HL Deb 21 June 1883 vol 280 cc1103-12

asked, Whether, owing to the nature of the constitution of the Committee appointed by the Board of Trade on lighthouse illuminants, Professor Tyndall has resigned his position as Scientific Adviser of the Board of Trade, and the Commissioners of Irish Lights had withdrawn from the inquiry; and, if so, whether it is the intention of the Board of Trade to re-constitute the Committee; also, whether there is any objection to lay before the House the minutes of proceedings of the Committee; and the correspondence between Professor Tyndall, the Board of Trade, the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses, and the Commissioners of Irish Lights? The noble Earl said, that the question affected private rights and the public interests. The question which was involved was, what was the best illuminant to be used in our lighthouses round the Coast? It was a matter which deeply affected the lives and welfare of our sailors. It appeared that there was a difference of opinion as to whether gas or oil burners should be used. As far back as 1875, Professor Tyndall had reported in favour of the use of gas for this purpose. His Report showed that gas was, in the view of practical men, the better illuminant; and in Ireland there was a great wish that it might be used. The Commissioners of Irish Lights were anxious to adopt the recommendation of the Report as far as possible; but they were opposed both by the Trinity House and the Board of Trade, who refused to sanction the necessary expenditure. A protest against this decision was signed by several influential persons, among whom were the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Lord Monck, and Lord Meath; and the controversy, thus renewed, went on for some time, till at last the Board of Trade instituted a formal inquiry into the whole subject. After the first appointment of the Committee it was re-constituted on a different basis, to which Professor Tyndall objected, on the ground that the oil interest preponderated over the gas interest; and the subsequent action of the Committee appeared to have justified Professor Tyndall's resignation, because the Committee had made experiments with stronger oil-burners than any in use while gas-burners of the highest power invented by Mr. Wigham had not been allowed to be exhibited. The Irish Board of Lights had no alternative, under the circumstances, than to retire from the Committee. The present position of affairs was that Professor Tyndall had severed his connection with the Board of Trade. The personal aspect of the question was of the least importance as far as the results were concerned; but the question was important as affecting the security of property and the lives of sailors at sea, and he trusted that the Government would be able to give a satisfactory explanation of the matter. He also trusted the Committee would be so altered as to enable Professor Tyndall to rejoin the Board.


said, that the subject which had been raised by the noble Earl was one in which, unfortunately, a great deal of personal feeling had been imported, and in regard to which a considerable amount of jealousy had arisen. In answer to the first Question of the noble Earl, he must at once say it was true that Professor Tyndall had resigned his post as Scientific Adviser of the Board of Trade, and the President had expressed his very great regret that this should have taken place. The noble Earl had quoted very largely from the published Correspondence, and psssibly had left the erroneous view upon their Lordships' minds that the Board of Trade and the Trinity House had acted in a very high-handed manner to the prejudice of Professor Tyndall. The noble Earl stated that the resignation was due to the constitution of the Committee charged with the proposed experiments; and that Professor Tyndall considered that Mr. Wigham, the inventor of the well-known gas burner, was not likely to have fair play, as the engineer to the Trinity House held a patent for an improved burner, and it was thought he looked coldly on the use of gas in lighthouses. Ho further said that Professor Tyndall brought a charge against the Board of Trade for general want of support of the gas system, which he stated was in 1879 brought to the verge of destruction; also, that Professor Tyndall objected to the action of the Trinity House in seeking to invalidate some of Mr. Wigham's patent rights. He did not complain of the view put forward by the noble Earl; but he thought it must be quite clear to anyone who had perused the Correspondence that there was another side to the story; and he would endeavour to put briefly before their Lordships the views entertained by the Trinity House, the Commissioners of Northern Lights, and the Board of Trade, and the action they had taken in this matter. He would first clear the ground of that part of the charge which referred to past years. The noble Earl had quoted from Professor Tyndall's letter of the 28th of March, in which, while speaking strongly in favour of the gas system, and quoting the evidence of high authorities in its favour, he stated that— In the face of this, the gas system in 1879 was brought to the verge of destruction; also that the Board of Trade— With unaccountable unwisdom, ratified all this, and signed what would have been the death warrant of the gas system, if active steps had not been taken to interpose. This complaint against the Board was in respect of the action in past years under previous Governments. The great authorities of the Trinity House, the Northern Lights, and the Board of Trade were of opinion that these charges were unfounded, and that no experiment on a sufficient scale had taken place to prove the superiority of the gas system. For his present purpose he thought it would be quite sufficient if he was able to show that from the year 1880 the charges made against the Board of Trade could not be substantiated. It would be well to state at once what position the Board of Trade held in regard to this matter. The three lighthouse authorities—the Corporation of the Trinity House, the Commissioners of Northern Lights, and the Commissioners of Irish Lights—had full power to deal in their respective localities on the question as to whether gas, oil, or electricity should be employed for illumination. The Board of Trade was only indirectly the controlling authority, as they were the Trustees of the Mercantile Marine Fund, and it devolved upon them to see that the money was properly spent. As far as possible the Board of Trade refrained from interference with these local authorities; but it was clearly the duty of the Board to bring them together when any difference arose in connection with their work, in order to render their arrangements as uniform as possible. The question of the efficiency and comparative cost of the three illuminants—gas, oil, and latterly of electricity—had been for some time under consideration. The Commissioners of Irish Lights had taken a very strong stand in favour of gas. The other two great authorities, certainly of equal weight and experience, were not, however, of the same opinion; and it had, therefore, seemed most desirable to the Board of Trade, acting really as a go-between, that experiments should be made, after the present Government came into power, to determine which of the three illuminants should be adopted, and, by means of careful and exhaustive trials, to clear the whole matter up. The position of the Board of Trade to the Commissioners of Irish Lights was somewhat peculiar, and involved special responsibility from their position as Trustees to the Mercantile Marine Fund. The noble Earl had quoted a letter of Professor Tyndall of the 8th of March, in which he said that— If the treatment of the gas invention is a fair sample of the general treatment of Ireland by England, it would be the duty of every Irishman to become a Home Ruler. To clear that point up let him at once say that he could not believe Professor Tyndall could have been aware of the financial position of the Commissioners of Irish Lights when he made this observation. If the Commissioners had had Home Rule in this matter they would be absolutely bankrupt. It appeared that, whereas in 1881 they spent £82,000, they received dues amounting to only £21,000; so that no less than £61,000 had to be paid over to them from the dues collected in England and Scotland to enable them to carry out the work of lighting the Irish Coast. He mentioned this fact merely to show how very responsible a position the Board of Trade held towards the Commissioners of Irish Lights as Trustees of the Mercantile Marine Fund. The President paid a visit to Ireland in 1881, and was shown the working of Mr. Wigham's apparatus on the spot. He was very much struck with the importance of the invention; and although he found there was some little difference of opinion among the Commissioners themselves, he thought the matter of such consequence that he suggested a series of comparative experiments should be carried out as soon as possible under the observation of Professor Tyndall. As matters proceeded it was found that a trial on a small scale could not be satisfactorily carried out; and the Trinity House suggested, on the 28th of March, 1882, that the preliminary trials should be given up, and that the investigation should be thoroughly exhaustive and complete, and include a full inquiry into the merits of the electric light. Professor Tyndall, in September, 1882, had expressed himself very strongly respecting Mr. Wigham and Sir James Douglass being both inventors, and, therefore, that they ought to be put on the same footing. This the Corporation of Trinity House objected to, and stated to the Board of Trade in October, 1882, that— The question of equal personal interests should be reduced to its true proportion. Mr. Wigham, the patentee of the composite gas burner, is a manufacturer, constructing and vending to the lighthouse authorities not only the burner itself, but the whole gas-making apparatus connected with it. He has incurred the expense of a patent, and will reap substantial profit at the hands of the shipowner in the event of success after those trials. Sir James Douglass is not a manufacturer nor a trader in oil. He has himself incurred the expense of a patent, without any contribution by the Corporation, and has granted the free use of it to all the Lighthouse Boards; so that he makes no profit whatever by success, and the only benefittee is the shipowner. It was well known that Sir James Douglass was the life and soul of the Trinity House. About this time the President of the Board of Trade had an interview with Professor Tyndall on the subject of the experiments; and in the course of conversation it appeared to him that as Professor Tyndall seemed to have a very strong opinion as to the superiority of gas over oil, and as to the special right of Mr. Wigham as regards patents, and some little disposition to impute motives and pecuniary interests to people, it would be better to have another gentleman appointed to assist in the investigation specially representing the Board of Trade, and thoroughly and entirely impartial. Now, in speaking of Professor Tyndall, it must be remembered that he was one who stood very high indeed in the scientific world. He was a gentleman well known to many of their Lordships, and his high character, straightforwardness, and independence were well known; but it was no discredit to him to say that he had the character that, when once he had formed an opinion, it was almost impossible to get him to alter it. The President of the Board of Trade had felt he was bound, as a Trustee, to look upon the matter from a practical point of view. He had to remember that, however high a value he might place on Professor Tyndall's opinion, the Corporation of the Trinity House, with their great authorities, and the Commissioners of Northern Lights, with their eminent scientific advisers, were distinctly opposed to the view that gas was better than oil, and would not agree to any Committee they considered to be partial. When, therefore, he found on the part of Professor Tyndall an apparent leaning on one side, he thought it was impossible to leave the matter entirely under Professor Tyndall's supervision. Under these circumstances, Mr. Vernon Harcourt, who was Gas Referee to the Board of Trade, was appointed to act specially in their interest in the matter, and it was hoped that this would have been done without in any way slighting the feelings of Professor Tyndall. It was proposed that the engineers of the three Boards, with Professor Tyndall and Mr Vernon Harcourt, should form the proposed Committee of Inquiry, and that Mr. Wigham, as the inventor of the improved gas-burner, in deference to Professor Tyndall's wishes, should be put in the same position as Sir James Douglass, the patentee of a burner. At first it was arranged that these two gentlemen should not vote on the Committee. A letter received from the Chairman of the Committee, dated the 22nd of January, 1883, (No.59), showed the difficulty arising from Sir James Douglass's and Mr. Wigham's position not being properly defined; and it was thought better, on the whole, to let these two gentlemen, who might be considered to represent gas and oil respectively, become ordinary Members of the Committee. In the same letter was mentioned a suggestion from the Trinity House, that the Board of Trade should appoint some gentleman conversant with the theoretical details of the electric light. In accordance with this, the Board of Trade selected Dr. Hopkinson —as being one of the ablest and best known electrical engineers—to represent that branch on the Committee. On February 3, Professor Tyndall asked to be relieved of the duty of serving on the proposed Committee. The Board of Trade wrote immediately, stating that the Committee would, in their opinion, be incomplete without his presence and assistance; and, on the 17th, Professor Tyndall suggested an alternative Committee, leaving out the names of Dr. Hopkinson and Mr. William Douglass. The Board of Trade replied, on the 20th of February, that they could not allow him to nominate the Committee. As far as Dr. Hopkinson was concerned, it appeared that Professor Tyndall, in his letter of the 28th of March, objected to him, because he was an intimate friend and associate of Sir James Douglass. The Board of Trade looked upon Dr. Hopkinson as a gentleman whose standing in his Profession was such as to place him above the suspicion of prejudice. Their Lordships would see that in the same way it would be easy to retort upon Professor Tyndall, in respect to his strong feelings in favour of Mr. Wigham's gas process and his patent rights, that he also was prejudiced. But the Board of Trade were emphatically of opinion that those insinuations and suggestions ought not to have been made. As regarded the point raised by Professor Tyndall, to the effect that Mr. Wigham and Sir James Douglass ought not to have the power of voting on the Committee, the Board of Trade pointed out in their letter to the Commissioners of Irish Lights— As to the question whether one or more of the Members of the Committee should be deprived of voting, the Board do not think there is need of any instruction being given to the Committee on this point. If there should be a necessity for voting, the names of the Members voting will appear in the Report, and any pecuniary interest which any Member will have will be duly weighed. Besides, as the Board have told the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses, the Committee and its Members cannot be expected to act as the practical advisers of the Government or the Lighthouse Board. Their functions will be confined to ascertaining by experiment certain facts on which at present there is some difference of opinion, and no exact means of determining results. The sole object of the present inquiry was for the public good. The success of individual inventors, apart from the obvious duty of dealing justly by them, was a matter of minor importance. In answer to another Question of the noble Earl, be might state that the Commissioners of Irish Lights had intimated their intention of withdrawing from the inquiry; but the Board of Trade had discovered that this was only due to a misunderstanding as to the manner in which the Committee intended to carry out their business. They had since placed the explanation of the Committee with supplementary Correspondence before the Commissioners of Irish Lights, and had every reason to think that the Commissioners would at once reconsider their decision. If, however, they should feel it their duty to permanently withdraw, the Board of Trade would have to consider seriously whether it would be worth while to proceed with the experiments, or whether it would be better to let the whole matter drop, and for each authority to carry out their own trials. The Committee had only met on a few occasions, and it would be impossible for the Minutes of their proceedings to be published piecemeal. The general Correspondence on the subject, numbering no less than 112 letters, was in the possession of the House. In reference to the inquiry by the noble Earl as to the omission of a portion of Mr. Vernon Harcourt's letter of November, 1882 (No. 51), he would state that it was merely a copy of extracts from a confidential letter sent to the Trinity House. The whole letter had been shown to Professor Tyndall; but, in writing to the Trinity House, it was thought inexpedient to quote the whole of a private letter. He thought that after that review the House would see that, in arranging for this Committee, the Trinity House, the Commissioners of Northern Lights, and the Board of Trade, had been desirous that its representation should be such as to make a valuable, practical, and exhaustive inquiry into every branch of the subject, and to be enabled to give an opinion of the greatest public importance. It was much to be regretted that any personal feeling of jealousy should have arisen, but the Board of Trade hoped that the whole matter would now settle down, and the investigation be allowed to proceed.


said, until Wednesday night, when he had the Correspondence to which the noble Earl (the Earl of Dunraven) had alluded placed in his hands, he was entirely ignorant of the subject; but as he enjoyed the friendship of Professor Tyndall, and knew him to be not only a man of great scientific attainments, but also a fair-minded man, he could not but think that some blunder had been made on the part of the Board of Trade. Having read the whole Correspondence which had been published, he was a little amused with the way in which it had been handled by the noble Earl, who read a number of extracts from Professor Tyndall's letters, but did not give their Lordships the smallest hint of what were the answers of the great Public Departments—the Scottish Commissioners, the English Commissioners —the Trinity House—and the Irish Commissioners. Having, as he had said, read the Correspondence, and being, at the same time, entirely satisfied of the perfect purity of his motives, he could not but come to the conclusion that Professor Tyndall had made a very great mistake in refusing his services to the Board of Trade. The real question was, what was the best illuminant for lighthouses in the Three Kingdoms?—a purely scientific question, to be determined by experiments which must be conducted under the very best scientific authorities that could be obtained. The Board of Trade consulted with the three great bodies connected with the Three Kingdoms. They requested these bodies to name their own Representatives on the Committee, and this was done. Professor Tyndall had persuaded himself of the great superiority of the gas illuminant which had been developed under the care of Mr. Wigham, the inventor of a gas illuminator, who was one of the Members appointed on the Committee. Professor Tyndall, therefore, objected to the constitution of the Committee, principally on the ground that it included Sir James Douglass, who was engineer to the Trinity House, and was personally interested in a patent for an oil illuminant. There were two ways in which such a body of men might be selected. One would be to choose only such as had no interest in any particular method—in fact, a body of judges. The other course, which was actually adopted, was to select representatives of every interest. Thus, though Sir James Douglass had an interest in oil, Mr. Wigham, Professor Tyndall's friend, had a patent for gas illuminants, and was a gas manufacturer. Thus each of those gentlemen would correct the other. The Board of Trade, in deference to Professor Tyndall's opinion, were quite willing to remove the name of Mr. William Douglass from the Committee, as he was Sir James Douglass's brother. Therefore, he did not think any blame could attach to the Board of Trade in the matter; but he was quite certain that, under the circumstances, Professor Tyndall was mistaken in the view he had taken. It was the case of an Irish invention versus an English invention. He did not think either the Northern Commissioners in Scotland, or the Trinity House in England, could have the smallest prejudice against any particular invention. He felt perfectly certain that they would give equal justice to all the inventions brought before them. Since his noble Friend had sat down he had received a telegram, which showed that his noble Friend had made a mistake, and that the decision of the Committee he referred to only related to minor experiments. He believed that it was the opinion of the Trinity House authorities that oil could be made quite as efficient as gas for the less powerful lights, but that for the more powerful lights electricity must be employed. It was for this reason that they desired that Dr. Hopkinson, who was specially acquainted with the subject of electric lighting, should be placed upon the Committee.