Simon Schaffer on losers: The Unfortunate Chemist

Last night Simon Schaffer gave the 75th anniversary lecture of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry: The Unfortunate Chemist: the tribulations of chemical philosophy in an age of revolution. It was about losers, chemists (or chymists) who were in the ‘alembic of Hell’.

I’ve seen Simon Schaffer speak before, and it’s always worth hearing, wry and learned, entertaining and informative. The last time was back in May when he spoke about public demonstrations of science at the Science Museum’s centenary talks; it was held in one of the exhibition areas of the museum and the acoustics were awful. Last night, as the talk was in the Royal Institution’s Michael Faraday Theatre, the acoustics were excellent. I did, however, only just get there in time as trains into Victoria Station were badly disrupted.

The talk looked at the relationship between public perception of science, and at plausibility and the evolution of plausibility.

The period under discussion was the time of the ‘Chemical Revolution’, the latter part of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth. This was a time when alchemy was changing into chemistry; a time of the gentleman scientist; a time of rivalry between England and France; and it was also a time of many periodicals (there were approximately 100 monthly journals for a literate reading public of c.80,000).

Dr Johnson’s opinion of the Reviews was quoted, and I give the passage from Boswell’s Life of Johnson here:  “I think them very impartial: I do not know an instance of partiality. The Monthly Reviewers are not Deists ; but they are Christians with as little Christianity as may be ; and are for pulling down all establishments. The Critical Reviewers are for supporting the constitution in both church and state. The Critical Reviewers, I believe, often review without reading the books through : but lay hold of a topick, and write chiefly from their own minds. The Monthly Reviewers are duller men, and are glad to read the books through.” A point for historians of science to keep well in mind if they use the Reviews to look at the period – the reviewers may not have read what they are reviewing. Many of the journals closed down in 1798 following the Sedition Act, others reversed their allegiance.

The aforementioned losers were discussed at some length; they were: James Price (deluded); John Elliott (obsessed); Robert Harrington (a ‘Hanoverian blogger’).

James Price was a chemist who distinguished his work from ‘traditional’ alchemy; a Fellow of the Royal Society; who published An Account of some Experiments on Mercury; and who performed public experiments at his home near Guildford, in the presence of Lord Onslow and others. He demonstrated with two powders, one white (which turned mercury into silver) and one red (which turned mercury into gold).

This caused a great deal of interest in the journals, the French thought it was great that an English chemist was making a fool of himself, and so the Royal Society sent a deputation down to Price’s house to witness the experiment. When they got there, instead of performing the demonstration, Price drank Prussic acid.

What’s interesting here is the role of the public reports, the worry about what the French might think, the desire of the Royal Society (and Oxford University) to protect their reputations, but mostly the plausibility of turning mercury into gold.

The second character, an apothecary called John Elliott, was a well thought-of scientist: he had, for example, published Philosophical Observations on the Senses of Vision of Hearing (1780), in which, for the first time in print, mention was made of invisible forms of light (what came to be known as ultraviolet and infrared). In 1787 Elliott tried to shoot a man dead in the street as he walked alongside Mary Boydell, for whom Elliott had a passion.

At the Old Bailey his defence was that of insanity, the proof being that he had said, in print, that the sun was inhabited. The judge pointed out that as people such as Herschel and de Buffon shared this belief, having it was no proof of insanity, and so Elliott was convicted (before he was executed he starved himself to death).

Again, the plausibility: according to phlogistic chemistry it was quite feasible for the sun to be inhabited; and the vulnerability of public chemistry, that he could have used insanity as his defence because he held a belief that was widely held.

As an aside, there was another John Elliott, who wrote on medicine, and until very recently all our Elliott’s work was attributed to him (see, e.g. the Dictionary of National Biography).

The last of the three losers was Robert Harrington. Interestingly, he published in 1796 A New System on Fire and Planetary Life, which claimed to prove the inhabitability of the sun as shown by phlogiston chemistry. Contrary to general belief, he held that phlogiston was absorbed in respiration, and published extensively over a protracted period (1774 to the 1830s), mostly attacking the theories of other scientists, for example, Priestley, Lavoisier, Cavendish, and Beddoes, hence Schaffer aptly describing him as a ‘Hanoverian blogger’. The most common word he used was ‘unfortunate’, as in ‘Priestley’s unfortunate experiment…’.

The thing about these three is that, unlike, for example, Davy, they lacked genius, and Davy created a new model of what a ‘master knower’ is.

There was scant time for questions after the lecture, which was a shame, as members of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry were hurrying downstairs to Time and Space, the Ri’s restaurant, for what was presumably a very nice dinner.

I, however, ate my M&S egg sandwich as I made my fractured way home via a broken railway system.

Shortly the talk should be available to listen to on the Ri website, I look forward to listening to it again.

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