I have just noticed that 20 August is World Helicopter Day, and on a recent visit to the helicopter museum in Weston-Super-Mare (the World's Largest Dedicated Helicopter Museum) with my father, a former helicopter engineer, I spotted a reference to the three papers by Sir George Cayley in Nicholson’s Journal.
‘On Aerial Navigation’ was published in three parts:
I have since seen this described online, by Mississippi State University, as:
"Arguably the most important paper in the invention of the airplane is a triple paper On Aerial Navigation by Sir George Cayley. The article appeared in three issues of Nicholson's Journal. In this paper, Cayley argues against the ornithopter model and outlines a fixed-wing aircraft that incorporates a separate system for propulsion and a tail to assist in the control of the airplane. Both ideas were crucial breakthroughs necessary to break out of the ornithopter tradition."
This sketch from the November 1809 paper.
If any historians of aeronautic developments would like tocontribute a guest blog on the significance of Cayley’s papers, please email us at
When Josiah Wedgwood was invited to chair the General Chamber of Manufacturers of Great Britain, he remembered the able young man who had served him well in the Netherlands in the 1770s, and invited William Nicholson to serve as his secretary.
International trade was a fundamental concern of the Chamber, as it is today, and it was interesting to come across this letter online which had been auctioned by Bonham’s in 2004.
Wedgwood wrote to the Rt Hon William Eden who was about to depart to France to negotiate a trade treaty, with this simple request:
“With regard to our particular manufacture, we only wish for a fair and simple reciprocity, and I suppose (but I speak without any authority) that our Manchester & Birmingham friends would be willing to give & take in the same way...”
As we near publication of the Life of William Nicholson by his son, I find myself scanning the shelves of every bookshop to see whether much, if any, space is given to Georgian biographies. I was delighted to come across this biography in prime position on the New Releases shelf: THE ENLIGHTENED MR. PARKINSON – The pioneering life of a forgotten English surgeon by Cherry Lewis.
Parkinson identified a specific type of shaking palsy and it is this mental health condition for which his name is recognised today, but the biography tells a broader story of his work in general medical practice, his involvement in social and political reform, and his interest in fossils and geology. He was one of the founders of the Geological Society in 1807.
I particularly enjoyed the way that the author has explained the background at a time of tumultuous and constant change occasioned by wars, political upheaval, societal advances, medical and scientific discoveries. This is done in a very accessible way which ensures that the book will be just as enjoyable for a reader who is not intimate with that period of his life, between 1755 and 1824.
Parkinson’s life coincided pretty well with William Nicholson (1753-1815). They would certainly have met at the Geological Society, which Nicholson joined on the suggestion of their mutual friend Anthony Carlisle, if not in the mid-1790s when Parkinson was a member of the London Corresponding Society with Nicholson’s good friend Thomas Holcroft.
Parkinson submitted four papers to Nicholson’s Journal:
October 1807 - Nondescript Encrinus, in Mr. Donovans Museum.
March 1809 - On the Existence of Animal Matter in Mineral Substances.
May 1809 - On the Dissimilarity between the Creatures of the present and former World, and on the Fossil Alcyonia.
January and February 1812 - Observations on some of the Strata in the Neighbourhood of London, and on the Fossil remains contained in them.
THE ENLIGHTENED MR. PARKINSON – The pioneering life of a forgotten English surgeon
By Cherry Lewis, published by ICON
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.
Image courtesy of Tawny van Breda via Pixabay
I have resisted the urge to start researching WilliamNicholson’s offspring – with 12 children that could be a major distraction, and I will never get this book off my desk!
Rather frustratingly, William Nicholson Jr (1789-1874)refers to a book in which the births of all the Nicholson children are listed‘in minute detail’ – I wonder if this still exists?
Meanwhile, I think it might be a good idea to share what Ido know, and maybe someone else might stumble across this post one day and be ableto help complete the picture.
Born 21 February 1782
Married John Edwards RN, 2 October 1811
Gave birth to John Edwards, 13 January 1814
Died May 1814, Calcutta / Bengal.
Born 28 November 1787
Married to Hugh Mackintosh (1775-1834) on 31 December at Fort St George,Madras, India.
Gave birth to William Hugh Mackintosh (1807-1840) on 27 December 1807
Died very soon after childbirth 1807/1808.
Born 31 October 1789
Married Rebecca Brown, 18 August 1815
Son, John Lee Nicholson, born c1817
Died July 1874
Author of The Operative Mechanic andBritish Machinist.
Died in Australia (TBC).
Isaac Nicholson (?? -)
Possibly born around 1793, if at age 15 he was
1808, midshipman aboard the David Scott.
Married Robert Hicks (1777-1832), 27 May 1813
Married Rev James Sedgwick (1794-1869) in 1838
Died before 1869
Born 16 April 1797
Playmate of Mary Godwin (Shelley)
Married Henry Augustus Miller, 11 May 1815
Gave birth to Louisa Jane Miller, 1824 (Cuddalore?, East Indies)
Gave birth to Maria Miller, c1826 (India)
Married Richard Backhouse (?-1829), 15 January 1827
Died 7 July 1869
Martha Mary Nicholson
Baptised 4 July 1799
Playmate of Mary Godwin (Shelley)
Ann Nicholson (?? - )
This leaves two children still to be identified.
Image: Robert Salmon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The second interesting discovery via the Hull Maritime Museum was sparked by their display of the history of whaling. Although the whalers departing from Hull headed mainly for the Arctic Waters, there was some mention of the south sea fisheries, and I was pointed towards a most useful resource: the British Southern Whale Fishery (BSWF) Database.
Run by the University of Hull, the online database supplies details of actual voyages, and the people involved in the BSWF between 1775 and 1859.
The British southern whale fishery, commenced in 1775 and its trade was almost exclusively carried out from London. Initially it focused primarily in the mid to south Atlantic; by the mid-1790s it had moved to the Pacific and Indian Oceans and was limited to the areas off the coasts of Africa, South America and the east coast of Australia, but by 1815 the trade had spread to the wider Pacific.
The trade was often referred to as the South Seas Whale Fishery, and it was some unfortunate project related to this with Thomas Pitt, Baron Camelford II, (the Half-Mad Lord) which was at the root of Nicholson’s financial problems in later life.
Camelford’s project involved an investment in two whaling ships, believed to be called the Experiment and the Wilding which were secured by a ‘reputable merchant’ called Mr Rogers.
The Wilding is listed on the database; it sailed in 1803 and returned in 1805 under the command of John Borlinder.
Unfortunately, there are a number of vessels called the Experiment, but none of these sailed in the southern seas around 1804, the year in which Camelford was shot in a duel and died.
If you can contribute any information on the Experiment or the Wilding, Mr Rogers or John Borlinder, or their connection with homas Pitt, Baron Camelford II, please get it touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Imagecourtesy of MyLearning.org © Hull Museums
Our son is working in Hull, so with it being Hull’s year as the City of Culture we decided to tread the tourist trail on a recent visit and enjoyed a tour of the Maritime Museum.
I am always struck by how busy sea ports appeared in paintings from the seventeenth and eighteenth century and this image of Hull’s first port particularly caught my eye. It was built between 1775 and 1778, creating the largest port in Britain. The dates rang a bell as I knew that Wedgwood was shipping his pottery to Amsterdam from Hull just the year before.
In May 1777, Nicholson was working as Josiah Wedgwood’s agent in Holland where he was responsible for negotiating the transfer of the pottery business to Lambertus van Veldhuysen. Nicholson wrote to Thomas Bentley on 20 June 1777 that van Veldhuysen:
‘expects all future orders to be expeditiously forwarded & shipped at Hull at the charge of Mr Wedgwood, or at London when haste is required.’
Van Veldhuysen’s agent in Hull was Thomas Horwarth.
1777 was also the year that the Trent and Mersey canal was completed, allowing Wedgwood to convey his pottery to Hull via the waterways and thereby reduce the number of breakages.
By 1783, over 13 million pieces of pottery and earthenware were being exported via Hull (not all Wedgwood).
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 35 members (the total number of members over the life of the society was 55).
Mr Alex Aubert (1730-1805), Austin Friars, 26
MrAndrewBlackhall (?-?), Thavies Inn, Holborn
DrWilliamCleghorn(1754-1783), Haymarket, 11
DrAdairCrawford(1748-1795), Lambs Conduit Street, 48.
MrJean-Hyacinthde Magellan(1722-1790), Nevilles Court, 12
MrJamesHorsfall(-d1785), Inner Temple.
DrJohnHunter(c1754-1809), Leicester Square
MrWilliamJones(1746-1794), Inner Temple
MrRichardKirwan(1735-1812), Newman Street, 11
MrPatrickMiller(1731-1815), Sackville Street, 17
MrEdwardNairne(1726-1806), Cornhill, 20
DrCharles William Quin(1755-1818), Harmarket, 11
DrJohnSims(1749-1831), Paternoster Row, 11
MrBenjaminVaughan(1751-1835), Mincing lane
MrAdamWalker(c1731-1821), George Street, Hannover Square
DrWilliam CharlesWells(1757-1817), Salisbury Court
MrJohnWhitehurst(1713-1788), Bolt Court, 4
DrJohnWatkinson(1742-1783), Crutched Friars, 22
DrRichardPrice(1723-1791), Newington Green
Rev'd DrJosephPriestley(1733-1804), 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.