Updated 04-I-2019

W. Mattieu Williams

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.

A sketch of W. Mattieu Williams made shortly before his death8

There are names in incandescent lamp history that should be remembered because of the important supporting roles played by the individuals. One of those names is William Mattieu Williams (Feb 6 1820 - Nov 28 1892)8,10. Williams, born either in London10 or in Flintshire, Wales6, was the son of Abraham and Louise (Mattieu) Williams10. Not only did he play a helping role in lamp development but it was done very early in the history of the lamp; it was in 1845-46 that Williams helped to bring a lamp to public notice.

It is generally stated that the practical incandescent lamp had its beginning with the development by John Wellington Starr of an evacuated vessel that contained a continuous carbon "burner." Starr was from Cincinnati, Ohio and his early work was performed there. His lamp was patented in England in 1845 under the name of Edward Augustin King. It is not the intention here to describe Starr's lamp but rather to reveal the role played by Williams in its development; the story about Starr was published by Charles D. Wrege in 197610.

The details of the work by John W. Starr were vague and often incorrect as reported in technical writings, until Dr. Wrege researched the subject thoroughly and reported his findings. Dr. Wrege mentioned an early letter by Williams1 that indicated the role he played in the development of Starr's lamp. In addition, there were subsequent letters to the editors of periodicals in which Williams outlined his role with Starr2,4.

In an article by Gelyi7, Williams was quoted in a letter published in Nature as saying:

"I assisted the inventor myself in the construction of his apparatus, and in the experiments made with them; my remuneration was to be one-eighth of the profits. After the death of Starr all his apparatus became my property. I have, more than 20 years ago, several times exhibited the original lamp in the Midland Institute at Birmingham, and also showed it in action there. I also exhibited the lamp on two occasions in the Town Hall. The light was far clearer and the carbon strips were far more durable than the thin carbon filaments of the glow lamps of the present day.

"Starr's invention was abandoned, because the generation of the necessary electricity was too expensive; as regards effectiveness and clearness of light the lamp was a complete success."

It should be mentioned that Gelyi apparently took great liberty in quoting Williams. During a search for the mentioned Nature reference it was found in the 1883 volume4. Although the substance of Williams letter was not distorted, sentences were reworded; perhaps that was permissible in 1885. In an earlier letter Williams said2:
"I may add that the result of our battery experiments was to convince Mr. Starr that a magneto-electric arrangement should be used as the source of power in electric illumination; and that he died suddenly in Birmingham in 1846, while constructing a magnetic battery with a new armature which, theoretically, appeared a great improvement on those used at that date. Of its practical merits I am unable to speak."

Fortunately, for those interested in the history of the electric incandescent lamp, W. Mattieu Williams left an additional write-up that mentions his work with John Wellington Starr. Apparently it was published in The Journal of Science3 and then reprinted in one of his books4,5. His article5 is reproduced below in its entirety:

"As the subject of lighting by electricity is occupying so much public attention, and the merits of various inventors and inventions are so keenly discussed, the following facts may have some historical interest in connection with it. "In October, 1845, I was consulted by some American gentlemen concerning the construction of a large voltaic battery for experimenting upon an invention, afterward described and published in the specification of 'King's Patent Electric Light' (Letters Patent granted for Scotland, November 26th, 1845; enrolled March 25th, 1846; English Patent sealed November 4th, 1845).

"Mr. King was not the inventor, but he and Mr. Dorr supplied capital, and Mr. Snyder also held a share, which was afterward transferred to myself. The inventor was Mr. Starr, a young man about twenty-five years of age, and one of the ablest experimental investigators with whom I have ever had the privilege of near acquaintance.

"He had been working for some years on the subject, commencing with the ordinary arc between charcoal points. His first efforts were directed to maintaining constancy, and he showed me, in January of 1846, an arrangement by which he succeeded in effecting an automatic renewal of contact by means of an electro-magnet, the armature of which received the electric flow, when the arc was broken, and which thus magnetized brought the carbons together and then allowed them to be withdrawn to their required separation, when the flow returned. This device was almost identical with that subsequently reinvented and patented by Mr. Staite (quite independently, I believe), and which, with modifications, has since been rather extensively used.

"Although successful so far, he was not satisfied. He reasoned out the subject, and concluded that the electric spark between metals, the electric arc between the carbons, and other luminous electric phenomena are secondary effects due to the heating and illumination of electric carriers; that the electric spark of the conductors of ordinary electrical machines is simply a transfer of incandescent particles of metal, which effect a kind of electric convection, known as the disruptive discharge; and that the more brilliant arc between the carbon points is simply due to the use of a substance which breaks up more readily, and gives a longer, broader, and more continuous stream of incandescent convection particles.

"This is now readily accepted, but at that time was only dawning upon the understanding of electricians. I am satisfied that Mr. Starr worked out the principle quite originally. He therefore concluded that, the light being due to solid particles heated by electric disturbance, it would be more advantageous—as regards steadiness, economy, and simplicity—to place in the current a continuous solid barrier, which should present sufficient resistance to its passage to become bodily incandescent without disruption.

"This was the essence of the invention specified in King's Patent as 'a communication from abroad,' which claims the use of continuous metallic and carbon conductors, intensely heated by the passage of a current of electricity, for the purpose of illumination.

"The metal selected was platinum, which, as the specification states, ' though not so infusible as iridium, has but little affinity for oxygen, and offers a great resistance to the passage of the current.' The form of thin sheets known by the name of leaf-platinum is described as preferable. These to be rolled between sheets of copper in order to secure uniformity, and to be carefully cut in strips of equal width, and with a clean edge, in order that one part may not be fused before the other parts have obtained a sufficiently high temperature to produce a brilliant light. This strip to be suspended between forceps.

"I need not describe the arrangement for regulating the distance between the forceps, for directing the current, etc., as we soon learned that this part of the invention was of no practical value, on account of the narrow margin between efficient incandescence and the fusion of the platinum. The experiments with the large battery that I made—consisting of 100 Daniell cells, with two square feet of working surface of each element in each cell, and the copper-plates about three quarters of an inch distant from the zinc—satisfied all concerned that neither platinum nor any available alloy of platinum and iridium could be relied upon, especially when the grand idea of subdividing the light by interposing several platinum strips in the same circuit, and working with a proportionally high power, was carried out.

"This drove Mr. Starr to rely upon the second part of the specification—viz. that of using a small stick of carbon made incandescent in a Torricellian vacuum. He commenced with plumbago, and, after trying many other forms of carbon, found that which lines gas-retorts that have been long in use to be the best.

"The carbon stick of square section, about one tenth of an inch thick and half an inch working length, was held vertically, by metallic forceps, at each end, in a barometer tube, the upper part of which, containing the carbon, was enlarged to a sort of oblong bulb. A thick platinum wire from the upper forceps was sealed into the top of the tube and projected beyond; a similar wire passed downward from the lower forceps, and dipped into the mercury of the tube, which was so long that when arranged as a barometer the enlarged end containing the carbon was vacuous.

"Considerable difficulty was at first encountered in supporting this fragile stick. Metallic supports were not available, on account of their expansion; and, finally, little cylinders of porcelain were used, one on each side of the carbon stick, and about three eighths of an inch distant.

"By connecting the mercury cup with one terminal of the battery, and the upper platinum wire with the other, a brilliant and perfectly steady light was produced, not so intense as the ordinary disruption arc between carbons, but equally if not more effective, on account of the magnitude of brilliant radiating surface.

"Some curious phenomena accompanied this illumination of the carbon. The mercury column fell to about half its barometric height, and presently the glass opposite the carbon stick became slightly dimmed by the deposition of a thin film of sooty deposit.

"At first the depression of the mercury was attributed to the formation of mercurial vapor, and is described accordingly in the specification; but further observation refuted this theory, for no return of the mercury took place when the tube was cooled. The depression was permanent. The formation of vaporous carbon was suggested by one of the capitalists; but neither Mr. Starr nor myself was satisfied with this, nor with any other surmise we were able to make during Mr. Starr's lifetime, nor up to the period of final abandonment of the enterprise.

"When this occurred the remaining apparatus was assigned to me, and I retained possession of the finally arranged tube and carbon for many years, and have shown it in action worked by a small Grove's battery in the Town Hall at the Birmingham, and many times to my pupils at the Birmingham and Midland Institute.

"These exhibitions suggested an explanation of the mysterious gaseous matter, which I believe to be the correct one, and also of the carbon deposit. It is this : That the carbon contains occluded oxygen ; that when the carbon is heated some of this oxygen combines with the carbon, forming carbonic oxide and carbonic acid, and a little smoke. I proved the presence of carbonic acid by the usual tests, but did not quantitatively determine its proportion of the total atmosphere.

"If I were fitting up another tube on this principle I should wash it with a strong solution of caustic potash before filling with mercury, and allow some of the potash solution to float on the mercury surface, by filling the tube while the glass remained moistened with the solution. My object would be to get rid of the carbonic acid as soon as formed, as the observations I have made lead me to believe that—when the carbon stick is incandescent in an atmosphere of carbonic acid or carbonic oxide—a certain degree of dissociation and recombination is continually occurring, which weakens and would ultimately break up the carbon stick, and increases the sooty deposit.

"The large battery was arranged for intensity, but even then it was found that the quantity (I use the old-fashioned terms) of electricity was excessive, and that it worked more advantageously when the cells were but partially filled with acid and sulphate. A larger stick of carbon might have been used with the whole surface in full action.

"After working the battery in various ways, and duly considering the merits of other forms of battery then in use, Mr. Starr was driven to the conclusion that for the purposes of practical illumination the voltaic battery is a hopeless source of power, and that magneto-electric machinery driven by steampower must be used. I fully concurred with him in this conclusion, so did Mr. King, Mr. Dorr, and all concerned.

"Mr. Starr then set to work to devise a suitable dynamo-electric machine, and, following his usual course of starting from first principles, concluded that all the armatures hitherto constructed were defective in one fundamental element of their arrangement. The thick copper-wire surrounding the soft iron core necessarily follows a spiral course, like that of a coarse screw-thread; but the electric current or lines of force, which it is designed to pick up and carry, circulate at right angles to the axis of the core, and extend to some distance beyond its surface. The problem thus presented is to wind around the soft iron a conductor that shall be broad enough to grasp a large proportion of this outspread force, and yet shall follow its course as nearly as possible by standing out at right angles to the axis of the armature. This he endeavored to effect by using a core of square section, and winding round it a broad ribbon of sheet copper, insulated on both sides by cementing on its surface a layer of silk ribbon. This armature was laid with one edge against one side of the core, and carried on thus to the angle; then turned over so that its opposite edge should be presented to the next side of the core; this side to be followed in like manner, the ribbon similarly turned again at the next corner, and so on till the core became fully inclosed or armed with the continuous ribbon, which thus encircled the core with its edges outward, and nearly at right angles to the axis, in spite of its width, which might be increased to any extent found by experiment to be desirable.

"At this stage my direct co-operation and confidential communication with Mr. Starr ceased, as I remained in London while he went to Birmingham in order to get his machinery constructed, and to apply it at the works of Messrs. Elkington, who had then recently introduced the principle of dynamo-electric motive-power for electro-plating, etc., and were, I believe, using Woolrich's apparatus, the patent for which was dated August 1st, 1842, and enrolled February 1st, 1843.

"I am unable to state the results of his efforts in Birmingham. I only heard the murmurs of the capitalists, who loudly complained of expenditure without results. They had dreamed the same dream that Mr. Edison has recently re-dreamed, and has told the world so loudly. They supposed that the mechanically excited current might be carried along great lengths of wire, and the carbons interposed wherever required, and that the same electricity would flow on and do the duty of illumination over and over again as a river may fall over a succession of weirs and turn water-wheels at each. Mr. Starr knew better; his scepticism was misinterpreted; he was taunted with failure and non-fulfilment of the anticipations he had raised, and with the fruitless expenditure of large sums of other people's money. He was a high-minded, honorable, and very sensitive man, suffering already from overworked brain before he went to Birmingham. There he worked again still harder, with further vexation and disappointment, until one morning he was found dead in his bed. Having, during my short acquaintance with him, enjoyed his full confidence in reference to all his investigations, I have no hesitation in affirming that his early death cut short the career of one who otherwise would have contributed to the progress of experimental science, and have done honor to his country.

"His martyrdom, for such it was, taught me a useful lesson I then much needed—viz. to abstain from entering upon a costly series of physical investigations without being well assured of the means of completing them, and, above all, of being able to afford to fail.

"There are many others who sorely need to be impressed with the same lesson, especially at this moment and in connection with this subject.

"The warning is most applicable to those who are now misled by a plausible but false analogy. They look at the progress made in other things, the mighty achievements of modern Science, and therefore infer that the electric light—even though unsuccessful hitherto—may be improved up to practical success, as other things have been. A great fallacy is hidden here. As a matter of fact, the progress made in electric lighting since Mr. Starr's death, in 1846, has been very small indeed. As regards the lamp itself, no progress whatever has been made. I am satisfied that Starr's continuous carbon stick, properly managed in a true vacuum, or an atmosphere free from oxygen, carbonic oxide, carbonic acid, or other oxygen compound, is the best that has yet been placed before the public for all purposes where exceptionally intense illumination (as in light-houses) is not demanded.*
*The burnt card, burned bamboo, and other flimsy incandescent threads now (1882) in vogue, merely represent Starr's preliminary failures prior to his adoption of the hard adamantine stick of retort-carbon, which I suppose will be duly reinvented, patented again, and form the basis of new Limited Companies, when the present have collapsed.
"Comparing electric with gas lighting, the hopeful believers in progressive improvement appear to forget that gas-making and gas-lighting are as susceptible of further improvement as electric lighting, and that, as a matter of fact, its practical progress during the last forty years is incomparably greater than that of the electric light. I refer more particularly to the practical and crucial question of economy. The by-products, the ammoniacal salts, the liquid hydrocarbons, and their derivatives, have been developed into so many useful forms by the achievements of modern chemistry that these, with the coke, are of sufficient value to cover the whole cost of manufacture, and leave the gas itself as a volatile residuum that costs nothing. It would actually and practically cost nothing, and might be profitably delivered to the burners of gas consumers (of far better quality than now supplied in London) at one shilling per thousand cubic feet, if gas-making were conduted on sound commercial principles—that is, if it were not a corporate monopoly, and were subject to the wholesome stimulating influence of free competition and private enterprise. As it is, our gas and the price we pay for it are absurdities; and all calculations respecting the comparative cost of new methods of illumination should be based not on what we do pay per candlepower of gas-light, but what we ought to pay and should pay if the gas companies were subjected to desirable competition, or visited with the national confiscation I consider they deserve.

"Having had considerable practical experience in the commercial distillation of coal for the sake of its liquid and solid hydrocarbons, I speak thus plainly and with full confidence.

"There is yet another consideration, and one of vital importance, to be taken into account—viz. that, whether we use the electric light derived from a dynamo-electric source, or coal-gas, our primary source of illuminating power is coal, or rather the chemical energy derivable from the combination of its hydrogen and carbon with oxygen. Now this chemical energy is a limited quantity, and the progress of Science can no more increase this quantity than it can make a ton weigh 21 cwts. by increasing the quantity of its gravitating energy.

"The demonstrable limit of scientific possibilities is the economical application of this limited store of energy, by converting it into the demanded form of force without waste. The more indirect and roundabout the method of application, the greater must be the loss of power in the course of its transfer and conversion. In heating the boiler that sets the dynamo-electric machine to work, about one half the energy of the coal is wasted, even with the best constructed furnaces. This merely as regards the quantity of water evaporated. In converting the heat-force into mechanical power—raising the piston, etc., of the steam-engine—this working half is again seriously reduced. In further converting this residuum of mechanical power into electrical energy, another and considerable loss is suffered in originating and sustaining the motion of the dynamo-electric machine, in the dissipation of the electric energy that the armature cannot pick up, and in overcoming the electrical resistances to its transfer.

"I am unable to state the amount of this loss in trustworthy figures, but should be very much surprised to learn that, with the best arrangements now known, more than one tenth of the original energy of the coal is made practically available. This small illuminating residuum may, and doubtless will, be increased by the progress of practical improvement; but, from the necessary nature of the problem, the power available for illumination at the end of the series must always be but a small portion of that employed at the beginning.

"In burning the gas derived from coal we obtain its illuminating power directly, and if we burn it properly we obtain nearly all. The coke residuum is also directly used as a source of heat. The chief waste of the original energy in the gas-works is represented by that portion of the coke that is burned under the retorts, and in obtaining the relatively small amount of steam-power demanded in the works. These are far more than paid for by the value of the liquid hydrocarbons and the ammonia salts, when they are properly utilized.

"In concluding my narrative I may add that after Mr. Starr's death the patentees offered to engage me on certain terms to carry on his work. I declined this, simply because I had seen enough to convince me of the impossibility of any success at all corresponding to their anticipations. During the intervening thirty years I have abstained from further meddling with the electric light, because all that I had seen then, and had heard of since, has convinced me that—although as a scientific achievement the electric light is a splendid success—its practical application to all purposes where cost is a matter of serious consideration is hopeless, and must of necessity continue to be so.

"Whoever can afford to pay some shillings per hour for a single splendid light of solar completeness can have it without difficulty, but not so where the cost in pence per hour per burner has to be counted.

"I should add that before the publication of King's specification, Mr. (now Sir William) Grove proposed the use of a helix or coil of platinum, made incandescent by electricity, as a light to be used for certain purposes. This was shown at the Royal Society on or about December 1st, 1845.

"Since the publication of the above in 1879, I have learned, from a paper in the Quarterly Journal of Science, by Professor Ayrton, that in 1841 an English patent was granted to De Moylens for electric lighting by incandescence."

  1. "King's Patent Electrical Light", William Williams, The Mechanics' Magazine and Journal of Science, Arts, and Manufactures, Vol.44, 1846, pp.348-49.
  2. "New Electric Lights", W. Mattieu Williams, Nature, Vol.XVI, Sep 27 1877, p.459.
  3. "A Contribution to the History of Electric Lighting", W. Mattieu Williams, The Journal of Science, Vol.1, 1879, pp.155-162.
  4. "The Inventor of the Incandescent Electric Light", W. Mattieu Williams, Nature, Vol.XXVIII, Jan 11 1883, p.241.
  5. "A Contribution to the History of Electric Lighting", Chapter XIX in "Science in Short Chapters", W. Mattieu Williams, Funk & Wagnalls, New York, 1883, pp.125-133.
  6. ibid, inside front cover.
  7. "A Short History of Incandescence Lamps", A. Gelyi, The Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review, Vol.XVI No.375, Jan 31 1885, p.89.
  8. "The Late Mr. Mattieu Williams", Knowledge, Vol.XVI, Jan 2 1893, p.12.
  9. "William Mattieu Williams", Biographical notice and works, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol.53, 1893, pp.224-225.
  10. "William Mattieu Williams", Dictionary of National Biography, Vol.XXI, The Macmillan Co., NY, 1909, p.468.
  11. "J. W. Starr: Cincinnati's Forgotten Genius", Charles D. Wrege, The Cincinnati Historical Society Bulletin, Vol.34, Summer 1976, No.2, p.103.
  12. "W. Mattieu Williams", in Catalogue of Scientific Papers - Compiled by the Royal Society of London, Vol.VI, p.379; Vol.VIII, p.1244; Vol.XI, p.816; Vol.XIX, p.637.