William Nicholson (1753–1815) seems to be one of the best kept secrets in enlightenment history, yet his accomplishments were many and he was consulted and respected by some of the best-known figures of that period.
Perhaps most recognised in scientific circles for the decomposition of water by electrolysis with Anthony Carlisle in 1800, and his Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts, Nicholson was a prolific author, translator and publisher. His accomplishments are revered by scientific historians at some of the world's leading universities, but he is rarely heard of today in other spheres.
Although not an entrepreneur, Nicholson was a man of business and a trusted associate of Josiah Wedgwood, working for him in the Netherlands and later with Wedgwood and Matthew Boulton at the General Chamber of Manufacturers. His administrative skills also secured him roles with the Chapter House Coffee Society and the Society for the Improvement of Naval Architecture. He advised Sir Joseph Banks on the woollen laws and was an agent for Lord Pitt, Baron Camelford II.
As an inventor he made great contributions to the fields of chemistry, electricity and printing. He was one of the earliest patent agents, giving evidence in Boulton and Watt v Hornblower and Maberly. For a number of years he ran a school in Soho Square. Then in later life, Nicholson was a civil engineer bringing a running water supply to a number of areas, including Hammersmith and Portsmouth.
With such a diverse range of interests and accomplishments, it is easy to see how he might not fit neatly into any one category of study.
The aim of this website is to improve awareness of William Nicholson's many contributions to developments in science, manufacturing, business, publishing and civil engineering, and to provide a useful historical resource via the index of articles published within Nicholson's Journal between 1797 and 1813.
An ingenious man
William Nicholson was well respected by some of the leading figures of the enlightenment – we quote just a few of them below:
‘I have not the least doubt of Mr Nicholson's integrity and honour.’ Josiah Wedgwood, writing to Thomas Bentley, 26 July 1777
‘His character as a man is truly respectable; to an affability that engages attention, and a degree of intelligence that is very uncommon in one so young as he apparently is, he adds a candour and benevolence that fixes the esteem …’ The European Magazine, 1782
‘Mr Nicholson is an ingenious and accurate man …’ Erasmus Darwin, writing to Josiah Wedgwood, 21 April 1786
‘The discoveries of the last thirty years, particularly including those of galvanic electricity, are so numerous, and so dispersed in volumes difficult to be procured, that a continuation of this history is a desideratum in the scientific world; at one time there was an expectation of seeing it from Mr Nicholson, whose general knowledge, and industry, as well as his attention to this branch of philosophy in particular, render him peculiarly qualified for the task.’ Memoirs of Dr. Joseph Priestley to the year 1795, Vol. 1, Joseph Priestley and Thomas Cooper
‘Mr Nicholson ...is an ingenious man ...experienced and conversant in mechanics ...I will add him to the number of the plaintiff's witnesses.’ Serjeant Adair, counsel for Matthew Boulton and James Watt, 1799
‘The hypothesis of this learned and laborious philosopher …. is indeed very ingenious.’ Allessandro Volta, writing to Sir Joseph Banks, on the subject of Nicholson’s article about the torpedo fish, 1800
‘An immense field of investigation seems opened by this discovery: may it be pursued so as to acquaint us with some of the laws of life!’ Humphry Davy writing to Davies Giddy, on Nicholson and Carlisle’s decomposition of water, 1800
‘Mr Nicholson has now for many years stood almost alone, as a general adviser upon such works, and is well known and respected in our Courts of Justice and committees of parliament, for the clear and able statements he has given in evidence, as well as in writing, upon many subjects of great national importance.’ The European Magazine, and London Review, August 1812
‘With respect to Nicholson I like him exceedingly and more particularly his method explaining the nature of lever.’ Michael Faraday, 1812
‘I used to write a page or two perhaps in half a year, and I remember laughing heartily at the celebrated experimentalist Nicholson who told me that in twenty years he had written as much as would make three hundred Octavo volumes.’ William Hazlitt, 1821
‘I was, for ten years, in the habit of hearing in an undisguised manner the opinions of the most eminent scientific men in England, – as I held the office of Assistant Secretary to the Board of Managers of the Royal Institution ... and in all that time I never heard his name mentioned but with respect among these gentlemen.’ William Savage in A Dictionary of the Art of Printing, 1841
Describing how several acquaintances of her father William Godwin ‘remained as dear & valued friends for many years. Among these may be selected William Nicholson – of whose talents Mr Godwin always entertained a high esteem. In these days Nicholson would probably have risen to greater eminence. During the period when he lived he knew the world was chiefly alive to the progress of mind & political science – Now the external universe obtains far more consideration. As a man of invention, of acquirement – of mingled theory & practice, Nicholson would have prospered in these days of mines, tunnels, railroad & steam engines – as it was his fate was adverse.’ Mary Shelley, '‘Life of William Godwin’ (unpublished)
Nicholson’s Journal ‘was read and quoted throughout Europe by all men of science and learning; and is such a record of industry and achievement in the various departments of science as few men leave behind them.’ William Nicholson Jr, 1869.
More recently, his recognition has been mainly within the scientific community:
He has ‘given more systematic, painstaking and thorough-going study to the various forms that slide rules may take, than has any other worker of the eighteenth century. His suggestions met with no response in his day, but the ideas which he advanced are embodied in many instruments designed during the nineteenth century.’ Florian Cajori, The History of the Logarithmic Slide Rule, 1909
Nicholson ‘made a very considerable contribution to the progress of British science.’ Sam Lilley MSc PhD, 1948
‘In translating these and other excellent works into English, Nicholson rendered great service to the British students of science.’ Roy Stanley Woolner, 1959
Nicholson ‘in running his journal, in which he presented various viewpoints to readers and published a wide variety of work, was an independent act of institutional maturity at a very early time during which many of the sciences featured in his journal were quite immature.’ Hasok Chang, Is Water H2O?, 2012
‘ ... chemistry is lastingly in his debt, to say nothing of physics and engineering ... Nicholson was at the centre of this scientific revolution at the dawn of the 19th century.’ Colin Russell, ‘Enterprise and electrolysis ...’, Chemistry in Britain
‘At less than three inches long, could Nicholson's slide rule of 1786 have been the first pocket calculator?’ Anthony Francis-Jones, Wrekin College and Institute of Physics History Group, 2014
Nicholson (and the publishers of the early scientific periodicals which followed) … ‘actually serve[d] to hasten the progressof human knowledge. And gradually, withmen of science making more and more use of them as readers and writers, themovement of information in these new journals did indeed begin to alter therhythm and tempo of scientific life.” IainWatts, ‘Current’ Events: Galvanism and the World of Scientific Information, 1790-1830, Ph.D. Dissertation, 2015
Edited by Sue Durrell and with an afterword by Professor Frank James
Support independent bookshops, and order a copy from Bookshop.org
Search the index of the Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts, 1797–1813Search
© Sue Durrell, 2016-2023 unless otherwise stated. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.
Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Durrell and www.NicholsonsJournal.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.