History of Welsh Science

Last updated: 28 February 2012

As BBC Wales launches its major history series The Story of Wales, Adam and guests tell the story of the scientists and engineers who left their mark on Welsh history.

Broadcast Tuesday 28th February at 7pm

Listen to the latest programme online

The Robert Recorde Memorial at Swansea University's Computer Science Department

Prof. John Tucker from Swansea University selects Robert Recorde, the Tudor mathematician who invented the 'equals' sign. Born in Tenby around 1510, Recorde studied at Oxford and Cambridge and became a physician as well as a public servant. Recorde's major contribution to mathematics was a series of four books, the first to be written on the subject in English. The last of them, The Whetstone of Whit, puts forward the idea of the 'equals' sign and was published shortly before Recorde died in a debtor's prison in 1558 after being successfully sued for libel by the Earl of Pembroke.

John's other choice is John Dillwyn Llewelyn, the eldest son of a wealthy Swansea family and one of the pioneers of photography. Very soon after Louis Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot announced their photographic processes, John Dillwyn Llewelyn started experimenting and developed his own 'oxymel' process. John was just one member of an influential dynasty which made important contributions to photography, industry and science.

Dr. Tom Sharpe, Curator of Geology at the National Museum, Cardiff, selects key figures from his field. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the heroic age of geology, there were few local geologists in Wales but the Welsh landscape was hugely important to the English geologist Adam Sedgwick and Roderick Murchison, a Scot, as they worked out the British Isles' geological timeline. And the geological periods Cambrian, Ordovician and Silurian are named after Welsh places and ancient tribes.

Our most famous home-grown geologist is Edward Llwyd (1660 - 1709). Llwyd is best known as a botanist but he was one of the first people to identify and name fossils, including the first ever record of a trilobite.

Edward Llwyd's 1699 Drawing of a Trilobite

Stephen Jones works on historical projects for the Institution of Civil Engineers and is the author of three books on Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his work in South Wales. Brunel engineered the main railway line through South Wales and also the Taff Vale Railway which became so important in bringing coal from the valleys down to Cardiff. Brunel's counterpart in North Wales was Thomas Telford, who worked on the route to Holyhead, including the Menai Bridge. He also engineered the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As with geology, there are relatively few well-known Welsh engineers from the nineteenth century, but Stephen Jones highlights Watkyn George, the mechanical genius of the Cyfarthfa Ironworks in Merthyr, and William Edwards who built the famous stone bridge at Pontypridd.

Science historian Dr. Neville Evans brings the story into the twentieth century and focuses on the work of E G Bowen, the Swansea-born physicist who was the father of airborne radar which helped ensure allied victory in the Battle of Britain and the Battle of the Atlantic. Bowen was also a key member of the Tizard Mission which shared the secret of radar with the United States government. Concepts of security have clearly changed since those days: Neville reveals that the night before Bowen left for America, he hid his suitcase containing the secrets of radar under his hotel bed!


Robert Recorde

Edward Llwyd

Brunel in South Wales

Telford in North Wales

The Dillwyns of Swansea

E G Bowen

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