Passages from the Life of a Philosopher/Chapter XIII


recollections of wollaston, davy, and rogers.

Secretaryship of Royal Society—Mr. Murray of Albemarle Street—Remark on "The Decline of Science"—Dr. Somerville—Explanation of a Job of Sir Humphry Davy—History of the Thaumatrope—Introduction to Mr. Rogers—The Poet nearly run over—Anecdote of the "Economy of Manufactures"—Teaches the Author how to live for ever—Rapidity of composition amongst Poets—Different effects of Imagination in the Poet and the Philosopher—Consultation about the Author's unwritten Novel.

In 1826, one of the secretaryships of the Royal Society became vacant. Dr. Wollaston and several others of the leading members of the Society and of the Council wished that I should be appointed. This would have been the more agreeable to me, because my early friend Herschel was at that time the senior Secretary.

This arrangement was agreed to by Sir H. Davy, and I left town with the full assurance that I was to have the appointment. In the mean time Sir H. Davy summoned a Council at an unusual hour—eight o'clock in the evening—for a special purpose, namely, some arrangement about the Treasurer's accounts.

After the business relating to the Treasurer was got through, Sir. H. Davy observed that there was a secretaryship vacant, and he proposed to fill it up.

Dr. Wollaston then asked Sir Humphry Davy if he claimed the nomination as a right of the President, to which Sir H. Davy replied that he did, and then nominated Mr. Children. The President, as president, has no such right; and even if he had possessed it, he had promised Mr. Herschel that I should be his colleague. There were upright and eminent men on that council; yet no one of them had the moral courage to oppose the President's dictation, or afterwards to set it aside on the ground of its irregularity.

A few years after, whilst I was on a visit at Wimbledon Park, Dr. and Mrs. Somerville came down to spend the day. Dr. Somerville mentioned a very pleasant dinner he had had with the late Mr. John Murray of Albemarle Street, and also a conversation relating to my book "On the Decline of Science in England." Mr. Murray felt hurt at a remark I had made on himself (page 107) whilst criticizing a then unexplained job of Sir Humphry Davy's. Dr. Somerville assured Mr. Murray that he knew me intimately, and that if I were convinced that I had done him an injustice, nobody would be more ready to repair it. A few days after, Mr. Murray put into Dr. Somerville's hands papers explaining the whole of the transaction. These papers were now transferred to me. On examining them I found ample proof of what I had always suspected: The observation I had made which pained Mr. Murray fell to the ground as soon as the real facts were known, and I offered to retract it in any suitable manner. One plan I proposed was to print a supplemental page, and have it bound up with all the remaining copies of the "Decline of Science."

Mr. Murray was satisfied with my explanation, but did not wish me to take the course I proposed, at least, not at that time. Various objections may have presented themselves to his mind, but the affair was adjourned with the understanding that at some future time I should explain the real state of the facts which had led to this misinterpretation of Mr. Murray's conduct.

The true history of the affair was this: Being on the Council of the Royal Society in 1827, I observed in our accounts a charge of 381l. 5s. as paid to Mr. Murray for 500 copies of Sir Humphry Davy's Discourses.

I asked publicly at the Council for an explanation of this item. The answer given by Dr. Young and others was—

"That the Council had agreed to purchase these volumes at that price, in order to induce Mr. Murray to print the President's speeches."

To this I replied that such an explanation was entirely inadmissible. I then showed that even allowing a very high price for composing, printing, and paper, if the Council had wished to print 500 copies of those Discourses they could have done it themselves for 150l. at the outside. I could not extract a single word to elucidate this mystery, about which, however, I had my own ideas.

It appeared by the papers put into my hands that Sir Humphry Davy had applied to Mr. Murray, and had sold him the copyright of the Discourses for 500 guineas, one of the conditions being that the Royal Society should purchase of him 500 copies at the trade price.

Mr. Murray paid Sir H. Davy the 500 guineas in three bills at six, twelve, and eighteen months. These bills passed through Drummond's (Sir H. Davy's banker), and I have had them in my own hands for examination.

Thus it appears that Mr. Murray treated the whole affair as a matter of business, and acted in this purchase in his usual liberal manner. I have had in my hand a statement of the winding-up of that account copied from Mr. Murray's books, and I find that he was a considerable loser by his purchase. Sir H. Davy, on the other hand, contrived to transfer between three and four hundred pounds from the funds of the Royal Society into his own pocket.[1]

It was my determination to have called for an explanation of this affair at the election of our President and officers at our anniversary on the 30th November if Sir H. Davy had been again proposed as President in 1827.

The Thaumatrope.

One day Herschel, sitting with me after dinner, amusing himself by spinning a pear upon the table, suddenly asked whether I could show him the two sides of a shilling at the same moment.

I took out of my pocket a shilling, and holding it up before the looking-glass, pointed out my method. "No," said my friend, "that won't do;" then spinning my shilling upon the table, he pointed out his method of seeing both sides at once. The next day I mentioned the anecdote to the late Dr. Fitton, who a few days after brought me a beautiful illustration of the principle. It consisted of a round disc of card suspended between the two pieces of sewing-silk. These threads being held between the finger and thumb of each hand, were then made to turn quickly, when the disc of card, of course, revolved also.

Upon one side of this disc of card was painted a bird; upon the other side, an empty bird-cage. On turning the thread rapidly, the bird appeared to have got inside the cage. We soon made numerous applications, as a rat on one side and a trap upon the other, &c. It was shown to Captain Kater, Dr. Wollaston, and many of our friends, and was, after the lapse of a short time, forgotten.

Some months after, during dinner at the Royal Society Club, Sir Joseph Banks being in the chair, I heard Mr. Barrow, then Secretary to the Admiralty, talking very loudly about a wonderful invention of Dr. Paris, the object of which I could not quite understand. It was called the thaumatrope, and was said to be sold at the Royal Institution, in Albermarle-street. Suspecting that it had some connection with our unnamed toy, I went the next morning and purchased, for seven shillings and sixpence, a thaumatrope, which I afterwards sent down to Slough to the late Lady Herschel. It was precisely the thing which her son and Dr. Fitton had contributed to invent, which amused all their friends for a time and had then been forgotten. There was however one additional thaumatrope made afterwards. It consisted of the usual disc of paper. On one side was represented a thaumatrope (the design upon it being a penny-piece) with the motto, "How to turn a penny."

On the other side was a gentleman in black, with his hands held out in the act of spinning a thaumatrope, the motto being, "A new trick from Paris."

After my contest for Finsbury was decided, Mr. Rogers the banker, and the brother of the poet, who had been one of my warmest supporters, proposed accompanying me to the hustings at the declaration of the poll. He had also invited a party of some of the most influential electors of his district to dine with him in the course of the week, in order that they might meet me, and consider about measures for supporting me at the next opportunity.

On a cold drizzling rainy day in November the final state of the poll was declared. Mr. Rogers took me in his carriage to the hustings, and caught a cold, which seemed at first unimportant. On the day of the dinner, when we met at Mr. Rogers's, who resided at Islington, he was unable to leave his bed. Miss Rogers, his sister, who lived with him, and his brother the poet, received us, quite unconscious of the dangerous condition of their relative, who died the next day.

Thus commenced a friendship with both of my much-valued friends which remained unruffled by the slightest wave until their lamented loss. Miss Rogers removed to a house in the Regent's Park, in which the paintings by modern artists collected by her elder brother, and increased by her own judicious taste, were arranged. The society at that house comprised all that was most eminent in literature and in art. The adjournment after her breakfasts to the delightful verandah overlooking the Park still clings to my fading memory, and the voices of her poet brother, of Jeffrey, and of Sidney Smith still survive in the vivid impressions of their wisdom and their wit.

I do not think the genuine kindness of the poet's character was sufficiently appreciated. I occasionally walked home with him from parties during the first years of our acquaintance. In later years, when his bodily strength began to fail, I always accompanied him, though sometimes not without a little contest.

I have frequently walked with him from his sister's house, in the Regent's Park, to his own in St. James's Place, and he has sometimes insisted upon returning part of the way home with me.

On one of those occasions we were crossing a street near Cavendish Square: a cart coming rapidly round the corner, I almost dragged him over. As soon as we were safe, the poet said, very much as a child would, "There, now, that was all your fault; you would come with me, and so I was nearly run over." However, I found less and less resistance to my accompanying him, and only regretted that I could not be constantly at his side on those occasions.

Soon after the publication of the "Economy of Manufactures," Mr. Rogers told me that he had met one evening, at a very fashionable party, a young dandy, with whom he had had some conversation. The poet had asked him whether he had read that work. To this his reply was, "Yes: it is a very nice book—just the kind of book that anybody could have written."

One day, when I was in great favour with the poet, we were talking about the preservation of health. He told me he would teach me how to live for ever; for which I thanked him in a compliment after his own style, rather than in mine. I answered, "Only embalm me in your poetry, and it is done." Mr. Rogers invited me to breakfast with him the next morning, when he would communicate the receipt. We were alone, and I enjoyed a very entertaining breakfast. The receipt consisted mainly of cold ablutions and the frequent use of the flesh brush. Mr. Rogers himself used the latter to a moderate extent regularly, three times every day—before he dressed himself, when he dressed for dinner, and before he got into bed. About six or eight strokes of the flesh-brush completed each operation. We then adjourned to a shop, where I purchased a couple of the proper brushes, which I used for several years, and still use occasionally, with, I believe, considerable advantage.

Once, at Mr. Rogers's table, I was talking with one of his guests about the speed with which some authors composed, and the slowness of others. I then turned to our host, and, much to his surprise, inquired how many lines a-day on the average a poet usually wrote. My friend, when his astonishment had a little subsided, very good-naturedly gave us the result of his own experience. He said that he had never written more than four[2] lines of verse in any one day of his life. This I can easily understand; for Mr. Rogers' taste was the most fastidious, as well as the most just, I ever met with. Another circumstance also, I think, contributed to this slowness of composition.

An author may adopt either of two modes of composing. He may write off the whole of his work roughly, so as to get upon paper the plan and general outline, without attending at all to the language. He may afterwards study minutely every clause of each sentence, and then every word of each clause.

Or the author may finish and polish each sentence as soon as it is written.

This latter process was, I think, employed by Mr. Rogers, at least in his poetry.

He then told us that Southey composed with much greater rapidity than himself, as well in poetry as in prose. Of the latter Southey frequently wrote a great many pages before breakfast.

Once, at a large dinner party, Mr. Rogers was speaking of an inconvenience arising from the custom, then commencing, of having windows formed of one large sheet of plate-glass. He said that a short time ago he sat at dinner with his back to one of these single panes of plate-glass: it appeared to him that the window was wide open, and such was the force of imagination, that he actually caught cold.

It so happened that I was sitting just opposite to the poet. Hearing this remark, I immediately said, "Dear me, how odd it is, Mr. Rogers, that you and I should make such a very different use of the faculty of imagination. When I go to the house of a friend in the country, and unexpectedly remain for the night, having no night-cap, I should naturally catch cold But by tying a bit of pack-thread tightly round my head, I go to sleep imagining that I have a night-cap on; consequently I catch no cold at all." This sally produced much amusement in all around, who supposed I had improvised it; but, odd as it may appear, it is a practice I have often resorted to. Mr. Rogers, who knew full well the respect and regard I had for him, saw at once that I was relating a simple fact, and joined cordially in the merriment it excited.

In the latter part of Mr. Rogers's life, when, being unable to walk, he was driven in his carriage round the Regent's Park, he frequently called at my door, and, when I was able, I often accompanied him in his drive. On some one of these occasions, when I was unable to accompany him, I put into his hands a parcel of proof-sheets of a work I was then writing, thinking they might amuse him during his drive, and that I might profit by his criticism. Some years before, I had consulted him about a novel I had proposed to write solely for the purpose of making money to assist me in completing the Analytical Engine. I breakfasted alone with the poet, who entered fully into the subject. I proposed to give up a twelvemonth to writing the novel, but I determined not to commence it unless I saw pretty clearly that I could make about 5,000l. by the sacrifice of my time. The novel was to have been in three volumes, and there would probably have been reprints of another work in two volumes. Both of these works would have had graphic illustrations. The poet gave me much information on all the subjects connected with the plan, and amongst other things, observed that when he published his beautifully illustrated work on Italy, that he had paid 9,000l. out of his own pocket before he received any return for that work.

  1. See "Decline of Science in England," p. 105. 8vo. 1830.
  2. I am not quite certain that the number was four; but I am absolutely certain that it was either four or six.

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.