Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/January 1885/Sketch of Sir Henry Roscoe

PSM V26 D302 Henry Enfield Roscoe.jpg


HENRY ENFIELD ROSCOE, F.R.S., now Sir Henry Roscoe, is a grandson of William Roscoe, of Liverpool, the distinguished merchant-historian, and a son of Henry Roscoe, Esq., barrister-at-law, and was born January 7, 1833. He was educated at Liverpool High School, University College, London, and Heidelberg. He was appointed Professor of Chemistry at Owens College, Victoria University, Manchester, a chair which he has held with distinguished honor to himself and credit to English science, in 1858, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1863. His life has been marked by a bright line of investigations in chemistry from which have been derived material additions to the scope and exactness of the science; by numerous addresses before both scientific and popular audiences, and publications in which the breadth and accuracy of his thought are well matched by the clearness and frequent pungency of its expression, and the style is always adapted to the audience the effort is intended to reach; by labors to encourage original scientific research and the presentation of the most exalted aims as its object; and by his activity in the promotion of well-considered practical efforts for the diffusion of scientific knowledge among the people.

The nature of the scientific labors by which he is chiefly distinguished is set forth in the award of the Royal medal made to him by the Royal Society in 1873, which was "for his various chemical researches, more especially for his investigations of the chemical action of light, and of the combinations of vanadium."

The researches on the chemical action of light here spoken of were carried on by him and Bunsen together; and he most modestly refers to them in a biography of Bunsen, published by him in "Nature" of April 28, 1881, as investigations "with the carrying on of which the writer of this article had the great good fortune and pleasure to be concerned, and in which he had full opportunity of admiring Bunsen's untiring activity and wonderful manipulative power."

In the winter of 1866-'67 he started in Manchester a course of thirteen penny scientific lectures for the people, in which he was assisted by Professor Jevons, Dr. Alcock, and Dr. Morgan. The attempt thus made to solve the problem whether the working-men would really appreciate the value of science-instruction when given in a plain but scientific manner, illustrated with diagrams and experiments made on a scale to be seen by a large audience, was highly successful. The lectures were attended by more than four thousand persons of exactly the class for whom they were designed, and they showed themselves interested and appreciative. A syllabus of the chief points of Professor Roscoe's four lectures was printed and given to each person entering the room; and phonographic reports of all the lectures were printed and largely sold for a penny each at the door of the hall. This experiment was so successful that it was repeated in the following years; and when, in 1875, the first six series of lectures, in which many other most eminent scientific men had taken part, were published in three volumes under the supervision of Professor Roscoe, he was able to state that each lecture on the average during the six years had been attended by nearly one thousand persons, and that from five to ten thousand copies of the penny reports of each had been sold, while the demand for back numbers still continued.

The idea of educating the people, especially artisans, in science, is one which Professor Roscoe has held much at heart and on which he has spoken often and to the purpose. Yet he has not failed to see that the problem was a complicated one, surrounded by many difficulties, and that progress in solving it would have to be made deliberately and slowly. In 1871 he wrote in "Nature" concerning a proposition for the establishment of a national working-men's university, to be founded with special reference to instruction in those subjects which have a direct bearing on the arts and manufactures, recognizing the desirabilty of providing for instruction of the kind, but, foreseeing the danger of any attempt to secure it failing, through lack of means or want of good management. He estimated that an income of from £80,000 to £100,000 would be needed to support a people's university on a truly national scale, anything less than which would be a practical failure. But the financial difficulties, he added, were by no means the only or most important ones which would beset the new university. These would only begin to be felt when the scheme had been started—"such as dangers of giving an instruction too purely theoretic, or of running into the worse evil of teaching details without scientific aperçu.

A few years after this, we find him engaged in a discussion respecting the teaching of science in schools, in which he supported the position that no satisfactory advantage could accrue from this sort of instruction, until the subject was "placed upon its true position of educational equality both as regards range and time, with classics and mathematics, and no system of regulations or of examinations can be said to fulfill its object in which this position is ignored," "I am fully aware," he said, in another letter, "of the importance of a firm mathematical foundation, and I am far from wishing to overwhelm the younger boys with science before they have mastered the elements of arithmetic and grammar and languages. . . . The mistake, as it seems to me, which is prevalent respecting science-teaching in schools, is the notion that it is a subject to be lectured upon for two hours per week to those already educated, and who show an aptitude for it, while it can and ought to be introduced at a definite period as a regular part of school-work. It is now usually made an extra subject, a quasi-amusement, put on the same footing as drilling or drawing, while it can and ought to be made as much a discipline as the Latin grammar or Euclid, affording as it does, in my opinion, if properly taught, an excellent training-ground for acquiring that reasoning power and habit of application which it is usually supposed can only be gained through one or other of these older channels. . . . The Balliol scholarship and the other great university 'advertisements' I believe to be in many ways stumbling-blocks in the path of true education in this country. . . . Are we never to break loose from this degrading Moloch of examination? I. . . look forward with hope to the ultimate emancipation of school-boys from their ancient fetters. Then those subjects will be taught at school which are best suited to make the mass of boys good citizens, and to forward the highest interests of the country instead of the great aim of the schoolmaster being to secure a Balliol scholarship."

His views of the scope, objects, and benefits of science were presented in his address at the opening of the new building of Owens College, Manchester, in 1873, the subject of which was "Original Research as a Means of Education," when he said:

"It does not take long to convince us that almost every great material advance in modern civilization is due, not to the occurrence of hap-hazard or fortuitous circumstances, but to the long-continued and disinterested efforts of some man of science. Nor do I need to quote many examples to show us the immediate dependence of the national well-being and progress upon scientific discoveries thus patiently and quietly made."

In other parts of this address he laid down these principles:

"The essence of the scientific spirit is, first, that it is free and disinterested; second, that it knows nothing of tradition or authority, but lays down laws for itself, and refuses to be bound by any others. Scientific education starts in simple communion with Nature, and is content to pick up little by little the truth which she is always ready to communicate to patient listeners. The process is at once opposed to and, if successfully carried out, subversive of the old order of things. Between a system based on authority and one founded on freedom of thought and opinion, there never can be united action; and, while fully acknowledging that intellectual and moral excellence are common to all classes of men, it is as well that we should admit that the followers of the old system have no claim to be called scientific, and that there is, from the nature of things, a great and impassable gulf between us and them. I must, however, here be not misunderstood. It would ill become me. . . to undervalue or depreciate the study of subjects other than those included under the head of the physical sciences. Literary studies, whether of modern or ancient authors, giving an acquaintance with the noblest thoughts and opinions of the great men of past ages; historical studies, giving us a knowledge of the acts of men in times gone by; the study of language and philology, as giving a knowledge of how men of all times and countries express their ideas and language; of logic, as pointing out the laws of thought; and, above all, that of mathematics—are all matters of the highest importance, the neglect of which would render our education incomplete and poor indeed. The same rules, however, which all acknowledge to be necessary for the teaching of physical science must be applied to the study of all these subjects. In short, the scientific method must be employed in all cases and carried out to its fullest extent." He followed these observations with a protest against the supposed materialistic tendency of scientific studies, saying: "It is true that certain opinions and professions of belief have been and will be shaken by studying the book of Nature; it is also equally true that the study of Nature does not and can not interfere with the highest and noblest aspirations of the mind of man. In the investigations of every branch of science we come at last to a point at which further inquiry becomes impossible, and we are obliged to acknowledge our powerlessness and insignificance. We can see and learn concerning only the minutest fraction of the great whole of Nature, and it is with this minute fraction alone that we, as men of science, are concerned."

Speaking of the advantage of experimental scientific research, he said that the faculties which are called into operation by its prosecution "are, in fact, exactly those which are valuable in the every-day occurrences of life, the proper employment of which leads to success in whatever channel they may happen to be directed. A man who has learned how successfully to meet the difficulties and overcome the obstacles which occur in every experimental investigation, is able to grapple with difficulties and obstacles of a similar character with which he comes in contact in after-life. It is the greatest possible mistake to suppose—as, unfortunately, many yet do—that a scientific education unfits a man for the pursuits of ordinary professional or commercial life, I believe that no one can be unfitted for business life or occupations by the study of phenomena all of which are based upon law, the knowledge of which can only be obtained by the exercise of exact habits of thought and patient and laborious effort."

Further, concerning the ennobling nature of original scientific inquiry: "Although I should be the last to contend that men of science are free from the foibles and weakness common to all mankind, I think it stands to reason that the habits of mind which an investigator must cherish are such as must raise him above the petty struggles of ordinary existence, and must, for a time at least, lift him into an atmosphere free from the cloud and smoke which too often darken the usual current of men's lives."

In his opening address to Section B, of the British Association, in 1870, he spoke of a humane and civilizing mission which science might accomplish aside from its direct end, saying, after a reference to the Franco-Prussian War, then in progress: "And here may I remind you of the cosmopolitan character of science, of the fact that it is mainly to the brotherly intercourse of those interested in science, and in its application to the arts and manufactures in different countries, that we must look as the small but living fire which in the end will surely serve to melt down national animosities, and to render impossible the breaking out of disasters so fatal to the welfare of humanity as that of which we are now unfortunately the spectators?"

Besides the researches to which reference has already been made, and numerous papers in the "Philosophical Transactions" and the scientific periodicals, Professor Roscoe has published "Lessons in Practical Chemistry," a work which has been translated into German, Russian, Hungarian, and Italian, and republished in this country; "Lectures on Spectrum Analysis," of which a fifth edition was published in 1878; a "Junior Course of Practical Chemistry," prepared by himself and Francis Jones in 1873; and, conjointly with Professor Schorlemmer, a large "Treatise on Chemistry," in three volumes. The last work was pronounced by "Nature," in a review of the first two volumes, one which, "when finished, will afford the most complete systematic exposition of the existing state of chemical science that has yet appeared in the English language"; and by Professor Watts as forming a treatise on inorganic chemistry "of which English science may well be proud." To "Nature" he contributed affectionate biographies of Liebig and Bunsen, He was also joint editor, with Professor Huxley and Balfour Stewart, of Macmillan's "Science Primer" series, and author of the "Primer of Chemistry." He is Examiner in Chemistry to the Science and Art Department. He was elected President of the Chemical Society of London in 1880, President of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester in 1882; and is a member of the Royal Commission on Technical Instruction. He was knighted in 1884, at about the time of the meeting of the British Association at Montreal.