In December 1780 in the Chapter Coffee House near St Paul's Cathedral, several men led by the Irish chemist Richard Kirwan decided to meet fortnightly to discuss ‘Natural Philosophy, in its most extensive signification’.
The membership of the group grew steadily, and meetings took place in a variety of locations including the Baptist’s Head Coffee House. William Nicholson joined in 1783 and was elected joint secretary with William Babington in 1784.
Nicholson’s copy of the minutes of the society, until 1787 when it folded, are in Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science and it was wonderful to be able to inspect them recently.
Compared to other philosophical societies of that time, especially the Lunar Society which had been meeting in the Midlands since 1765, this group seems little known – partly because it never had any name.
In 1785 it was agreed that the group would have no formal name when Kirwan ‘affirmed that the society not being desirous of that kind of distinction which arises from name or title were so far from giving any sanction or authority to the names used by their secretaries that the original determination in this respect was that the society should not have a name.
Fortunately the minutes do include a most interesting list of the members
Mr Benjamin Vaughan, Minster Court, Mincing lane
Mr Kirwan, Newman Street
Mr Magellan, Nevills Court
Mr Nairn, Cornhill
Dr Crawford, Lambs Conduit Street
Dr John Hunter, Leicester Square
Dr Wells, Salisbury Court
Mr Blackall, Thavies Inn, Holborn
Dr Keir, Adelphi
Mr Whitchurch, Bolt Court Fleet Street
Dr Wilkinson, Crutched Friars 22
Dr Cleghorn, Haymarket 11
Mr Alex Aubert, Austin Friars
Mr W. Jones, Inner Temple
Mr Miller, Sackfield Street 17
Honorary members included:
Mr Bright, Bristol
Mr Keir, Birmingham
Dr Price, Newington Green
Dr Bolton, Birmingham
The entire set of minutes, as well as descriptions of all the members of the society, are set out in Discussing Chemistry and Steam: The Minutes of a Coffee House Philosophical Society 1780-1787, by Trevor H. Levere and Gerard L'E Turner.
Images copyright British Museum
The British Museum was founded in 1753, the year of William Nicholson’s birth. I have evidence of at least two of his visits to the museum. The first was as part of his research for the 1783 edition of A Critical Review of the Public Buildings, Statues, and Ornaments, in and About London and Westminster. Then in January 1790, Nicholson deposited the journals of the Count de Benyowsky with the museum for safekeeping. He might have been rather delighted to know that one of his own creations would end up there too.
In 1958, one of Nicholson’s clocks was acquired by the British Museum as part of the Ilbert Collection - the most important collection of horology ever achieved by a private collector.
Courtenay Ilbert (1888-1956) was a civil engineer and he acquired the clock from a dealer called Clowes on 17 March 1938. He paid £20 for this 1797 regulator clock, a sum at the top end in comparison to the prices that Ilbert paid for other clocks from that period.
I recently enjoyed a visit behind the scenes with a curator of horology, Oliver Cooke, who had very kindly got the clock working for me. Previously I had seen the picture of the Nicholson’s clock on the British Museum website but had not registered the dimensions, and was surprised at how large it is.
Height: 57 centimetres
Width: 30.75 centimetres
Depth: 17.3 centimetres
The clock is described in David Thompson’s book Clocks as “an interesting example of a rather unassuming case which in reality conceals a movement of a most unusual and interesting design.”
The British Museum describes it as " SATINWOOD CASED EIGHT-DAY BRACKET TIMEPIECE WITH GRAVITY ESCAPEMENT AND CENTRE-SECONDS. Bracket timepiece; eight-day; gravity escapement; round silvered-metal dial with centre-seconds; satinwood case with moulded arched hood; glazed panels to front and sides surmounted by brass flaming vase finials. TRAIN-COUNT. Gt wheel 180" Click here for the full description.
The delicate mechanism for this 8-day clock rests upon a rather unprepossessing lump of steel which acts to stabilise the clock and to support the pendulum and the movement.
The plain steel pendulum rod would expand or contract with changes in temperature, but at the top Nicholson has built an ingenious mechanism with bi-metallic strips to compensate for the changes in temperature.
“Nicholson’s big solid design is going in the right direction – and it is good to see someone outside the clock-making tradition trying something different,” said Oliver Cooke. “It was clearly an attempt to make a precision timepiece, and you can see original thinking – even if Nicholson has not got it quite right.”
Nicholson’s name is engraved on the dial where the name of the commissioner/designer would usually appear: Wm Nicholson f 1797
More information can be found in:
Clocks by David Thompson, British Museum Press, London 2004.
Precision Pendulum Clocks, The Quest for Accurate Timekeeping, by Derek Roberts, Schiffer Pub Ltd, Atglen, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., 2003
Who would be the equivalent today of the American physicist Sir Benjamin Thomson, Count Rumford, FRS (1753-1814)?
A quick review of the current fellows of the Royal Society, filtered by the scientific area of ’physics’ and a free text search for a ‘Sir’ brings up the engineer Lord Broers – an expert in nanotechnology and former Chairman of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee.
He sounds rather important, and if he was calling round to see my father (rather than summoning my father to a meeting at his own convenience), I might think the fact was worth recording in some detail.
Frustratingly, William Nicholson’s son and biographer leaves us with nothing more than that short phrase ‘Count Rumford called but seldom’ in his memoir of his father The Life of William Nicholson (1753-1815).
There is no hint to the object of their discussions – although they might have related to Nicholson’s work on the Committee of Chemistry at the Royal Institution.
From the perspective of young William, Count Rumford was just one of many estimable visitors who worked with his father in various societies, attended Nicholson’s scientific lectures or weekly conversazione, or consulted him on patents or matters of civil engineering.
With the names of his father’s associates including the likes of Josiah Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton, Richard Kirwan, Sir Joseph Banks, Humphry Davy, Frederick Accum, Richard Trevithick, Jabez Hornblower, Jean-Hyacinth Magellan and Anthony Carlisle, one can see how young William might have become blasé about one more 'important' visitor.
One of the questions that I am most frequently asked is how on earth I happened to be writing a book about an eighteenth-century scientist.
Colleagues tend not to be surprised that I am writing a book, as I have always written and published a great deal as part of my career in marketing. But friends and family who have known me since my school days will have witnessed a fundamental aversion to science, particularly biology (too gory) and chemistry (too smelly). I remember my science teacher as being very kind and patient, but cutting open worms and frogs and foul-stinking experiments could never capture my imagination. I hope the S in STEM is more inspiring these days.
On the other hand, history and languages had me in thrall. How could you not want to set sail with the explorers? Or imagine the thrill of inventing the steam engine or designing the first iron bridge and seeing it built? How wonderful to design an intricate piece of pottery and for it to come out of the kiln just as you had planned. I have always maintained an interest in industrial heritage and volunteered with the charity Arts & Business to help two industrial museums in the early 1990s, one of which was the Gladstone Pottery.
Luckily, my very first encounter with Nicholson was in my teens when my grandfather showed me the log book from Nicholson’s voyage to China on the Gatton in 1771. It was like having my own Marco Polo in the family.
This fact was buried deep in the recesses of my mind until around 2009 when I remembered Nicholson and his connection with Josiah Wedgwood, prompted by the Museum winning the Art Fund Prize as Museum of the Year and the financial failure of the Wedgwood business being much in the news. As this was all less than ten miles from my home, it seemed sensible to see if there might be any evidence of Nicholson’s employment by Wedgwood before the collection was dispersed – as was threatened at the time.
Sadly, I could find no employment contract or even payslips – but there was a wealth of correspondence between Nicholson and Josiah Wedgwood or his partner Thomas Bentley in regards to affairs of the agency in Amsterdam. Then later, between 1785 and 1787 Nicholson was secretary to Wedgwood at the General Chamber of Manufacturers of Great Britain (about which I will write another day).
I need to confess that it was some time before I learnt of Nicholson’s scientific works, and if my first encounter had been with anything to do with chemistry I would have backed right off.
But finding a direct connection to one of the heroes of marketing (Wedgwood is known as a father of modern marketing) and a major player in the industrial revolution - I was hooked and needed to know more.
Photograph from personal collection
At last, 110,000 words (excluding index and bibliography) describing the life of William Nicholson are off my desk and in the capable hands of the publishers. It only remains for me to finalise the list of images and obtain all the copyright permissions.
Meanwhile, I am not quite ready to consign a decade’s research to the archives. A pile of 'out-takes' and stories that were tangential to the life of William Nicholson beg me not to neglect them. On my PC is a document entitled 'things to do after the book' which is like a bucket list of historical adventures for me to pursue.
In this blog, I plan to flesh out some of the background to Nicholson's life from 1753 to 1815 and get better acquainted with his numerous friends and colleagues. I’ll share links to useful resources related to the Enlightenment, and I hope that some of the real experts on the period might be persuaded to contribute some articles on Nicholson's scientific achievements.
I will also try and record some of my experiences along the way, and most of all, I hope that this might inspire other historians to discover, examine and share more information about Nicholson and his work.
Nicholson published his Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts over seventeen years from April 1797 to December 1813. I’m not sure if this 21st Century edition will be able to match this, but here we go …