Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/August 1894/Sketch of William Mattieu Williams

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WHILE the characterization by Mr. Thomas Laurie of W. Mattieu Williams as having been "the first who swept aside the veil that had been hung up between scientific workers and the toiling millions" can hardly be verified, it is an indisputable fact that he was eminently successful in presenting scientific truths in a form acceptable to the common people and adapted to awaken their interest; and his presentations rarely failed to suggest further thought on the subject to which they related.

Mr. Williams was born in London, February 6, 1820, and died in London, of cerebral apoplexy, November 28, 1892. He was taught in boyhood, at three schools of the kind that then flourished, a little arithmetic, grammar, geography, and Latin, but no science. His experiences even thus early set his mind in the train which led him to the adoption of those views on education which he advocated and on which he acted later in life. When fourteen years old he was apprenticed to Mr. Thomas, mathematical and optical instrument maker at Lambeth, where he gained a practical skill and scientific knowledge which he was able to turn to good purpose in the several courses of scientific lectures which formed part of the work of his mature life. Although he had to work from seven o'clock in the morning till eight o'clock at night, he continued to attend the night classes of the London Mechanics' Institution, Southampton Buildings, now the Birkbeck Institution; and during the whole term of his apprenticeship he attended the biweekly lectures which were given by eminent men of the time in their several specialties, and the classes in mathematics, chemistry, natural philosophy, French, German, and phrenology, and took part in the exercises and discussions of the literary societies. The programmes of those societies during the period of his attendance upon them afford as among the subjects of papers contributed by him the Relative Character of the French and English; Constantinople and the Turks; Dreaming, Phrenologically Considered; the Expediency of Railways becoming National Property; the National Characteristics of the French; Direct and Indirect Taxation; the Propriety of Discussing Political Questions at Mechanics' Institutions; and topics related to psychology and phrenology. On coming of age he obtained possession by inheritance of a small sum of money, by the aid of which he studied chemistry at the University of Edinburgh and made a pedestrian tour of two years in Europe. He spent much of the time in Switzerland, Italy, Greece, and Turkey; and, becoming acquainted with the Turk in the last country, found him a better man than he was generally regarded as being, and a person of better possibilities. After his return from the Continent he was elected a member of the Committee of Management of the London Mechanics' Institution. He opened rooms for carrying on commercially the business of an electrician, an electrical instrument maker, and electrotyper, intending at the same time to deliver lectures on science and travel. But as his friend Mr, John Angell remarks, in a memoir prefixed to his Vindication of Phrenology, "his enthusiastic love of science and general research was destined to become a foe to the habits and forms of attention required in successful commercial business. Many a time friends calling on him late in the evening found him so thoroughly absorbed in pursuing the theory of some practical problem he had succeeded in working out that he had forgotten, meantime, that he had taken neither food nor refreshment since his morning breakfast." He was frequently called on to lecture at institutions at a distance, when he would be absent for days at a time, chiefly on subjects connected with his European tour, among which a favorite course with him was one of six lectures on Switzerland, its social and historical aspects, physical geography, geology, and glacier formations.

About the year 1846 Mr. William Ellis made an offer of one thousand pounds sterling toward establishing a school, to be called the Birkbeck School, on the premises of the London Mechanics' Institution, in which, besides the principles of the natural sciences, the principles of social well-being, or of social and political economy, should be regularly taught. The Committee of Management of the institution were unfavorable to this plan, and ignored it in their report; whereupon a bitter controversy ensued, in which Mr. Williams was active in opposing the course of the committee and insisting on giving a hearing to Mr. Ellis's proposition. Finally, the offer was accepted over the heads of the managing committee, the project was put under the care of a special committee, and the first Birkbeck School was established July 17, 1848, with Mr. John Rüntze as head master. Many years later Mr. Williams met one of his strongest opponents in that controversy, who confessed to him: "We all thought you and your party were wrong; now I know that your party was right and we were wrong."

The Birkbeck Institution was successful from the first, and attracted the attention of George Combe, a man distinguished for his advocacy of schemes for bettering the condition of man, and who had become acquainted with Mr. Williams while he was studying in Edinburgh. He determined, with the aid of money which Mr. Ellis should furnish, to establish a similar secular school in Edinburgh, in which phrenology should be taught in addition to the other branches. The problem of finding a competent and suitable teacher for such an institution presented itself and might have occasioned considerable difficulty, had it not been solved by Mr. Williams offering to undertake the headmastership. It was therefore called the Williams Secular School, and was opened in the Trades' Hall, December 4, 1848. It increased rapidly, and was soon removed to the larger premises which had been occupied by Dr. R. Knox's anatomical school, where it continued "doing invaluable model-work" until Mr. Williams was called, in 1854, to take charge of the Birmingham and Midland Institute.

This institution was projected by a few leading men in Birmingham, and was incorporated by an act of Parliament of July, 1854. Mr. Williams was invited by the Council, on the recommendation of Mr. Lionel Playfair, now Lord Playfair, to become master of the science classes. He gave an introductory lecture, August 17th, which at once aroused interest, and was commended by the press as the work of "a man of no ordinary ability." In this lecture, Mr. C. J. Woodward says, in his account of the institute, "Mr. Williams pleaded for the application of science to industry, and pointed out the important future to the workman who became a scientific man. The classes first opened at the institute were in physics, chemistry, and physiology; but the curriculum soon extended, and an important novel feature in popular education was introduced by Mr. Williams in what were so well known in the town as the 'Institute Penny Lectures.' The first of the series was delivered in the early part of 1856, and attracted large audiences. The first bench was occupied by factory boys immediately the doors opened, and, as intended, many who had their interest in science aroused for the first time were led to undertake the more serious and systematic courses provided at the institute. The idea of penny lectures led, subsequently, to the establishment of penny classes and penny readings, and did much in the direction of popular education."

Mr. Williams was an active citizen in Birmingham, and forward in every scheme for improvement and enlightenment. He was earnest in promoting the purchase of Asten Hall; wrote articles in the Journal urging a more liberal policy on the part of the Town Council, especially in measures for the improvement of the public health; was a leader in discussions concerning education, and advocated the introduction of object lessons and practical illustrations in teaching. He began his career as an author in Birmingham; contributed frequently to the Birmingham Journal; published a pamphlet on The Intellectual Destiny of the Workingman, in which he advocated manual occupations; contributed to the Chemical Society a paper describing An Apparatus for Collecting Gases over Water or Mercury; and, having made a pedestrian tour through Norway, published his book Through Norway with a Knapsack.

While living here he became unwittingly connected with the Orsini plot for assassinating Louis Napoleon with bombs, which resulted in the destructive attempt of January 14, 1858. He was introduced to Orsini, whom he describes as "a highly educated, refined, and courteous Italian gentleman," in the fall of 1857, and having lived in Italy and witnessed the abuses of the despotisms with which the country was then saddled, "heartily sympathized with his patriotic yearnings for the liberation of his country." Orsini represented to him that the patriots were preparing for a great effort to drive out the foreign intruders, both Austrian and French, but that the watch upon them was so close that they could not introduce or hold ordinary arms. He had therefore invented a new form of stellar gas burner which could easily be converted into a bomb and used as a hand grenade. The gas-burner shells were, however, too small for a charge of ordinary gunpowder to produce effective explosion. Mr. Williams therefore suggested fulminate of mercury in lieu of the powder, and taught Orsini and Fieri how to make it themselves. They also learned how to make fulminate of silver and some other detonating compounds. Orsini, in his final confession, said that the English chemist (Mr. Williams) who taught him how to make the fulminate had no knowledge of its intended purpose. This assurance was accepted by Napoleon and the French police, who gave Mr. Williams no further trouble than that of a few days' secret watching of his movements in Birmingham, which was so delicately conducted that he only discovered it accidentally. Mr. Williams's sympathies with the Continental peoples who were oppressed by foreign despotisms were very strong, and he sometimes expressed them vehemently in his lectures, when he would denounce the Hapsburgs and hold up the Swiss as a pattern people.

Mr. Williams devoted considerable attention, toward the last of his residence at Birmingham, to the chemistry and manufacture of paraffin oil, for which he had patented a process of distillation from shale. Having been appointed manager of the Leeswood Oil Company, whose works were at Caergwile, near Wrexham, Wales, he left Birmingham in 1863, carrying with him a testimonial presented to him by students and friends of the institute. The oil-distilling process was worked with complete success, but without profit; for the product of the newly discovered oil wells of Pennsylvania came into the market at the time and destroyed the sales. Mr. G. Combe Williams writes that "during this part of his career his foresight and influence over the working class, for whose social and intellectual advancement he had devoted so much time and energy, were clearly demonstrated, for while strikes and labor riots were going on in the surrounding works, his men worked on, having heard the facts of the case from him, and while the other oil-masters were almost without work-men during the agricultural harvest season, his personal influence was enough to keep his men at their work."

After the oil-distilling enterprise had failed, Mr. Williams went to Sheffield as chemist to the Atlas Iron Works. He conducted investigations on the manufacture of iron and steel, the effects of impurities in the same, etc., the accounts of which are fully reported in his book on the Manufacture of Iron and Steel. At Sheffield he wrote and published his book on the Fuel of the Sun, in which he assumed the existence of a universal atmosphere, upon the amount of which the planets can condense about their surfaces the densities of the planetary atmospheres depend. His speculations have not been adopted by astronomers; but the book is said to have received some curious criticisms, and contradictory—from the mathematicians, who said that "the mathematical part of the theory was correct, but there must be something wrong with the chemistry"; and from the chemists, who said that "the chemistry was all right, but there must be something wrong with the mathematics."

In 1870 Mr. Williams moved to London, where he engaged in lecturing at schools. In 1876 he gave what he called an object lesson in geography, when he took his pupils through Norway. An account of this journey is given in his book Through Norway with Ladies. He afterward gave up teaching at schools and devoted his time chiefly to scientific writing, contributing Science Notes to the Gentleman's Magazine, and papers and paragraphs to Science Gossip, Knowledge, Iron, and other periodicals. The more valuable series of these articles were collected and published in the Chemistry of Cooking (published in The Popular Science Monthly and by D. Appleton & Co.); Science in Short Chapters; A Simple Treatise on Heat; the History of the Manufacture of Iron and Steel; the Philosophy of Clothing, and Shorthand for Everybody. His uncle and adoptive father, Zachariah Watkins, by whom he had been helped in youth, to whom he dedicated The Fuel of the Sun, and with whom he dined every Saturday for twenty years, dying in 1889, left him an income that assured a comfortable support, and, as he wrote to Dr. Taylor, editor of Hardwicke's Science Gossip, he was able to begin his life work at the age of sixty-nine. This life work was A Vindication of Phrenology, on which he had been engaged, collecting material, writing, and revising, for fifty years. It was left fairly completed, and is to be published by a London house.