In good society …

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Image: A Mad Dog in a Coffee House by Thomas Rowlands, 1809 - Source wikimedia


If I have a bit of spare time on a business trip to London, then I can often be found in the Royal Society ploughing through the minute books to see whether William Nicholson was ever proposed as a member.

Nicholson’s son, also called William, recalled that:

The main point on which my father felt aggrieved was his rejection at the Royal Society. My father had been recommended by several of the members of the Society to offer himself. He was duly proposed, but objected to.

It came to my father’s ears that Sir Joseph Banks was the chief objector, having said that whatever pretensions Mr Nicholson had to the membership, he did not think a ‘sailor boy’ a fit person to rank among the gentlemen members of the Royal Society, or words to that effect.

But, let us not dwell on his one disappointment, when Nicholson enjoyed such a wide variety of acquaintances through his membership of a number of societies, each of which I will return to in a future blog:

The Cannonians (around 1780) – this was the name of an informal dining club that met in a cookshop in Porridge Island near St. Martin's-in-the-Fields.

Richard Kirwan’s Philosophical Society (1780-1787) – which had no official name, but was often called the Chapter Coffee House Society, after its main meeting place.  See this blog for details of the membership. William Nicholson joined in 1783, proposed by Jean-Hyacynthe de Magellan and John Whitehurst, and was elected joint secretary with William Babington in 1784.

General Chamber of Manufacturers of Great Britain and Ireland (1785-1787) – Josiah Wedgwood was the first chairman and proposed Nicholson as secretary.

The Society for the Improvement of Naval Architecture (1791-1796) – established by Mr John Sewell, a publisher and friend of Nicholson who proposed him as a member from outset.

The Royal Institution, Committee for Chemical Investigation and Analysis (June 1801- ) Nicholson was appointed to this committee with Anthony Carlise, presumably proposed by Humphry Davy.

The Geological Society of London (1807-) Nicholson joined as a member in 1812, proposed by Anthony Carlisle, James Parkinson, Arthur Aikin (a founder of the society) and Richard Knight.

‘Count Rumford called but seldom’

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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.

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