Putting Science on the Welsh Mind Map

John Osmond reports from an IWA History, Science and Heritage conference

If Wales educational culture is to embrace the so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) then an essential requirement is book giving students an introduction to the History of Welsh Science.  This was a major conclusion of a presentation by Professor John Tucker, Head of the Department of Computer Science at Swansea University to an IWA conference on ‘History Science and Heritage’ at Swansea’s National Waterfront Museum yesterday.

Professor Tucker, who is chair of the IWA’s Swansea Bay Branch, pointed out that while Welsh achievements in culture and sport were regularly broadcast and were well known to most Welsh people, the reverse was the case with science. The lack of a simple introductory volume was one indication.

He argued that if the achievements of Welsh scientists and the tradition of Welsh science was more widely known then we could expect that more young people would be encouraged to become involved with science in our schools.  They would also become aware that science and technology were drivers in the creation of modern Wales, from the 17th Century onwards, and are essential to our contemporary economic competitiveness and sustainability.

One reason why there has been no effort to record and celebrate Welsh scientific achievement may lie in the judgement of an early pioneer in the field. This was T. Iorwerth Jones, who contributed an article to the Cymmrodorion in 1934 on the relationship of Wales with science. In it he described Welsh scientists as “isolated individuals rarely associated with one another and as unlinked as is conceivable with earlier or later prevailing thought in their native land. It therefore follows that little in the nature of a Welsh tradition in science emerges in these pages.”

This is a judgement that needs to be challenged, according to Professor Tucker. Personalities and achievements that would be underlined in any  history of Welsh science  would include the following:

  • The equal sign (=) was invented by Robert Recorde (1510-1588), born in Tenby.
  • William Jones (1675-1749) originally from Anglesey was a co-worker with Isaac Newton when the calculus was invented.
  • Links between the tin plate industry and Felinfoel Brewery led to the first ever beer can in Europe.
  • The work of the bone-setting physicians of Anglesey continued for almost two centuries leading to the establishment of a world famous orthopaedic clinic in Liverpool and the invention of the Thomas calliper, which saved thousands of limbs during the First World War.
  • The Denbigh born Isaac Roberts (1829-1904) took the first picture of an extra-galactic object, the Andromeda nebula.
  • Sir Brynmor Jones (1903-1989) who pioneered use of liquid crystal display.
  • Charles Wynn-Williams (1903-1979) invented the “scale of two” particle counter which became the basis for virtually all computers and digital equipment.
  • Donald Davies, born in Treorchy devised the technology, which lies behind the Internet.
  • The first transmission of radio waves was in Wales by Marconi (1897).
  • Britannia bridge was the first iron rail bridge in the world.
  • Richard Trevithick rail locomotive made its first journey on the Merthyr Tramroad.
  • Two of the most important geological ages (Silurian and Ordovician) are named after ancient Welsh tribes
  • The copper-zinc alloy (muntz metal) was invented in a Swansea copper works. Its use in naval ships was a significant factor in the dominance of the British Empire.

What we need, says Professor Tucker is a university course on the History of Welsh Science, more museum collections and archives, more blue plaques, more conferences and events to celebrate the anniversaries of Welsh scientific achievements and, of course, that book.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

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