Copper Science

From the mid-nineteenth century scientific developments both drove innovations in refining copper and also fed the revolution in harnessing electricity for energy and long-distance telegraph communication.

Pembrey Copper Works, Burry Port, can be seen in the background of this postcard (© National Museum of Wales)In 1865 a new method of electrolytic refining enabled a much purer form of copper to be obtained. This process developed from the chemical electroplating of base metals with silver in the 1840s. James Elkington of Birmingham installed the world’s first electrolytic refining plant at Pembrey Copper Works, near Burry Port, Carmarthenshire in 1869.

A cathode is an ingot of electrolytically refined copper. This cathode was produced by a Welsh copper works in 1890 and recovered from the shipwreck of SS Benamain which sank off the Gower coast when voyaging from Swansea to Treport in northern France.

Cathode, an ingot of electrolytically-refined copper (© National Museum of Wales)

Demand for very pure copper was partly fuelled by scientific innovations in harnessing electricity and the development of telegraphy for long-distance instant communication.

Cable samples from different parts of the 1858 Atlantic telegraph cable, formed from seven strands of the copper conductor and the insulating latex or gutta percha (Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, Cornwall)

In 1844 Sir Charles Wheatstone conducted the first underwater telegraph experiment in Swansea Bay. Copper for the first experiment of laying transatlantic cable was produced by Williams, Foster and Co.’s Morfa works in 1857.

John Henry Vivian was a copper magnate and scientist who worked with leading scientists of the time such as Humphrey Davy and Michael Faraday to attempt to find a way of reducing the toxic pollution caused by copper smoke. Swansea hosted the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meetings in 1848 and 1880.

The Great Copper Smoke

[Cambrian article, excerpt from defence document]


Bronze statue of John Henry Vivian (1785-1855), scientist, politician and copper magnate, Swansea Marina (Tom Goskar)

Copper smoke billowing out of the Swansea copperworks. View from Prince of Wales Dock, after 1882, by Thomas Kell (City and County of Swansea: Swansea Museum)








Download Copper Science / Dadlwytho Gwyddoniaeth Copr (PDF, 795KB)

Find out more:

Read Proceedings from the meeting held at Swansea, 1848 of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Read Proceedings from the meeting held at Swansea, 1880 of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Recommended reading

Search the Copper Bibliography