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Archives Biographies: John Willoughby Meares

Early life, education and working in Wales

John Willoughby Meares was born 22nd July 1871 in Hadley. He was educated at Winchester College and by 1889, the end of his schooling, his science masters urged him to take up electrical engineering. The details of this biography are from his own autobiography, At the Heels of the Mighty, 1934, deposited at the IET Archives by his son Stanley Meares  (Ref. SCMSS 169/1/1).   

He had 'little bent for the Stock Exchange', to which his father 'had predestined' him, so was 'therefore duly articled to Crompton and Co. as a premium pupil.'  He began at a branch of the firm at Llanelly in South Wales where storage batteries were manufactured.  

The works manufactured secondary batteries or "accumulators", involving continuous working, and were therefore in operation from Monday morning till Saturday afternoon.  The pupils, who were in immediate charge under the Manager, worked in three shifts, 8 to 16 hours, 16 to 24 hours and 0 (midnight) to 8 hours.

Crompton & Co., Chelmsford

On leaving Wales in early 1891, he went to the Arc Works at Chelmsford, Crompton's main factory. 'The process of "going through the shops" was everything to the young engineer in those days, and the possession of a degree in science or even a college diploma was looked upon by prospective employers with grave suspicion or actual hostility.'

'There were two methods of going through the shops, either as an apprentice or as a premium pupil; the former was paid a small wage and made to keep a strict hours, but had not always the same opportunity of transfer from one department to another; the latter, if he chose to work, could in course of time see and take part in every process from the purely mechanical up to the design and management ...  

While the apprentice was kept strictly on work in course of manufacture, the pupil was allowed a fair amount of latitude so long as he was learning his trade. 

Whilst at Crompton's main factory Meares made his 3 ¼ inch refracting telescope under the terms of "Government work" (this euphemism used for the making of something for one's private use). He made the patterns, cast them in works bronze and machined them in the shops. The cast iron pedestal was annexed from the scrap-heap after serving its time a base of a lamp post.

Experience in testing electrical installations

The Hove Electric Lighting Company (later owned by the Corporation) was one of Crompton's subsidiaries, and after leaving the works he was sent there to learn something of central station work as an assistant engineer in 1894.  One of his duties was to test new electrical installations before connection. 

His next posting was Oldbury, near Birmingham.  'Here in Albright and Wilson's works, new processes for manufacturing phosphorus and bleach electrically were being developed, and new types of electrical machinery had been built to suit.  Some of these machines would not behave as their designers intended, and I was sent down from the works with a trusty fitter, with instructions to sit on the machines until they were in order and accepted, or to find out what was really wrong.  

The dynamo was a double-circuit parallel-would 220 volt D.C. machine, one of the first ever built; the trouble was apparently due to armature reaction setting up a cumulative cross field, which ended by causing an explosive flash-over, that necessitated grinding up the commutator each time.  They simply refused to believe my reports.  I put ammeters in all the brush cross leads.'

J.W. Meares in India

Crompton and Co. were asked to select an engineer to put up a hydro-electric installation in Darjeeling.  This was to be the first of its kind in India and also the first public electric supply scheme of any sort there.  Meares took up the appointment in 1896-a three years agreement with Kilburn & Co., of Calcutta-agents for Crompton & Co.

'Very soon after my arrival in Calcutta, I was sent off to Darjeeling to go over the ground and draw up indents for everything required for the works I had to construct there...'

'After a fortnight, I returned to Calcutta...working in the office and going about to other places where contracts were being fulfilled.  At that time the Bengal-Nagpur railway was building a bridge over the Roopnarain River, which flows into the Hoogly below Calcutta.  We were supplying plant for lighting the works at night, and I was sent down to examine work and start it up'.

Having no prior experience with water power Meares found himself in the sole charge of the construction of a pioneer installation. The problem he had was to build a reservoir of 40 000 cubic feet capacity for one-fifth of the sum which a Public Works Department engineer said it would cost. In addition to the work to being carried out for an impossibly small sum, Meares was also hindered by his lack of experienced staff to help with this task.

Meares not only found himself in the difficult position of having no experienced engineer to call upon for advice, but he also had to contend with the local snakes and with disease.  Shortly after his arrival, plague broke out, one of his menial staff contracted leprosy, and one of his colleagues died of smallpox, leaving Meares in charge of the hydro-electric survey of India.  

He commented that typhoid and paratyphoid were 'very fatal', especially for the newcomer.  And he witnessed one sudden death from 'heat apoplexy'.  Food poisoning was an ever-present risk.

The environment was also severe. During construction, there was an earthquake on June 12th 1897. Whilst having tea in the Darjeeling hotel Meares felt the first tremors rattle the cup and saucer. Just as the first main shock arrived he rushed out of doors and witnessed the damage to the whole town.

The damage to Meares' 'embryo works was considerable, especially to the floor of the reservoir.  Despite this, the job was finished before the end of 1896, less than a year after work began.

In September 1899 there was a cyclone in Darjeeling 'bringing some 40 inches of rain down within 48 hours'. Meares, now working in Calcutta a civil servant, returned to see whether his station had survived. It had, although buried in several feet of mud. The staff had cleared the mud, dried out the site and equipment with charcoal fires, and after about 6 weeks the plant was working again as though nothing had happened. 

Indeed, in 1935, when Meares revisited the site, he noted that 'those Crompton-Brunton alternators [were] still doing duty, to the credit of their manufacturers, though the type [had] long been extinct.'