Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Robert Were Fox (The Younger)

1789 - 1877

Robert Were Fox, geologist and mine owner, was born into a prominent Quaker family (unrelated to George Fox) in Fowey, Cornwall. His father was also called Robert Were Fox, so he has become known as Robert Were Fox the Younger.  

Like his father before him, from 1819 to 1854, he served as United States Consul at Falmouth. The family business included copper mining, tin smelting and foundry-work, and the mines provided the perfect facilities for Fox’s research into geology, electricity and magnetism.

Fox’s earliest experiments, however, were in the elasticity of high-pressure steam, with the aim of improving the steam engines used to pump out the mines. With fellow engineer, Joel Lean, he was granted a patent in 1812 for his engine modifications.

In 1815, he began using precisely calibrated measurements taken in Cornwall’s deep mines to investigate the internal temperature of the earth. He was the first person to prove that heat increased with depth, but also that the rate of increase slowed with depth. This is known as the geothermal gradient.

Fox discovered that metallic veins in the mines had electro-magnetic properties. He also showed that small mineral veins could, over time, be formed in clay by passing electrical current through it.

In 1832, Fox’s work on magnetism led him to develop an improved form of compass that could be used by Polar explorers. Dip circles (compasses that measure the angle between the horizon and the Earth's magnetic field) had been found to perform poorly in the Arctic. Fox developed a solution that measured both magnetic dip and magnetic intensity, and which worked at all latitudes. His dip circle was also robust enough to work on board ship. His design was promoted by explorers including John Franklin and Francis Beaufort from the 1830s to the 1870s. One was used by Sir James Clark Ross in 1837 on his Antarctic expedition to discover the position of the South magnetic pole.

Fox had three children, two daughters (Anna Maria and Caroline) and a son (Barclay). All three pursued a broad education, and took an interest in the workings of the foundry, where workers were encouraged to bring forward ideas and inventions. When they were still teenagers, they suggested to their father “some fitting arena ... for all this inventive talent [so that] the really useful inventions could be at once recognised and rewarded.”

Friends and family seem to have taken up this idea with enthusiasm, and in 1833, Fox and his daughters founded the Cornwall Polytechnic Society, the first of its kind in England, ‘…to stimulate the ingenuity of the young, to promote industrious habits among the working classes, and to elicit the inventive powers of the community at large.’ The Society had local committees in towns all over Cornwall, as well as a ladies’ committee. In 1835, it became the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society. Anna Maria remained closely associated with the Polytechnic all her life and in 1896 was named vice-patroness, alongside the Prince of Wales. ‘The Poly’ continues in Falmouth to this day, with a remit to “encourage and support artistic, creative and technological endeavour and innovation.”

Altogether, Fox wrote fifty-two papers for various scientific journals on a wide variety of subjects. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1848. He was also a member of the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, and the National Society of Washington.

Like many Quakers of the period, he was also interested in botany. Penjerrick Garden, a 15 acre site near Falmouth in Cornwall, still contains many species that he and his son, Barclay, naturalised. 

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