The following article was first published in the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association newsletter on 15 August 2018.
‘I used to write a page ortwo perhaps in half a year, and I remember laughing heartily at the celebratedexperimentalist Nicholson who told me that in twenty years he had written asmuch as would make three hundred Octavo volumes.’
William Hazlitt, 1821
Thisyear has seen numerous celebrations of Mary Shelley’s ‘foundational work inscience fiction’, but where did Mary Shelley learn about electricity?
Historiansoften trace this knowledge to a copy of Humphry Davy’s Elements of Chemical Philosophy which was published in 1816 – but manyyears before this, the child Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin had access toscientific instruments at 10 Soho Square with her playmates – the fivedaughters of William Nicholson (1753-1815).
Thescientist and publisher William Nicholson was one of her father’s closestfriends. In his diary, William Godwinrecords more than 500 meetings with Nicholson and his family between November1788 and February 1810. Aside from their mutual friend the dramatist ThomasHolcroft (1,435 mentions) and direct family members, only a handful of otheracquaintances are mentioned more frequently in Godwin’s diary.
Nicholsonhad opened a Scientific and Classical School at his home in Soho Square in 1800. It was here in the Spring that, with AnthonyCarlisle, he famously decomposed water into hydrogen and oxygen using theprocess now called electrolysis.
Electricalexperiments had long been an interest of Nicholson who had two papers on thesubject read to the Royal Society by Sir Joseph Banks in 1788 and 1789.
Inthose days, science - or natural philosophy as it was called - was also aleisure activity. Scientific instruments were the latest toys for the affluent andexperiments provided entertainment. One after-dinner game was The ElectricKiss: where young men would attempt to kiss a young lady who had been chargedwith a high level of static electricity. Sadly, the kisses were rarely obtained as, on approaching the young lady,the men would be jolted away by an electric shock.
Ina house full of several children, and a dozen energetic students, Marywitnessed and is likely to have participated in experiments and pranks with theair pump or Nicholson’s revolving doubler – his invention of 1788 with which youcould create a continuous electrical charge.
Despitehis circle of literary friends, Nicholson is better known among historians ofscience for A Journal of NaturalPhilosophy, Chemistry and the Arts which ran between 1797 and 1813 and was thefirst monthly scientific journal in Britain. It revolutionised the speed at which scientific information could spread- in the same way that social media has done more recently - and the Godwinfamily no doubt received copies.
Fullsets of Nicholson’s Journal, as itwas commonly known, are rare. Certaineditions are particularly sought after, such as those which include GeorgeCayley’s three papers on the invention of the aeroplane.
ButNicholson’s first success as an author was fifteen years previously with his Introduction to Natural Philosophy in1782. This was the same year that hewrote the prelude to Holcroft’s play Duplicity.
Nicholsonquickly abandoned writing for the theatre, but he never abandoned his literaryfriends with their anti-establishment views, and his body of work is moreextensive than the voluminous scientific translations and chemical dictionariesfor which he is best known – some of which change hands for thousands ofpounds.
Otherworks included a six-day walking tour of London, a book on navigation – basedon Nicholson’s experiences as a young man with the East India Company – and translationsof the exotic biographies of the Indian Sultan Hyder Ali Khan and the Hungarianadventurer Count Maurice de Benyowsky. Nicholsonalso contributed short biographies for John Aikin’s General Biography series; he launched The General Review which ran for just six months in 1806; and heproduced a six-part encyclopedia.
BeforeNicholson came to London, he had spent a period working for the potter JosiahWedgwood in Amsterdam. Wedgwood held youngNicholson in high regard, commenting in 1777 that ‘I have not the least doubtof Mr Nicholson's integrity and honour’. Then in 1785, when Wedgwood was Chairman of the recently establishedGeneral Chamber of Manufacturers of Great Britain, he appointed Nicholson assecretary. In this role, Nicholsonproduced several papers on commercial issues including on the proposed IrishTreaty and on laws relating to the production and export of wool.
Towardsthe end of his life, Nicholson put his technical knowledge to work as a patentagent and later as a civil engineer, consulting on water supply projects inWest London and Portsmouth. The latterproject faced stiff competition from another local water company and, in 1810,Nicholson published A Letter to theIncorporated Company of Proprietors of the Portsea-Island Water-Works.
AsWilliam Hazlitt indicated, in the opening quotation, Nicholson’s works wereextensive. His activities were varied and there is much in his writings thatwill be of interest to historians of literature, commerce and inventions, aswell as to historians of science and the Enlightenment.
Afull list of Nicholson’s publications can be found in The Life of William Nicholson, by his Son, which was firstpublished by Peter Owen Publishers earlier this year (£13.99). The originalmanuscript, written 150 years ago in 1868, is held at the Bodleian Library.
Freepostage and packing is offered to members of the ABA when purchasing directfrom www.PeterOwen.com. Simply use theCoupon code ‘1753-1815’ in the shopping cart before proceeding to checkout.