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George Carey Foster

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Professor George Carey Foster (1835-1919) was a chemist and physicist, born at Sabden in Lancashire. He was Professor of Physics at University College, London.

1835 October. Born the only son of George Foster, calico printer and justice of the peace in Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire.

After education at private schools Foster became a student of chemistry at University College, London. He graduated with honours and a prize in 1855 and then served at the college as an assistant in Professor Williamson's chemistry laboratory.

1857 Joined the British Association for the Advancement of Science, presented his research on the nomenclature of organic chemistry at their meeting, and maintained a close involvement thereafter.

From 1858 he undertook research in organic chemistry under Kekulé at Ghent, later moving to Paris and Heidelberg.

Having further pursued the study of heat, light, and electricity, introduced to him by Williamson, in 1862 he was appointed professor of natural philosophy at Anderson's University in Glasgow. During three years there Foster became familiar with the student assisted research undertaken at the natural philosophy laboratory run by William Thomson at Glasgow University.

1868 Married Mary Ann Frances Muir of Greenock and they had four sons and four daughters, and all survived him

University College, London, appointed Foster as professor of experimental physics (physics from 1867) in August 1865; there he became a much respected if not especially effective lecturer. Although to some extent modelled on Thomson's archetype in Glasgow, Foster's first achievement was to establish a students' physical laboratory in 1866, the first in Britain to offer systematic instruction in experimental physics to undergraduates. In the same year Foster was invited to join the BAAS committee on electrical standards, and often chaired its meetings. Working with other leading figures in physics and telegraphy such as Thomson, Wheatstone, Fleeming Jenkin, and C. W. Siemens, he acquired much expertise in precision techniques of electrical measurement, especially of resistance and determining current flow, and induction, in relation to the problems of telegraphy.

Foster was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1869, serving two terms as its vice-president in 1891–3 and 1901–3. He was president of section A of the BAAS in 1877 and was general treasurer of the association from 1888 until 1904.

In the course of his many investigations to measure and compare standards of electrical resistance Foster adapted the Wheatstone bridge to measure small differences (rather than ratios) of resistance. This important device, known and widely used for many years as the Carey Foster bridge, was presented at one of the earliest meetings of the Society of Telegraph Engineers in 1871. Foster had been one of the founder members of this society (the Institution of Electrical Engineers from 1888) and served as its president in 1880–81. Foster's reputation as an expert in the practical aspects of physics was further enhanced by the publication in 1875 of his preface to Introduction to Experimental Physics, a translation by B. Loewy of A. F. Weinhold's German original, Vorschule der Experimentalphysik (Leipzig, 1874).

In the thirty-two years that Foster ran his laboratory at University College his students, including William Edward Ayrton, Oliver Lodge, and John Ambrose Fleming, practised accurate measurement. As dean of the faculty of sciences in 1874 Foster achieved BSc status for experimental physics in 1876, and, with Fleming and Beare, the construction of purpose designed new laboratories in 1893, the physics wing of which was renamed as the Carey Foster Laboratory after he retired from the retitled Quain chair in 1898.

Along with Alfred Porter of the same institution, he wrote An Elementary Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, founded on Joubert's Traité Élémentaire D' Électricitié, a standard text in the years around the beginning of the 20th century.

Foster was for many years editor of the Philosophical Magazine, working at this task until shortly before his death. His many achievements were recognized by the granting of honorary doctorates—an LL.D. from the University of Glasgow during its jubilee in 1901, and a DSc from Manchester. A quiet, unassuming man, somewhat nervous in manner, he was disinclined to draw attention to his wide-ranging accomplishments, hence, perhaps, his neglect by historians of physics.

Foster lived with his family in a number of houses in London while employed at University College.

After retiring in 1904 Foster and his family moved to Rickmansworth in the Hertfordshire countryside, where he became a justice of the peace and took an active interest in Liberal Party politics.

1919 February 9th Foster developed congestion of the lungs in January 1919 and died of heart failure at his home, Ladywalk, Long Lane, Rickmansworth. He was buried next to his wife in the cemetery at Rickmansworth.

The Carey Foster bridge is named after him: it is used to measure very low resistances, although it can be used to find, for example, small differences between large resistances. The bridge is in two parts: a slide wire, connected by thick copper cables to a holder for standard resistances.


1919 Obituary [1]

GEORGE CAREY FOSTER, LL.D., D.Sc, F.R.S., died in his eighty-fourth year on the 9th February, 1919. He was the only son of George Foster, a calico printer and a Justice of the Peace for Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire.

He was born at Sabden in Lancashire in October 1835.

He was educated at private schools and University College, London, where he was attracted to chemistry. He took an Honours degree and a prize in chemistry in 1855, and acted for some years as assistant to Professor Williamson.

After 1858 he travelled on the Continent, and spent some years in study in Ghent, Heidelberg, and Paris. While he studied chemistry he paid more and more attention to physics, and especially to thermodynamics and electricity. His elaborate article on "Heat," published in 1863 in Watts' "Dictionary of Chemistry," was a complete treatise which guided students in research for many years. Guidance of that kind is not now to be had.

In 1862 he became Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Andersonian University, Glasgow, and in 1865 he became Professor of Experimental Physics in University College, London. On the retirement of Professor Hirst in 1867 from the chair of Mathematical Physics, the two chairs were combined into the single chair of Physics, which became in 1888 the Quain chair, under the endowment of Sir Richard Quain; this was held by Dr. Foster till 1898, when he retired.

In 1900 the office of Principal of the College was instituted, and Dr. Foster filled it during the four critical years which followed. He remained a member of the College Committee till 1916, when he retired on account of deafness. He was a strong supporter of the movement for the admission of women to University teaching, and took a leading part in the pioneer work of his College towards the fulfilment of this aim.

Of late years he lived a rather retired life on a pretty country estate at Rickmansworth. He acted as J.P. for Hertfordshire and as manager of Mill End Schools, and took a lively interest in politics. After the death of his wife in 1917 he took less interest in public affairs, but even within two weeks of his death he busied himself still as an editor of the Philosophical Magazine. At the end of January he had a slight attack of congestion of the lungs, his heart gradually became weaker during 10 days, and he died in the presence of his children.

"He was a very modest and retiring man who in no sense courted popularity, but his sterling character assured him of the high esteem and regard of all those who had the privilege of knowing him." These are the words of a man who knew him in politics, in his citizen duties. The experimental methods introduced by him, especially in electricity, have been generally adopted in all laboratories in the world; the Carey Foster bridge is still in use as the best method of measuring small resistances. Sir William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) allowed one or two students to do experimental work, and so did Professor Foster; but Foster was the first to establish that kind of regular laboratory work for students which is now to be found in all colleges.

Sir Oliver Lodge, one of his old students, writing in the Philosophical Magazine, says, "George Carey Foster was one of the most lovable of men. He was a man of remarkably sound judgment, so that his opinion, when he would give it, was always welcome: he had an instinct for discriminating between wise and foolish schemes or policies, and always lent the weight of his influence in what experience showed to be the right direction. . . . He was never a fluent, lecturer; he thought too carefully over his sentences, and delivered them with a hesitancy that made him difficult to follow; yet, when taken down, his lectures were a model of cautious, exact exposition—accurate and well-formed, like his handwriting. By senior and painstaking students he was much appreciated; and, though he made no claim to encyclopaedic knowledge, his acquaintance with German treatises enabled him to direct inquirers to original sources, and to stimulate a certain type of research; while his natural bent led him to encourage exact measurement. . . . He was very modest about his own work, and sometimes seemed rather surprised at the importance attached by physicists to his paper before what was then the Society of Telegraph Engineers (now the Institution of Electrical Engineers) on the ' Wheatstone Bridge.' But at the time it was written, it was a most ingenious and instructive piece of work, and displayed a number of special features which anyone less critically thorough than himself would have overlooked. Undoubtedly he therein devised the method—not at all an obvious method - for extremely accurate comparison of standards of resistance, turning the bridge into an instrument for the measurement of differences instead as previously only of ratios, and thus, importantly supplementing Wheatstone's or Christie's original design. The principle of the Carey Foster bridge was also used by him for a very accurate and convenient method of plotting the equipotential lines of a current flowing between electrodes situated anywhere in a plane conducting sheet. . . . Many other things he did; but after all his desire to help senior students, and those members of the staff who came under his personal influence, was perhaps the most prominent feature of his life and the one I have most pleasure in remembering; his house in Hilldrop-road, Camden Town, was the centre of simple and kindly hospitality. Not at all likely to be deceived by mere plausibility, and of a very critical and shy disposition, he formed his judgment of men, and when it was favourable nothing that he could do to help them was too great a call upon his time. . . . Long and well did Carey Foster serve the Philosophical Magazine, and he must have acted as referee for an immense number of papers. Of Dr. William Francis, senior, he was an intimate friend, and gave him the benefit of counsel and support through difficult negotiations at a time when the policy of the conductors of the Magazine was passing through what might have been a revolutionary period. He regarded the Magazine as one of the bulwarks of serious physics in this country, and exerted himself to preserve it practically in its ancient form. He also took a leading part in the formation of the Physical Society of London; he and Professor Guthrie together were in my opinion its real founders. . . . Through the period of the seventies of last century it is not too much to say that Carey Foster was the leader of physics in London; and a wiser, more cautious and yet earnest and indefatigable man could not readily have beeufound."

In 1892 a special building for Research in Experimental Physics was erected at the College and named after him, to commemorate the fact that he was the pioneer in giving students laboratory work as a part of the curriculum. He was a fellow of the University, but he was more particularly a fellow of the College, of which he was a loyal son. Education, untrammelled by extraneous considerations, could not be obtained elsewhere in the days when the College was founded. In his own words, he looked upon the College "not only as an important place of education, but as an important expression of a most remarkable intellectual movement" - a movement which stood " for free inquiry and effort towards improvement, intellectual and social."

He was anxious that the University of London should become something more than a mere examining body, and in pursuit of this idea he supported the movement that led to the incorporation of the College with the University. Some account of his work in this connection will be found in a notice by Dr. A. H. Fison in the Transactions of the Chemical Society, JO, 19, vol. 115, in which will also be found an account of his early scientific papers, which are all related to chemical subjects. Every electrical engineer ought to study the volume containing all the Reprinted Reports of the British Association Committee on Electrical Standards [Cambridge, The University Press, 1913] for 50 years, from 1862 to 1912. He will there see how the greatest scientific men worked, year after year, to place electrical engineering on a firm foundation. Lord Kelvin, Wheatstone, Matthiessen, Jenkin, Siemens, Maxwell, Joule, Carey Foster, Latimer Clark, Hockin, Ayrton, Lord Rayleigh, Dr. Muirhead, Hopkinson, Schuster, Glazebrook, and Viriamu Jones, these among many others are names that deserve honour. Much of the work done may be understood from Foster's article " Electricity," in Watts' Dictionary.

In 1881 the B.A. committee published Carey Foster's paper, " An Account of Preliminary Experiments for the Determination of the Electro-Magnetic unit of Resistance in Absolute Measure." The committee had in 1863 adopted the method of revolving a large flat closed coil of insulated copper wire about a vertical diameter so that the horizontal component of the earth's magnetic field produced an electromotive force and therefore a current in the coil, whose amount was measured by the deflection of a magnetic needle suspended at the centre of the coil. The circuit was completed only for a short interval when the plane of the coil was nearly in the magnetic meridian. In Carey Foster's method the circuit of the rotating coil was closed for a much longer period; the standard coil was distinct; its resistance was measured when it formed part of a fixed and independent circuit; it might be of copper or any other material, and its temperature could be kept constant and measured with accuracy. The correction for self-induction of the revolving coil was reduced, but unfortunately it was necessary to take its capacity into account. The results were not good enough to satisfy Foster, especially as about that time Lord Rayleigh and Professor Schuster, using the original apparatus of 1863 and adopting new precautions, obtained results which they published in 1882, results. whose values were and are now accepted as close approximations to the truth.

From 1897 onwards Professor Viriamu Jones and Professor Ayrton, using an apparatus described by Lorenz, with improvements suggested by experience, obtained the results which are at present accepted and on which the governments of the world now base their definitions of commercial electrical units. Before the Physical Society of London, Foster published in 1884 a paper "On the Difference of Potential required to give Sparks in Air," and in 1886, "On a Method of Determining Coefficients of Mutual Induction." This is the standard method now used in laboratories. In later years he published a textbook on Electricity in collaboration with Professor Porter.

He became a member of the British Association in 1857, and took an active part in its work till late in life. He was a member of many of its Research Committees, among which were that already mentioned on Electrical Standards; those on the Selection and Nomenclature of Dynamical and Electrical Units; the State of Knowledge of Spectrum Analysis and Electrolysis. He was President of Section A in 1877. He was General Treasurer of the Association from 1888 to 1904. Of the Physical Society of London he was not only one of the founders in 1873 but he was President in 1887 and 1888. He helped to found the Society of Telegraph Engineers (now the Institution of Electrical Engineers), was its President in 1880 and 1881, and was elected an Honorary Member in 1916. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1869, acting as a Vice-President from 1891 to 1893 and also from 1901 to 1903. He was an active member of the Kew Committee. He received the honorary degrees of LL.D. from Glasgow and D.Sc. from Manchester. He was an honorary member of the Jewish Historical Society and of the American Philosophical Society. Readers will find much to interest them in the above mentioned obituary notice in the Transactions of the Chemical Society by Dr. Fison, the pupil, assistant and friend of Carey Foster. They will find interesting details in regard to the start and growth of his laboratory work until its consummation in the new building, the faithfulness of his dealing with students, and other matters which one lingers over with pleasure. Dr. Fison publishes a page of extracts from a few letters whose whole-hearted fun may be a revelation to many readers. For m\self I wish we had a hundred such pages of kindly fun. Dr. Fison says: "The private life of Carey Foster was one of quiet beauty. His transparent honesty and high regard for truth earned him the respect of his friends, whilst his unvarying kindness and courtesy won their affection."

In 1868 he married Mary Anne Frances, daughter of Andrew Muir, of Greenock. They had four sons and four daughters, all of whom are still living.

Carey Foster had many distinguished pupils. I have quoted the words of two of them. I can only add that all younger workers in physics were grateful to him for kind encouragement. We admired him for the soundness of his own work and his great knowledge of what other people had done, but above all we admired him as a thoroughly good man.


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