Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Bidwell, Shelford

BIDWELL, SHELFORD (1848–1909), pioneer of telephotography, born at Thetford, Norfolk, on 6 March 1848, was eldest son of Shelford Clarke Bidwell, brewer, of Thetford, who married his first cousin, Georgina, daughter of George Bidwell, rector of Stanton, Norfolk. Educated privately at a preparatory school in Norfolk, and then at a private school at Winchester, Bidwell entered Caius College, Cambridge, where he graduated B. A. (as a junior optime in the mathematical tripos) in 1870, LL.B. (with a second class in the law and history tripos) and M.A. in 1873. Called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn on 27 Jan. 1873, he joined the south-eastern circuit, and practised for some years, but finally devoted himself to scientific study, specialising with success in electricity and magnetism and physiological optics. To friendships formed among members of the Physical Society of London, which he joined in 1877, he traced the beginning of his scientific interests (see his Presidential Address, 1898). Obscure and apparently paradoxical phenomena fascinated him, and he showed exceptional subtlety and ingenuity in endeavours to account for them. About 1880 he began investigations into the photo-electric properties of the substance selenium, which led to an important practical application. On 11 March 1881 he lectured at the Royal Institution on 'Selenium and its Applications to the Photophone and Tele-photography,' and described an instrument which he had devised for electrically transmitting pictures of natural objects to a distance along a wire. 'It is so far successful' (he said) 'that although the pictures hitherto transmitted are of a very rudimentary character, I think there can be no doubt that further elaboration of the instrument would render it far more effective. Should there ever be a demand for tele-photography, it may in time turn out to be useful' (see also Nature, 10 Feb. 1881). A paper 'On Telegraphic Photography,' read at the York meeting of the British Association in 1881, further described the invention. The character of other of Bidwell's scientific inquiries is indicated by the titles of the following papers : 'The Influence of Friction upon the Generation of a Voltaic Current' (Proc. Phys. Soc. iv.); 'On the Electrical Resistance of Carbon Contacts' (Proc. Roy. Soc. xxxv.); 'The Electrical Resistance of Selenium Cells' (Proc. Phys. Soc. v.); 'On a Method of Measuring Electrical Resistances with a Constant Current' (Proc. Phys. Soc. v.); 'On the Sensitiveness of Selenium to Light, and the Development of a Similar Property in Sulphur' (Proc. Phys. Soc. vi.); 'On an Effect of Light upon Magnetism ' (Proc. Roy. Soc. xlv.); 'On the Changes produced by Magnetisation in the Dimensions of Rings and Rods of Iron and of some other Metals' (Phil. Trans, clxxix. A.); and 'On the Formation of Multiple Images in the Normal Eye' (Proc. Roy. Soc. lxiv.).

Bidwell's interests extended to meteorology, and in 1893 he lectured at the Royal Institution on 'Fogs, Clouds, and Lightning,' and before the Royal Meteorological Society, of which he was a fellow, on 'Some Meteorological Problems.'

Another of his Royal Institution discourses, 'Some Curiosities of Vision' (1897), appeared in an enlarged shape as 'Curiosities of Light and Vision' (1899). Bidwell, who was a skilful lecturer, was also a clear and sound writer. Many papers on physics appeared in 'Nature' and the chief scientific periodicals, and for the 'Encyclopædia Britannica' (tenth and eleventh editions) he wrote the article 'Magnetism.' Elected F.R.S. on 4 June 1886, he served on the council 1904-6. He was president of the Physical Society 1897-9, and a member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. In 1900 the University of Cambridge conferred on him the honorary degree of Sc.D.

He died at his house, Beechmead, Oatlands Chase, Wey bridge, on 18 Dec. 1909, and was buried at Walton cemetery. He married in 1874 Wilhelmina Evelyn, daughter of Edward Firmstone, rector of Wyke, near Winchester, and had issue one son and two daughters.

[Proc. Phys. Soc. xxii.; Journ. Inst. Elect. Eng. xlv.; Quart. Journ. Roy. Meteorol. Soc. xxxvi.; Roy. Soc. Catal. Sci. Papers; Nature, 30 Dec. 1909; Foster's Men at the Bar; The Times, 25 Dec. 1909: will, 3 Feb. 1910; Electrical Review, 31 Dec. 1909; Engineering, 24 Dec. 1909; Men of the Time, 1899.]

T. E. J.