Biographies & Memoirs

Cast List

(Shorter entries imply that more material can be found in the chapter indicated)

JOHN ABERNETHY, 1764-1831. Physician and surgeon at Bart’s Hospital, London, he became President of the Royal College of Surgeons. Coleridge was one of his many patients. (See Chapter 7)

MARK AKENSIDE, 1721-70. Poet, whose major work The Pleasures of the Imagination (1744) set out the traditional eighteenth-century view of the cosmos, including the idea that the universe was approximately 6,000 years old, and that the stars were spread overhead in a ‘concave’ dome or heavenly temple (see for example Book I, lines 196-206).

ALEXANDER AUBERT, 1730-1805. FRS. Wealthy and independent-minded British astronomer living at Deptford, London, who set up a fine private observatory at Highbury House, Highbury Fields. Friend and supporter of William and Caroline Herschel, especially in the 1780s, when their early findings were criticised by members of the Royal Society. In 1788 he presented them with a beautiful Shelton long case astronomical clock, with brass compensated pendulum (private archive, John Herschel-Shorland, Norfolk).

CHARLES BABBAGE, 1791-1871. FRS 1816. Brilliant young mathematician, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, close friend of Herschel’s son and Caroline’s nephew John Herschel. Irascible and outspoken critic of the Royal Society under the ageing Banks and the ailing Davy, supporter of the fledgling BAAS, and inventor of various Difference Engines (mechanical computers). (See Chapter 10)

SIR JOSEPH BANKS, 1743-1820. President of the Royal Society. (See Chapter 1 and passim)

ANNA BARBAULD, 1743-1825. Poet, educationalist and bluestocking, she was greatly interested by scientific ideas. She was a close friend of Joseph Priestley, witnessed many of his early experiments, and wrote a poem in the voice of one of his laboratory mice. Her epic poem ‘Eighteen Hundred and Eleven’ (1812) predicted a crisis of Empire and intellectual life in Britain enveloped in ‘Gothic night’, and the rise of American power. A formidable editor, she produced a fifty-volume edition of contemporary British novelists. (See Chapter 6)

FRANCIS BEAUFORT, 1774-1857. Sailor, hydrographer and inventor of the Beaufort wind scale, one to twelve (hurricane). He wrote some interesting accounts of the ‘after-death’ experiences of drowning sailors.

ANNA BEDDOES, 1773-1824. Volatile younger half-sister of the novelist Maria Edgeworth, wife of the physician Thomas Beddoes, and possibly Humphry Davy’s lover at the Pneumatic Institute, Bristol, 1799-1801. Shortly afterwards she had an affair with Beddoes’s friend Davies Giddy in London, though she returned to nurse her husband when he was dying of heart failure. Anna had four children: Anna (1801), Thomas (1803), Henry (1805) and Mary (1808). Neither of these first two may have been legitimate. Davies Giddy acted as their legal guardian after Beddoes’s premature death. Anna’s son Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-49) became a poet and political activist, the author of several macabre poetic dramas including The Last Man (1823) and Death’s Jest Book(1850), lived exiled in Germany, and committed suicide in Switzerland. Anna herself went to live abroad, moving restlessly to Belgium, then France, then Italy, and finally dying in Florence, aged fifty. (See Chapter 6)

THOMAS BEDDOES, 1760-1808. Physician, chemist, philanthropist and political radical. Davy’s mentor at Bristol, and close friend of the leading members of the Lunar Society in the Midlands. His experimental use of drugs and gases, and the antics of his wife Anna, undermined his public reputation. With the collapse of the Bristol Pneumatic Institute as an experimental centre, he transformed it into the philanthropic Preventative Medical Institute for the Sick and Drooping Poor. He had an early concept of a free national health service, providing particular help for women with children. A heroic but marginalised figure, he was never supported by Banks at the Royal Society. (See Chapter 6)

CLAUDE BERTHOLLET, 1748-1822. FRS 1789. Leading French chemist, friend of Lavoisier’s, head of the scientific expedition - including balloon section - that accompanied Napoleon to Egypt in 1789. Later an admirer of Davy’s, and friend of Banks’s confidant Blagden. His glamorous pupil and protégé was Joseph Gay-Lussac.

JACOB BERZELIUS, 1779-1848. Outstanding Swedish chemist, Professor of Chemistry and Medicine at Stockholm 1807. His pioneering work in electro-chemistry included the first accurate table of atomic weights, establishing twenty-eight elements (1828), and giving them their internationally accepted ‘initial letter’ symbols, as H20. Warmly congratulated Davy on the Bakerian Lectures and the safety lamp, but from 1815 was increasingly challenging his dominance. Married late, aged fifty-six, when his best scientific work was done, to a woman thirty-two years his junior.

XAVIER BICHAT, 1771-1802. French physician and anatomist, worked at the celebrated Hôtel Dieu hospital in Paris, and led a brief life of great intensity and self-sacrifice, inspired by French Revolutionary ideology. Developed analysis of human tissue types, histology, and materialist theory of life. His influential textbook On Life and Death was posthumously translated into English in 1816, and fed the Vitalism controversy in Britain.

CHARLES BLAGDEN, 1748-1820. FRS 1772. Physician, bureaucrat, francophile and outstanding scientific gossip. He trained as a naval surgeon, and for some years worked as scientific assistant to Henry Cavendish. Under Banks he became the influential Secretary to the Royal Society from 1784 to 1797. Despite occasional rows, he remained the great supporter and personal confidant of Banks until his death in Paris, a few weeks before Banks’s own. To some degree his friendship replaced Solander’s for Banks.

JEAN-PIERRE BLANCHARD, 1753-1809. French inventor and aeronaut who first crossed the Channel in a balloon, and founded a ballooning school in Vauxhall, London. (See Chapter 3)

JOHANN FRIEDRICH BLUMENBACH, 1752-1840. FRS 1793. Influential German anatomist based at the University of Göttingen, who founded the science of anthropology and the pseudo-science of craniology, and developed an early classification of racial types. His famous collection of skulls was known as ‘Dr B’s Golgotha’. Friend of Banks, and famous lecturer at Göttingen heard by students from all over Europe, including Coleridge, William Lawrence and Thomas Lovell Beddoes.

JOHANN ELERT BODE, 1747-1826. German astronomer and Director of the Berlin Observatory. Designed the most authoritative Celestial Atlas (1804), which finally superseded John Flamsteed’s of 1729. (See Chapter 2)

LOUIS-ANTOINE DE BOUGAINVILLE, 1729-1811. French naval commander and explorer, circumnavigated the globe and landed on Tahiti a year before James Cook. (See Chapter 1)

DAVID BREWSTER, 1781-1868. Scottish physicist and campaigning science journalist. An early promoter of the BAAS with John Herschel. His researches included work on polarised light and lighthouse lenses, and he invented the kaleidoscope. He wrote an influential first biography of Sir Isaac Newton (1831), eventually expanded through several editions (1860). (See Chapter 10)

COMTE DE BUFFON (GEORGES-LOUIS LECLERC), 1707-88. French geologist and naturalist who developed early theories of the earth’s rapid, catastrophic changes through flood (supported by Neptunists) and volcanic action (Plutonists). He was director of the Jardin du Roi, the modern Jardin des Plantes, Paris, and wrote a forty-four-volume Natural History (1804). His studies of mountains and glaciers were referred to by Shelley in his poem ‘Mont Blanc’ (1816).

FANNY BURNEY, MADAME D’ARBLAY, 1752-1840. Novelist, journal writer, friend of the Herschels through her father Charles Burney (FRS 1802), the musicologist. Fascinated but sceptical about scientific advances, she praised Caroline Herschel’s comet-finding work, and wrote to Banks wondering why women could not be Fellows of the Royal Society. Survived radical breast surgery without anaesthetic (Paris, September 1811), and wrote a long, courageous account of the experience. (See Chapter 7)

GEORGE GORDON, LORD BYRON, 1788-1824. Poet with a lively but sceptical interest in science and voyages. Looked through Herschel’s telescope, and met Davy both in London and in Italy. His poem ‘Darkness’ (1816) reflects current cosmological speculation, and several passages of Don Juan (1818-21) comment on scientific research and the vanity of ‘progress’. (See Chapter 9)

SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE, 1772-1834. Poet, critic, essayist and philosopher. Closely involved with Davy’s early scientific work in Bristol and London, 1799-1804. Later wrote about the history and philosophy of Romantic science in his newspaper The Friend (1809-19) and his Philosophic Lectures (1819), and became involved in the Vitalism debate, writing his Theory of Life (1816-19) to discuss the issues. Attended and spoke at the historic third meeting of the BAAS at Cambridge in 1833, at which the term ‘natural philosopher’ was first replaced by the word ‘scientist’. (See Chapters 6 and 10)

WILLIAM COWPER, 1731-1800. Poet who suffered from disabling depression all his life, but whose lively letters and long, rambling poem The Task give a vivid response to the scientific advances of the day, especially Banks’s voyage and the balloonists. (See Chapter 1)

BARON GEORGES CUVIER, 1769-1832. FRS 1806. The leading French zoologist and comparative anatomist of his day, he taught at the Museum of Natural History, Paris. He disagreed with Lamarck, rejecting the concept of evolution, and proposing a theory of biological development through global catastrophe. He published twenty-two volumes on ichthyology (fishes).

JOHN DALTON, 1766-1844. Chemist, meteorologist and early theorist of atomic weights, producing a pioneering Table of 20 Elements in 1808, and laws on the thermal expansion of gases. A shy, retiring personality closely associated with his home town, Manchester, and reluctant to join the Royal Society in London. Herschel and Babbage thought he was shamefully neglected, but 40,000 people attended his funeral in Manchester.

ERASMUS DARWIN, 1731-1802. FRS 1761. Physician, poet, polymath and inventor. Moving spirit of the Lunar Society at Birmingham, which met each month on the night of the full moon (in theory so they could walk home safely). A close friend of James Watt and Matthew Boulton, he described much. of the new science of the day in his long and remarkable poem The Botanic Garden (1791). Its extensive and highly informative prose notes on cosmology, geology, meteorology, chemistry and physics - a didactic method later used by Southey and Shelley - provide an encyclopaedic account of the state of science at the turn of the eighteenth century.

HUMPHRY DAVY, 1778-1829. President of the Royal Society 1820-27. (See Chapters 6, 8 and 9)

MICHAEL FARADAY, 1791-1867. Chemist and physicist of genius, inventor of the electric motor, dynamo and transformer. Director of the Royal Institution, London, for over thirty years. He was Davy’s great protégé, and unlike his patron one of the most popular figures in British science. (See Chapters 8, 9 and 10)

BARTHÉLEMY FAUJAS DE SAINT-FOND, 1741-1819. French geologist and traveller, a specialist in volcanoes. He was a great anglophile, and in his Travels in England and Scotland in Examining the Arts and Sciences (1799) he gave a vivid account of interviewing Herschel and Caroline at work. He also wrote with enthusiasm about ballooning.

JOHANN GEORG FORSTER, 1754-94. German botanist and travel writer. With his father he joined Cook’s second Pacific expedition (the one that brought back Omai), and he subsequently published a vivid and somewhat scurrilous account of it in English, A Voyage Round the World (1777). He was appointed Professor of Natural History at Kassel, and corresponded frequently with Banks. His father Johann Rheinhold Forster, who had published a more sober Observations during a Voyage Round the World (1778), outlived him.

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, 1706-90. FRS 1756. Physicist and statesman, he was American Ambassador to France 1776-85, and proved an invaluable source of information about French science for Banks, notably on mesmerism and ballooning 1783-84. He specialised in work on the properties of electricity: the static charge, the lightning surge and the lightning conductor. (See Chapters 3 and 7)

LUIGI GALVANI, 1737-98. Italian physician, Professor of Anatomy at Bologna University. His dramatic claim to have discovered reanimation or ‘animal electricity’, when dead specimen frogs were fixed with metal pins, was disproved in a celebrated paper sent to the Royal Society by Volta in 1792. Nevertheless the term ‘galvanism’ remained loosely applied to a wide range of electrical phenomena, including the ‘galvanometer’ used to detect electrical currents from 1820.

JOSEPH GAY-LUSSAC, 1778-1850. Outstanding French analytic chemist, the pupil of Berthollet, and Davy’s great rival in Paris when working on pneumatics, the expansion of gases and the properties of boron and iodine. A glamorous figure, famed for his high-altitude balloon ascent in 1804 (to 7,000 metres) and his marriage to a beautiful seventeen-year-old shopgirl whom he saw reading a chemistry book between serving customers. (See Chapter 8)

DAVIES GILBERT ( GIDDY), 1767-1839. FRS 1791. Wealthy mathematician, MP and science administrator. He was a pupil of the radical doctor Thomas Beddoes at Oxford, and later befriended young Humphry Davy in Penzance. He had an extended affair with Beddoes’s volatile wife Anna in London, and later acted as her children’s guardian. He married respectably and changed his name to Gilbert in 1817, and became President of the Royal Society in 1827-31, following the crisis caused by Davy’s resignation.

WOLFGANG VON GOETHE, 1749-1832. German heavyweight boxer, went ten rounds with the ghost of Sir Isaac Newton, referees still out. (See Chapters 7-10 passim)

LUKE HOWARD, 1772-1864. The first British meteorologist and student of clouds and weather phenomena. Gave his first important paper at the Quaker Askeian Society, London, in 1802. His pioneering work On the Modification of Clouds was published in 1804, and was read throughout Europe. Goethe asked him to compile an autobiography, translated several of his papers, and wrote four long poems on the subject of clouds inspired by Howard’s classification system. (See Chapter 3)

ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT, 1769-1859. Major figure in European science, famous for his expedition to South America with the mathematician Aimé Bonpland. Traveller, botanist, zoologist, geologist, meteorologist, cosmologist - the universal man of Romantic science. His Personal Narrative was published in 1806. His great unfolding work was Cosmos (1845). He knew both William and John Herschel, but never had the chance to meet Caroline. His brother, the scholar and philologist Wilhelm von Humboldt, helped found Berlin University. (See Chapters 9 and 10)

JAMES HUTTON, 1726-97. Scottish physician, trained in Holland, who effectively founded the modern discipline of geology. In studying the stratification of rock, and particularly its erosion by rivers, he came to reject the Biblical creation myth and the catastrophe theories of Buffon and Cuvier, and to argue for an infinitely slow evolution of the earth, ‘with no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’. His highly technical and ill-written work was made accessible by his disciple Professor John Playfair of Edinburgh University, and prepared for the evolutionary geology of Charles Lyell. His notion of ‘deep time’ supported Herschel’s notion of ‘deep space’, and ultimately Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

CHRISTIAAN HUYGENS, 1629-95. Great Dutch physicist and astronomer, cosmologist and manufacturer of astronomical instruments, including the ‘compound pendulum’ clock. His wave theory of light (in contrast to Newton’s particle theory), his telescope studies of Saturn’s rings and its moon Titan, and his notion of a large, densely populated universe, all inspired William Herschel to think afresh about interstellar space. A wildly imaginative mind, Huygens also believed that the inhabitants of Jupiter built spaceships.

EDWARD JENNER, 1749-1823. Naturalist and physician. Remembered for his invention of smallpox ‘vaccination’ in 1796, by using the counter-intuitive method of infecting a healthy patient with vaccinia or cowpox matter, and thus provoking the production of antibodies effective against the far more deadly smallpox. Jenner experimented quietly in Gloucestershire, scratching the skin of his patients with a thorn. Attacked and ridiculed by cartoonists like Gillray, his technique was eventually championed by the Royal Society, taken up across Europe, and by 1853 was compulsory in Britain. Though often described as a ‘mere country doctor’, Jenner had trained in London under the great surgeon John Hunter, worked in Soho Square as an assistant to Banks and Solander, and wrote many expert papers on birdsong and migration, notably concerning the cuckoo.

IMMANUEL KANT, 1724-1804. First-magnitude German philosopher, who set out a number of brilliant and influential ideas about the possible structure of the cosmos in A Natural History of the Heavens (1755), and later on man’s subjective perception of physical reality. He speculated on the notion of galactic ‘island universes’ and extraterrestrial life. Kant’s analysis of the human concepts of ‘space, time and causation’ are particularly relevant to the problematic idea of scientific objectivity, and the way we all observe - but also subjectively imagine - the world around us. Powerfully influenced a whole generation of Romantic thinkers, from Herschel to Goethe and Coleridge.

JOHN KEATS, 1795-1821. Poet and medical student at Guy’s Hospital, London. His scientific training shaped much more of his poetry than is usually realised. (See Chapters 7 and 9)

ANTOINE LAVOISIER, 1743-94. The greatest chemist of the French Enlightenment, his Traité Élémentaire (1789) inspired young scientists across Europe, but especially Davy. He was executed by Robespierre for tax fraud: ‘The Revolution does not need chemists.’ His brilliant young wife Anne-Marie Paulze, scientific illustrator and translator, survived to dazzle many European men of science, but chose to marry Count Rumford, which turned out to be a mistaken experiment.

SIR WILLIAM LAWRENCE, 1783-1867. Physician, surgeon, anatomist and early anthropologist. He was a leading surgeon at Bart’s Hospital, and Professor of Anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons. For some time he was Shelley’s doctor. His theoretical and personal rivalry with his mentor John Abernethy during the Vitalist controversy made him a national figure. (See Chapter 7)

JAMES LIND, 1736-1812. FRS 1777. Physician, traveller and astronomer. Sailed to China in 1776, and accompanied Banks to Iceland in 1772. Settled at Windsor, where he became one of the King’s consultant physicians, and treated Caroline Herschel’s leg wound in 1783. He later befriended young Shelley at Eton, and gave him the run of his Oriental collection and radical library. Tall, thin and eccentric, he had, according to Fanny Burney, ‘a taste for tricks, conundrums, and queer things’. (See Chapter 4)

CARL LINNAEUS, 1707-78. Great Swedish natural historian, Professor of Botany at Uppsala, where he established a world-famous botanical garden, widely imitated - for example by Banks at Kew. His system of botanical taxonomy (usually binomial: a generic Latinesque name followed by a species adjective) became standard in the eighteenth century and is retained to this day, for example in plant encyclopaedias in most European languages. The Linnaean Society of London was founded in 1788. Many other systems - such as Howard’s classification of clouds - imitated Linnaean taxonomy. (See Chapter 1)

VINCENZO LUNARDI, 1759-1806. Glamorous Italian aeronaut, he popularised ballooning in Britain, but was much criticised for risking the life of his cat during his first ascent. (See Chapter 3)

JANE MARCET, 1769-1858. One of the great early science popularisers for young readers. Her Conversations on Chemistry (1806, 1811) ran to sixteen editions, and inspired the teenage Michael Faraday. She used a dialogue format to explore ideas through simple question and answer, a method originally derived from Plato. Married to a wealthy Swiss émigré, Alexander Marcet FRS, she got to know many of the leading scientists of the day, including Humphry Davy and Jacob Berzelius. Her Conversationsbecame a winning publishing formula, which she successfully expanded to cover several other topics, notably in her Conversations on Natural Philosophy (1819).

NEVIL MASKELYNE, 1732-1811. FRS. Mathematician and Astronomer Royal, who produced a valuable Astronomical Almanac for mariners. He supported Herschel at the Royal Society, and later became a loyal and kindly friend of Caroline’s, having her stay on her own at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. He sat on the Board of Longitude, and was subsequently vilified - perhaps unjustly - for his treatment of the chronometer-maker John Harrison. He had a complex relationship with Sir Joseph Banks, whom he did not think knew enough mathematics.

WILLIAM NICHOLSON, 1753-1815. British chemist and early experimenter with electrolysis, who famously repeated Lavoisier’s experiment decomposing water into hydrogen and oxygen, thereby demonstrating that it was not a primary ‘element’. He was the founder and editor of Nicholson’s Scientific Journal, an influential monthly publication, comparable to today’s New Scientist, which published many of Davy’s early papers.

MUNGO PARK, 1771-1806. Scottish physician, explorer and travel writer, famous for his two expeditions to West Africa, following the river Niger. Some of his travel kit and medical instruments are still kept in the museum at Selkirk. (See Chapter 5)

THOMAS LOVE PEACOCK, 1785-1866. Satirical novelist and poet. He explored the aberrations of many writers and intellectuals, among them Byron, Shelley, Coleridge and Lord Monboddo. His long essay The Four Ages of Poetry (1820) compared imaginative writing with non-fiction and scientific prose, and provoked Shelley’s Defence of Poetry (1821). Unbelievably, he failed to poke fun at balloons. See Nightmare Abbey (1818) and Crotchet Castle (1831).

JEAN-FRANÇOIS PILÂTRE DE ROZIER, 1754-85. The first aeronaut in the world to make a successful balloon flight, travelling in a huge hot-air Montgolfier with his companion the Marquis d’Arlandes in a twenty-five-minute flight across Paris on 21 November 1783. After several other ascents, which made him famous across Europe, he was killed trying to fly across the Channel on 15 June 1785. (See Chapter 3)

JOHANN WILHELM RITTER, 1776-1810. German physicist and lecturer of great brilliance and eccentricity. He trained and taught at the University of Jena, until elected to the Bavarian Academy of Sciences in Munich in 1804. Following Herschel, he discovered the existence of ultraviolet rays at the lower end of the visible spectrum. In Munich he fell under the influence of the occultist Franz von Baader, and developed a theory of ‘universal geophysical electricity’. He began various experiments in water divining and ‘metal witching’, and with reanimating dead bodies. Shelley was probably referring to him among the ‘various German physiologists’ in the 1818 Preface to Frankenstein. Ritter died povertystricken and possibly insane in Munich. His Fragments from a Young Physicist (1810) was published posthumously. (See Chapter 7)

JAMES SADLER, 1753-1828. The first British aeronaut to make a successful scientific flight in a hydrogen balloon, from Oxford on 4 October 1784. His son Windham Sadler successfully flew the Irish Sea from Dublin to Holyhead, but was later killed in a balloon accident. (See Chapter 3)

FRIEDRICH SCHELLING, 1775-1854. Poet and idealist German philosopher, successively Professor of Philosophy at the universities of Jena, Munich and Berlin. He created the Romantic system of beliefs known broadly as Naturphilosophie (Nature Science, or Science Mysticism), in which nature is a single organism instinctively evolving or ‘waking’ towards the goal of higher self-consciousness. His System of Transcendental Idealism (1800) interpreted the natural world as a dynamic system of invisible energies, polar forces (like electricity) and mystical correspondences. Everything in nature, from a lump of coal to a human being, aspires upwards to a higher, more spiritualised form, and will ultimately rise to the Zeitgeist (World Spirit). His influence can be traced in Davy, Coleridge and Vitalism, and indirectly he is the father of all forms of ‘alternative science’. His ideas can also be traced emerging in such later writers as Teilhard de Chardin or even James Lovelock with his Gaia theory.

MARY SHELLEY, 1797-1851. Novelist, short-story writer and essayist. The godmother of British science fiction with Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818, with an important Introduction about creativity and scientific ideas added to the 1831 edition). Her work really became known through stage adaptations 1820-30, and much later through film. See also her apocalyptic account of a global plague in The Last Man (1826). (See Chapters 7 and 10)

PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY, 1792-1822. Poet and essayist, fascinated by science, especially in his two long poems Queen Mab (1812) and Prometheus Unbound (1819), and his prose writings on atheism. He was particularly interested in theories of cosmology, geology, meteorology, mesmerism and electricity. Significant scientific ideas appear in ‘Notes to Queen Mab’ (1812), ‘Mont Blanc’ (1816), ‘Ode to the West Wind’ (1819), ‘The Cloud’ (1820) and ‘The Magnetic Lady to her Patient’ (1821). His long poem Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude (1815) reflects his interest in exotic exploration, and particularly in Mungo Park’s river journeys.

DANIEL SOLANDER, 1733-82. Swedish botanist, trained under Linnaeus at Uppsala, and scientific assistant at the British Museum. FRS June 1764. Fat, lazy and lovable, he accompanied Joseph Banks on the great Endeavour voyage, and remained his great friend and confidant until his premature death at Banks’s house in Soho Square, aged forty-eight, in May 1782.

MARY SOMERVILLE, 1780-1872. Mathematician and brilliant interpreter and populariser of science for adults, especially with her broad survey of current scientific trends, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834). She translated (and clarified) Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste as The Mechanism of the Heavens (1831), and with Caroline Herschel was elected one of the first two women Fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1835. She also tutored Byron’s daughter Ada Lovelace (1815-52) in mathematics. A powerful hostess in Victorian scientific circles, she was awarded the Victoria Medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1869. The first women’s college in Oxford, Somerville - now co-educational - was named after her.

ROBERT SOUTHEY, 1774-1830. Poet, critic and notable biographer. A good friend to young Davy at Bristol, he eagerly discussed the early relations between Romantic science and poetry, but was soon overtaken by the work and influence of Coleridge. He later wrote a fine all-action biography of Nelson (1813) - one of Davy’s heroes - and composed the famous children’s story ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’. Curiously enough, ‘Goldilocks’ has become a familiar term used by cosmologists to describe the median placing of any planet within a solar system which has the potentiality of life - being ‘not too hot, not too cold’, and ‘not too big, not too small’.

SIR BENJAMIN THOMPSON, COUNT RUMFORD, 1753-1814. Physicist, philanthropist and adventurer. Touring through Europe, he became the lifelong friend of Prince Maximilian of Bavaria, and between 1789 and 1795 was Minister for War and for the Army under Carl Theodor, for whom he created the Englische Garten as a public works project to help the unemployed of Munich. He established soup kitchens and a public health programme. His technical inventions included the Rumford stove, the Rumford lamp and the Rumford fireplace. He made a disastrous second marriage to Madame Lavoisier (1805), living beyond his means on the Champs Élysées; then lived obscurely in a Paris suburb with the last of his many mistresses, Victoria, who bore him a son, Charles. He has a statue and a monument in Munich, and a tombstone in Auteuil (Paris). In his Will he left his estate to his daughter Sarah, a gold watch to Davy, and his capital savings to the future Harvard University. Many of his technical models and experiments (including his famous friction cannon) are preserved in the Deutsche Museum, Munich. (See Chapter 6)

ALESSANDRO VOLTA, 1745-1827. FRS and Professor of Experimental Physics, Como, Italy, 1775. He disproved Luigi Galvani’s theory of animal electricity in 1792, and went on to produce a historic paper on the first chemical pile or battery, which Banks was quick to publish in the Royal Society journal Philosophical Transactions, 1800. This was the basis for future pioneering work by Davy (London), Berzelius (Stockholm) and Gay-Lussac (Paris). He gave his name to the volt, a measure of the force of an electrical current. He was visited by Davy in 1814.

ADAM WALKER, 1731-1821. Inspirational science teacher at Eton College, who taught the use of the telescope and microscope, and believed in a plurality of worlds (‘30 thousand suns!’). His science primer, Familiar Philosophy (1779), was an early best-seller in the popular science field. During a long and eccentric career he invented the patent empyreal air-stove, the Celestine harpsichord and the eidouranion or transparent orrery, a portable device for projecting an illuminated model of the solar system and the main constellations. His Course of Lectures on Natural and Experimental Philosophy (1805) was eagerly read by the young Shelley, and covered the basics of Romantic science including astronomy, chemistry, electricity, geology and meteorology.

JAMES WATT, 1736-1819. Engineer and member of the Lunar Society. In partnership with Matthew Boulton he developed new forms of steam engine, for use in mines and textile manufacture. The international unit of electricity, the watt (a measure of the overall power of an electrical current), was named after him. Helped Davy construct his gas-breathing devices at Bristol. His ailing son Gregory Watt junior was a gifted geologist, and an early friend of Davy’s at Bristol until his premature death in 1804.

THOMAS WEDGWOOD, 1771-1805. Chemist and inventor of early photographic method, using glass plates painted with silver salts in a camera obscura. Fragile youngest son of the pottery king and philanthropist Josiah Wedgwood, he was ill for most of his short life and was supplied with opiates by Banks and Coleridge.

WILLIAM WHEWELL, 1794-1866. Geologist and natural historian. The son of a Lancashire carpenter, he eventually became Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. His Philosophy of Inductive Science (1859) became the standard Victorian work on the methodology of inductive science, and included an imaginative notion of the ‘trial hypothesis’. At Trinity he was celebrated for his less imaginative strictures: no dogs, no cigars, and no women.

GILBERT WHITE, 1720-93. Naturalist and Hampshire clergyman, author of the famous botanical and natural history Journal which he kept for over thirty years, and which was published as The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1788). Among a myriad other things - swallows, tortoises, snowflakes, birdsong - he was fascinated by balloons, and compared them with bird flight and migration. Widely read by other writers, such as Coleridge and Charles Darwin, he gently championed the notion of precise, patient and exquisite observation of the natural world for its own sake.

WILLIAM HYDE WOLLASTON, 1766-1828. FRS. A chemist and metallurgist, he quietly made his fortune from patenting various forms of malleable platinum. Famous for his patience and precision in the laboratory, and his good nature in society, he refused to become involved in various controversies at the Royal Society stirred up by Davy. John Herschel wrote a revealing sketch of the two men as contrasted scientific personalities. (See Chapter 10)

JOSEPH WRIGHT OF DERBY, 1734-97. Dramatic painter of experimental and industrial scenes, who reinterpreted late-eighteenth-century Enlightenment science as a mysterious, romantic adventure into the unknown. Close friend of Erasmus Darwin and the Lunar men. His most influential pictures were The Orrery (1767, frontispiece of this book), The Air Pump (1768, National Gallery, London) and The Alchemist (Derby, 1770). He also produced some striking, almost apocalyptic industrial scenes of factories and forges (especially at night), and many fine individual portraits.

EDWARD YOUNG, 1683-1765. Poet and clergyman. His major work, Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality (1742), a poem in twelve books, was a traditional Christian meditation on the way the universe demonstrated God’s design and divine creativity. He announced, ‘An undevout astronomer is mad,’ though he had some doubts about the size and complication of the cosmos as revealed by Newton’s mathematics: ‘Perhaps a seraph’s computation fails!’ (Book IX, lines 1, 226-35). A later edition of the poem was superbly illustrated with William Blake’s watercolour engravings, a consolation for those terrified by the new cosmology.

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