This September we are joining heritage sites across the UK to take part in the national Heritage Open Days fortnight. The theme of this year’s event is ‘Astounding Inventions’. Arguably Johnson’s Dictionary of 1755 was an astounding invention in itself – bringing together the principles of his forerunners to create the first modern Dictionary in the format that we still recognise. In this month’s blog post we look at Samuel Johnson’s interest in what we might typically think of as ‘Astounding inventions’, as we find out about his interest in the science, technology and innovation of his age.
Johnson’s Chemistry Experiments
After meeting in 1765, Johnson spent much time at the house of his friends Henry and Hester Thrale in Streatham. Vignettes of life at Streatham present Johnson as relaxed, playful and practical – one summer he took to binding books in the summerhouse. Such was his interest in science, that he undertook his own experiments. Hester Thrale (later Piozzi), writes in her Anecdotes (1786):
“Dr. Johnson was always exceeding fond of chemistry; and we made up a sort of laboratory at Streatham one summer, and diverted ourselves with drawing essences and colouring liquors. But the danger Mr. Thrale found his friend in one day when I was driven to London, and he had got the children and servants round him to see some experiments performed, put an end to all our entertainment, so well was the master of the house persuaded that his short sight would have been his destruction in a moment, by bringing him close to a fierce and violent flame”
The concerns were not unfounded as Johnson regularly set fire to the front of his wigs near candles, and had a custom of reading in bed which had led the Thrales to allocate a servant to carry Johnson’s candle for him when he went to sleep. This mitigation did not extend to science experiments: “Future experiments in chemistry, however, were too dangerous, and Mr. Thrale insisted that we should do no more towards finding the Philosopher’s Stone.”
Johnson defines electricity in his Dictionary as: “A property in some bodies, whereby, when rubbed so as to grow warm, they draw little bits of paper, or such like substances, to them”, quoting medical writer John Quincy. However, the definition goes on to discuss the subject in a more journalistic way, showing excitement in the subject and suggesting Johnson’s own interest, as no further source is quoted. During Johnson’s age, experiments in how electricity might be used were underway, but often only as tricks and spectacles for the viewing public. In 1751 Benjamin Franklin published his ‘Experiments and Observations on Electricity’ and developed the lightning rod. Johnson also shows knowledge of the medical application of electricity, reassuring relatives of an ill friend that they “should not despair of helping the swelled hand by electricity, if it were frequently and diligently supplied.”
Ballooning for travel began at the very end of Johnson’s life. 19th September 1783 saw the first balloon flight when Pilatre de Rozier’s ‘Aerostat Reveillon’ took to the sky in France with a sheep,
The first balloon flight with human passengers occurred two months later when Etienne and Joseph Montgolfier launched their balloon from the centre of Paris.
In England, Vincenzo Lunardi flew a hydrogen balloon on 15th September 1784 at an Artillery Ground in London, accompanied by a dog, a cat and a caged pigeon. Johnson paid a subscription for Lunardi’s balloon, and his circle was fascinated by ballooning. Samuel Johnson was in Lichfield at the time of the flight, but he received numerous letters about it from his friends. However, he complained that he had ‘three letters this day, all about the balloon, I could have been content with one’ and that ‘since it has been performed, and the event is known, I had rather now find a medicine that can ease an asthma.’ Shortly afterwards, when James Sadler flew from Oxford on 17 November 1784 Johnson was in the city, but so ill that he sent Francis Barber to see the flight on his behalf.
By the time of the French Revolution, balloons were being used by the military. Samuel Johnson saw the potential for flying machines to be used in warfare, which he echoed in his novel ‘Rasselas’.
Johnson and Industry
Johnson’s lifetime saw a huge amount of technological change, the heart of which was his home region of the Midlands. In his later life Johnson travelled regularly and made a point of visiting manufactories, mines and mills. He was a member of the The Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce and his writings, letters and diaries include regular mentions of the specifics of manufacturing processes that he had observed. He writes proudly of the progress of the canals in Derbyshire, and visits ceramic manufacturers. Throughout the 1740s and 1750s, Johnson was also instrumental in attempts to improve cotton manufacturing by supporting the invention of distant family member from the Lichfield area, James Wyatt . The website Revolutionary Players is an excellent hub for information on Johnson’s links to the Midlands enlightenment.