growing family, although without entirely abandoning scientific pursuits, Grove returned to the practice of law and became a Queen’s Counsel in 1853. In 1856 he defended William Palmer, the “Rugeley poisoner,” in a famous murder trial. He became a judge in 1871, and although it was thought that his special knowledge would be particularly valuable in trying cases involving infringement of patents, it was found that he became more interested in the subject of the patent, sometimes suggesting improvements, than in the bare legal aspects of the case.

One of the main defects of early zinc-copper cells was polarization, due to the accumulation of a film of hydrogen bubbles on the surface of the copper plate—this film not only had a high resistance, thus weakening the current, but produced a back emf. Polarization was overcome to some extent as early as 1829 by Antoine-César Becquerel, who used two liquids separated by a porous partition. In the first practical application of the two-liquid principle, devised by J. F. Daniell, the copper sulfate solution in contact with the copper plate was separated from the sulfuric acid containing the zinc plate by unglazed earthenware. This arrangement gave a reasonably constant emf of about 1.1 volts.1

After relating a number of experiments2 using different metals and electrolytes as well as different containers, Grove described what was to become the standard form of his battery, consisting of zinc in dilute sulfuric acid and platinum in concentrated nitric acid (or a mixture of nitric and sulfuric acids), giving an emf of nearly two volts. In 1841 the platinum was replaced by carbon in Bunsen’s adaptation of the cell.

It is important that the cell described above should not be confused with what Grove came to call his “gas battery,” which was, in fact, the earliest fuel cell; its possibilities have only recently been exploited. In a postscript to the letter describing his first experiments on voltaic cells, Grove described how, when test tubes of hydrogen and oxygen were separately placed over two platinum strips, sealed into and projecting through the bottom of a glass vessel containing dilute sulfuric acid so that half of each strip was in contact with the acid and half exposed to the gas, a current flowed through a wire connecting the projecting ends.3 In subsequent experiments Grove obtained a powerful current using hydrogen and chlorine, and appreciable currents with other pairs of gases. Grove realized that the electrical energy resulted from the chemical energy liberated when hydrogen and oxygen combined and that this electrical energy could be used to decompose water (he did in fact carry out the electrolysis of water with current from his gas battery). This realization stimulated thoughts which had been engaging him for some time: “This battery establishes that gases in combining and acquiring a liquid form evolve sufficient force to decompose a similar liquid and cause it to acquire a gaseous form. This is to my mind the most interesting effect of the battery; it exhibits such a beautiful instance of the correlation of natural forces.”4

The concept underlying this observation was first briefly enunciated in a lecture given in January 1842 on the progress of physical science since the opening of the London Institution and was then developed in a series of lectures given during the following year. The substance of these lectures constituted the material for Grove’s book, On the Correlation of Physical Forces, first published in 1846. New material was added to each of the five subsequent editions. The work was an early statement of the principle of the conservation of energy, one of several at about this time5.

Describing, in 1845, some experiments that he had carried out four or five years earlier on the possibility of using arc lighting in mines, Grove claimed that his lack of success led him to the idea of sealing a helix of platinum wire in a glass vessel and igniting it by an electrical current; the resulting device seems to have been the earliest form of the filament lamp6.

In 1846 Grove gave the first experimental proof of dissociation. He showed that steam in contact with a strongly heated platinum wire was dissociated into hydrogen and oxygen. He also showed that the reactions

CO2 + H2 = CO + H2O

CO + H2O = CO2 + H2

could take place under the same conditions. He expressed the view that the platinum wire merely rendered the chemical equilibrium unstable and that the gases restored themselves to a stable equilibrium according to the circumstances. Among other observations, he first drew attention to the striated appearance of rarefied gases in discharge tubes.

Grove was one of the original members of the Chemical Society, and at the jubilee meeting in 1891 he said, “For my part, I must say that science to me generally ceases to be interesting as it becomes useful.”

There is therefore perhaps some irony in the fact that so much of his work led to important practical consequences, yet his contribution to the concept of energy conservation (for which, it is plain from the prefaces to the successive editions of his book, he felt he was insufficiently credited) was overshadowed by the work of others. A member of the Council of the Royal Society in 1846 and 1847 and one of its secretaries in the following two years, he played a leading part in the society’s reform movement.7 He was knighted in 1872.


1. Grove denied that the ideas which led to the development of his cell owed anything to Daniell, a denial which led to a sharp exchange of letters between the two men: see Philosophical Magazine, 20 (1842), 294–304: 21 (1842), 333–335, 421–422; 22 (1843), 32–35.

2. The evolution of the cell is described in the papers listed in the bibliography. The fullest account of its refinements and mode of action is in Philosophical Magazine, 15 (1839), 287–293.

3. For an explanation in modern terms and the contemporary significance of this experiment, see K. R. Webb, “Sir William Robert Grove (1811–1896) and the Origins of the Fuel Cell,” in Journal of the Royal Institute of Chemistry, 85 (1961), 291–293; and J. W. Gardner, Electricity Without Dynamos (Harmondsworth, 1963), pp. 42 and 49 ff.

4.Philosophical Magazine, 21 (1842), 420.

5. See T. S. Kuhn, “Energy Conservation as an Example of Simultaneous Discovery,” in M. Clagett, ed., Critical Problems in the History of Science (Madison, Wis., 1959), pp. 321–356.

6.Philosophical Magazine, 27 (1845), 442–446.

7. See H. Lyons, The Royal Society 1660–1940 (Cambridge, 1944), pp. 259 ff.


I. Original Works. Grove’s only book is On the Correlation of Physical Forces (London, 1846; 6th ed., with reprints of many of Grove’s papers, 1874). His papers are listed in the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, III (London, 1869), 31–33. The main papers on the Grove cell are “On Voltaic Series and the Combination of Gases by Platinum,” in Philosophical Magazine, 14 (1839), 127–130 (see 129–130 for the postscript describing the first experiments on the “gas battery”); “On a New Voltaic Combination,” ibid., 388–390; and “On a Small Voltaic Battery of Great Energy Some Observations on Voltaic Combinations and Forms of Arrangement; and on the Inactivity of a Copper Positive Electrode in Nitro-Sulphuric Acid,” ibid., 15 (1839), 287–293. See also Report of the Ninth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science Held at Birmingham in August 1839 (London, 1840), pp. 36–38. Papers on the gas battery are “On a Gaseous Voltaic Battery,” in Philosophical Magazine, 21 (1842), 417–420; and “On the Gas Voltaic Battery,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 133 (1843), 91–112; 135 , (1845), 351–361.

Other papers referred to in the text are “On the Application of Voltaic Ignition to Lighting Mines,” in Philosophical Magazine, 27 (1845), 442–446 “On Certain Phenomena of Voltaic Ignition, and the Decomposition of Water Into its Constituent Gases by Heat,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 137 ( 1847) 1–21; and “On the Electro-Chemical Polarity of Gases,” ibid., 142 (1852), 87–101 (the first mention of his observation of “striae” appears at the end of this paper). See also “On the Striae Seen in the Electrical Discharge in vacuo,” in Philosophical Magazine, 16 (1858), 18–22; and “On the Electrical Discharge and Its Stratified Appearance in Rarefied Media,” in Proceedings of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, 3 (1858–1862), 5–10.

II. Secondary Literature. On Grove and his work, see the short obituary notice by A. Gray in Nature, 54 (1896), 393–394; K. R. Webb, “Sir William Robert Grove (1811–1896) and the Origins of the Fuel Cell,” in Journal of the Royal Institute of Chemistry, 85 (1961), 291–293; and J. G. Crowther, “William Robert Grove,” in Statesmen of Science (London, 1965), pp. 77–101, which is concerned mainly with Grove’s contributions toward the reforms in the Royal Society.

E. L. Scott