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 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

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.


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