Century of Endeavour

In Search of Techne

Ch 2.3 History and Archaeology

(c) Roy Johnston 1999

(comments to rjtechne@iol.ie)

August 19 1970

My recent reference to Technology Ireland and its articles on industrial archaeology drew an enquiry from Bord Failte(1) as to where this periodical might be obtained: it had heard that the Guinness windmill featured in it. This, at one time the largest in the world, was a triumph of 18th century technology.

There are at present no means of knowing what early equipment, and artefacts of significance in the history of technology in Ireland, are in existence. Bord Failte could usefully finance a student for an MSc in the history of science and technology in Ireland, so that he could go and ferret them out. But then, there is no university department (at least in the Republic) responsible for the history of science and technology, with the possible exception of Professor Patrick Lynch's new Science Policy Research Unit, opened by the Minister for Finance on June 19 in UCD.

Such a unit could do worse than establish its credentials by a piece of historical research along these lines, revealing the factors that governed technological innovation in the past, as a guide to science policy in the future.

It has been said that a consciousness of a historical background is essential for a national existence; expunge the history and you expunge the nation. The same, I suggest, holds within science and technology.

June 30 1971

I purposely kept back one of the book-reviews which I had on the agenda four weeks ago, because I wanted to link it with a comment on the Irish Industrial Archaeology symposium which took place on February 2, and with a series of interest in Technology Ireland in this field, by William Dick.

The book is by Hugh Kearney, entitled 'Science and Change 1500-1700, published ...by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. I found it disappointing. I got the impression that the author was a historian who was attempting to write a history of science as if the main process at work was the deriving by scholars of ideas from earlier scholars.

He also gives the impression that he is writing a polemic against what he calls the 'Whig interpretation of the history of science', in which category he includes the Marxists. The 'Whig' view is defined as a simplistic categorisation into 'progressives' and 'conservatives'.

Professor Kearney counterposes a structure in which three major traditions or schools of thought battle for supremacy. These he labels 'organic' (linked with the names of Aristotle, Galen, Ptolemy), the 'magical' (linked with the Egyptian Hermes Trismegistus) and the 'mechanistic' (Hobbes, Descartes).

The idea that the latter school might in some way be connected with the realities of the world, and owe its rise to to the developing technology of early capitalism as it existed, for example, in Venice, the author dismisses as a piece of Marxist dogma, which is supposed to be debunked by the fact that machines such as the crossbow existed a few centuries earlier. '....Mechanical analogies were available......well before the end of the 16th century...'

The point, however, is that the outside world has a more important function than to 'provide analogies' for philosophers' theoretical systems. It must provide the hardware with which to test them. You can theorise about a vacuum in any of Hugh Kearney's three traditions, but in the end technology provides you with a vacuum pump. The date at which discoveries take place is determined not only by the idea or the tradition, but also by the practical feasibility, as determined by the level of technology. It is further determined by the social relations. In a slave society, the philosopher never exchanges ideas with the craftsman.

It is clear that Professor Kearney has made little or no effort to understand the Marxist approach to the history of science; JD Bernal's 'Science in History', which covers the same ground with infinitely greater perception, is missing from his bibliography.

Despite these philosophical weaknesses, it is useful to have for the student of the history of science a compendium of the discoveries of this period, and some quotations from the originals. Enough reality breaks through to show up the artificial nature of the author's categories.

One telling comment: '....the views of the Schoolmen were expounded in technical Latin in works of enormous bulk. Works in the occult tradition suffered from the disadvantage that they were intended for a highly select audience. It was the mechanists alone who produced books with an appeal to a wide public'.

In other words, science broke through because it consciously linked itself with the ideas of the developing democratic revolution.

Is there, perhaps, a parallel in contemporary science with this? Are not the modern ultra-specialist jargons and esoteric research-areas the analogues of the schoolmen and the alchemists, whose basis Locke undermined in plain English?(2)


Not only is it necessary to read about the past history of science and technology in a book, but one must see, feel and smell it. To understand 19th century technology it helps greatly to have pitched sheaves of corn to feed a thresher driven by a steam traction engine.

There is a beam engine at John's Lane Distillery. This is described by Willy Dick in the January issue of Technology Ireland. It was installed in 1886, and is the lineal descendant of the low-pressure condensing steam engines that made the 18th century industrial revolution possible. It rates 150 horsepower, and is in working order.

The February meeting of the Industrial Archaeology Society considered the question of founding a museum... in which such exhibits could be housed and made available to the public.

Dr W A McCutcheon, of the new Technological Division of the Ulster Museum, was present, and showed slides of work in progress. It is proposed to link the museum with courses in QUB and other Institutes. It opens this month.

Such a museum in or near Dublin could serve a useful purpose in in training students in the history and laws of development of technology. Obsolete technology is of interest because only be studying it can one determine why it became obsolete. It is important for students of science and technology to get a practical feeling for the factors at work. This they can do if they have access to the hardware, to the extent, preferably, of actually running it.

Thus the museum should have in it equipment that can be made to work, and it should be linked with second and third-level education......a particular school could 'adopt' a particular machine and be responsible for its care and maintenance; a rota could be organised so that every weekend throughout the year at least one of the exhibits was demonstrated at work by its voluntary keepers.

There is also another reason why it is important to keep alive the undeerstanding of obsolete technologies. It has to do with the development to maturity of the human personality.

The human being passes rapidly through the prior biiological evolutionary stages before birth. In childhood, one passes through the social evolutionary stages, in the process of growing up. (Readers of 'The Lord of the Flies' will understand what I mean, in terms of schoolboy tribalism).

In order to be a complete person, one should also pass through the technological-evolutionary stages. To take to tools to master the environment is as natural to the human being as is speech. I can find analogies in my own juvenile technical education with all the stages of the history of science and technology, more or less in correct sequence: hydraulics (damming the stream), civil engineering (building bridges), mechanical engineering (bicycle repair and modification), electrical engineering and then electronic engineering, by which time the university science course took over. There was, of course, a strong underlying agricultural component; the central problem in the 40s was the local rural energy-source, in the absence of the general availability of the ESB grid.

Yet most school-children in Ireland are deprived of this access to practicality, of creative interaction with the environment using tools. No wonder youth is seething with frustration.

For a school to have a workshop, and to have the task of repairing and maintaining (say) an 18th century loom would be a real creative challenge. So can we have this in the educational reform programme?

August 9 1972

People who enjoy early technology are prepared to go to Robertstown to see balloon ascents, or to Stradbally to enjoy the delights of steam traction. Why should they not go to Kilbeggan to visit an 18th century distillery?

The Irish Engineers' Journal has published an article by Gavin Bowie and John Courlander which makes the case for the establishment of a technological museum in Locke's Distillery. The core of the collection would be a complete traditional production system for Irish whiskey: grindstones for the malt, driven either by a 15ft 6in waterwheel or by an 1887 steam engine, cast-iron mash-tuns with oak underbacks, oak brewing-vat, pot stills, washbacks, pumps, worms etc. There is a copper cooler system set in the mill-race.

This is a unique collection of 18th and 19th century machinery which would cost little to preserve. The local preservation lobby is led by Katherine Flynn, secretary of the Kilbeggan Historical Society.

(Further to my note on industrial jargons on 5/5/71(3): the use of the word 'back' in brewing and distilling to mean an open vessel derives from the French 'bac', meaning ferryboat. The word has the same usage in industrial French, but is not confined to brewing.)

There is also an account of the Kidd steam traction-engine collection at Stradbally, and an evaluation of the enigmatic Tullamore distillery engine, said to be of marine origin. There is a mention of the waterwheel at the Belview maltings near Islandbridge, once owned by the Plunkett family. The final section is on the Holyhead steam packet service, which was one of the first regular steamboat services in the world (1821), within 7 years of the first-ever registered steam merchant ship (1814). This is the measure of the strategic importance attached by the British to the Irish connection at that time.

The value of these relics in education cannot be overestimated. The history of technology underlies the history of economic life, war and politics, as is increasingly being realised.

March 7 1973

The death of Tony Farrington on February 23, and his funeral at Calary on the following Monday, February 26, evoke some reflections on science in Ireland as it was before there was any significant State interest. The climate in which people like Tony Farrington and Lloyd Praeger flourished would wither most of the hothouse plants of the scientific scene today.

Praeger's book 'The Way that I Went' is compulsory reading for any intelligent rambler over the Irish countryside. Praeger was basically an amateur botanist, who did his work on weekends.. Yet he published papers in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, and was a scientist of international repute.

Farrington's work, in a sense, underlies Praeger's, and has many parallels with it. It is enshrined in a series of papers (sometimes up to six per year) in the years between 1927 and 1961, on every aspect of the geology of the Ice Age in Ireland: the basis of the soils, hills and dales over which Praeger botanised. It is a pity that he never got the chance to collect his researches into a book. There is, however, a bibliography of his earlier papers in Volume II, no 5 of Irish Geography (1936).

There is also a parallel in that as a geologist Farrington was not a fully-trained professional; he took his primary degree in engineering in Cork in 1920, at the age of 27 (he had interrupted his education due to ill-health, spending 1915-1919 in Portugal).

After a year in Cork as an engineering demonstrator he joined the Geological Survey(4) in 1921 and learned the trade of field-geologist. He mapped the Monaghan glacial drift, spent some time on the Leinster coalfield and in Co Clare exploring the phosphate deposits. His main work in this period was the Blessington drift basin, the place now occupied by the Poulaphouca lake. This period established his as the national authority on glaciology; unfortunately however this work was largley unpublished, owing to the rules which then governed the Geological Survey.

It is apocryphally reported that the ESB, when faced with the problem of building the hydro-electric system in the 40s, was unaware of Farrington's work. This, no doubt, may be attributed to the Geological Survey's non-publication policy. I recollect hearing him say, in the 50s, that he could have predicted, if asked, certain leakage routes from the basin which subsequently had to be stopped on an emergency, high-cost basis.....illustrating the type of compartmented thinking with which we have been content to live.

Dr Farrington left the GSO in 1928 and took the post of Assistant Secretary and Librarian of the Academy, which he held until his retirement in 1961. This was, and remains, an administrative post. While carrying out the duties, for which in this case the training and temperament of the scientist were not unsuited, he carried on his scientific work on an amateur basis.. He was involved in the foundation of the Geographical Society of Ireland in 1934, and was instrumental in starting a policy of publication in 1944, editing the first two issues of Irish Geography before handing over to T W Freeman.

There is a family traition of cross-disciplinary scholarship. Dr Farrington's brother, Ben, now retired, was Professor of Classics at Swansea. He wrote a book on Greek science which is one of the minor Marxist classics. The elder brother, Stephen, was City Engineer of Cork..

There is, perhaps, scope for a memorial event, on an annual basis, which might be used to draw to the attention of contemporary students the role of the pioneers of geology and scientific geography, with whom Dr Anthony Farrington deserves to be numbered(5).


On February 20 the Academy opened up its collection of manuscripts for a few days of exhibition to the public. This type of event is an important reminder to the public of the role of the Academy as a repository of our national cultural heritage. Along with such gems as 'an Cathrach' (the Battler of the O'Donnells, dated 560 AD, the original of the dispute between St Columcille and St Finnian, and the origin of Irish copyright law) was to be found a mediaeval astronomical treatise in Irish, dating from the early 16th century.

I looked at this for evidence of knowledge of Copernicus (fortunately there is a translation and a monograph available on it) but found that it was in fact a translation from a Latin version (by Gerard of Gabionetta in the 13th century) of an Arabic treatise by Massahalah of Alexandria (8th century) on the Ptolemaic system. The Copernican approach...had not yet rendered this work obsolete; an edition was in fact printed by J Stabius at Nuremburg in 1503, which differed substantially from the Irish version. The latter had been adapted with understanding, rather than just copied with mistakes. So there is here raw material for an Irish 'Renaissance', had it been allowed to happen without outside political interference.


One of the techniques with which the physicists hoped to supplement the chronology of recent geological and early archaeological events is what has come to be known as 'carbon-14 dating'.

This depends on the fact that carbon dioxide in the air contains carbon which has been rendered slightly radioactive by exposure to cosmic rays. When this is taken up by organic material, the radioactive component is no longer replenished, so that it dies away with a mean lifetime of about 5000 years.

All sorts of snags with this technique have been discovered and overcome; all however is by no means clear. Dr Quentin Dresser, of the TCD Physics Department, gave a seminar on February 23 in which he reviewed the problems, not the least of which is the variation in flux of low-energy cosmic rays due to variable solar activity.

However, some calibration of the 'carbon clock' is possible by traditional techniques like counting tree-rings (the Arizona bristlecone pine grows to two ot three thousand years; rhen it dies and lies around, so that rings can be counted, using a matched overlap procedure, for about 8000 years back). One can also count layers of mud deposited in lakes.

Chronology can be pushed further back by digging down into the polar icecaps. It is possible to extract enough carbon-14 from ice which is over 100,000 years old to enable a 'carbon-14 date' to be estimated. So although the carbon clock itself keeps irregular time, it can be calibrated by the traditional techniques (such as underlie the work of Farrington, Mitchell and others in Irish Recent geology) and it does form a useful supplementary technique for putting a date on a piece of organic material.

May 9 1973

There has been considerable feedback on the FRS article which I published on April 11(6). Most of this has been concerned with who they were and what they did; some thought I was hard on the Academy....

I am indebted to Professor T E Nevin of UCD for some further information relating to my recent review of Hoffmann's life of Einstein, as well as some more FRS information....

Thomas Preston FRS was Professor of Natural Philosophy in the old University College(7); he discovered the 'anomalous Zeeman effect' in spectroscopy. This effect is observed when light is emitted from excited atoms under the influence of a magnetic field. It is fundamentally related to the spin of the electron, and provided one of the hurdles which the quantum theory had to cross. His successor, J A McClelland, who died in 1920, was one of the original group of research students in the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, who along with Rutherford were responsible for the subsequent world-status of that centre.

(The full FRS story follows on 16/5/73.)(8)

..I must mention the April 30 meeting at which Professor Cornelius Lanczos was honoured by the presentation of a commemorative volume of essays based on his work, on the occasion of his 80th birthday.

The commemorative volume, or festschrift, was compiled by Professor Brendan Scaife, of the TCD Engineering School, is entitled 'Studies in Numerical Analysis' and contains contributions by 19 authors from all over the world.

Professor Lanczos worked with Einstein in Berlin in 1928-29. He then went to the US as a refugee from Fascism, where he stayed until 1953.

His methods of numerical analysis proved to be just what the early electronic computers (ENIAC and MANIAC) needed for their work during the war on the theoretical calculations underlying the use of uranium in nuclear weapons(9). He has been in the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies since 1953 and was elected a member of the Academy in 1957.

At the April 30 event, the discourse was given by Dr B L van der Waerden, Professor of the History of Science at Zurich, on the theme 'Sudden Ideas in Mathematics'.

This area is borderline between science and art: the sudden flash of insight leading to the creative leap. Professor Lanczos is at home in it; no more appropriate subject could have been chosen.

Students of mathematics will know van der Waerden as a name to be reckoned with in modern algebra. The 'Gottingen School' with which he is identified....has had a profound influence on the development of thinking in quantum mechanics, through the work of Klein, Hilbert, Courant and others.

It is good to see a leading scientist/mathematician in a major world centre taking up the study of the history of science; perhaps at last this important topic is beginning to be taken seriously. There is not even a lecturership in the history of science in the Republic.

Finally, arising from the Einstein review....Professor Nevin puts the Fitzgerald contraction idea(10) as early as 1892, rather than 1898. It was mentioned verbally in a discussion with Oliver Lodge, and communicated by the latter to 'Nature', with acknowledgment.

A correspondent also questions my suggestion that Einstein, in a sense, rejected Israel. I accept that this was at the level of not wishing, in old age, to be involved actively with a cause which he had supported in his youth, more from lack of energy than political conviction. However, he carried his religion rather lightly, having been forced in his early years to adopt the Jewish religion because the German bureaucracy required that one decalre some religion. There are no indications that he was a supporter of the idea of a State religion, which principle is associated with much of the current trouble in the Middle East.

May 16 1973

I regret having omitted the name of Arthur W Conway from the short-list of post-1900 Irish-rooted FRS; he held the chair of mathematical physics in UCD until 1940, when he became President of the College. I had mentioned E J Conway, the biochemist. I am indebted to Professor J J McHenry, in Cork, for pointing this out to me with courtesy.

I am also indebted to a less courteous correspondent for giving me his dates: he got his fellowship in 1915 and was a Council member in 1934. He was also President of the RIA and the RDS.

The fact that I was not immediately aware of his legend and confused him with his namesake I must attribute to a 'cultural gap' phenomenon: the fact that my formative years were spent on one side of the 'intellectual partition' which reflected in Dublin, at least until the last decade, the political Partition of the country.

I am dependent on others to do my homework for me; people who suggest that I do not do enough of it are welcome to join the increasing number of those who offer their own contributions to plug the gaps in my coverage. I welcome particularly the supplement by Con Gillman on the FRS question, which follows:

'Although the number of Irish Fellows of the Royal Society of London has never been large, the brief list given on April 11(6) can be increased substantially. The additions which follow may be of some interest, but do not complete the total....

(Apart from CONWAY, mentioned above, there was).. William McFadden ORR, 1866-1934, (who) was born in Co Down and educated at Queen's College,, Belfast and at Cambridge. He was Professor of Applied Mathematics at the Royal College of Science, Dublin, from 1881 to 1926, and at UCD from 1926 to 1933(11).

John A McCLELLAND was professor of experimental physics at UCD until his death in 1920. Thomas PRESTON was his prececessor.....

Benjamin WILLIAMSON, 1827-1916 was Professor of Natural Philosophy and Vice-Provost, TCD.

John JOLY, 1857-1933, was Professor of Geology in TCD. In 1907 he correctly ascribed the cause of 'pleochroic haloes'(12) to a centrally-placed radioactive particle, and his Presidential Address to Section C of the British Association meeting in Dublin in 1908 was an important contribution to the then new study of radioactivity in relation to geology. He also introduced improved methods in colour photography.

Charles Jasper JOLY, 1846-1906 was Astronomer Royal for Ireland, and edited Hamilton's 'Elements of Quaternions'.

Sir Bertram C A WINDLE was first President of UCC.

Among those who spent a large part of their life outside Ireland were:

Frederick George DONNAN, 1870-1956, was born in Colombo of Northern Ireland parents. He returned to Ireland at the age of 3 and obtained his BA in 1892 and MA in 1894 from the Royal University of Ireland(13). He studied under van t'Hoff and Ostwald in Germany, and Ramsay in London. In 1904 he was appointed Professor of Physical Chemistry at Liverpool, after which he succeeded Ramsay at University College London. He did much research in chemical kinetics, and a theory of membrane equilibrial is named after him.

Sir Joseph LARMOR, 1857-1942, was a graduate of Queens University Belfast and secretary to the Royal Society from 1901 to 1912. In retirement he lived at Holywood, Co Down. In his will he remembered his first academic appointment, which was to Galway, and bequeathed his extensive scientific library to UCG.

Another Belfast-born scientist was William Thompson, Lord KELVIN, 1824-1907, who with Larmor shared the experience of receiving a Civic Reception from the Belfast Corporation, on the occasion of graduating as Senior Wrangler in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos.....

Sir Robert S BALL, 1840-1913, was born in Dublin and was Andrews Professor of Astronomy at TCD and Astronomer Royal for Ireland. In 1892 he became Lowndean Provessor of Astronomy at Cambridge.

Sir George Gabriel STOKES, 1819-1903, was born in Sligo, and was another Senior Wrangler. He became Professor of Mathematics in Cambridge in 1849, and was President of the Royal Society from 1885 to 1890. His work covered a wide range in physics: optics, spectroscopy, geodesy and the theory of the motions of fluids. He is remembered in textbooks by Stokes Theorem and Stokes law.

George Johnstone STONEY 1826-1911, was Professor of Natural Philosophy at Queens College, Galway from 1852 to 1857, and Secretary to the Queen's University in Ireland 1857-1882(14). He introduced the word 'electron' into the scientific vocabulary, and in 1874 calculated the first approximate value of its charge. He became FRS in 1861 and was Secretary to the Royal Society for 20 years.

One who just missed the 20th century was the Reverend Charles Graves DD, 1812-1899. He succeeded McCullagh as Professor of Mathematics at TCD. In addition to his mathematical work he published papers on Irish antiquities, and due to his efforts, a commission of which he was a member was set up to translate and edit the Brehon Laws(15). He became FRS in 1880....'

June 6 1973

I was recently guilty of stating that there was no Lecturership in the History of Science in Ireland. Dr Alan Gabbey, of Queens University Belfast, rightly took me to task.

I make amends by publishing Dr Gabbey's interesting study of the factors governing the mode of publication of 'de Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium' by Copernicus.

Scientists who have been 'in the front line' will immediately find a bond of sympathy with Copernicus. It is not enough to publish, one has to be believed. The tactics adopted by Copernicus will be seen to be familiar by the contemporary academic seeker after fame. The time-scale is now, of course, much shorter. Between the preliminary kite-flying by a research-student at a conference, and the final paper signed by the master himself (inter alia) there is usually now, at most, a year.

...Regrettably this article did not reach me in time to coincide with the Copernicus Exhibition, which ran in the TCD Library until May 21, the quincentenary of his birth....

Much of the history of this period is overlaid with attitudes derived from the embittered scientific-religious polemics of the 19th century. Both extreme positions have moved away from dogmatism; there are for example currently in progress intense philosophical discussions within and between the Marxist and Christian camps. Some people regret the passing of the old 'black and white' situation. I don't.

(I publish only the opening paragraphs of Dr Gabbey's article, where the Irish context is mentioned. The remainder is outside the scope of this work.)

'It is not often an episode in the history of science gets a mention alongside the daily excercises in political algebra that are the more familiar inhabitants of editorial columns. The Irish Times editorial (April 18) on the enterprising Copernicus Quincentenary at Trinity College marks a welcome recognition of the cultural and educational importance of understanding the growth of scientific ideas, and a further contribution to this end was Dick Grogan's extensive report the next day of the opening lectures and addresses of Professors Wayman(16), Lanczos(17) and Parke(18).

Almost inevitably, talk of the Copernican Revolution raises the question of theological influences and ecclesiastical pressures in science. According to the editorial, 'traditional astronomy, closely interwoven (as in most ages past) with the theological philosophy of the time, did not give way easily to ideas which so gravely challenged its entrenched foundations'. Professor Lanczos was reported as invoking 'the prevalence of the (Roman Catholic) Church' to explain the alleged absence in Copernicus' time of freedom of discussion of a moving earth, in contrast to the happier situation of Aristarchus of Samos, who in the 3rd century BC proposed a heliocentric system similar to that of Copernicus.

There is some truth in these views, but it can be misleading to imply that resistance to Copernicus' ideas came from specifically theological entanglements of the traditional astronomy, or that the Church had an unduly large hand in restricting discussion of heliocentric notions. The background to Copernicus' work shows that things were not quite so simple........'

August 14 1974

This week 100 years ago George Johnstone Stoney read a paper to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which met that year in Belfast. This paper was important because it contained the first concept of the electron as a scientific hypothesis, and the first attempt theoretically to prodict its charge....

The article published below by J G O'Hara, of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, is an abbreviated version of an article to appear later in the Notes and Records of the Royal Society, London.

Jim O'Hara is a graduate of NUI; he did his MSc in the History of Science and Technology under Professor D S L Cardwell.

I take the opportunity of again pointing out the lack of any academic study of the history of science and technology in the Republic. The sole centre in Ireland taking any systematic interest in this important topic is QUB. Readers of this column will remember my reference to the QUB exhibition series on Irish scientists, and also Dr Alan Gabbey's contributionon the occasion of the Copernicus centenary.

Granted, the teaching of science tends to be based on a 'historical' approach, but this is usually restricted to a view within discipline, and without relating to the evolving technological, economic, social and political environment. There is no mechanism whereby a scientist can become any more than an amateur historian, or a historian gain enough grasp of a branch of science, or a technology, to understand its internal laws of development.

The late J D Bernal produced a book 'Science in History' which constitutes good introductory reading; no doubt a historian would say 'not bad, for a crystallographer!'

A chair in the History and Philosophy of Science, or even a lectureship to begin with, might help to develop a situation here where we do not have to be reminded of our national scientific centenaries by our expatriate scholars in Manchester. In the absence of such, it is salutary that we should be reminded of the need.

Stoney and the Electron (J G O'Hara)

In August 1874, at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, an Irish mathematical physicist George Johnstone Stoney (1826-1911) presented a paper which contained the first modern conception of the electron, and the first calculation of its charge, more than twenty years before the first experimental determination of J J Thompson.

Johnstone Stoney was secratary to the Queen's University of Ireland, the forerunner of the National University of Ireland, and much of his career was devoted to the administration of the university; nevertheless he was undertaking pioneering researches in molecular physics. In 1868 he he had made one of the first calculations of the number of molecules in a given volume of gas under specific conditions of temperature and pressure. He employed this result in his calculation of the electron charge in 1874.

Stoney introduced a system of physical units based on three 'natural units'. Two of these were well-known constants: the constant of universal gravitation in Newton's law, and the velocity of light in vacuo. The third unit was the constant definite quantity of electricity in a chemical bond (ie that which passes as current in electrolysis when the bond is broken).

In 1834 Faraday had expounded the laws of electrolysis, according to which a fixed amount of electricity is required to separate the elements in a compound whose weight is numerically equal to the molecular weight. This remarkable fact implied that if matter is atomic in nature, then electricity must be too: to each atom of matter there must correspond an 'atom' of electricity. Many scientists of a positivist turn of mind....would have been reluctant to infer the existence of a new type of atomic particle, when no-one had yet observed a material atom. Stoney was limited by no such intellectual prejudice; he was able to estimate the charge of the electric 'atom'(19).

Stoney's calculation was limited by inaccurate experimental data; it is remarkable that the value obtained was as close as it was....he was well aware of the inaccuracy of his 'guesstimation'. It was pioneer work in an obscure and difficult line of research, where accuracy depended on approximate information from the kinetic theory of gases.

Stoney's paper was not published until 1881, when it appeared first in the Proceedings of the Royal Dublin Society..... His suggestion of an 'atom' or particle of electricity went against the majority opinion of physicists at the time; this probably accounts for its delayed publication. The atomistic or particulate conception of electricity was subsequently revived...when the German physicist Helmholtz advocated it in the Faraday Memorial Lecture....in April 1881.

Stoney was afterwards responsible for introducing the term 'electron' into scientific writing.....in a paper to the RDS in 1891.... He proposed that there were at least two electrons moving in elliptical orbits within molecules and generating electromagnetic waves....the early calculation of the electric charge and the concept of the orbiting electron were Stoney's greatest achievements in science.....well in anticipation of twentieth-century models.

In 1897 J J Thompson discovered cathode-ray particles.....within a month George Francis Fitzgerald....in TCD suggested the Thompson's 'corpuscles' were in fact free electrons.

By 1899 Thompson had measured the charge involved, getting a value about 20 times that suggested by Stoney. He showed that this negative charge.....was the same as that carried by the hydrogen ion in electrolysis(20)....

Stoney was born into an Anglo-Irish family in Co Offaly (then Kings County) in 1826. He graduated from TCD in 1852......(having previously been) astronomical assistant to William Parsons (the third Earl of Rosse) at the Birr Castle Observatory for two years. He was Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Queens College, Galway (now University College Galway) from 1852 to 1857. He returned to Dublin in that year to become secretary to the Queen's University, which consisted of three provincial colleges at Belfast, Cork and Galway; he held this post until the Queens University was replaced by the Royal University in 1882 (21). Stoney....was one of the chief architects of the present university institutions.

His scientific work ranged over many branches of physics and natural philosophy....he undertook pioneering researches on the kinetic theory of gases and was the first to offer an explanation of the action of the Crookes radiometer in 1876. In spectroscopy he was involved in the early search for spectral series formulae, which was rewarded by the discovery of Balmer's Law in 1885. He developed a logarithmic law of atomic weights of the chemical elements, and did valuable work in astronomy, astrophysics,physical optics, acoustics; he also contributed to philosophy. He was a fellow of both the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society for more than 50 years. He was honorary secretary to the RDS for over 20 years during his active life in Dublin, and was afterwards a vice-president.

Stoney was the first recipient of the RDS Boyle Medal in 1899, being regarded by the Council of the Society as the most distinguished Irish scientist living. He served on many committees of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and was President of the Mathematical and Physical section at the Sheffield meeting in 1879. Johnstone Stoney retired to London in 1893, where he died in 1911.

October 23 1974

......Another interesting centenary (drawn to my attention by Dr J Wakefield of QUB in a lecture on microwave devices): in Belfast in 1874 Dr Arthur Schuster read to the British Association meeting a paper entitled 'On Unilateral Conductivity'.. This counts as the first discovery of the electrical properties of semi-conductors, as evidenced in the copper/copper-oxide junction.

I give the following quotations from the introduction and the conclusion: 'While I was engaged in other work I met with an irregularity which seemed to me to be of such a peculiar nature that I subjected it to a separate investigation. The results of this investigation have not been entirely satisfactory. I have not been able to raise the phenomenon to which I allude above the rank of an irregularity; that is to say, I am not able to produce it on my own will, although when it is present I am generally able to destroy it. My experiments, however, leave no doubt as to the facts, and they show clearly that, in a circuit composed entirely of copper wires, joined together by means of binding-screws, the electric conductivity may be different in opposite directions.....'

'I have called this phenomenon 'unilateral conductivity', and I have tried to bring it into connection with known facts. The most plausible explanation seemed to me to be, that a thin layer of air may sometimes intervene between the two wires which are screwed together. This explanation has been confirmed by some experiments.. Other experiments show that the explanation is insufficient...'

This paper was published in the Philosophical Magazine in October 1874. I must say I find the clarity of the classical prose refreshing, and the straightforward use of the first person. Contemporary writers of scientific papers should perhaps more often study the classics.

We can pause and reflect on the fact that the first step towards the present multi-billion-dollar semiconductor industry was taken one hundred years ago this month, and reported in Belfast.

November 22 1974

The recent death of Professor P M S Blackett was noted widely in the scientific journals. I value the memory of the occasions when our 'world-lines' crossed; the most recent was when he came over to Dublin for the inaugural meeting of the Irish branch of the Institute of Physics, in or about 1965. I was involved in the organising committee.

I remember his remarking over lunch that no calculation was worth doing unless it could be done on the back of an envelope. He was not anti-theoretical, but believed in the use of cunning rather than brute force. He was one of the original wartime Operational Research people, who developed, with simple theoretical models, guidelines for tactics with the new science-based hardware, such as radar for use in submarine-detection.

The learned journals stressed his Nobel Prize and his Presidency of the Royal Society. Less well-known was his espousal of the cause of trade unionism among scientists. He was President of the Association of Scientific Workers from 1943 to 1946. I quote from his speech as leader of the AScW delegation to the 1946 Trades Union Congress in Britain. In support of a resolution from the National Union of Railwaymen calling for 'the maximum application of science under social control to the raising of the living standards of all working people' Blackett said: 'Scientists are beginning to wake up to the fact that their frustrations are not due to any law of nature but are products of our particular social organisation: they realise also that it is part of their job as scientists to lend a hand in changing it. The way they can best help in changing it is to throw in their lot with the organised working-class, for it is they who, in the long run, stand to gain most from the widest possible application of science.'

The AScW tradition continues, and has come to Ireland with the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs, of which Trade Union the AScW formed a constituent part.

August 12 1975

It gives me no pleasure to write a quasi-obituary on someone who has contributed considerably to the awakening interest in industrial archaeology in Ireland.

The field is important not only because some eccentrics like messing with old steam-engines and water-mills, but mainly because, as is being increasingly understood, the driving force behind economic development and social change is technological innovation. A knowledge of the rise and fall of obsolete technologies is of importance for the insight it gives into the contemporary innovation process.

I refer to Gavin Bowie, the young and infectiously enthusiastic Yorkshireman who has been at large here in recent years, partially and parsimoniously supported by an Foras Forbartha.

He has now taken up a post as Curator of Technology in the Southampton Museum. His wife has taken a good job there, so it is doubtful if we will ever get him back, despite the unfinished nature of his task when here, and his eminent suitability as a leading figure in the battle to bring industrial archaeology in the Republic up to the level it enjoys in the North, thanks to the Ulster Folk Museum.

Gavin Bowie's principal contribution has been in the surveying of the potential for active restoration of the existing stock of water-powered grain-mills. Because of the relative stagnation of Irish economic life between the Act of Union and recent decades, there is a greater relative stock here of early technology than anywhere in Europe.

No clear lead has been given by the National Museum, or the Ancient Monuments Branch of the Board of Works in the field, which these bodies regard as outside their scope. The only classic mill so far to be taken over by the Ancient Monuments is Tacumshin, Co Wexford; there is a campaign on by the Irish Society for Industrial Archaeology to get two more (Gannon's, Meeltraun, Co Roscommon, and Moran's, Bunadober, Co Mayo) taken into guardianship. This is part of the fruit of Gavin Bowie's work.

Some local authorities have responded: Carroll's Mill in Scotstown, the Holycross Abbey cornmill (Co Tipperary) and the Lee Road steam engine are in hand, also possibly Cope's Mill in Prumplestown (Co Kildare) and Burn's Mill, Billis Grange, Co Cavan.

Gavin Bowie was clearly on the way to becoming a national asset, even if only measured by the Bord Failte yardstick of tourist money spent locally, quite apart from the genuine educational value of old machinery for students learning the basic principles of techno-economics for application in contemporary industrial situations.

I find it difficult therefore to understand why his relationship with an Foras Forbartha appeared to be of rather variable temperature. There appears to have been a difference in philosophy: an Foras requiring a fairly superficial cataloguing of many sites, while Gavin Bowie clearly preferred to concentrate time on those capable of viable restoration. Despite this difference, he was clearly under the impression as late as January 1975 that he had a relatively long period of fruitful work ahead of him.

Then in may of this year the whip was cracked: produce the catalogues as specified by us, and then good bye and thank you. A last-ditch attempt to get support from Bord Failte earned a further and final rebuff.....(22).


1. The national tourism promotion board.

2. This rhetorical question was asked with tongue in cheek. However esoteric the science,at some point it touches technology, either by pushing forward an existing 'state of the art', or by creating the possibility of a new one. The modern analogues of the schoolmen and the alchemists are people like Velikovski, the so-called 'creation science' people and the like.

3. See Chapter 3.5 on 21/4/71, note (3).

4. There was enough geology in the civil engineering degree-course to enable this transition to take place, in those days. There was a strong link between the two disciplines, the railway-cutting being the primary contact-point.

5. I am indebted to Professor GF Mitchell FRS for some of the Farrington background.

6. See Chapter 1.2 on this date.

7. Prior to the establishment of the National University of Ireland in 1906.

8. See also Chapter 1.2 on 16/5/73.

9. An anti-fascist refugee could, of course, do such work with a clear conscience for as long as there was a threat that Hitler might get hold of nuclear technology.

10. Professor G F Fitzgerald, of TCD, in response to the null result of the Michelson-Morley experiment (which sought to determine the rate of the Earth's drift through the 'ether'), advanced as an ad-hoc hypothesis what is now established as the 'relativistic contraction' of the dimension along the direction of motion of a moving body.

11. when the College of Science was absorbed into UCD as its engineering faculty.

12. Microscopic dark rings seen in mica. The ring is caused by the increased rateof energy loss of an alpha-particle towards the end of its range. Joly discovered a new element by this means, which turned out subsequently to be samarium.

13. Subsequently to become the national University of Ireland, shedding Queens University Belfast from the system.

14. QUI consisted of the regional colleges of Belfast, Cork and Galway. These were unacceptable to Roman Catholic students. A Catholic University was founded in Dublin by Newman in 1857.. This became part of the Roral University when it was set up in 1882. The history of third-level education in Ireland has been bedevilled over the centuries by the 'apartheid' principle. The oldest university, Trinity College, Dublin (1592), was a Protestant foundation servicing the colonial settler population. This tradition continued until the 60s of the present century.

15. Protestant scholarship, via the Royal Irish Academy, was largely responsible in the 19th century fro rescuing from oblivion the traditional Irish-language culture which their ancestors in the 18th century had done their best to suppress. The Protestant thread in the nation-building process deserves more credit than it usually gets. The Irish national tradition, in its modern form, derives from the French Revolution of 1789.

16. Director of Dunsink Observatory.

17. Numerical analyst and senior professor at the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies.

18. Librarian of TCD.

19. The estimate came out at 1/16 of the now known value.

20. This had been the starting-point to Stoney's estimate.

21. The response of the essentially British colonial university system in Ireland to the rising tide of Irish nationalism was complex. For example, there was a school of thought in TCD (associated with Fitzgerald) which would have pulled up the roots and gone to London had the Gladstone/Parnell Home Rule Bill gone through. There are many parallels between 19th century Ireland and 20th century Kenya and Rhodesia.

22. See on this date Chapter 1.2 on Structures and Institutions.

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