In print at last after 150 years: 'The Life of William Nicholson, by his Son'

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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.



It's complicated! Nicholson's relationship with Sir Joseph Banks

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This weekend the Sir Joseph Banks Society is celebrating the 275th birthday of the larger-than-life Georgian, who dominated the Royal Society for decades.

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:



Invention #1 - Nicholson’s Hydrometer

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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:

HarvardUniversity Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments

St.Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana

The VirtualMuseum of the History of Mineralogy (Private collection)

KenyonCollege, Ohio

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.



21stC readers of Nicholson's Journal 29,538

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The Life of William Nicholson, 1753–1815

A Memoir of Enlightenment, Commerce, Politics, Arts and Science

Edited by Sue Durrell and with an afterword by Professor Frank James


Order from Peter Owen Publishers


Exploring the life and publications
of William Nicholson 1753-1815