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ELECTRICITY, EXHIBITION, AND EXPERIMENT IN EARLY-NINETEENTH-CENTURY LONDON
By IWAN RHYS MORUS
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1998 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
The Errors of a Fashionable Man: Michael Faraday and the Royal Institution
ANY ACCOUNT of the cultures of electrical experiment during the second quarter of the nineteenth century must find a space for Michael Faraday. By the middle of his career in about 1840 he was without question, for the metropolitan middle and upper classes at whom he aimed his science, the very image of the experimental natural philosopher. Too many histories of science have taken that monumental success as self-evident. Faraday was a genius, either for his philosophical insight, or more commonly for his experimental skill. He is as a result unavoidable, providing a yardstick against which his electrical contemporaries cannot but be measured, as on occasion they measured themselves. Understanding Faraday and the position he carved out for himself is therefore central to understanding, if only by contrast, the wider context of electricity that this work seeks to explore.
The aim of this chapter is to deconstruct Faraday and provide some outline of how that image might have been put together. Crucial to this story is Faraday's position at the Royal Institution, which provided him with resources that few other experimenters at this period could match. Simply pointing to these resources is, however, clearly insufficient. Other contemporary professors at the institution, with access to just those resources, had no such impact. Faraday used his resources to make experiments, to make an audience for his work, and to make himself such that he could capture that audience's interest. This account will therefore highlight Faraday's self-fashioning, his efforts to build an audience at the Royal Institution, and his electrical experiments and the labor expended in putting them together and defending his claims to the discoveries they revealed. The story is social, rather than biographical, at every stage, since at every stage Faraday had to generate and mobilize social resources and interests in order to succeed.
The Royal Institution, on its foundation in 1799, provided London and its publics with a new and different space for the production and display of natural knowledge. The incentives behind the establishment are well documented. The institution was founded by a coterie of aristocratic gentlemen with landowning interests who sought to harness natural knowledge in the service of improving agriculture. Its founders included members of the Board of Agriculture and the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor. They hoped that the systematic application of chemistry and natural history to the production of food could alleviate deprivation and therefore social unrest. Under the banner of scientific philanthropy, the Royal Institution's promoters hoped to stave off revolution without changing the hierarchical structure of English society.
The key figure behind the foundation of the Royal Institution was the flamboyant American Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford. Thompson had fled the colonies as a royalist at the outbreak of the American Revolution, having been employed as a spy by the British. In England and on the Continent (where he was made a count by the Elector of Bavaria in 1791) he courted the aristocracy, promoting his campaign to improve society through practical science. During the '90s he advocated the foundation in London of a "House of Industry" to display and disseminate practical inventions for scientifically improving society. With the patronage of Sir Joseph Banks, Rumford's campaign was successful. The Royal Institution was founded in March 1799 and a mansion purchased in fashionable Albemarle Street to house the new establishment.
The institution was primarily governed by a Committee of Managers, selected from among the "Proprietors" who had subscribed the substantial sum of fifty guineas for the right to attend lectures and exhibitions. As Morris Berman argues, much of the institutions direction over the next decades was determined by the social and intellectual interests of this small group of men. Rumford himself soon lost interest in the project, following substantial disagreements with his patrons. He left London for Paris in 1802. Notions of the new institution s role and audience were already changing. Educating the poor was no longer considered a safe and patriotic alternative as war hysteria and anti-French sentiment intensified. Early plans for the building had included an outside staircase so that artisans might attend lectures without mingling with their social superiors in the lobby. Thomas Webster, the architect, reported that he "was asked rudely what I meant by instructing the lower classes in science. I was told likewise that it was resolved upon that the plan must be dropped as quietly as possible, it was thought to have a political tendency." It rapidly became the case that lectures at the Royal Institution were aimed primarily at a fashionable and elite audience.
Along with a lecture theater—the first in London designed for lectures in natural philosophy—the Royal Institution established a laboratory. This laboratory was in the basement, occupying the space once taken by the kitchen and outhouses of the original mansion. The laboratory's role was to furnish a space where the institution's professors of chemistry and their staff of assistants could prepare materials for their lectures and carry out commercial consulting work for the institution's members and others. It was in effect the "backstage" portion of the small basement lecture theater used for lectures on practical chemistry. The laboratory was well stocked for its purpose. William Thomas Brande two decades later claimed that "in its completeness and convenience; it comprises all that is required in the pursuit of experimental chemistry." This included a forge and a furnace. The professor had six workmen as well as a mathematical instrument-maker at his service.
The first incumbent as professor was Thomas Garnett, an experienced performer from Glasgow's Anderson's Institution. He soon left, following disagreements with the managers concerning his salary, and was replaced by his assistant, Humphry Davy. Davy had only recently arrived at the institution, having been recruited from the radical doctor Thomas Beddoes's Pneumatic Institute in Bristol. In his new position, Davy was expected to work under the direction of the managers in applied chemistry and to lecture on the practical uses of his work to the institutions polite audience. Over the next few decades, as Davy's success with his audience provided him with increasingly greater autonomy, he decisively directed the institution's resources toward spectacular discoveries and equally spectacular public expositions of those discoveries to fashionable society.
Jan Golinski has recently given a brilliant account of the strategies employed by Davy in carving out his career. Combining rhetorical flair in public lecturing and decisive experimentation on a massive scale, he made himself the epitome of the fashionable philosopher. In transforming himself, he also transformed the study of galvanism from a dubious enterprise tainted by radical connections into an orthodox and highly successful science. The voltaic pile in Davy's hands, utilizing the resources at his disposal in the Royal Institution s laboratory, became a powerful instrument of analysis and discovery. Those discoveries, translated into the lecture theater, established his reputation.
Davy's career was not without its problems, however. His background as a humble apothecary's apprentice from Penzance and his later association with the radical Thomas Beddoes did not guarantee him an easy entry into the higher echelons of London society. Many detractors held that Davy's preoccupation with social status obscured his chemical reputation. Maintaining his reputation was a constant preoccupation for him, as exemplified by his careful dissociation of himself from his early involvement with John George Children's commercial venture to manufacture gunpowder. Aspiring as he did to be a gentleman, he had to avoid contact strenuously with anything that hinted of trade. He was contemptuous of his successor as professor at the Royal Institution, William Brande, dismissing him as a "mercenary" who had "come from the counter" and "had no lofty views."
Men with different views on "trade" could be just as contemptuous of Davy. The short-lived Chemist, edited by the radical socialist Thomas Hodgskin, lost no opportunity for sniping at the Royal Society's noveau-riche president. Davy was accused of professing "a sort of royal science."
If in its pursuit he makes any discoveries which are useful to the multitude, they may, and welcome, have the benefit of them, but he had no appearance of labouring for the people.... Amidst all the great efforts which have been lately made to promote scientific instruction among the working classes, and amidst all the patronage which those efforts have found among opulent and clever men, it has been with regret that we have sought in vain to trace one exertion or one smile of encouragement bestowed on such efforts by the President of the Royal Society.
Davy's chemistry, said the Chemist, was divisive and elitist, deliberately designed to exclude the masses. Even when reluctantly defending him in his dispute with the Lords of the Admiralty over the protection of ships' copper linings, it was clearly the lesser of two evils. Hodgskin made it clear that he had "no respect for the manner in which the learned President proceeded."
Despite his difficulties, and the Royal Institution's own financial problems that his lecturing success did much to alleviate, Davy's reputation by the middle of the century's second decade was secure. Even to his enemies he was Britain's greatest chemist. Similarly, the Royal Institution basked in a reputation as the country's premier site of chemical and natural philosophical discovery. Thomas Carlyle, with characteristically sarcastic insight, described the place as "a kind of sublime Mechanics' Institute for the upper classes." Davy's lectures attracted crowds of fashionable admirers. When Michael Faraday, having himself been a less than fashionable auditor at one of Davy's lecture courses, was hired by the Royal Institution as the great man's assistant, he was entering a well-established and prestigious laboratory to work under an equally prestigious master.
THE PHILOSOPHER'S APPRENTICE
Faraday's biography is relatively well known. He was born the son of a blacksmith in 1791. His parents had recently arrived in London from the north of England in search of employment. He was brought up in London's backstreets and poorly educated; he recorded that "my education was of the most ordinary description, consisting of little more than the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic ... hours out of school were passed at home and in the streets." In 1804 at the age of thirteen, he was employed as an errand boy by a bookseller, George Ribeau. A year later, he was bound apprentice to Ribeau, to learn the trade of bookseller and bookbinder. He was embarked, therefore, on a course that would provide him with a good and respectable trade, with the prospect of one day becoming his own master in his craft.
As an apprentice bookbinder, Faraday lived under his master's roof, learning the skills of his trade. He also had access to books and developed an interest in natural philosophy. With money borrowed from his brother, he attended lectures by John Tatum, one of London's many public lecturers. There he met other young men, similarly bent on self-improvement, and joined the City Philosophical Society, which met at Tatum's house to read and discuss papers. He started to conduct his own experiments in chemistry and electricity, constructing apparatus from available materials. Through a contact with one of Ribeau's customers, Faraday received a ticket to attend a course of Humphry Davy's lectures at the Royal Institution. He took careful notes as he had been taught to do at the City Philosophical Society.
On 7 October 1812, Faraday's seven-year apprenticeship came to an end. He was now a journeyman bookbinder, in search of employment. A few months later, he took a curious step. He bound the notes he had taken of Davy's lectures and sent them to him, along with a letter begging for employment at the Royal Institution. For a man of Faraday's background the step was less curious than it may seem. Apprentices were required at the end of their term to present their master with a "masterpiece"—an example of their work—to display the technical competence they had achieved. Similarly, journeymen seeking employment would present a prospective employer with such an example of their craft. Faraday was sending Davy a "masterpiece" that combined both his skills as a bookbinder and his aspirations to natural philosophy.
Some months following Faraday's appeal, one of the Royal Institutions laboratory assistants, William Payne, was sacked. He had been accused by John Newman, the institution's instrument-maker, of failing in his duty of attending and assisting at William Brande's chemistry lectures. A brawl ensued during which Newman was injured. Payne was then dismissed after ten years' service, and on Davy's recommendation his post was offered to Michael Faraday. The managers resolved "that Michael Faraday be engaged to fill the situation lately occupied by Mr. Payne on the same terms." The terms were quite generous: twenty-five shillings a week and his board. Faraday had commenced a new apprenticeship in experimental natural philosophy.
Faraday's duties as laboratory assistant had been laid down by the managers:
To attend and assist the lecturers and professors in preparing for and during lectures. Where any instruments or apparatus may be required, to attend to their careful removal from the model-room and laboratory to the lecture-room, and to clean and replace them after being used, reporting to the managers such accidents as shall require repair, a constant diary being kept by him for that purpose. That in one day in each week he be employed in keeping clean the models in the repository, and that all the instruments in the glass cases be cleaned and dusted at least once within a month.
Davy's colleague William Pepys had suggested that Faraday should be put to washing bottles. Davy had thought that too degrading, but Faraday's official list of duties was nonetheless largely menial.
In practice, however, Faraday was almost immediately given the opportunity to assist Davy in his own experiments and to prepare chemical compounds. In this way over the next few months he gradually became familiar with the routines and practices of everyday laboratory life. He also became familiar with some of the laboratory's dangers. Davy was at the time experimenting with highly volatile compounds of chlorine and nitrogen. Both Faraday and his master came close to serious injury on several occasions. He also had an opportunity to assist Davy and others at their lectures, proudly recording his participation in letters to his friends.
But the fragility of Faraday's social status became clear when after a few months' employment he was invited by Davy to join his entourage on a tour of the Continent. Faraday accepted the offer with some trepidation. He had never previously traveled more than twelve miles from London. He would also be giving up his position as laboratory assistant to the Royal Institution. This was a difficult decision for a young man only just embarked on his career. The party, consisting of Davy, his wife, Faraday, and Lady Jane Davy's maidservant, left London on 14 October 1813 and embarked from Plymouth to Morlaix a few days later on the 17th. Faraday almost immediately encountered problems concerning his precise social status within the party from his master's wife, Lady Jane. The main cause of difficulty was that Davy's valet had at very short notice decided not to accompany them, with the result that Davy asked Faraday to perform some of the duties that a valet would normally perform. As a result his status was unclear.
Excerpted from Frankenstein's Children by IWAN RHYS MORUS. Copyright © 1998 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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