• The Life of William Nicholson, 1753–1815

January 2018

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By his Son William Nicholson Junior


A Memoir of Enlightenment, Commerce, Politics, Arts and Science


Edited by Sue Durrell and with an afterword by Professor Frank James


William Nicholson (1753–1815) is recognized among historians of science for his many contributions to electro-chemistry, cylindrical printing, slide rules and horology and for launching the first monthly scientific journal in Britain: A Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts.

Nicholson's activities extend beyond science, encompassing work for the East India Company and Josiah Wedgwood, the establishment of a school in Soho Square, work as one of the earliest patent agents and as a civil engineer. Nicholson’s writing, translating and publishing was extensive, ranging from works on navigation and historical biographies to important scientific translations and textbooks. During a period of three revolutions, scientific, industrial and political, Nicholson managed to build a reputation as a trusted advisor and ‘scientific umpire’. His circle included the radical liberals Joseph Johnson, Thomas Holcroft, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, industrial pioneers Josiah Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton, Jabez Hornblower and Richard Trevithick, scientific innovators Richard Kirwan, Humphry and John Davy, and establishment figures such as Sir Joseph Banks, Count Rumford, the 2nd Baron Camelford and Earl Dundonald.

This is the first publication of a memoir drafted 150 years ago by William Nicholson’s eldest son. Also called William, he was eighty when he wrote the book in 1868. It is rich with vivid descriptions of many familiar historic characters and intimate descriptions of life at the crossroads of commerce, politics, arts and science during the Enlightenment.




‘During the period when he lived he knew the world was chiefly alive to the progress of mind and political science … As a man of invention, of acquirement – of mingled theory and practice, Nicholson would have prospered in these days of mines, tunnels, railroad and steam engines.’ – Mary Shelley
‘I have not the least doubt of Mr Nicholson’s integrity and honour.’ – Josiah Wedgwood
‘Mr Nicholson is an ingenious and accurate man’ – Erasmus Darwin
‘The hypothesis of this learned and laborious philosopher … is indeed very ingenious.’ – Allessandro Volta

‘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 (on Nicholson and Carlisle’s decomposition of water by electrolysis)


SUE DURRELL has long had a passion for the Enlightenment and industrial heritage, having volunteered to work with museums early in her career, winning the 2006 Jaguar Arts and Business Award for support to the Gladstone Pottery Museum. In 2015 she launched the website www.nicholsonsjournal.com, which provides a searchable index of over 2,600 articles published in William Nicholson’s A Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts between 1797 and 1813. She is the author of the first contemporary full-length biography of William Nicholson, set for publication in 2018.

FRANK JAMES is Professor of the History of Science at UCL and the Royal Institution where he is also Head of Collections.


Bibliographic Data
Date Published January 2018
ISBN Number 9780720619577
Pages 128

The Life of William Nicholson, 1753–1815

  • £13.99


Tags: William Nicholson, Sue Durrell, Nicholson, memoir of enlightenment, Frank James, life of william nicholson