When I was asked to participate in the 2020 Bloomsbury Festival, with the Friends of St George’s Gardens, I was delighted to have an opportunity to spread the word about William Nicholson (1753-1815) and his interesting life.
I was especially happy when the FoSGG team proposed hiring an actor to play Mr Nicholson, and had great fun writing the script … up to the point when Nicholson’s interests turned to science.
It was easy to paint a vivid picture of life at sea with the East India Company, the theatrical shenanigans with Thomas Holcroft and the revolutionary and political events of that period.
But communicating about Nicholson’s experiments and the achievement of splitting water (with his colleague Anthony Carlisle) was a different matter.
I’ll confess to being a late-bloomer when it comes to any interest in science. My younger self would be astonished to learn that one day I might be interested about the history of science – nevermind reading and writing about it. I’m certainly not equipped to talk or even demonstrate it.
But just around the corner from St George’s Gardens is University College London, which was also involved with the Bloomsbury Festival, and which happens to have an electrochemistry outreach group. Several PhD students were keen to spread the word about the future of clean energy and the potential for hydrogen fuel cells – a technology which can trace its history in a direct line to Nicholson & Carlisle’s experiment in May 1800 in the house in Soho Square. (See this guest blog from Alice Llewellyn- How the discovery of electrolysis has changed the future’s energy landscape).
The UCL team comprised Alice Llewellyn, Harry Michael, Keenan Smith and Zahra Rana as presenters, and Katrina Mazloomian as videographer. They brought the science to life in a wonderfully engaging way.
This extract from ‘In Conversation with Mr Nicholson’ is now on the Nicholson’s Journal YouTube account and shows Mr Nicholson (played by Julian Date) talking to the PhD students as they:
This is followed by a Q&A session recorded from the online event. With questions including:
Thankfully our team of experts from UCL answered these questions most interestingly, and in plain English as you can see on the second of two videos from the Bloomsbury Festival.
Click here to watch:
When William Nicholson launched his Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts in 1979, part of his motivation was to speed up the transfer of scientific knowledge.
If he lived today, he would surely have embraced social media for that purpose - never lowering himself to insults or trolling!
Now he has added a Nicholson’s Journal YouTube account to his media channels, and we are able to share excerpts from ‘In Conversation with Mr Nicholson’ a performance for the Bloomsbury Festival 2020 which took place in the open air of St George’s Gardens, London where Nicholson is buried.
Directed and introduced by Ian Brown, episode one is the historical part where his biographer Sue Durrell interviews Nicholson who has returned from his grave in the gardens to talk about his life in the second half of the eighteenth century.
Nicholson is brought to life most ably by actor Julian Date, who reminisces about his life at the crossroads of Georgian arts, literature, science, and commerce, and discusses the importance of his discovery in splitting water using Volta’s battery, alongside his friend Dr. Carlisle.
The short three excerpts in this video cover:
• Working for Josiah Wedgwood in Amsterdam and at the General Chamber of Manufacturers
• Nicholson’s motivation for launching his Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and The Arts; and
• Remembering Humphry Davy and the Royal Institution and recalling the experiment with Anthony Carlisle where they split water into hydrogen and oxygen in May 1800.
This is the first of two videos from this event. Part two shows demonstrations of the experiment and discusses its implications in the quest for clean energy.
Julian Date is represented by Hilary Gagan Associates.
A guest blog by Alice Llewellyn from UCell, the electrochemical outreach group at UCL
Shortly after the invention of the battery in the form of a voltaic pile by Alessandro Volta in 1800, William Nicholson (1753-1815) and Anthony Carlisle (1768-1840) discovered that water can be split into its constituent elements (hydrogen and oxygen) by using electrical energy.This phenomena is termed electrolysis and is the process of using electricity to produce a chemical change. Electrolysis was a critical discovery, which shook the scientific community at the time. It directly demonstrated a relationship between electricity and chemical elements. This fact helped scientific legends – Faraday, Arrhenius, Otswald and van’t Hoff develop the basics of physical chemistry as we know them.
Fast forward to today, and we are faced with one of the greatest challenges – climate change. This effect has accelerated the search for alternative fuels and energy storage devices fin order to decarbonise the energy sector. Burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) for energy is the main cause of climate change as it produces carbon dioxide gas which leads to a greenhouse effect and the warming of our atmosphere.
A huge contender for alternative fuels is hydrogen. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. However, it does not typically exist as itself in nature and is most commonly bonded to other molecules, such as oxygen in water (H2O). This is where electrolysis plays a key role. Electrolysis can be used to extract hydrogen from the compound which can then go on to be used as a fuel. Moreover, if a renewable source of energy is used (for example wind or solar) to provide the electricity required to split the water, then there is no carbon footprint associated with this hydrogen production.
Hydrogen can then be used in fuel cells to produce electricity. Fuel cells are electrochemical energy devices, they convert chemical energy directly into electrical energy without any combustion. The way in which a fuel cell works is in fact the reverse process of electrolysis. In a fuel cell, hydrogen is split into its protons and electrons which then react with oxygen to produce water, electricity and a little bit of heat. As the only side product of this reaction is water, fuel cells are a very clean way to produce electricity.
Energy from renewable sources (wind, solar…) is intrinsically intermittent. Depending on the season or time of the day more or less energy is produced. To make sure the supply of energy is secure and stable, energy needs to be stored when an excess is produced and later fed back into the grid when needed. Water electrolysis offers grid stabilization. When a surplus of energy is available, e.g. during the day when the sun is shining, some of this energy is used to produce hydrogen. This hydrogen can then easily be stored in tanks. Whenever more energy is needed, e.g. when it is dark, hydrogen is taken from tanks and fuelcells are used to release the energy stored in the hydrogen.
Not only can hydrogen be used for grid stabilisation, but this can also be used to transform the transport sector, which contributes to around a quarter of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. Fuel cell vehicles are one of the solutions that have been adopted to tackle this problem and are classed as zero-emission vehicles (only water comes out of the exhaust).
In 2019, London adopted a fleet of hydrogen-powered double decker buses – a world first! As more people start to learn about this technology, more fuel cell vehicles can be spotted on our roads.
Without the discovery of electrolysis by Nicholson and Carlisle in 1800, it might not be possible to produce pure hydrogen for these applications in such an environmentally-friendly way, making the fight against climate change a more difficult task.
About our guest author Alice Llewellyn
Following a masters project synthesizing and testing novel battery negative electrodes, Alice Llewellyn, started her PhD project in the electrochemical innovation lab at UCL, primarily using X-ray diffraction to study atomic lattice changes in transition metal oxide cathodes during battery degradation. Alice co-runs the electrochemical outreach group UCell.
UCell is a group of PhD and masters students based at University College London, who are passionate about hydrogen, clean technologies and electricity storage and love sharing their knowledge and experience to the general public through outreach, taking their 3 kW fuel cell stack to power stages, thermal cameras and, well, anything that needs powering! In a time of a changing energy landscape, they aim to show how these technologies are starting to become a regular feature in our everyday lives.
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.
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.
Image Michal Jarmoluk on Pixabay
Well done to the group of art historians who wrote to The Times on 6 November:
“The fees charged by the UK’s national museums to reproduce images of historic paintings, prints and drawings are unjustified, and should be abolished. Such fees inhibit the dissemination of knowledge that is the very purpose of public museums and galleries. Fees charged for academic use pose a serious threat to art history: a single lecture can cost hundreds of pounds; a book, thousands.”
A full copy of the letter (and more recent developments) can be found on the website www.arthistorynews.com.
As someone who uses images as a daily basis for marketing, I am used to being able to licence stock images (photographs or drawings) from websites such as Istockphoto or Shutterstock for a reasonable fee, and was shocked to find out how much some museums wished to charge, how complicated the fee structure can be, and how inconsistent the pricing structure is across various national institutions.
Initially, I had been keen to include a large number of illustrations in my modern biography of Nicholson - hoping to bring some potentially dry scientific subjects to life - but I soon had to modify my aspirations.
By way of example, when writing this blog on Nicholson’s clock, which is in the British Museum but not on public display, I was only allowed to include the three images provided by the Museum under the Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International licence, “an internationally recognised licence recommended by one of the Directives we are expected to follow as a public sector body.”
However, the museum did not have photographs of some interesting and unique aspects of the clock including a close up of the inscription “William Nicholson / 1797” and a side view showing the fusee mechanism.
While I was permitted to take photographs, and video, for my personal use during the visit – I was not allowed to use these on the blog, as
“… you can certainly use your own images for ‘private and non-commercial purposes’ but I’m afraid you are not permitted to publish these images.
This allows us to maintain the quality of representation of our objects, keep a record of what is used and avoid any complications regarding future copyright.
The Museum’s Visitor Regulations regarding personal photography is:
8. Film, photography and audio recording
8.1 Except where indicated by notices, you are permitted to use hand-held cameras (including mobile phones) with flash bulbs or flash units, and audio and film recording equipment not requiring a stand. You may use your photographs, film and audio recordings only for your own private and non-commercial purposes.
The image rights team kindly offered to “easily arrange new photography for £85 + VAT (30 day turnaround but often much faster)”. How they might incur such costs was a mystery to me, and I did not bother to ask whether this was per photograph.
This seems to go against the British Museum’s object of:
The Museum was based on the practical principle that the collection should be put to public use and be FREELY accessible.
Given that Nicholson’s clock is not on public display, one might have thought they would see the benefit of some broader exposure online – at no cost to the public purse.
In thinking about what to include in book, I am faced with this pricing structure for scholarly and academic books:
Total combined print run and download units (prices per image ex-VAT):
Up to 500: £30
501 – 1,000: £40
1,001 – 2,000: £50
2,001 – 3,000: £60
My initial plan to include up to eight images, in order to properly detail the design and mechanics, would set me back £400 if the print run is between 1,000 and 2,000. Somehow, I doubt that Neil MacGregor has this problem when choosing his next set of 100 hundred objects.
There is a big difference between the commercial value in the photograph of Nicholson’s clock’s fusee and an iconic sculpture such as the Discobolus, of which the British Museum sells replicas for £2,500.
I should think that the trustees of the British Museum would have a better understanding than most of the fact that many niche historical books have only a limited customer base, but are nonetheless extremely valuable in terms of the spread of knowledge and understanding.
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
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