Last Month's Author Spotlight > Q&A with Sue Durrell on William Nicholson

Sue Durrell is the editor of The Life of William Nicholson, a biography of an eminent Enlightenment figure whose significance to the scientific culture of the late eighteenth century has since been overlooked. Durrell and Peter Owen Publishers have revived this curious manuscript, written in 1868 by Nicholson’s son, and namesake, from the Bodleian Library. Professor Frank James of the Royal Institution contributed an afterword – read it here. But first, Durrell explains why you should get to know William Nicholson…


So who was William Nicholson? What were some of his achievements?

There are seventeen William Nicholsons on Wikipedia, so people are often confused. Born in 1753, our Mr Nicholson was a polymath with so many interests that I am able to describe him differently depending on my audience.

For historians of literature, he was a prolific author, translator and publisher, friend to Thomas Holcroft, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft – and his most important invention was for the cylindrical printer in 1790.

For historians of business and industry, I tell of his voyages to China with the East India Company, his work for Wedgwood in Amsterdam and later in London for the General Chamber of Commerce, his career as one of the earliest patent agents and his role as a civil engineer bringing water supply to Portsmouth and West London.

He is probably best known among historians of science for his contribution to electro-chemistry – having decomposed water into hydrogen and oxygen using a voltaic pile with Anthony Carlisle in 1800 – and for launching the first monthly scientific journal in Britain A Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and The Arts.

Can you describe the significance of the Journal? What influence did it have on the wider scientific community?

When Tim Peake sent back images from outer space in 2015, they took just seconds to reach us and they were available to everybody – many young scientists today will never have known a time without social media and may find it hard to imagine waiting a month to receive the latest news via a journal in the post.

But turn the clocks back to the 1790s, and the only dedicated scientific journal in this country was the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions – it was expensive, so had a limited circulation, and only came out twice year. Monthly scientific journals were published in France and Germany, but the Napoleonic Wars were preventing these reaching Britain. Natural philosophers (as scientists were called at that time) were operating in a knowledge vacuum, which Nicholson’s Journal was able to fill.

He wanted the journal to be useful and encouraged debate among readers over matters of science that were not settled for several years. Today the 2,860 articles which were published between April 1797 and December 1813 provide a fantastic resource for historians of science and industry.

Can you give us an idea of his character? Would you say he was typical of the Enlightenment?

He was a modest man. His greatest desire was for his work to be useful. He had a curious mind, always questioning and looking for evidence, for the truth and ‘enlightenment’. But he also kept an open mind about many things and was open to being proven wrong. He developed a reputation as trusted advisor and as a ‘scientific umpire’ and was often called upon to mediate in disputes over scientific issues.

What did his peers think of him?

One of the first quotes about Nicholson that I found was from Josiah Wedgwood who said that he had “not the least doubt of Mr Nicholson’s integrity and honour.”. That seemed like a pretty good testimonial to me.

As time went on, I kept finding other endorsements of his ingenuity and trustworthiness. He seemed to be so well regarded by many well-known characters of that period – Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley, Humphry Davy, Michael Faraday. These are names we all learnt at school, so had to count for something.

Did he have a Romantic streak? Who would more likely appear on his bookshelf, Burke or Paine?

In 1777, Nicholson found lodgings in London with the playwright Thomas Holcroft. He introduced him to the liberal publisher Joseph Johnson who published Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman and the first small run of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man in 1791. Holcroft himself was instrumental in finding Paine another publisher when Johnson got cold feet – so I have no doubt that Paine was on Nicholson’s bookshelf.

However, I am also confident that he would have had a copy of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France on the shelf for reference. One of his other good friends was William Godwin, whose diary records a series of conversations in 1791 and 1792 relating to the topics in Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice.

Nicholson and his wife Catherine were good friends to Godwin and Wollstonecraft, with the future Mary Shelley often coming to play with their daughters.

What drew you to Nicholson’s life and work in the first instance?

Nicholson is a very distant relative – my five-times-great grandfather – but I had only a passing interest in his life until I found a connection with a hero of mine, Josiah Wedgwood. Nicholson had worked for Wedgwood in Amsterdam in the 1770s.

In the Wedgwood Museum, near my home in Staffordshire, I was thrilled to find a treasure trove of letters and accounts written by Nicholson between 1775 and 1777 detailing the transfer of Wedgwood’s Dutch business to a new agent.

Then I discovered that Nicholson was connected to Wedgwood again in the 1780s when they were both involved with a coffee house philosophical society near St Paul’s in London, and with The General Chamber of Manufacturers.

I was a huge fan of Wedgwood, the ‘father of marketing’ and had to know more – I was hooked!

Can you tell us a bit about his son, William Nicholson Junior?

He was one of twelve children, and it sounds as if he had an idyllic childhood visiting all sorts of interesting people with his father in workshops, theatres, artists’ studios, hospitals, prisons and even military grounds.

He grew up overhearing conversations about politics, espionage, the arts and natural philosophy and spent his teens helping his father on civil engineering projects before leaving to go to work for Lord Middleton in Malton Yorkshire.

William Junior was eighty years old when he wrote this memoir of his father, taking great pride in his father’s polymathic accomplishments. Although he is clearly biased and lacking all the facts, his closeness to the subject allows for a wonderfully intimate picture of Georgian-era commerce, politics, arts and science.

Why do you think so little is known about Nicholson today?

He was an introvert – the quiet scientific friend of William Godwin and Thomas Holcroft, two larger-than-life characters with radical politics who were both hungry for fame and attention. Nicholson was the voice of scientific reason in their far-reaching debates. He was content to let them hog the limelight while he employed himself in his workshop to a gravity escapement clock, a slide rule or a file making machine, for example.

It is also hard to sum up a polymath easily. I can remember Matthew Parris commenting on Radio 4’s Great Lives that‘continuous high altitude is no substitute for a single visible summit’. In other words, it’s much easier to say a life was great because of a single achievement; it’s more memorable to have done ‘one big thing’ than many little ones.

Can you describe what it’s like – the work involved, the research, the difficulties and pleasures – of bringing to light an obscure historical figure?

Although I write a lot in my work, and I am used to doing plenty of research, I didn’t set out to write a book – it sort of crept up on me. I travel around the country quite a bit with my job, and so I started adding on trips to museums and libraries and whenever I had time to spare time I would research online. Also, I cannot pass an antiquarian bookstore without popping in to look at their work from the Eighteenth Century.

I got in touch with academics who specialised in Nicholson’s various activities. It has been fascinating meeting so many experts in their fields; all have been extremely kind and helpful.

My biggest difficulty was getting my head round the scientific aspects of Nicholson’s work. I had studied pure maths for A level, but not chemistry, physics or biology, even at O level, so I was woefully equipped and the first time I read about phlogiston I nearly abandoned the whole exercise.

My biggest stroke of luck was stumbling on a virtual Nicholson’s Journal which had been launched by a Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at UCL, now at Cambridge University. He turned out to be a huge fan of Nicholson, describing him as a ‘neglected figure’ and ‘in need of a biography’ and was hugely generous in helping me understand the key issues and really encouraged me.

Nicholson has had a life online since May 2015 when I launched the website which provides a searchable index to all the 2,860 articles published in William Nicholson’s Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts between April 1797 and December 1813. More recently, I have added a blog, and that has had over 25,000 views, so there is definitely interest in his work.

He also has his own Twitter account @Wm_Nicholson, where he has 650 followers from around the world – which is pretty impressive for an obscure historical figure!

And what’s next for you and, indeed, Nicholson?

I am still collecting material for the complete modern biography of Nicholson. It has reached about 110,000 words so far, but I recently discovered a new and rich seam of material relating to his civil engineering activities which I have yet to get stuck into. I also need to make time to head down to Cornwall to do some digging into Nicholson’s work for Baron Camelford II and a disastrous venture with whaling ships. So, I’m hoping to finish that early in 2019.



Available to order now – £13.99

The Life of William Nicholson


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