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British Industrial History

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Arthur James Balfour

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Arthur James Balfour (1st Earl of Balfour) (1848-1930)

1930 Obituary[1]

"The Late Earl of Balfour.

Though it would be outside our province to deal with the career of the Earl of Balfour, as exhibited by his activities as a statesman, a politician, a philosopher or a sportsman, we feel it our duty to place on record the undoubted claims he had to recognition and gratitude from engineers and scientists, owing to the part he played in providing that aid, which Government alone can give, to the development of their work. As a philosopher, in his early days, he revolted against the nationalism of Tyndall, Huxley and Clifford. At the same time, though he disagreed from the transcendental side of those scientists’ work, he recognised the benefits their speculations and investigations were conferring on mankind and followed with particular and constant interest the various movements to which their theories and those of others gave rise. This interest, which continued throughout his life, had its practical side, for it led, through his agency, to the stimulation of activities, which have proved of the greatest value to the country in general and to scientists in particular.

Over thirty years ago he was responsible for bringing the National Physical Laboratory into being in its present form, and to him, more than to any other statesman, was due the coordination under the Privy Council of the various branches of scientific and medical research. As Mr. Baldwin said in the House of Commons last week, Lord Balfour wished all who looked with pride on the estate of man to be convinced that in science was to be found the most powerful engine for the material prosperity and health of mankind. That being so, it is not surprising to find that he often insisted on the need for research in all branches of science, or that he carried his ideas on this subject into the concrete by founding the Civil Research Committee and by establishing the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. By a happy chance both these bodies remained under his supervision, until his active political career came to an end last year, and it cannot be denied that the undoubted utility of much of their work was directly due to his encouragement and inspiration. On occasion engineers had an opportunity of admiring and perhaps envying Lord Balfour’s acknowledged gifts of sympathetic oratory. Those, for instance, who heard the speeches, which he made at the time of the Kelvin Centenary celebrations and when the first Kelvin medal was presented to Professor Unwin, will not easily forget the aptness of his language, nor his charm of manner, nor, it may be added, the facility, doubtless acquired in another place, with which he escaped by a deft turn of phrase from an embarrassment into which an unguarded statement seemed likely to lead him. His speeches were a form of thinking aloud, an exercise which, though it has its dangers as well as its advantages , led, in his case, to both the enjoyment and instruction of his audience. That his services to science did not go unrequited is shown by the fact that at various times he was Chancellor of the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh and President of the British Association. He also held a number of honorary degrees and was a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was elected an honorary member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1914."

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