The following article was first published in the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association newsletter on 15 August 2018.
‘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
This year has seen numerous celebrations of Mary Shelley’s ‘foundational work in science fiction’, but where did Mary Shelley learn about electricity?
Historians often trace this knowledge to a copy of Humphry Davy’s Elements of Chemical Philosophy which was published in 1816 – but many years before this, the child Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin had access to scientific instruments at 10 Soho Square with her playmates – the five daughters of William Nicholson (1753-1815).
The scientist and publisher William Nicholson was one of her father’s closest friends. In his diary, William Godwin records more than 500 meetings with Nicholson and his family between November 1788 and February 1810. Aside from their mutual friend the dramatist Thomas Holcroft (1,435 mentions) and direct family members, only a handful of other acquaintances are mentioned more frequently in Godwin’s diary.
Nicholson had opened a Scientific and Classical School at his home in Soho Square in 1800. It was here in the Spring that, with Anthony Carlisle, he famously decomposed water into hydrogen and oxygen using the process now called electrolysis.
Electrical experiments had long been an interest of Nicholson who had two papers on the subject read to the Royal Society by Sir Joseph Banks in 1788 and 1789.
In those days, science - or natural philosophy as it was called - was also a leisure activity. Scientific instruments were the latest toys for the affluent and experiments provided entertainment. One after-dinner game was The Electric Kiss: where young men would attempt to kiss a young lady who had been charged with a high level of static electricity. Sadly, the kisses were rarely obtained as, on approaching the young lady, the men would be jolted away by an electric shock.
In a house full of several children, and a dozen energetic students, Mary witnessed and is likely to have participated in experiments and pranks with the air pump or Nicholson’s revolving doubler – his invention of 1788 with which you could create a continuous electrical charge.
Despite his circle of literary friends, Nicholson is better known among historians of science for A Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts which ran between 1797 and 1813 and was the first monthly scientific journal in Britain. It revolutionised the speed at which scientific information could spread - in the same way that social media has done more recently - and the Godwin family no doubt received copies.
Full sets of Nicholson’s Journal, as it was commonly known, are rare. Certain editions are particularly sought after, such as those which include George Cayley’s three papers on the invention of the aeroplane.
But Nicholson’s first success as an author was fifteen years previously with his Introduction to Natural Philosophy in 1782. This was the same year that he wrote the prelude to Holcroft’s play Duplicity.
Nicholson quickly abandoned writing for the theatre, but he never abandoned his literary friends with their anti-establishment views, and his body of work is more extensive than the voluminous scientific translations and chemical dictionaries for which he is best known – some of which change hands for thousands of pounds.
Other works included a six-day walking tour of London, a book on navigation – based on Nicholson’s experiences as a young man with the East India Company – and translations of the exotic biographies of the Indian Sultan Hyder Ali Khan and the Hungarianadventurer Count Maurice de Benyowsky. Nicholson also contributed short biographies for John Aikin’s General Biography series; he launched The General Review which ran for just six months in 1806; and heproduced a six-part encyclopedia.
Before Nicholson came to London, he had spent a period working for the potter Josiah Wedgwood in Amsterdam. Wedgwood held young Nicholson in high regard, commenting in 1777 that ‘I have not the least doubt of Mr Nicholson's integrity and honour’. Then in 1785, when Wedgwood was Chairman of the recently established General Chamber of Manufacturers of Great Britain, he appointed Nicholson as secretary. In this role, Nicholson produced several papers on commercial issues including on the proposed IrishTreaty and on laws relating to the production and export of wool.
Towards the end of his life, Nicholson put his technical knowledge to work as a patent agent and later as a civil engineer, consulting on water supply projects in West London and Portsmouth. The latter project faced stiff competition from another local water company and, in 1810, Nicholson published A Letter to the Incorporated Company of Proprietors of the Portsea-Island Water-Works.
As William Hazlitt indicated, in the opening quotation, Nicholson’s works were extensive. His activities were varied and there is much in his writings that will be of interest to historians of literature, commerce and inventions, as well as to historians of science and the Enlightenment.
A full list of Nicholson’s publications can be found in The Life of William Nicholson, by his Son, which was first published by Peter Owen Publishers earlier this year (£13.99). The original manuscript, written 150 years ago in 1868, is held at the Bodleian Library.
Free postage and packing is offered to members of the ABA when purchasing direct from www.PeterOwen.com. Simply use the Coupon code ‘1753-1815’ in the shopping cart before proceeding to checkout.
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: https://www.nicholsonsjournal.co.uk/nicholsons-journal-index.html
Checking a few of the links on our list of Nicholson’s publications, I was delighted to find that there is now a copy of The Navigator’s Assistant available to read on Google Books.
The previous link (via the Hathitrust) attributed the book incorrectly to William Nicholson ‘master attendant of Chatham dockyard’. Unfortunately, quite a few other online links make the same error (including one on Worldcat – where I was surprised that I could not find a facility to report the error).
Published in 1784 in two volumes for 6 shillings, more than ten years after he had returned from his second voyage to China, this was Nicholson’s second publication in his own name. It followed on from the success of his An Introduction to Natural Philosophy in 1782.
Despite the success of his first book, Joseph Johnson was not interested in a work on navigation, and Nicholson eventually persuaded three publishers to spread the risk and work with him. These were Thomas Longman of Paternoster Row (1730-1797), Thomas Cadell of The Strand (1742-1802) and John Sewell of Cornhill (c1733-1802).
Sewell became a good friend of Nicholson, and was an interesting character. His shop in Cornhill was described in his obituary as “the well-known resort of the first mercantile characters in the city, particularly those trading to the East Indies. “ “He possessed, besides his professional judgement of books, a tolerable knowledge of mechanicks, particularly of ship-building … and was a most zealous promoter of a Society for the Improvement of Naval Architecture,” - of which he persuaded Nicholson to become a member.
Two other historic nuggets - with no relation to Nicholson, but rather interesting - caught my eye in his obituary:
Businesses in Cornhill had suffered from a number of fires, and so Sewell came up with the idea of building a water tank beneath the coach-pavement which was kept full and was a ‘perpetual and ready resource in cases of fires happening in the vicinity.’
In 1797 mutinies were threatened by sailors of the Royal Navy – a time when Britain was at war with France – “the kingdom was alarmed and confounded” and John Sewell drew up plans for a Marine Voluntary Association “for manning in person the Channel Fleet”. Fortunately, the sailors came to their senses and the volunteers were not required.
Returning to The Navigator’s Assistant, this was not a great success. The Monthly Review described it as “undoubtedly the work of a person who is possessed of ingenuity enough to leave the beaten path” but goes on to criticise a number of technical errors.
The Gentleman’s Magazine kindly described it as “too refined and laboured for the class of persons to whom it was addressed: and therefore it is not much to be wondered at that this Assistant was neglected”.
While the phrase ‘gig economy’ has been all over the mainstream media recently with the publication of the Good Work: The Taylor Review of modern working practices, the expression has been around for nearly a decade and insecure working arrangements have been around for centuries. In 2015, The Financial Times chose the expression for its FT 2015 Year in a Word, by Leslie Hook.
Leslie traced the expression back to the height of the financial crisis in 2009, ‘when the unemployed made a living by gigging, or working several part-time jobs, wherever they could’ with the word ‘gig’ emanating from jazz club musicians in the 1920s.
I could not help noting the similarities with life for many in the 18th Century as I re-read the Memoirs of the Late Thomas Holcroft by William Hazlitt. Holcroft was a good friend of Nicholson, and his early employment history included time as a shoemaker, a stable lad at Newmarket, and as a chorister where he earned the nickname ‘the sweet singer of Israel’.
Holcroft headed for London where, like many young people today, he ‘felt the effects of poverty very severely’ and ruminated on what might have resulted from a good education. He was getting so desperate for work that he was heading to the office which recruited soldiers for the East India Company when he bumped into a friend who mentioned an opportunity with a travelling theatre company in Dublin. Then, for several years, he traipsed about the country in search of one opportunity after another before finally settling in London as a writer and dramatist.
Nicholson too was no stranger to the gig economy, having first worked for Josiah Wedgwood on a 'consultancy assignment' to Amsterdam to investigate financial irregularities with the Dutch sales agency. This had led to an employed position in Amsterdam, but only for a discrete project and so Nicholson had to return to London in search of work.
When young William Nicholson came to lodge with Holcroft at Southampton Buildings in around 1780, Holcroft subcontracted bits of writing to him. He also tried to persuade Nicholson that ‘at least as much revenue could be obtained from literary publications, as from any of the objects … of his thoughts.’
Over 25 years, Nicholson successfully built a steady income from writing, translating and publishing. But, with a large family to feed, he also took several gigs on the side. Projects included consulting on technical issues, sometimes as an early patent agent, acting as Secretary to the Chapter Coffee House Society and the General Chamber of Manufacturers. Then in the mid-1800s, he took on assignments as a civil engineer for a couple of water supply projects.
Unfortunately, like many who operate in the gig economy today, Holcroft and Nicholson did not set aside enough of their incomes during the good times to provide for ill-health in their old age.
The gig economy is not such a new phenomenon, but it does remind us that workers did not always enjoy the social safety nets that we often take for granted and are comparatively recent developments in the history of employment:
•1908 – old age pension introduced for men over 70
•1938 – paid holiday introduced
•1940 – old age pensions introduced for women
•1948 - the NHS was introduced.
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