Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 150,662 pages of information and 235,203 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Percy Williams

From Graces Guide

Percy Williams (c1874-1942), of Aluminium Plant and Vessel Co

1942 Obituary [1]

With the death of Percy Williams on February 21, 1942, there passed a man who, but for his innate shyness and hatred of publicity, might well have rocked the scientific world. He was born in 1873 in Hackney of humble, deeply religious parents, who sent him to a Chapel School in Lower Clapton. His early scientific training was obtained at the Alexandra Palace. Later he studied under Sir William Ramsay for several years, at University College, Gower Street, taking his B.Sc., and ultimately becoming Ramsay's assistant.

From London Williams migrated to Paris where he spent two years in the Laboratory of Henri Moissan. To round off his education he decided to go on to Berlin in 1898 to work with J. Van't Hoff. Funds for the journey were, however, lacking, and, characteristically, Williams made it on his bicycle! I think he must have gone into industry in 1900, for I have before me a letter from Moissan written to Williams in that year and approving of such a step. Certainly by 1903 he was established as Chief Chemist to the British Uralite Company at Higham in Kent, for it was there and then that I came under him, and it was there that we conducted our first joint research, which resulted in a modification of the Uralite process which was in use for many years and, for all I know, is still used to-day.

In 1906 he left England to take up the position of Chemist to the Borneo Rubber and Trading Company at their Soekadana factory, where he was, I believe, in charge of the production of quinine. He remained in Borneo until 1911, when the factory was closed, owing to the failure of the bark supply. Williams always regarded his stay in Borneo as the happiest period of his life, and memories of those days brightened his later years and formed the subject of many stories on the rare occasions when he could be induced to speak of himself.

Returning to England, he worked for a time under Professor Bone with the Bone-Court Combustion Company, and in 1914 joined me at Point Pleasant, Wandsworth. From then till the evening on which he died, a period of close on 28 years, we were in almost daily contact. Williams' most far-reaching work was probably done in Ramsay's laboratory in connection with the discovery of argon. Just what his part in the discovery was I cannot say. One of his earlier employers told me that the isolation of argon by the use of magnesium was Williams' contribution, but that Ramsay was unwilling to add a third name to his own and Rayleigh's when the paper describing their joint work was published. Whether this was true or not there is now no means of knowing. Williams always refused to discuss the matter, but I felt that a slight sense of grievance remained with him to the end.

As a research worker Williams was distinguished by encyclopaedic knowledge, unfailing memory, and a flair for the crucial experiment which should settle the problem once for all. As Moissan suggests in the letter to which I have referred, his scientific honesty was incorruptible, and I never knew him gloss over a difficulty or read into his results a desired interpretation. Above all he was a brilliant experimentalist.

It was well said by one of the young colleagues of his later years, whom he at first suffered anything rather than gladly but later learned to love, that Williams was gifted with "the brainiest pair of hands that were ever given to a man." His laboratory was an Augean stable except for the few square feet where he happened to be working. There everything was ordered and clean. His apparatus, whether of glass, metals, or other materials, was all home-made and extremely simple, as were his experiments. His work on grain growth well illustrates this characteristic. I had called his attention to trouble in the works in pressing an aluminium steam pan. Williams cut a few little strips of thin metal, pulled them out to various lengths in a vice, annealed and etched them, and the whole matter was plain. We showed those strips to the Faraday Society in July of 1918 (J. Faraday Soc., 1918-19, 14, 154) and enlisted the interest of Sir Harold Carpenter before relinquishing the matter. This was the starting point of carpenter and Elam's work on the production of single crystals (cf. J. Inst. Metals, 1918, 20, 162: 1920, 24, 151).

Williams gave to those who came in casual contact with him the impression of a crotchety old man, but no one ever asked for his assistance in vain or failed to win his interest in their problems or their difficulties. And yet there must be few who realized the depths of affection of which this seeming recluse was capable. We of the Aluminium Plant and Vessel Company are poorer far by his passing. RICHARD SELIGMAN.

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