Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Harris, William Snow

HARRIS, Sir WILLIAM SNOW (1791–1867), electrician, born at Plymouth on 1 April 1791, was the only son of Thomas Harris, solicitor, by Mary, daughter of William E. Snow, of the same town. After attending Plymouth grammar school he was sent to the university of Edinburgh to study medicine. He commenced as a militia surgeon, and was afterwards a general practitioner in Plymouth. On his marriage in 1824 with Elizabeth Snow, eldest daughter of Richard Thorne of Pilton, near Barnstaple, Devonshire, he abandoned his profession in order to devote himself exclusively to electricity. He had already, in 1820, invented a new method of arranging the lightning-conductors of ships, the peculiarity of which was that the metal was permanently fixed in the masts and extended throughout the hull. He was also the inventor of an improved mariner's compass, and to him is due the first idea of a disc electrometer. In December 1826 he communicated to the Royal Society, at the invitation of Sir H. Davy, the president, a valuable paper ‘On the Relative Powers of various Metallic Substances as Conductors of Electricity,’ and in 1831 he was elected a fellow. His papers contributed to the society in 1834, 1836, and 1839, on the elementary laws of electricity, contain his best work. To the Royal Society of Edinburgh, of which he also became a fellow, he communicated in 1827, 1839, and 1833, various interesting accounts of his experiments and discoveries in electricity and magnetism. In 1835 he was awarded the Copley medal by the Royal Society, in recognition of the value of his papers on the laws of electricity of high tension. In 1839 he delivered the Bakerian lecture, his subject being ‘Inquiries concerning the Elementary Laws of Electricity.’ Meanwhile, in 1839, the general adoption of his lightning-conductors in the royal navy had been strongly recommended by a mixed naval and scientific commission; and though the naval authorities still continued to offer various objections to his invention, the government in 1841 conferred on him an annuity of 300l., ‘in consideration of services in the cultivation of science.’ Harris met objections to his system by publishing a work on ‘Thunderstorms’ (1843), which failed, however, to attract attention. He also contributed a series of papers on the defence of ships and buildings from lightning to the ‘Nautical Magazine’ for 1834 (published collectively in 1835). He developed his case in letters and pamphlets, which he circulated among persons of influence. His system was employed in the Russian navy long before it was admitted into our own, and in 1845 the czar presented him with a handsome ring and vase. At length the efficiency of his system was officially recognised, and Harris received the honour of knighthood (1847), and subsequently a grant of 5,000l. In 1860 he was appointed scientific referee of government in all matters connected with electricity, and superintended the fitting up of his conductors at the royal palaces, the houses of parliament, the powder magazines, the royal mausoleum at Frogmore, and other public buildings. Harris resumed his researches, but made no further important discoveries. His handbooks of ‘Electricity’ (1848), ‘Magnetism’ (1850–2), and ‘Galvanism’ (1856), contributed to Weale's Rudimentary Series, were clearly written, and passed through several editions. Harris died at 6 Windsor Villas, Plymouth, on 22 Jan. 1867. He was an accomplished musician, performing on both harp and piano, and an excellent conversationalist. At the time of his death he had in preparation a ‘Treatise on Frictional Electricity,’ which was published posthumously in the same year (1867) with a memoir of the author by Charles Tomlinson, F.R.S. He was also author of: 1. ‘Observations on the Effects of Lightning on Floating Bodies; with an account of a new method of applying fixed and continuous conductors of electricity to the masts of ships,’ 1823. 2. ‘On the Utility of fixing Lightning-Conductors in Ships,’ 1830. 3. ‘On the Protection of Ships from Lightning’ [1837]. 4. ‘State of the Question relating to the Protection of the British Navy from Lightning by the method of Fixed Conductors of Electricity, as proposed by Mr. Snow Harris,’ privately printed, 1838. 5. ‘Remarkable Instances of the Protection of certain Ships of her Majesty's Navy from the Destructive Effects of Lightning. To which is added a list of two hundred and twenty cases of ships struck and damaged,’ 1847. 6. ‘National Defences,’ 1862. 7. ‘Supplemental National Defences,’ 1862, a reply to Sir Morton Peto's pamphlet entitled ‘Observations on the Report of the Defence Commissioners.’

[Tomlinson's Memoir; Gent. Mag. 4th ser. iii. 385–6; Encyclop. Brit. 9th edit. viii. 61, 119, xi. 493–4; Boase and Courtney's Bibl. Cornub.]

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