New Zealanders and Science
10 — Mellor
The Careers of Rutherford and Mellor have a certain similarity. Though they graduated from different colleges, Rutherford from Canterbury, Mellor from Otago, these two leaders in science attended lectures during virtually the same years and carried out their most brilliant work during much the same period at towns far away indeed from their Dominion homes, but as close together as Manchester and the 'Five Towns' of Staffordshire. They died within a few months of each other in London. The status of Rutherford in physics is known to all New Zealanders, but that of Mellor in chemistry is less widely recognised.
Although the boy Mellor was already ten years old when he arrived in New Zealand, all his schooling was obtained here. When he left for England in 1899 at the age of thirty all the formative influences of his life were already behind him and his future greatness seemed assured to his teachers and associates.
Mellor's father, Job, was a loom-turner in the Yorkshire page 105woollen mills and a model of tireless patience. His name was not inappropriate. Not well educated by our modern standards, he was adaptable and a keen reader. He used to make his own clothes and in later years he built his own house in Dunedin. He was a man with strong Liberal and Labour sympathies and pre-eminently fitted for a colonial life. His wife, Emma, also from Yorkshire, was frugal, tidy, and a born home-maker.
Joseph William Mellor was born in Lindley, a suburb of Huddersfield, in 1869. The family arrived in Lyttelton in 1879 and spent two years in Kaiapoi, where the father worked in the woollen mills, and the children went to school. In 1881 they all went south to Dunedin, attracted by the woollen mills in the Kaikorai valley. Here the father built his house, and the family settled down. Joseph went to the Linden school, where he was regarded as an ordinary industrious schoolboy of no outstanding merit. Leaving school in December 1882, he started work as a handy boy in the employ of H. S. Fish, the prominent citizen, mayor, and member of Parliament, whose vituperative speeches were a feature of politics in the nineties.
Joseph then progressed through Simon Brothers' boot shop to McKinley's boot factory, and finally to the boot factory of Sargood and Sons where he worked for some years. Only recently a certain Dunedin citizen, who was Mellor's foreman at page 106Sargood's factory, thought of Mellor only as a quiet, studious boot-clicker, pondering over mysterious books in lunch hours and during every spare minute while the factory drone was still. As Mellor himself confided to his old schoolmate, lifelong friend, and brother-in-law, Mr Arthur Ellis of Dunedin, he was a youth in his early teens when he first conceived his lifelong determination—impossible of fruition as it then appeared—to become the foremost chemist of his time. This determination appears to have owed little to his environment, although his father was always very interested in all matters pertaining to science.
It was a long walk in those mornings over the Roslyn hill to Sargood's factory, and a longer walk back in the evening, but every night was spent at the beloved studies. A laboratory was built in the garden of the home—not a pretentious building, only a six foot by six foot shed of corrugated iron, fitted with such meagre apparatus and books as his modest savings could compass. While the evening meal was in progress, it was his mother's task, or rather labour of love, since the studies of young Joe were already the pride and hope of the parents, to heat a brick in the kitchen oven. Immediately the meal was over the indefatigable student withdrew to the tin shed for the evening, and there experimented and read by the light of a small kerosene lamp, with only a hot brick enclosed in flannel to keep himself warm. It is page 107interesting to learn that the tin shed was still in existence a few years ago, and that much of Mellor's modest apparatus was still housed there. A further proof of the young scientist's industry is revealed by the fact that being too poor to buy the books he needed, he borrowed many of them from various sources and laboriously copied out the contents in longhand.
There was of course little time for sport or other relaxation for one who was wont 'to scorn delights and live laborious days', but at the suggestion of Mr Arthur Ellis, Mellor was introduced to chess in 1885 and soon became an outstanding player. For some years he acted as chess editor of the Dunedin Evening Star and on occasions reached the finals of the New Zealand chess championship. In his maturer years in Staffordshire and London, we learn that the only sport that could delay the completion of his monumental Comprehensive Treatise on Inorganic and Theoretical Chemistry was a game of penny poker or the more erudite solo whist.
Mellor's studies attracted the attention of the late G. M. Thomson, science master at the Otago Boys' High School, and father of Dr Allan Thomson, the first New Zealand Rhodes Scholar. Mellor attended classes at the Technical School of which G. M. was a director, and from there he matriculated in 1892. By this time he had shown aptitude for mathematics also, and Thomson, recognising a coming genius, page 108arranged a bursary or scholarship to the university. He also assisted in the arrangement with Sargood's whereby Mellor was permitted the necessary time off to attend lectures. I well remember the enthusiasm of Mr Thomson after Mellor's fine work, Higher Mathematics for Students of Chemistry and Physics, was published in 1902, and his entreaties to us to watch Mellor—'he's the coming man'. We also must
'touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.'
At the University Mellor came under the influence of the veteran Professor Black, who was delighted when he recognised after a few years that Mellor had outstripped him in his own field. When the time came for Black to retire, it was suggested by friends in Dunedin that Mellor, then at Owens College, Manchester, should be brought back to succeed him. 'No, no!' the old man protested, 'he would be wasted here.' Certainly English industry would have been deprived of very valuable assistance in a wartime emergency if Mellor had returned to Dunedin.
In 1897 Mellor won the senior scholarship in chemistry from Otago, and in 1898 he gained first-class honours in chemistry, and in 1899 was awarded the 1851 Exhibition science scholarship in chemistry. It is interesting to remember that Rutherford won the senior scholarship in mathematics at Canterbury in 1893 and was awarded the Exhibition science page 109scholarship in electricity in 1894, and that Erskine gained the senior scholarship in physical science in 1893 and was awarded the Exhibition science scholarship in electricity in 1896, also from Canterbury College. Mellor taught at Lincoln Agricultural College for a few months until the benefits of the Exhibition scholarship could be utilised. Before leaving, Mellor, aged thirty, was married to Miss Emma Bakes, a young lady from Lincolnshire who had been brought up in Auckland. His early training completed, his happiness assured, and with brilliant prospects unfolding, Mellor sailed with his wife from Port Chalmers in August 1899, to take up his research scholarship at Owens College, Manchester, under Professor H. B. Dixon.
In 1902 Mellor, now a doctor of science, was appointed chemist to the Pottery Manufacturers' Federation, and proceeded to Newcastle-under-Lyme in the Five Towns where the pottery industry is centralised. This district was then becoming famous through the classic novels of Arnold Bennett, the greatest literary figure to emerge from the busy hills and valleys where the Five Towns cluster. It was here that Mellor was to find his life work. In 1905 he became director of the research laboratories of the Federation, and until 1937 he was engaged in chemical researches associated with the ceramic industry.
During the war years Mellor had, like many another scientist, to adapt himself to the new needs of page 110the nation, and in this he gave striking proof of his greatness. The steel industry was suddenly confronted with a situation that threatened the life of the nation, when continental supplies of refractory materials and of many necessary steel alloys ceased to be available. Mellor offered his services to the authorities, and so prompt and successful were the results of his research that the industry was enabled to meet the stupendous demands of the war almost without intermission or delay. He was able to replace to some extent the German scientists upon whom the steel industry had relied. A well-known English technical magazine declared that although it was, of course, incorrect to claim that any one man such as Foch, Clemenceau, or Lloyd George had won the war, such a claim could most nearly be advanced for Mellor. It is known that he was approached concerning the offer of a peerage; but his innate modesty and the moderate wealth—or poverty—he enjoyed alike prevented his acceptance of the honour. In conversation he explained the reluctance by saying that since his health prevented his 'doing his bit' in the trenches, his scientific labours should be given freely as his contribution to the service of his country.
Before the war Mellor had already planned an important extension of research work in the many branches of the pottery industry. The idea had originated in a conversation between Mellor and Lieutenant-Colonel C. W. Thomas. This was followedpage 111 by a conference, held at the North Staffordshire Hotel on 4 January 1909, of those interested in refractories. The Institution of Gas Engineers was the first to take advantage of the research facilities of the Pottery Federation, but co-operation gradually increased until on 4 April 1920 the British Refractories Research Association was formally constituted. This Association was directed by four joint committees representing respectively the Pottery Manufacturers' Association, the Institution of Gas Engineers, and the Blast Furnace and Open Hearth sections of the British Iron and Steel Federation. The allied researches were conducted in the laboratories of the Pottery Federation for some years, but on 5 December 1934 magnificent new laboratories were opened at Shelton, Stoke-on-Trent. Mellor was appointed the first director, being as The Engineer observed, 'the only man for the position.' The laboratories were called the Mellor Laboratories of the British Refractories Research Federation, 'in grateful recognition by the Council of Dr Mellor's long and distinguished service to the ceramic industry.' A far cry from the tin shed in Kaikorai valley, with its primitive comforts and facilities! During his later years Mellor was a busy member of the Ceramic Society, holding office most of the time as secretary or president. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1927. He continued in harness at the laboratories till 1937, when continued ill health enforced his retirement. On that page 112occasion there was conferred upon him a c.b.e., a somewhat barren honour for so great a man.
His many activities at the laboratories had not deterred him from completing his magnum opus, a Comprehensive Treatise on Inorganic Chemistry, on which he laboured for almost twenty years, the volumes appearing from 1922-37. It was his practice to prepare the work for two stenographers every night from 8 p.m. till 2 a.m., the work being typed next day. This routine was varied only when Mellor was tempted by the occasional family game of cards already mentioned. In sixteen volumes he treated the whole field of inorganic chemistry in such detail that he appears to have exhausted the subject.
After his retirement, he migrated to Highlands Heath, Portsmouth road, London, where he died on 24 May 1938. He had always been a man who had found work its own reward. He had no financial ambitions and had always regarded his knowledge as something that should, as far as possible, be available as a gift to those desiring to benefit from it.
Lest this account convey the impression that Mellor was a chemist and nothing more, I must remark upon his personality and general interests. The deficiencies of his early education Mellor was able to overcome by the continuous study of science and literature. He was forever widening the scope of his knowledge, a process which was made easier for him by the loving care of his wife. She provided the quiet, equable, page 113well-ordered ménage that kept Mellor clear of anxieties and freed him for his omnivorous reading and constant study. Mellor was able to accumulate a fine library, and he found the leisure to make full use of it. On his retirement, after he had disposed of 30,000 volumes, chiefly pamphlets, he still had eight tons of books to transport to London.
His writings are enriched by a wealth of quotation testifying to his thorough acquaintance with English literature, prose and poetry. For example, about twenty years ago he wrote a letter to a nephew in Dunedin, who being confused by Einstein's revolutionary conclusions, had asked his uncle to explain the mystery of curved and expanding space. The answer was written from Stratford-on-Avon, where Mellor was passing the night, and where he could not use his library. This letter contains in order the following quotations or references: (1) three lines from W. M. Praed, (2) two lines from Omar Khayyam, (3) four lines from H. D. Ellis, (4) a quotation in Latin from an unnamed ancient writer, (5) a prose quotation of twenty-six words from E. Johnson, (6) a reference to Lord Wharton's Lilliburlero, (7) three lines from T. Campion, (8) a prose quotation of forty words from Francis Bacon, (9) a prose quotation of forty-two words from Bishop Wilkins, (10) a quotation of forty-five words from Lewis Carroll, (11) a reference to A. Eddington's estimate of the number of the stars, (12) a French page 114quotation from S. Vatriquant, (13) the Latin motto of the Nominalists of the eleventh century, (14) another quotation from E. Johnson, (15) a tag of Mr Richard Swiveller, (16) a line from Tennyson's Tiresias, (17) a rough version of a saying from Oliver Wendell Holmes, (18) one from Jules Verne, (19) a Latin maxim from Tertullian, (20) another quotation from Francis Bacon, (21) a thirty-two word quotation from Eddington, (22) a philosophical statement in French from Leibniz, (23) a twenty-one word quotation from Montaigne, (24) the 'What is Truth' of Pontius Pilate, (25) a musing of Mr Dooley from the Dooley Monologues of F. P. Dunne, and (26) a reference to Weller senior's experience with widows. The letter also contains three amusing cartoons of studies in the fourth dimension. The letter is light, amusing, friendly, and explains clearly where reality ends and theoretical mathematics begin in Einstein's topsyturvy world. Doubtless a few of the quotations were fresh in Mellor's mind, since everybody was talking Einstein at the time, but the great majority were obviously quoted extempore for the benefit of a youthful relative, and the last reason doubtless prompted die placing of the quotations. Mellor himself admits elsewhere that he had 'a good memory as memories go'. Readers must also admit this, with perhaps the qualification that most memories 'don't go that way'.
While glancing at these ebullitions of a playful fancy, we must also remember that Mellor was in the foremost rank of inorganic chemists, that in sixteen volumes he virtually exhausted all that could be authoritatively said up to date on the theory and practice of inorganic chemistry, and that his researches on refractory materials and special steels constituted original work of outstanding importance to Great Britain and to the world.