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

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

William Hyde Wollaston, a scientist who was born in Dereham. - Credit: Submitted

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. - Credit: Wellcome Library

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.


You may also want to watch:


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.

Most Read

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.

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

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter