How a Welsh lawyer invented the hydrogen fuel cell – in 1842

A hydrogen-powered bus. Image: Getty.

Let us start, in the spirit of steampunk, by imagining a new and different past. One that is just a little different to that which we currently have.

So welcome to the year 1867. The Victorian age is at its zenith and a new, powerful and monied middle class is looking for things to do with their cash. Towns and cities seem to be growing bigger with each passing day, and horizons are transformed as new buildings appear everywhere.

One aspect of the urban landscape never changes though. Everywhere you look you will see one of the huge gasometers that have been a constant feature of the cityscape for almost 20 years now. They are filled with the hydrogen gas essential to run the fuel cells – or gas batteries, as the Victorians call them – that are so vital for the economy and for powering everyday life.

In both this imagined and the real past, the gas battery was invented in 1842 by a young Welshman from the then town of Swansea, William Robert Grove. It was a revolutionary device because rather than using expensive chemicals to produce electricity like ordinary batteries, it used common gases – oxygen and hydrogen – instead.

However in this timeline, unlike our own, within 20 years the Welsh man of science’s amazing invention had ushered in a new industrial and cultural revolution.

Towering gasometers. Image: Franz Kapaun/Wikimedia

Our imagined scene is the British Empire’s new electrical age. The horseless carriages that run along roads and railways are all powered by electricity from banks of gas batteries. So is the machinery in the factories and cotton mills that produce the cheap goods which are the source of Britain’s growing wealth. The demand for coal to produce the hydrogen needed to run gas batteries has transformed places such as Grove’s own south Wales, where coalfields are expanded to meet the insatiable need for more power.

Middle-class homes are connected to those gasometers through networks of pipes supplying the hydrogen needed as fuel to run all kinds of handy electrical devices. Machines for washing clothes – and dishes – have trebled the workload of domestic servants by transforming their employers’ expectations concerning daily hygiene. There are machines for cleaning floors and furniture. Electric ovens are fast replacing the traditional kitchen range in the more fashionable houses. Gas batteries also run the magic lanterns that provide entertainment for middle-class families every evening after dinner.

Of course, none of this actually happened. The true history of energy, and the culture that depends on that energy, over the past 150 years or so has been rather different. It was coal and oil, rather than hydrogen, that powered the 19th and 20th-century economies.

A curious voltaic pile

The gas battery’s real history begins in October 1842, when Grove, newly appointed professor of experimental philosophy at the London Institution, penned a brief note to chemist and physicist Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution.

“I have just completed a curious voltaic pile which I think you would like to see,” he wrote. The instrument was “composed of alternate tubs of oxygen and hydrogen through each of which passes platina foil so as to dip into separate vessels of water acidulated with sulphuric acid.”

The effect, as Grove described it to Faraday, was startling: “With 60 of these alternations I get an unpleasant shock and decompose not only iodide of potassium but water so plainly that a continuous stream of thin bubbles ascends from each electrode”. Grove had invented a battery which turned hydrogen and oxygen into electricity and water.

The technology described in Grove’s letter to Faraday. Image: Wikimedia/EERE.

In 1842 Grove was busily making a name for himself in metropolitan scientific circles. He had been born in 1811 into a leading family in the commercial and public life of Swansea, and grew up in a world where the importance and utility of science was commonly understood. The Groves’ neighbours included prominent industrialists including pottery manufacturer and botanist Lewis Weston Dillwyn and John Henry Vivian – an industrialist and politician – who were also fellows at the Royal Society.

Grove studied at Brasenose College Oxford before going to London to prepare for a career in the law. While there he became a member of the Royal Institution and it is clear that from around this time he started to become an active electrical experimenter.

Economical batteries

This is when some of Grove’s earliest forays into scientific work began to appear. In 1838 he gave a lecture to the society describing a new battery he had invented: “an economical battery of Mr Grove’s invention, made of alternate plates of iron and thin wood, such as that used by hatters”.

This emphasis on economy was a theme that would recur in his work on the powerful nitric acid battery that he developed a year later – and which led to his aforementioned appointment as professor, and fellowship of the Royal Society – as well as in his work on the gas battery.

Grove described in a letter to Philosophical magazine how the battery “with proper arrangements liberates six cubic inches of mixed gases per minute, heats to a bright red seven inches of platinum wire 1/40th of an inch in diameter, burns with beautiful scintillations needles of a similar diameter, and affects proportionally the magnet”. This is typical of the way battery power was demonstrated. Scientists would show how it could break down water into its constituent gases, make wires glow, or work an electromagnet.

Moritz von Jacobi’s electromagnetic motor, 1873. Image: Wikimedia/Julius Dub.

Significantly, Grove also went on to say that as “it seems probable that at no very distant period voltaic electricity may become a useful means of locomotion, the arrangement of batteries so as to produce the greatest power in the smallest space becomes important”. Indeed, shortly after Grove announced his invention, the German-born engineer Moritz Hermann von Jacobi used a bank of Grove’s batteries to power an electromagnetic motor boat on the river Neva in Saint Petersburg. And the technology later went on to be used extensively by the American telegraph industry.

Born of necessity

It was Grove’s continuing work on making batteries more efficient and economic that led directly to the gas battery which was to be the forebear of the now modern fuel cell. He wanted to find out just what happened in the process of generating electricity from chemical reactions.

It showed how “gases, in combining and acquiring a liquid form, evolve sufficient force to decompose a similar liquid and cause it to acquire a gaseous form”. To Grove, this was “the most interesting effect of the battery; it exhibits such a beautiful instance of the correlation of natural forces”.


The gas battery provided powerful evidence in favour of the theory Grove had developed regarding the inter-relationship of forces, which he described a few years later in his essay, On the Correlation of Physical Forces. There he argued:

that the various imponderable agencies, or the affections of matter, which constitute the main objects of experimental physics, viz. heat, light, electricity, magnetism, chemical affinity, and motion, are all correlative, or have a reciprocal dependence. That neither taken abstractedly can be said to be the essential or proximate cause of the others, but that either may, as a force, produce or be convertible into the other, this heat may mediately or immediately produce electricity, electricity may produce heat; and so of the rest.

In other words, forces were interchangable and any one of them could be manipulated to generate the others.

But what about utility and practical power? Grove clearly believed, as did many of his contemporaries – including the electro-magnet’s inventor, William Sturgeon – that the future was electrical. It would not be long before electromagnetic engines like the one that Jacobi had used for his boat on the Neva would replace the steam engine. It was just a matter of finding the right and most economic way of producing electricity for the purpose.

As Grove put it to a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1866, if:

instead of employing manufactured products or educts, such as zinc and acids, we could realise as electricity the whole of the chemical force which is active in the combustion of cheap and abundant raw materials... we should obtain one of the greatest practical desiderata, and have at our command a mechanical power in every respect superior in its applicability to the steam-engine.

We are at present, far from seeing a practical mode of replacing that granary of force, the coal-fields; but we may with confidence rely on invention being in this case, as in others, born of necessity, when the necessity arises.

He was clear that realising this particular dream was not his problem, however: “It seems an over-refined sensibility to occupy ourselves with providing means for our descendants in the tenth generation to warm their dwellings or propel their locomotives”.

A new past

Grove certainly made no attempt to turn his gas battery into an economic device, but like many Victorians he was fond of looking into the future and putting his technologies there. In many ways it was Victorians such as Grove who invented the view of the future as a different country that we are so familiar with now. Their future was going to be a country full of new technologies – and electrical technologies in particular.

William Robert Grove, circa 1877. Image: Wikimedia/Lock & Whitfield.

By the time Grove died in 1896 commentators were prophesying a future where electricity did everything. Electricity would power transport systems. Electricity would grow crops. Electricity would provide entertainment. Electricity would win wars. It seemed almost impossible to talk about electricity at all without invoking the future it would deliver.

All this brings us neatly back to the new past for Grove and the gas battery that our future technologies may deliver. If the future of new and clean electrical technology – that contemporary promoters of the fuel cell are today offering us – really happens, then the obscure story about a curious little invention by a largely forgotten Welsh man of science will become an epic piece of technological history.

That future, if it happens, will change our past. It will change the ways we understand the history of Victorian technology and the ways in which the Victorians used those technologies to tell stories about their future selves. We should not forget that we still pattern our own projected futures in the same way as they did. We extrapolate bits of our contemporary technologies into the future in the same sort of way.

The ConversationIt is interesting to speculate in that case why particular sorts of technologies make for good futures and others apparently do not. At the end of the 19th century the gas battery clearly did not look like a good piece of future-making technology to many people. It does now.

Iwan Morus, Professor of History, Aberystwyth University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.