Updated 24-XII-2018

William Robert Grove

This article was written by fellow lamp engineer and collector Edward J. Covington, and originally appeared on his own website of biographical sketches of persons involved in the lamp industry. Following his passing in February 2017, and with kind permission of his family, Ed's words have been preserved here in the hope of maintaining access to his writings for the benefit of subsequent generations.

William Robert Grove10

William Robert Grove is shown above. The image was scanned from a photocopy of Figure 1 in a thesis written by Michael Leonard Cooper10 in 1987 titled "William Robert Grove (1811-96) — Gentleman of Science". The lithograph, by Bosley, is after a Daguerrotype by Antoine Claudet, 21 February 1849. The availability of the lithograph was by the courtesy of the National Museum of Wales.

Historians who write about the development of the incandescent lamp often start with the lamp design of John Wellington Starr, who was granted a patent, under the name of Edward Augustin King, in England, in the year 1845. It was the first to utilize a carbon illuminant in vacuum. Also mentioned frequently is a lamp design concept that was reported by Grove3 in the scientific literature, also in 1845; it utilized a coiled platinum filament in a gas atmosphere. A pictorial representation, by an unknown artist, of one idea for the general design configuration, is shown below. This same drawing was used by such authors as Pope5, Howell and Schroeder6, Jehl7 and Stoer9; it also appeared in an 1885 article regarding Edison patents4. This pictorial representation of Grove's idea was not part of his text that was published in 18453. His idea has great merit that cannot be fully appreciated without an explanation accompanying the drawing. Before proceeding with the Grove concept let us gain understanding of a lighting problem that existed in 1840.

The Lamp of Grove containing a Platinum Spiral in Inert Gas6

Coal mining has always been an activity of extreme importance for mankind. Because of the darkness of mine galleries it was necessary to have a light source for the miners to accomplish their day's work. Perhaps candles were first used, but the presence, sometimes, of a dangerous gas (methane) could result in explosions. If the presence of such a gas was suspected, a person swathed in wet wrappings would slowly proceed into the mine walkways with a candle attached to a long pole. A great advance was made by Humphry Davy, who developed a safety lamp that employed small inlet and exit tubes through which air would flow to the glass-covered candle or oil light source. Later, wire mesh was used in such lamps. Davy studied the requirements for an explosion and designed his lamp to avoid those conditions.

In order to achieve higher light levels, so-called voltaic arcs were used, but mine explosions were still a problem. Boussingault and Auguste De la Rive worked on the problem separately2 and published articles8 but they did not arrive at satisfactory solutions. It was then that Grove entered the picture and proposed a design. William Robert Grove, M.A., F.R.S., was Professor of Experimental Philosophy in the London Institution.

It might be of some value to mention briefly the inconsistencies encountered in the literature with regard to early lamp development dates. The Grove lamp is often given a development date of 1840. However, the article mentioned here3 was published in 1845. In that article Grove gave, perhaps, the reason for the claim, by others, of the earlier date. In Grove's 1845 article he said:
"Four or five years ago, soon after publishing the nitric acid battery, I was naturally struck by the facility and constancy with which the voltaic arc could be obtained by that combination, as compared with any previous one, and made several attempts to reduce it to a practical form for the purposes of illumination, but my success was limited...Not being able satisfactorily to overcome these difficulties, I abandoned it for the time, and made some experiments on another method of voltaic illumination, which appeared to me more applicable to lighting mines; their publication was postponed, and I had nearly forgotten them, until reminded by the papers...mentioned."
Mine illumination was of paramount importance in 1845, otherwise the work area would be in total darkness. Arc lighting was the norm, where the arc existed between two charcoal sticks, operating from a battery source. The problem that existed involved the occasional escape of methane gas from the bedrock, which could result in an explosion. Boussingault and De la Rive2 both worked on solutions to that problem. W. R. Grove had worked on the problem earlier but laid the work aside until the papers of Boussingault and De la Rive rekindled his interest in the subject. The following quotes were taken from the article by Grove3 in The Philosophical Magazine of 1845:
"I substituted the voltaic ignition of a platina wire for the disruptive discharge. Any one who has seen the common lecture-table experiment of igniting a platina wire by the voltaic current nearly to the point of fusion, will have no doubt of the brilliancy of the light emitted; although inferior to that of the voltaic arc, yet it is too intense for the naked eye to support, and amply sufficient for the miner to work by. My plan was then to ignite a coil of platinum wire as near to the point of fusion as practicable, in a closed vessel of atmospheric air, or other gas, and the following was one of the apparatus which I used for this purpose, and by the light of which I have experimented and read for hours:—A coil of platinum wire is attached to two copper wires, the lower parts of which, or those most distant from the platinum, are well-varnished; these are fixed erect in a glass of distilled water, and another cylindrical glass closed at the upper end is inverted over them, so that its open mouth rests on the bottom of the former glass; the projecting ends of the copper wires are connected with a voltaic battery (two or three pairs of the nitric acid combination), and the ignited wire now gives a steady light, which continues without any alteration or inconvenience as long as the battery continues constant, the length of time being of course dependent upon the quantity of the electrolyte in the battery cells. Instead of making the wires pass through water, they may be fixed to metallic caps well-luted to the necks of a glass globe.

"The spirals of the helix should be as nearly approximated as possible, as each aids by its heat that of its neighbour, or rather diminishes the cooling effect of the gaseous atmosphere; the wire should not be too fine, as it would not then become fully ignited; nor too large, as it would not offer sufficient resistance, and would consume too rapidly the battery constituents; for the same reason, i. e. increased resistance, it should be as long as the battery is capable of igniting to a full incandescence.

"The helix form offers the advantages, that the cooling effect being lessened, a much longer wire can be ignited by the same battery; by this increased length of wire, the battery fuel is economised, while a greater light is afforded; by the increased heat, the resistance is still further increased, and the consumption still further diminished, so that, contrary to the usual result, the increment of consumption decreases with the exaltation of effect produced. The very necessity of inclosing the coil in a glass recipient also augments the heat, the light, and the resistance; if I remember rightly, Mr. Faraday first proposed inclosing wire in a tube for the purpose of being able to ignite a longer portion of it. Lastly, only two or three cells are required (one indeed might be sometimes sufficient), and the whole apparatus thus becomes portable and economical. The light is perfectly constant, subject to no fluctuation or interruption, and the heat is not so excessive as to destroy the apparatus.
Grove had an appreciation of the effect of different conductivity gases on the practical application of the lamp. He applied the constant voltage of the battery to his lamp when filled separately with the gases. He filled with hydrogen, carbonic acid (a weak colorless acid, H2CO3), oxygen, nitrogen and atmospheric air. The observed colorations of the platinum wire were: hydrogen, not visible even in the dark; carbonic acid, cherry-red by daylight; oxygen, incandescent by daylight; nitrogen and atmospheric air gave the same results as oxygen. The reader is reminded that unlike most metals, platinum can be heated in many gases, including air, without severe, or any, oxidation.

It should be mentioned that Grove's work predated the much later work of Irving Langmuir in 1912, when the gas-filled incandescent lamp was developed. That is, the present-day gas-filled lamp has a filament of tightly coiled (tungsten) wire and a filling of low conductivity gas (usually nitrogen and argon, and sometimes, krypton). In a sense, Grove's knowledge and observations could not be universally applied until a better metal filament was found. That occurred with the development of ductile tungsten.

The writer is appreciative of the availability of the image of William Robert Grove from Dr. Cooper's Ph.D. thesis; such images of great contributors to science add an important degree of appreciation to a work written so many years later. The drawing of the Grove concept lamp was scanned from reference 5

  1. "On Some Phenomena of the Voltaic Discharge", W.R. Grove, The Philosophical Magazine, Vol.XVI, 1840, pp.478-482.
  2. "On the Lighting of Mines by Means of the Electric Lamp", Letter of M. De la Rive to M. Boussingault, The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, Vol.XXVII, 1845, pp.406-407.
  3. "On the Application of Voltaic Ignition to Lighting Mines", W. R. Grove, The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, Vol.XXVII, 1845, pp.442-446.
  4. "An Analysis of Some of the Edison Patents for Electric Lighting", The Electrician and Electrical Engineer, Vol.4, Jul 1885, pp.244-249.
  5. Evolution of the Electric Incandescent Lamp, Franklin Leonard Pope, Boschen & Wefer, New York, 1889 and 1894, p.19.
  6. History of the Incandescent Lamp, John W. Howell and Henry Schroeder, The Maqua Co., Schenectady, NY, 1927, p26.
  7. Menlo Park Reminiscences, Vol.1, Francis Jehl, Edison Institute, Dearborn, Michigan, 1937, p.231.
  8. Catalogue of Scientific Papers (1800-1863), Compiled by the Royal Society of London, Scarecrow Reprint Corporation, Metuchen, NJ, 1968.
  9. History of Light and Lighting, G. W. Stoer, Philips Lighting Division, Eindhoven, The Netherlands, 1986, p20.
  10. William Robert Grove (1811-96)—Gentleman of Science, A thesis submitted by Michael Leonard Cooper, M.Sc., for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in History of Science, The Open University, United Kingdom, October, 1987.