William Nicholson (1753-1815) – a Georgian polymath at the heart of science, literature and commerce

William Nicholson was buried in St George’s Gardens, Bloomsbury on 23 May 1815, just two days after his death at home in Charlotte Street. A veritable polymath, his interests were scientific, literary and commercial and his friends and acquaintances read like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the late eighteenth century. He is best known as publisher, from 1797 to 1813, of the monthly Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts.

William Nicholson’s Journal  was launched in April 1797.  Prior to this, anyone with an interest in science had to wait for the twice-yearly Philosophical Transactions to be published by the Royal Society and this was often many months after a paper had been read to the members. So Nicholson’s Journal, as it became known, accelerated the distribution of scientific knowledge around the country – much as the internet has speeded up the exchange of knowledge for scientists in recent years.

The Journal continued until December 1813 and provides a wealth of information on developments over its 16-year run.  For those Friends of the Gardens with an interest in plant history, there were articles on topics as varied as:

  • On the irritability of the pollen of plants (January 1798)
  • A statistical Enquiry into the Source of Nutrition in succulent Vegetables (April 1799)
  • On the Criterions or due Discriminations of Cyder Fruit (April 1804)
  • On Fairy-Rings (April 1808)
  • On the Motions of the Tendrils of Plants (January 1813).

Nicholson was a prolific author, translator and publisher, and some first editions of his books change hands for four-figure sums amongst antiquarian book collectors.

After an education in Yorkshire, Nicholson joined the East India Company at the age of 15 and travelled to India and China before returning to England and securing work with the Wedgwood pottery business in the Netherlands. Trusted by Josiah Wedgwood, he later worked with him again as secretary at the General Chamber of Manufacturers where he came into contact with many of the key industrialists of the time.

His interests in science also secured him key roles with the philosophical society established by Richard Kirwan at the Chapter Coffee House, near St Paul’s Cathedral, and at the Society for the Improvement of Naval Architecture.  He advised Sir Joseph Banks on the woollen laws and was an agent for Lord Pitt, Baron Camelford II who was known as the Half-Mad Lord and died in a dual

Many inventors turned to him for scientific advice, and he worked as one of the earliest patent agents from his home in Red Lion Square – most notably giving evidence in the patent dispute between Boulton and Watt v Hornblower and Maberly in 1796.

In 1799, Nicholson opened a ‘Scientific and Classical’ school in Soho Square, which he ran alongside his writing and publishing activities.

Having always had an interest in water, steam engines and hydraulics, Nicholson then tried his hand as a civil engineer on water supply projects, including one in Hammersmith.  This was clearly not his forte, but he did succeed in bringing the first running water to homes in Portsmouth.

All through his life Nicholson carried out experiments – his ship’s log, written when he was a teenager, contains an account of an attempt to make drinking water from seawater.

Although never successfully commercialised by him, many of Nicholson’s inventions have been recognised for their importance, including:

  • A hydrometer (1784).
  • Designs for scale rules (1786, 1787, and 1797).
  • A revolving doubler (1787).
  • The cylindrical printing machine (patent GB1748 in 1790 – later commercialised y Friedrich Koenig and used to print The Times in 1814.
  • Gravity escapement clock (1797).
  • File manufacturing machine (patent GB 2641 of 1802).

Within scientific circles, Nicholson is best known for his important hint about the torpedo fish to Allessandro Volta who invented the battery, a copy of which Nicholson was experimenting with in the front room at his school in Soho Square in the Spring of 1800.  Along with good friend and surgeon Anthony Carlisle, Nicholson famously decomposed water into hydrogen and oxygen using the process now called electrolysis.

Humphry Davy was so excited about this discovery that he wrote to a friend that ‘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!’

Historians often trace Mary Shelley’s knowledge of electricity to a copy of Humphry Davy’s Elements of Chemical Philosophy 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; Nicholson’s five daughters.

Nicholson was one of her father William Godwin’s closest friends along with the dramatist Thomas Holcroft who had rented rooms to Nicholson when he returned to London from Amsterdam.  The trio’s friendship saw them dining at each other’s homes almost weekly for a number of years – as recorded in William Godwin’s Diary.

The Life of William Nicholson is an edited version of a memoir written by his son in 1868.  The editor, Sue Durrell, is currently working on a comprehensive biography.

The memoir is available from Peter Owen Publishers (£13.99), and free postage and packing is offered to members of the FoSGG when purchasing direct from www.PeterOwen.com.  Simply use the Coupon code ‘FOGGS’ in the shopping cart before proceeding to checkout.

For more information on William Nicholson, see www.NicholsonsJournal.com or you can follow him on Twitter @Wm_Nicholson.

Sue Bramall, biographer.