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The science genius from Dereham who is little-known in his home county

PUBLISHED: 14:52 09 May 2016 | UPDATED: 16:35 09 May 2016

William Hyde Wollaston, a scientist who was born in Dereham.

William Hyde Wollaston, a scientist who was born in Dereham.

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He was one of the greatest minds of his time. He discovered two elements, was the first man to extract platinum and invented a precursor to the modern camera.

William Hyde Wollaston. William Hyde Wollaston.

Yet few in his birthplace of Dereham would recognise the name William Hyde Wollaston despite his work being part of their everyday lives. Now a museum just a stone’s throw from the home he was born in is holding an exhibition to try to keep his legacy alive.

Bishop Bonner’s Cottage will be hosting the display as part of an open day on Saturday.

Sue Walker White, chairman of the Dereham Antiquarian Society which runs Bishop Bonner’s Cottage Museum, said: “He really was a genius. He saw those simple things that you take for granted with clarity and saw that they were important.”

Born in a rectory in Dereham he was raised in an intellectual family, of 17 children.

Achievements

Here are some of the achievements William Hyde Wollaston managed throughout his life.

He extracted platinum.

Carried out important work on electricity.

Discovered spectral lines in light, which have been used to work out the chemical make-up of our sun.

Invented the refractometer, which is used to identify to determine chemical elements in minerals.

He discovered elements palladium and rhodium.

Invented the dip sector sexton, used in navigation.

Invented the camera lucida, used as an aid for accurate drawings.

His father, Francis Wollaston, was a distinguished astronomer as well as a priest. Wollaston, who left Dereham at the age of three or four, first set out in medicine becoming a doctor before, with the financial help of his older brother George, he packed it up to focus on chemistry, a career he thought would be less stressful.

His first major success, which essentially funded the rest of his work, was to devise a method of extracting highly sought after metal platinum from its ore.

This earned him £30,000 – the equivalent of a six figure sum today.

In 1802 he discovered the precious metal palladium and two years later rhodium. These are most commonly used today in catalytic converters in older models of cars.

Legacy

Wollaston Medal, one of the top awards in geology.

Wollaston crater on the moon.

Wollaston Islands, Chile.

Cape Wollaston, Antarctica.

Wollaston Island, Australia

Wollastonite, a mineral.

Wollaston Lake and Wollaston peninsular, Canada.

Despite his chemistry leanings, much of Wollaston’s work was in optics. He created a navigational

tool called the dip sector sexton which was used during polar exploration, leading to a number of islands and landmarks being named after him.

One of his most renowned inventions was the camera lucida, a tool used for accurate drawing.

Using a prism and a mirror it created a magnified image. This principle was later used in the development of photography, as was the Wollaston lens created for it.

Perhaps his most used invention today is the Wollaston prism, used in CD and DVD players and spectrometers, for taking measurements in infra-red radiation.

The Bishop Bonner’s Cottage exhibition is to celebrate 250 years since Wollaston was born, on August 6, 1766, and was suggested by Dereham town councillor Phillip Duigan.

He said: “When you look for Norfolk scientists there aren’t that many of them. He really was a top scientist.”

As well as being its secretary, Wollaston spent a brief spell as the president of the Royal Society and appears to have been highly thought of among his peers.

In the years since, though, he does not seem to have retained the fame of some of his contemporaries such as Michael Faraday, John Dalton, Charles Babbage and Sir Humphry Davy.

Do you have a Dereham story? Email doug.faulkner@archant.co.uk

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