Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hunt, Robert (1807-1887)

622734Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 28 — Hunt, Robert (1807-1887)1891Robert Edward Anderson

HUNT, ROBERT (1807–1887), scientific writer, born at Plymouth Dock (now Devonport) 6 Sept. 1807, was the posthumous son of a naval officer who had perished with all the crew of a sloop of war in the Grecian Archipelago. After attending schools at Plymouth and at Penzance, Hunt was placed with a surgeon practising at Paddington, London. He acquired some knowledge of practical chemistry with a smattering of Latin, and studied anatomy under Joshua Brookes (1761-1833) [q.v.] He was afterwards for more than five years with a physician, and was for four years following in charge of a medical dispensary in London. He made the acquaintance of 'Radical Hunt' [see Hunt, Henry], who helped to direct his studies. On inheriting a small property on the Fowey in Cornwall, he settled there for a short time; studied the folklore of the district; published a descriptive poem, 'The Mount's Bay,' Penzance, 1829, 12mo; established a mechanics' institute at Penzance, and gave the first lecture to the members.

Hunt soon returned to London and was employed by a firm of chemical manufacturers. On the discovery of photography he at once began a series of careful experiments, and soon after published in the 'Philosophical Transactions' several papers on his results, one being the discovery that the proto-sulphate of iron could be used as a developing agent. In 1840 he was appointed secretary of the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society, and soon after removed with his family to Falmouth. Devoting himself to scientific research, he discovered that the chemical rays of the solar spectrum sensibly accelerate the germination of seeds. In 1842 he read a paper before the Cornwall Polytechnic on a 'Peculiar Band of Light encircling the Sun.' In 1843-4, before the British Association, he announced that there are three distinct phenomena in the solar ray, light, heat, and photographic power, the last being what Sir J. Herschel and he agreed to call actinism. His 'Popular Treatise of the Art of Photography' (Glasgow, 1841, 8vo), the first treatise printed in this country, passed through six editions. He wrote the article 'Photography' for the 'Encyclopædia Metropolitana,' and it was afterwards (1851) published separately. His 'Researches on Light in its Chemical Relations' (Falmouth, 1844) was mainly a history of photography; but the second edition (London, 1854) contained a large number of original experiments and new analyses of the solar ray.' Hunt had meanwhile also distinguished himself by experimenting on electrical phenomena in mineral veins, and by some papers on the application of the steam engine in pumping mines. In 1845 he received the government appointment of keeper of the mining records, an office which he discharged for thirty-seven years. In 1851 he was appointed lecturer on mechanical science in the Royal School of Mines, and began to collect and arrange statistics as to the products of British mines. In accordance with the report of a treasury commission Hunt's results were issued annually as a blue-book, 'Mineral Statistics of the United Kingdom,' from 1855 to 1884, and the series is still continued. After lecturing for two years on mechanical science Hunt succeeded to the chair of experimental physics at the School of Mines, which he resigned in order to give more time to the Mining Record Office. Hunt was occupied with the scientific work of the 1851 Exhibition, and drew up the 'Synopsis' and the 'Handbook' for it. He was also engaged in much of the preparatory work for several sections of the 1862 Exhibition, again compiling a handbook. At the Health Exhibition in 1884 Hunt received the diploma of honour for services rendered.

In 1851 appeared his 'Elementary Physics, giving accurate information of the chief facts in Physics, and explaining the experimental evidence without mathematical details.' Besides several papers on the 'Influence of Light on the Growth of Plants,' which were read before the British Association, Hunt drew up an almost exhaustive statement of the processes and principles of photography, which was printed in the association's reports.

In 1854 he was elected fellow of the Royal Society. As secretary of the Cornwall Polytechnic, Hunt had frequently urged the value of technical instruction for all engaged in mining, and in 1859, at a meeting called by him, the 'Miners' Association of Cornwall and Devon' was instituted. It still does good work in scientific training for the local industries. In 1859 Hunt was chosen president of the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society. In 1866 he was a member of the royal commission appointed to inquire into the quantity of coal consumed in manufactories.

Three editions (in 1860, 1867, 1875) of Ure's 'Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures, and Mines,' were edited by Hunt, the first containing important changes and additions. His last work (pp.xx,944), 'British Mining,' appeared in 1884, and contains a mass of valuable results, e.g. results of the royal commission of 1866, an historical sketch of mining, the geology of mineral deposits and formation of metalliferous veins, details of the operation of extracting ores, machinery and ventilation of mines, and the future prospects of British mining. Among Hunt's minor scientific works was `The History and Statistics of Gold,' 1851; and he also published 'Poetry of Science' (London, 1848); `Panthea, the Sport of Nature' (London, 1849); and `Popular Romances of the West of England' (London, 1865). Hunt contributed to various periodicals, and for many years was the chief contributor to the scientific columns of the `Athenæum.' For this dictionary (vols. iv-xviii.) he wrote several articles on men of science. Hunt died at Chelsea on 17 Oct. 1887. A `Robert Hunt Memorial Museum' has since been established at Redruth, Cornwall, by the miners and others, assisted by some of his friends in London.

[Athenæum, 22 Oct. 1887; Ann. Reg. 1887; Times, 20 Oct. 1887; Western Morning News, 27 March 1889; Biograph, August 1881; Boase and Courtney's Bibl. Cornub.]

R. E. A.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.163
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
277 i l.l. Hunt, Robert (1807-1887): after agent insert [See Mercer, John]
278 i 32 for Sport read Spirit