Towards the end of the 1770s, after returning to London from his work for Wedgwood in Amsterdam, William Nicholson took lodgings with the writer Thomas Holcroft and was introduced to his landlord’s colourful circle of friends. A fellow lodger was Elizabeth Kemble whose father had established a strolling theatre company, and whose sister Sarah Siddons was a well-known actress.
From their rooms in Southampton Buildings at the top of London’s Chancery Lane, Holcroft and Nicholson often headed down to ‘Porridge Island’ a small row of cook-shops near to St Martins-in-the-Field where they enjoyed a nine-penny dinner and met up with other writers and musicians.
According to his son, Nicholson wrote a great deal for Holcroft who was used to having an amanuensis. The first piece of work to which Nicholson is know to have contributed was a novel published in 1780 entitled Alwyn: or The Gentleman Comedian. William Hazlitt, who completed Holcroft’s memoir (with assistance from Nicholson) explained how ‘it was originally intended that N.... should compile from materials to be furnished by Holcroft, but of which he in fact only wrote a few short letters, evidently very much against the grain.’
The second piece of work, which was attributed to Nicholson, was the prologue to a drama called Duplicity. The play opened in October 1781 at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, and the prologue was performed by Mr Lee-Lewes.
The opening performance was met with great applause and positive reviews. Holcroft described his feelings as ‘having escaped from the Dog of Hell, the Elysian fields are before me, if I have but taste and prudence to select the sweets.’ One can imagine the celebrations in Southampton Buildings that night and the excitement of Nicholson and his new bride as they mingled with the cast which included Elizabeth Inchbald, another renowned actress.
Unfortunately, within just a few days, Duplicity failed to generate enough revenue to cover the expenses of the house and Mr Harris of the Theatre Royal declared that ‘unless it was commanded by the King, he should not think of playing it any more’.
Nicholson’s son claimed that his father continued to produce ‘essays, poems and light literature for the periodicals of the day’ while working with Holcroft, but frustratingly for us ‘to none of which he put his name’.
A couple of years later, after war with France had ended, Holcroft made his name with the unscrupulous infringement of another playwright’s intellectual property. Having travelled to Paris to see The Marriage of Figaro by Beaumarchais, Holcroft had requested a copy of the script but was refused. So, over ten nights in September 1784, he and a friend attended the performance and recorded the entire script. In December that same year, with no respect for creative copyright, Holcroft took to the stage at Covent Garden in the role of Figaro for its first performance in Britain.
A decade later in 1792, Holcroft produced his best-known play The Road to Ruin. Let us leave Holcroft to bask in his glory for a little while, and I will return to his life after 1792 in due course.
I was extremely fortunate in having been signed by one of the leading independent publishers - Peter Owen Publishing. This was the first publisher that Iapproached (so very fortunate indeed) and is surely testament to the importance of Mr Nicholson, rather than my own humble credentials.
As the main biography is taking much longer than anticipated (see below), we decided to publish The Life of William Nicholson by his Son as a prelude - exactly 150 years after it was written in 1868. This rare manuscript has been held by the Bodleian Library since 1978.
In addition to the edited text of The Life of William Nicholson by his Son, the book also includes:
- a timeline of Nicholson's life, work and inventions;
- details of Nicholson's published works;
- Nicholson's patents and inventions;
- Nicholson's list of members of the coffee house philosophical society of the 1780s (not as complete as in Discussing Chemistry and Steam by Levere and Turner …, but indicative of Nicholson's associates at the time); and
- committee Members of the Society for Naval Architecture of 1791.
Design agency Exesios have done a super job of the cover, and there is a special treat on the inside with:
- a map of all Nicholson's known homes on (Drew's map of 1785); and
- the drawings from the 1790 cylindrical printing patent.
I'm delighted that Professor Frank James of UCL and the Royal Institution has written an afterword which focuses on Nicholson's scientific contributions. Considering his literary associates, Professor James also suggests why Nicholson was never made a member of the Royal Society, despite his many achievements.
The modern biography of William Nicholson (1753-1815)
With 110,000 words under my belt, I was beginning to think that the end was in sight on the modern biography - until I met up with Hugh Torrens, Emeritus Professor of History of Science and Technology at University of Keele, to chat about some of the civil engineering issues.
Our first meeting resulted in a very exciting list of 29 items of further research which will keep me busy researching and writing for several months.
Meanwhile, you can keep up to date with news and developments here on the blog.
William Nicholson (1753-1815) is best known to Enlightenment historians as the founder of A Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts – the first commercial monthly scientific journal in Britain. Taking a wide variety of articles from all levels of society, Nicholsons Journal, democratised access to technological developments, encouraged debate and accelerated the spread of scientific know-how. However, it was a thorn in the side of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, and Sir Joseph Banks is reported to have blocked Nicholson’s membership to the Royal Society on the basis that he wanted ‘no journalists’ or ‘sailor boys’ – the latter a reference to Nicholson’s early career with the East India Company and a contretemps at the short-lived Society for the Improvement of Naval Architecture.
Despite this, they enjoyed a cordial relationship over at least 20 years. Nicholson was first engaged by Banks to help produce the paper Observations on a Bill, for Explaining, Amending, and Reducing into One Act, the several laws now in being for preventing the Exportation of Live Sheep, Wool, and other Commodities, 1787.
Shortly after this, Banks accepted the first of three papers from Nicholson for the Royal Society – one on a proposed design for a compact scale rule to replace the cumbersome Gunther’s rule; one in 1788 regarding Nicholson’s invention of the revolving doubler (a device to generate electricity) and a third paper on electricity was read in 1789.
In 1799, Nicholson moved to Number 10 Soho Square where he established a scientific school and hosted a series of scientific lectures. He was a regular participant at Banks’s Sunday Conversazione and the Thursday breakfast held in the Banks library.
In 1802, a disagreement arose when Nicholson wrote to Banks asking permission to republish papers from the Royal Society, as was happening in foreign journals – he argued that it was unfair that ‘journalists within the Realm should be put in a less favoured situation than foreign philosophers’.
Working relations resumed, and in 1806, on behalf of the Board of Longitude, Banks invited Nicholson to comment on designs of the timekeepers constructed by John Arnold and Thomas Earnshaw hoping to reveal the secrets of their designs to the wider watch-making community and thereby stimulate similar developments.
Between 1800 and 1812, 14 articles by Banks were published in Nicholson’s Journal – so in the end, even Sir Joseph recognized the benefits of speedier dissemination of scientific information.
These articles can ve accessed via: http://www.nicholsonsjournal.co.uk/nicholsons-journal-index.html
A hydrometer is a device for measuring a density (weight per unit volume) or specific gravity (weight per unit volume compared with water). It was also called an aerometer, a gravimeter or a densimeter.
On 1 June 1784, Nicholson wrote to his good friend Mr. J. H. Magellan with: ‘A description of a new instrument for measuring the specific gravities of bodies’.
According to Museo Galileo, hydrometers date back to Archimedes and the Alexandrian teacher Hypatia, but the second half of the nineteenth century saw the design of several types which were well-used in industry of which “the better-known models include those developed by Antoine Baumé (1728-1804) and William Nicholson (1753-1815)”.
Nicholson’s paper, which does not seem to be accompanied by a drawing, was published the following year in the Memoirs of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society (London: Warrington, 1785) 370–380, and can be accessed via Google Books
In the first edition of Nicholson’s A Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts, Nicholson wrote an article about the hydrometers invented by Baumé – one for spirits and one for salts - which had never been used in this country, but never mentioned his own earlier invention.
In June 1797, Nicholson published a translation of a paper that had been read in France at the National Institute by Citizen Louis Bernard Guyton de Morveau (1737-1816), and then published in the Annales de Chimie. Nicholson points out that ‘this translation is nearly verbal’ as he finds himself writing about his own invention.
Comparing Nicholson’s hydrometer with that designed by Fahrenheit which he described as ‘not fit for the hand of the philosopher’, Guyton de Morveau says:
“The form which Nicholson gave some years ago to the hydrometer of Fahrenheit, rendered it proper to measure the density of solids. At present it is very much used. It gives, with considerable accuracy, the ratio of specific gravity to the fifth decimal,water being taken as unity. … It does not appear that any better instrument need be wished for in this respect.”
Of all of Nicholson’s inventions, this one still bears his name and is called Nicholson’s hydrometer today. Examples can be found in several museums, and it is possible to purchase a modern version for use in school experiments for just a few dollars.
The Oxford Museum of the History of Science kindly showed me their Nicholson’s hydrometer from 1790.
Others can be found at:
Sadly, I couldn’t find a video online with a demonstration of Nicholson's hydrometer being used. If anyone knows of one, or feels the urge to produce one, I would love to share it on this website.