Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Roberts-Austen, William Chandler
ROBERTS-AUSTEN, Sir WILLIAM CHANDLER (1843–1902), metallurgist, born at Kennington, Surrey, on 3 March 1843, was eldest son of George Roberts, of Welsh descent, who was in' the service of the Hudson's Bay Company, by his wife Maria Louisa, daughter of William Chandler, M.D., of Canterbury, of an old Kentish family which had intermarried with the Hulses and Austens. In 1885 he assumed, by royal licence, at the request of his uncle. Major Nathaniel Lawrence Austen of Haffenden and Camborne, in Kent, the name of Austen. After education at private schools, where he early showed a taste for science, he entered the Royal School of Mines, South Kensington, at eighteen, with the view of qualifying as a mining engineer, and obtained the associateship there in 1865. The same year he joined Thomas Graham [q. v.], master of the mint, as private assistant. In 1870 (shortly after Graham's death) he was appointed to the new post of 'chemist of the mint,' and from 1882 to his death was 'chemist and assayer.' He filled temporarily the office of deputy master between the death of Sir Horace Seymour in June 1902 and the appointment of Mr. William Grey Ellison-Macartney next year. While assayer he was responsible for the standard fineness of about 150,000,000l. of gold coin, over 30,000,000l. of imperial silver coin, and about 10,000,000l. of bronze and colonial silver coin (T. K. Rose). On all scientific and technical operations of coinage he became the leading authority in all parts of the world. From 1880 to 1902 Roberts-Austen was also professor of metallurgy at the Royal School of Mines, having succeeded Dr. John Percy [q. v.]. He proved an illuminating teacher.
Roberts-Austen freely placed his special knowledge at the public disposal, taking part in numerous official scientific inquiries. In 1897 he served on the treasury committee (of which Lord Rayleigh was chairman) to consider the desirability of establishing a national physical laboratory, and was in 1899 an original member of the war office explosives committee.
Roberts-Austen's researches largely dealt with alloys. He delivered five series of Cantor lectures at the Society of Arts (1884-90) on investigations in alloys, which are printed in the society's 'Journal.' In 1891 he exhibited at the Royal Society's soirée a new alloy of gold and aluminium which he discovered; it contained 78.4 per cent, of gold and 21.6 of aluminium, and was remarkable for its intense purple colour. As the outcome of a research on the effects of admixture of impurities on the mechanical properties of pure metals, the alloys-research committee of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers was established (1889), Roberts-Austen becoming 'reporter' to the committee and supplying five reports, a sixth being under revision at his death. In the first (1891) he described his automatic recording pyrometer, 'by means of which the temperature of furnaces or masses of metal, and the exact time at which each change in temperature occurs, are recorded in the form of a curve on a moving photographic plate.' The work of alloys-research he thus initiated is now carried on at the National Physical Laboratory. The practical value of these labours led the council of the institution to enroll him an honorary life member (Animal Report Inst. Mechan. Eng. 1898, pp. 5, 30).
Roberts-Austen, who was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on 3 June 1875, served on the council (1890-2), and was Bakerian lecturer for 1896, his subject being the diffusion of metals (Phil. Trans. vol. 187 A.). An original member of the Physical Society in 1874, he was the first secretary, and he acted also as honorary general secretary of the British Association, 1897–1902. As president of the Iron and Steel Institute (1899–1901) he rendered signal services during his term of office. From his hand, on 18 July 1899, Queen Victoria accepted the institute's Bessemer gold medal in commemoration of the progress made in the metallurgy of steel during her reign. He was elected in 1901 an honorary member of the Institution of Civil Engineers (where he gave the Forrest lecture on 23 April 1902), was a vice-president of the Chemical Society and of the Society of Arts, and member of various foreign societies. The University of Durham conferred the honorary degree of D.C.L. in 1897, and Victoria University, Manchester, that of D.Sc. in 1901. In 1889 he was created a chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur, France, and was made C.B. in 1890 and K.C.B. in 1899. At the Royal Institution, the British Association meetings, and at the Chemical and other societies, Roberts-Austen held a high reputation as lecturer and demonstrator. His attractive personality made him socially popular; he had a keen sense of humour and was an admirable mimic. He was an intimate friend of Ruskin, whose works influenced him greatly in early life. He died at the Royal Mint on 22 Nov. 1902, and was buried at Canterbury. He married in 1876 Florence Maude, youngest daughter of Richard William Alldridge, of Old Charlton, Kent; he had no issue.
Roberts-Austen's chief independent publication was 'An Introduction to Metallurgy' (1891; 6th edit, revised, 1910), a work indispensable to researchers in metallurgy. He contributed the article 'Metallography' in the 'Encyclopædia Britannica,' 10th edition. The Royal Society's 'Catalogue of Scientific Papers' enumerates seventy-four papers by Roberts-Austen, a few jointly with other authors (1868-1900). They deal with the absorption of hydrogen by electro-deposited iron, the analysis of alloys by means of the spectroscope (with Sir Norman Lockyer), the action of the projectile and of the explosives on the tubes of steel guns, and memoirs on the physical properties of metals and alloys. Before the Society of Arts he read, in 1895, a paper with Mrs. Lea Merritt on ' Mural Painting by the Aid of Soluble Silicates and Metallic Oxides.'
[Roy. Soc. Proc, vol. lxv., and Roy. Soc. Catal.; Iron and Steel Inst. Journ., vol. lxii.; Inst. Civil Eng. Proc. vol. cil.; Inst. Mech. Eng. Proc. 1902 (pts. 3–5); Cham, Soc. Trans., vol. lxxxiii. (part i.); Phys. Soc. Proc., vol. xviii., and presidential address, 1903; Annual Reports, Royal Mint; Nature, vol. lxvii.; The Times, 24 Nov. 1902; Engineering, 28 Nov. 1902; Athenæum, 29 Nov. 1902; private information.]