Last Month's Author Spotlight > Professor Frank James, Locating William Nicholson

Locating William Nicholson


Frank A.J.L. James, Professor of the History of Science, the Royal Institution and University College London


William Nicholson is best remembered for two things: his founding and editing of A Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, and the Arts (universally known as Nicholson’s Journal) in 1797, and using Alessandro Volta’s invention of the electric pile (later called the battery) to decompose water electrically for the first time, in 1800. These were both critically important contributions to the development of science in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But that is not all, for he also contributed to developing the hydrometer, inventing a slide rule and cylinder printing. Despite their significance, these aspects of Nicholson’s work have been eclipsed by his editing and electrical researches.

The memoir, published for the first time, written by his son more than fifty years after Nicholson’s death, illustrates his involvement in London’s rich scientific culture, though the text is not properly chronological nor always accurate. Nevertheless, the memoir is extraordinarily evocative of the social world of scientific London in the 1790s and early nineteenth century, with its small clubs, aristocratic patronage, radical politics, book trade, consequences of the long war against France (including foreign spies and military preparations) and much else besides. It is against this background that Nicholson’s lasting scientific contributions emerged and came to be defined.

It is clear from the memoir and from other sources that Nicholson, like many connected with the book trade at the time, was involved in the radical political discussions of 1790s London. For instance, following his return from serving as Wedgwood’s agent in the Netherlands in the late 1770s, Nicholson lodged with the playwright Thomas Holcroft, who later become one of the leading English Jacobins, strongly supporting the French Revolution. He was charged with treason in 1794, but never tried because others with similar views were acquitted and the government wished to avoid further embarrassment. Through Holcroft, Nicholson became acquainted with John Thelwall (tried but acquitted for treason) and, above all, with William Godwin. Godwin first noted Nicholson in his diary towards the end of 1788 and thereafter Nicholson figures prominently for the remainder of his life. Indeed, there is a significant peak in references to Nicholson in the diary in the period leading up to the publication in February 1793 of Godwin’s seminal Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Nicholson drafted an obituary of Godwin’s wife in 1797, the author Mary Wollstonecraft and undertook a phrenological study of their three-week-old daughter, the future Mary Shelley.

As the Revolution turned to Terror and ultimately to military dictatorship, many of Nicholson’s literary associates were English Jacobins and would have been seen as what one author, Kenneth Johnston, has called ‘Unusual Suspects’ which include Godwin and Thelwall. Nicholson is not in the index of Johnston’s book, which suggests that his ability to distance himself politically was more effective than that of his colleagues.

Nevertheless, for those in the know, such distancing would, at least in the short to medium term, be ineffective and this probably accounts for the comparative historical neglect accorded to Nicholson, apart from his two major contributions which could scarcely be overlooked.

Despite publishing three papers in the Philosophical Transactions in the 1780s, Nicholson was never elected to Fellowship of the Royal Society of London, which might reasonably have been expected. Although Nicholson knew the society’s president, Joseph Banks, and indeed for a while lived near him in Soho Square, attending his soirées, the memoir blames Banks for blocking the nomination explicitly on the class grounds that Nicholson was a ‘sailor boy’, having in his youth served as a midshipman in the service of the East India Company. While this may well have been the reason, another possible motive could have been Nicholson’s politics, which Banks would have abhorred.

It was in the charged and constantly changing political atmosphere of the 1790s that Nicholson decided in 1797 to establish his Journal, which would be a commercially published monthly scientific periodical. Along with the establishment of small scientific discussion groups or clubs, such as the Coffee House Philosophical Society, the London Mineralogical Society, the Askesian Society, the Geological Society, the City Philosophical Society, the Philosophical Society of London, the Chemical Club and so on, new periodicals were also founded during this period of war against France. In addition to Nicholson’s Journal, these included The Philosophical Magazine and The Director. These societies and journals had mixed success, some surviving to this day, most not. What they all had in common was a sense of dissatisfaction with the Royal Society of London under Banks’s leadership.

Nicholson explicitly modelled his Journal on existing Continental examples including the Journal de Physique (founded 1773), the Annales de Chimie (1789) and the Journal der Physik (1790), as well as some British predecessors such as the Repertory of Arts and Manufactures (1794), with the aim of including the work of those outside the Royal Society of London élites and with much faster publication than possible with the twice-yearly Philosophical Transactions. Initially sales were slow, which Nicholson attributed to general wartime distress, but reportedly within ten years Nicholson’s Journal had reached an impressive circulation of one thousand. Content was varied and it was the second highest cited journal in the eighth edition of William Henry’s Elements of Experimental Chemistry (1818). Its readership was not confined to what we would nowadays view as scientific, but included savants such as Samuel Coleridge and Robert Southey, both of whom had a serious chemical interest inspired by their close friendship with Humphry Davy, made while he was in Bristol working at the Medical Pneumatic Institution under Thomas Beddoes.

The benefits of the speedy publication of the latest scientific news in Nicholson’s Journal is well illustrated by the dissemination in Britain of Volta’s discovery that a pile of alternating metal discs interspersed with acidic paper or cloth produced galvanic electricity. Volta announced his invention in two letters written to Banks dated, from Como, 20 March and 1 April 1800. The first letter, sent by post, arrived during April, but the second, carried by a merchant, was not received until the start of June at the earliest. This delay explains why they were not read to the Royal Society of London until 26 June 1800. But Banks evidently told his acquaintances about the first letter since, according to Nicholson in the July issue of his Journal, Volta’s discovery had been ‘a subject of great attention among philosophers for near two months’ – that is, since April. Nicholson, with help from the surgeon Anthony Carlisle, built a pile during this period and decomposed water electrically for the first time, a result confirmed by the chemistry lecturer at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, William Cruickshank.

Before the second letter arrived, the first public announcement of Volta’s work and Nicholson’s and Carlisle’s discovery was made during a lecture delivered on Wednesday 28 May 1800 by Thomas Garnett at the Royal Institution. He borrowed apparatus from Edward Howard to demonstrate Volta’s discovery, which suggests that it might have come from Cruickshank with whom Howard collaborated. Garnett was widely reported, in newspapers such as the Morning Chronicle, The Sun and several others, as saying that Nicholson and Carlisle had repeated Volta’s discovery of the electrical decomposition of water. This incorrect claim drew a stinging correction from Nicholson, published in the Morning Chronicle and elsewhere, together with a hint that both Garnett and the Royal Institution had behaved with impropriety in announcing Volta’s work before it had been read to the Royal Society of London. This would doubtless have helped deflect attention from Nicholson’s imminent publication (well before its appearance in Philosophical Transactions) of his own work, which, inter alia, announced Volta’s discovery for the first time in a scientific journal rather than a newspaper.

Probably via the July issue of Nicholson’s Journal, Davy in Bristol received news early that month of Volta’s work and the research stemming from it undertaken by Nicholson, Carlisle and Cruickshank, just in time to reference it briefly at the end of his book mostly devoted to his investigations into nitrous oxide. Beddoes arranged for a pile to be built and for the remainder of the year Davy experimented on galvanism. Davy recorded this research in two notebooks, beginning in August, and in a series of monthly papers sent to Nicholson’s Journal from September 1800 through to February 1801, apart from January. In these papers Davy announced, amongst other discoveries, that electricity would pass through organic tissue, that charcoal could be used as an electric pole and came to the overall conclusion, contra Volta, that ‘Galvanism [was] a process purely chemical’. Thus Nicholson’s Journal became the major conduit in English by which details of new research on voltaic electricity, especially Davy’s, was disseminated.

In March 1801 Davy moved from the politically radical Medical Pneumatic Institution in Bristol to the much staider Royal Institution in London, in the course of which he changed his patronage from Beddoes to Banks. Although it would seem that Nicholson was never a subscriber of any sort to the Royal Institution, he did join its Committee of Chemistry in June 1801 shortly after Davy’s arrival, and thereafter for a number of years regularly presented copies of his Journal. By this time Davy, apart from one paper and two very short notes, had effectively ceased publishing in Nicholson’s Journal despite it having contributed significantly to making his national reputation. In part, this was because in 1802 Nicholson had a row with Banks about the publication of papers read to the Royal Society of London in his Journal, and Davy would never cross Banks.

What Nicholson had achieved with his Journal was to show that there existed a readership and a market for monthly journals devoted to scientific matters, promoting the timely publication of the latest pieces of scientific work. Others took notice of this and sought to copy him with monthlies such as the Philosophical Magazine (1798) and (a bit later) Annals of Philosophy (1813). However, in the long run the market was unable, at least at that time, to support more than one journal and they were eventually merged into the Philosophical Magazine.

Although there is little discussion of Nicholson’s Journal in the memoir, it nevertheless evokes the rich and diverse culture of London science in which Nicholson was located and made his significant scientific contributions.


 *This afterword is published without citations. A full list of references can be found in the book.

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The Life of William Nicholson


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