Notable Teachers at Finsbury Technical College and the Central Technical College.

H. Armstrong (1848-1937), W.Ayrton (1847-1908), J. Perry (1850-1920) and S. Thompson (1851-1926).

Two pioneering technical institutions namely Finsbury Technical College (Leonard Street) and the Central Institution (South Kensington) – (see this website for pen portraits) attracted some remarkable individuals. Both these institutions were the result of the creation of the City and Guilds Institute for the Advancement of Technical Education (CGLI). Finsbury Technical College came to be seen as the feeder to the Central Institution which had a focus on higher education provision. The practical work developed at Finsbury was later expanded and enhanced at the Central Institution because of its well equipped and modern laboratories.

The brief biographies of four of the teachers involved at the two institutions are given below. These four remarkable individuals all ahead of their time and their ideas on how to teach mathematics, science and technical subjects was truly amazing and still have relevance today. If only their ideas had been implemented on a larger scale the parlous state of technical and scientific education and training could have been dramatically improved. They all had to deal at times with traditional and entrenched attitudes associated with the supposed superiority of academic studies and subjects over technical ones.

Henry E Armstrong
Born in Lewisham in 1848 and educated at the Royal College of Chemistry, (now the department of Chemistry at Imperial College). Between 1865 and 1867 studying under Edward Frankland who had succeeded Hofmann as Professor of Chemistry. During this time he attended lectures by such notable scientists as Thomas Huxley, William Ramsay and John Tyndall. These experiences established an independent thinking, confident and brilliant chemist. Frankland suggested that Armstrong continued his studies and research with Hermann Kolbe another famous chemist based at the University of Leipzig, Germany. During this period he visited and worked at Berlin and Dresden Universities and completed his studies and dissertation in 1870. After three years in Germany, (1867 to 1870), he returned to England and was appointed lecturer in chemistry at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in 1870. Henry was appointed Professor of Chemistry at the London Institution in 1871. He worked with William Ayrton at the Cowper Street Schools which later became the Finsbury Technical College and then Professor of Chemistry at the Central Technical College which later became the City and Guilds College between 1884 and 1913 (see biographies on this website).

Amongst other achievements he established a three- year diploma programme in chemical engineering arguing as did his other enlightened colleagues ‘that there was an urgent need for a more scientific attitude of mind among British industrialists.’ When he was appointed with William Ayrton, as the first professors at Finsbury Technical College they both shared the same view that examinations must not drive the teaching and learning process. This view was also held by other teachers such as John Perry and Philip Magnus. They all believed that teachers must have liberty of action and fortunately they were at that time supported by the committees of CGLI.

(Comment: Sadly currently examinations and continuous assessment regimes dominate the education system in many countries and particularly in England. This culture has made the awarding bodies become businesses driven by the market and are now more interested in implementing questionable government education policies and making money. Education and all the associated elements e.g. examinations should not be a hardnosed business enterprise based on market forces.)

In addition to being a notable chemist Henry was also an outstanding person in the teaching of science particularly active in this field during the last two decades of the 19th century. He was dis-satisfied with science teaching methods in schools. He strongly argued that pupils should be allowed to discover things for themselves and in a sense be in the position of the original experimenter and observer. His particular method of teaching became known as the heuristic method and was introduced at St. Dunstan’s College where he was a governor. This method has influenced science ever since, although the inevitable constraints of time modified its basic premises. His criticisms also helped to motivate science teachers and reduced the possibility of them becoming complacent. His ideas of on science teaching closely parallels those of John Perry on mathematics teaching. The Nuffield programmes in science were greatly influenced by their ideas. He was president of the Chemical Society from 1893 to 1895 and Emeritus Professor at Imperial College, London.

His obituary stated he was the major figure in chemistry and science education during two generations possessing a rare gift of expression and writing. He died in 1937.

Praagh. G. Van. (Ed) ‘Henry Armstrong and Science Education.’ Selection from the Teaching of Scientific Method by Armstrong. H. E. John Murray. ISBN 0 7195 2893 3. 1973.Eyre. J. V. ‘Henry Armstrong, 1848-1937. Butterworth Scientific Publications. London. 1958

William E Ayton
William Edward Ayrton was born in London in 1847 and studied at University College School and University College London where he passed with honours the first ever Bachelor of Arts at the University of London in 1867. After this he studied in Glasgow during the late 1860s with Lord Kelvin. He later worked for the Indian Government Telegraphic Service between 1868 and 1873 after gaining the highest grade in their examinations. Between 1873 and 1878 he was Professor of Natural Philosophy and Instructor in the Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo, Japan. In both these appointments he made fundamental discoveries in fault detection systems in high tension electrical transmission lines and introduced electric lighting to Japan in 1878. He was a brilliant physicist, electrical engineer, pioneer of electrical engineering and teacher making many important discoveries and inventions both with joint collaborators and alone. He published extensively again alone and jointly on engineering and scientific disciplines particularly in their application in such areas as electrical technology and its measurement e.g. inventing with John Perry the dynamometer, the first electric tricycle, railway electrification, various ammeters and the wattmeter. He was the first to advocate high power electricity transmission. His career often crossed with that if John Perry (see below). He and Perry published 70 important scientific and technical papers between 1876 and 1891. He worked with Perry in Japan, Finsbury College, Central College and Imperial College.

On his return from Japan he took up a number of key appointments at the City and Guilds of London Institute in 1879, professor of applied physics at the Finsbury Technical College in 1881 and in 1884 professor of electrical engineering at the Central Institution at Kensington. In addition he was an outstanding teacher often using his own apparatus and inventions in the classes to demonstrate the concepts and processes. Both he and John Perry (see below) believed that teaching must be accessible to students and equally importantly with an emphasis on practical work. He believed that a machines workshop/facility was essential to effective teaching and learning and that an emphasis on practical work linked to lectures was crucial. The first year course comprised the core subjects of chemistry, mechanics, mathematics and physics and was offered both at the Finsbury Technical College and the Central Institution in order to lay strong foundations to students’ technical studies.

While teaching at Finsbury College he met and later married in 1885 Hertha (Sarah) Marks (see her biography on this website). In 1892 he became President of the institute of Electrical Engineers (IEE) and in 1896 was a member of the editorial committee of the Science Abstracts of the IEE. He died in 1908.

Chisholm. H. (ed). ‘William Edward Ayrton.’ Encyclopaedia Britannica. 11th Edition. CUP. 1911
Institute of Engineering and Technology Archives Biographies.
The National Archives and various Dictionaries and Encyclopaedia of Science and Technologies.

John Perry
Born in Londonderry, Ireland and studied at Queens College, Belfast. He left school early to support himself and worked as an apprentice at the Lagan Foundry from 1864 to 1870. During the last three years of his apprenticeship he studied Engineering at Queen’s College on what we would now call a sandwich course. In 1870 he took up a teaching post in mathematics and science at the boys’ laboratory and workshop. Whilst studying and as a result of all this pressure he began to lose his sight. However his sister used to read text books with him and he became fascinated with the electrical sciences. Later he became interested in steam power and a book he wrote became the seminal text for the US navy. He became a gifted mathematician and pioneering engineer. He taught at Clifton College, Bristol leaving in 1874 to study a year under William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) in a small laboratory in Glasgow. He then emigrated to Japan and took an appointment as Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the newly established Imperial College of Engineering, Tokyo, (then the largest technical institution in the world), where he worked with William Ayrton. They collaborated very successfully on problems associated with applied electricity. They also introduced some novel methods of teaching mathematics and engineering. One often cited technique was the use of graph (or squared) paper as a method of teaching and analysing functional innovations relationships in mechanics and electricity. They used this technique in Tokyo and at Finsbury Technical College. This teaching technique was to become one of the defining features and innovations at the Finsbury College which are now referred to as the ‘Finsbury Method’.

On his return to England he was appointed Professor of Engineering and Mathematics at Finsbury Technical College in 1879, again joining William Ayrton and then in 1896 became Professor of Mathematics and Mechanical Engineering at the Central Institution. He retired from the Central Institution in 1914 but continued his work advising the British military on gyroscopic compasses. Mathematics to Perry was a branch of science being ’merely an inductive science based on experience’. One of his guiding rules was ‘that we ought to use, as illustrations, those things with which the pupils have most to do (and) must begin in the middle of the subject, working backwards and forwards. He was elected President of the Institute of Electrical Engineering in 1900 and was President of the Physical Society (later the Institute of Physics) from 1906 to 1908. Like Ayrton is believed in teaching science and engineering from a practical point of view. John Perry was a remarkable teacher who encouraged his students to develop a wider set of interests such as reading novels, taking an interest in literature and especially a greater emphasis in mathematics in order to move away from the rather narrow technically training and instruction that was dominant at the time. He attracted controversy and criticism from the academic mathematics community by publishing a book entitled ‘Calculus for Engineers’, It treated the subject as a purely practical tool e.g. there as an absence of abstract reasoning and presented a simplistic set of rules on differentiation and integration. The book maintained a focus on practical applications to electricity, mechanics and thermodynamics. He used the same approach to such subjects as algebra, arithmetic, geometry, trigonometry etc. He reinforced his ideas by publishing extensively from 1880 arguing strongly for major reform of teaching mathematics – sadly we are still waiting for such reforms considering the parlous state of mathematics teaching in England and some of the home countries! Indeed a man well ahead of his time.

However his ideas were picked up by the newly created Board of Education (BoE) that had succeeded the Science and Art Department in 1899 and it incorporated some of his ideas and techniques into an examination called ‘Practical Mathematics’. Following the creation of an educational section within the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in 1900 Perry organised a series of discussions groups at the 1901 Glasgow meeting on themes associated with the teaching of elementary mathematics in military, secondary and technical education. The meeting highlighted the massive divisions between the academic approach of teaching i.e. the formal study of mathematics for its own sake as opposed to its practical applications and the essential importance of its utility that Perry was advocating. Interesting that one of the major themes identified in the history of technical education on this website mirrors this tension that has produced the so-called academic- vocational divide – nothing changes! Perry’s ideas are still very relevant and valid today and sadly await recognition and implementation and what little progress has been achieved since his time has been painfully slow. Many of his Irish predecessors, and he and others since, have been progressive thinkers and innovators in astronomy, mathematics, science and technical education. Their pioneering work has so often been overlooked or marginalised by the English. Perhaps it is another example of the inability of the English to recognise and celebrate the achievements of the other home countries? John Perry has not been given the recognition that he deserves and was truly a very remarkable individual well ahead of his time.

He was elected president of the Institution of Electrical Engineers and was president of the Physical Society, (now the Institute of Physics), from 1906 to 1908. He died in 1920.

Nudds. R. N., McMillan N. D., Weaire. D. L and McKenna Lawlor. S. M. P. ‘Science in Ireland 1800-1930. Tradition and Reform.’ ISBN 0:9513586 1 8. Dublin.1988.
John Perry. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Silvanus P Thompson
Born in York in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, he started teaching science at Bootham School in 1873. He was greatly influenced by a lecture given by William Crookes which inspired him to become interested in electromagnetism and optics. In 1876 he was appointed lecturer in physics at University College, Bristol and was made a professor in 1878 at the age of 27 and he stayed at Bristol for nine years. He was very interested in technical education and made a number of fact finding trips to Europe and presented a seminal paper at the (R) Society of Arts in 1879 entitled ‘Apprenticeships, Scientific and Unscientific’ (see chronology on this website) which again like others, (Huxley, Playfair, Magnus – see biographies on this website), highlighted the deficiencies in technical education in England. He recognised that technical education was critical in transferring and translating scientific knowledge into action and practical application and enhancing technical and technological innovation. He was totally committed to this endeavour and spent the rest of his life working to improve technical education and training. Following the creation of the City and Guilds of London Institute for the Advancement of Technical Education, the Finsbury College was founded and Thompson was appointed its Principal and Professor of Physics. Thompson organised classes in optics at Finsbury Technical College which was then at the centre of the spectacle making district in Clerkenwell, He held those positions for 30 years and in 1907 the City and Guilds of London College along with other institutions merged to create Imperial College, London.

Thompson was a recognised authority on acoustics, electricity, magnetism and optics writing a number of seminal text books some of which went through innumerable editions. He later became a widely respected biographer and historian of science writing a biography of Lord Kelvin. He was a very gifted speaker, a skilful artist, and linguist and greatly interested in literary, antiquarian and artistic subjects. His range of interests and vision was truly remarkable and he bridged the scientific and artistic divide – C. P Snow, (Two Cultures), would be impressed with such an individual!
In 1882 he was elected a member of the Society of Telegraph Engineers and Electricians and in 1886 a member of the Royal institution where he delivered some excellent lectures. He became the first president of the Rontgen Society, (Rontgen discovered x-rays), between 1897 and 1898. He died in 1916.

Thompson. J. S. And Thompson. H. G. ‘Silvanus Phillips Thompson, His Life and Letters,’ T. Fisher Unwin. London 1920. New edition published with and edited by Martin Gardner.
Lynch. A. C. ‘Silvanus Thompson: teacher, researcher, and historian.’ IEE Proceedings. 1989.

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