Sir Joseph Ernest Petavel FRS, KBE (1873-1936)

Sir Joseph Ernest Petavel

Petavel was born on 14 August 1873. He received his early training at University College, London, under Sir Ambrose Fleming, with whom he collaborated in his first published paper, on the alternating current arc. He then worked under Dewar for three years at the Royal Institution and Davy Faraday Laboratory, where he studied the thermal emissivity of platinum at high temperatures and pressures. In 1900 he was elected to the John Harling research fellowship, at Owens College, Manchester.

Jointly with RS Hutton, Petavel published outstanding papers on electric furnaces reactions under high pressure and the effects of pressure on arc spectra. He had interest in meteorology and aeronautics, and collaborated in an investigation on kite soundings as applied to upper-air temperatures.

Outstanding contribution to science

Primary standard of light

He established the primary standard of light.

Combustion of gases

Petavel was an internationally acknowledged expert on the combustion of gases. Petavel designed the gauge for measuring pressures set up in exploding gaseous mixtures.

Aeronautical research

He also exercised a profound influence on the progress of aeronautical research in Great Britain. His enthusiasm for aeronautics led him to qualify as a pilot, an accomplishment which was not free from danger with the experimental aeroplanes of those days.

J.E. Petavel. Variation of Atmospheric Temperature
J.E. Petavel. Variation of Atmospheric Temperature with Height on April 2, 3 and 4, 1908. Investigation of Upper Atmosphere, May 21, 1908. No 2012, vol 78. Nature Publishing Group.

Petavel at Manchester

In 1901 Petavel became John Harling Research Fellow at Owens College and later Lecturer in Mechanics under Schuster at Manchester. Then in 1908 after Reynolds resignation Petavel became a Professor of Engineering and director of the Whitworth Laboratories at Manchester. Petavel's work at Manchester was chiefly concerned with standards of light, ventilation, structural stresses, the theory of gas engines, and aeronautics. Whilst Head of the Engineering Department, he developed into an internationally acknowledged expert on the combustion of gases and is a peripheral figure in the literature with regard to Wittgenstein's stay in Manchester. He encouraged Wittgenstein by providing a compressor from the Physics Department and also recommended him for a research studentship. He worked at the Owens College, Manchester for 15 years until 1919 when he was appointed as a Director of the national Physical Laboratory.

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