Until we looked closely at the life of his father, Lord Charles Cavendish, 1704–83, we did not have a firm understanding of Henry’s life. Coming from a family of politicians, Lord Charles predictably entered public life as a politician. While he was active in politics, he also pursued science as a side interest, at a certain point leaving politics and becoming more involved with science. His direction was continued by his son Henry, who made a complete life within science. The scientific calling of Charles and Henry Cavendish found a congenial home in the Royal Society of London.
By the time Henry joined his father in the Royal Society
Historians of science know of Cavendishes earlier than Charles. Richard Cavendish
By Charles Cavendish’s time, science was not exclusively a male preserve: Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle
Our Cavendishes descended from two revolutions, one political and the other scientific. The Cavendish who became the first duke of Devonshire took a leading part in the revolution of 1688–89
Science, which had been an occasional interest of various earlier Cavendishes, became for Charles
Having made Newton’s Principia a prominent marker in this introduction, we can envision the brickbats flying. For forty years or longer, historians of science have reacted against the idolatry of Newton, arguing that the eighteenth century should be regarded as a time of originating scientific energies of its own.18 We concede the point; nevertheless, in following the tracks of Henry Cavendish, we repeatedly encounter Newton. He was educated at Cambridge at the time when Newton’s Principia dominated the curriculum, and although his greatest contributions to science were experimental, he was also a theorist who grasped the new experimental fields in Newton’s “mathematical way.”19 New instruments, apparatus, and experimental techniques were invented in the eighteenth century, but not everything about science had to be invented. In Cavendish’s electrical researches, we see that for him the Principia
Today when we speak of the Scientific Revolution, we recognize it as a long and complex historical process, one which did not consist solely of a preparation for the mathematical principles of mechanics and the gravitational system of the world as laid down in the Principia. Human understanding of the vastly more complicated operations of chemistry and of life underwent major reinterpretations as well, and the subtle art of experiment was enriched by advances in techniques and instruments. That ingenious master of experimental apparatus Robert Hooke
Charles and Henry Cavendish present their biographers with a problem. The practical concerns, and perhaps the private reserve, of the Cavendish family ensured that every scrap of paper having to do with Charles and Henry Cavendish’s property was saved, but little that could be regarded as personal. We have Charles Cavendish’s business correspondence but not his and his family’s private letters, which were in Henry’s possession when he died. Henry Cavendish’s business correspondence is preserved too, but in his case, we suspect that there may not have been many personal letters. Virginia Woolf
Cavendish’s public life was carried out in the Royal Society and other settings where scientific men gathered. His private life was carried out mainly in his laboratory and study, and what he said about it he said primarily in writing, not in speech. Writing can be as impermanent as speech if it is not published, but Cavendish kept what he wrote for fifty years, clearly valuing what he put on paper. Each written report of a scientific observation of his is a record of experience, and as such it is potentially the material of biography. Because Cavendish’s life was about science, the trove of scientific manuscripts
When Cavendish died, his unpublished scientific papers passed to his principal heir, Lord George Cavendish
A selection of Cavendish’s manuscripts has been published, though only one group of them, the electrical, with anything approaching completeness. The electrical manuscripts were examined by a series of experts in that branch of physics, beginning with William Snow Harris
There are two book-length biographies
If ever a biography violated Adams’
Wilson’s biography was undertaken at the request of the Cavendish Society
When Wilson applied to the Cavendish family for the loan of Henry Cavendish’s manuscripts, he said that he had delayed asking because he understood that Lord Burlington was going to write an account of Cavendish’s discoveries. (The earl of Burlington, we should explain, was an extinct title resurrected as a courtesy title for Henry Cavendish’s heir, Lord George Cavendish, thereafter going to the eldest son of the eldest son of the duke of Devonshire.) This Lord Burlington was the forty-eight-year-old William Cavendish, who would go on to become the seventh duke of Devonshire. Scientifically gifted, as a student at Cambridge he had posted second wrangler in the competitive mathematical examinations and first Smith’s Prizeman, only to return to Cambridge in 1861 to succeed Prince Albert as chancellor. The richest of all the dukes, in 1870 he drew upon his wealth to build a laboratory for experimental physics at Cambridge
Wilson kept his promise to Burlington. He portrayed Cavendish as a man of exemplary probity, but there is more to character than honesty, and Wilson did not admire much of what he saw. A deeply religious man, Wilson was then contemplating writing a Religio Chemici modeled after Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, and in the year following the publication of his biography of Cavendish, he published a biography of the physician John Reid, a man of “Courage, Hope, and Faith,” whom he greatly admired. Wilson
We can, it would seem, agree on the appearance of Henry Cavendish
“I desire” was one of Cavendish’s favorite expressions. His life was filled with desire, and to a greater extent than most persons, what he desired he could have. For he was perfectly placed: born an aristocrat when the aristocracy was in high tide, he could expect his desires to be taken seriously. Because he was not a peer, he escaped the time-consuming duties, rituals, and displays; he was free to choose inherently more rewarding pursuits, while at the same time he could feel as confident of his place in society
This biography opens in the 1680s, when science began to dominate educated thought in Western Europe,46 and it ends just over a century later, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was a time of impressive advances in scientific techniques and beginnings of new major fields of investigation. Charles Cavendish took up challenging problems in them, and his son Henry explored them systematically. In terms of the Cavendish family, the period covered by this biography begins when the rooms of the great Cavendish country house, Chatsworth, resounded with the sound of the pugnacious first duke of Devonshire’s clanking sword, and it ends when the tone of those same rooms was set by the Proustian languor of the fifth duke of Devonshire
J.B. Biot (1813, 272–273, on 273).
Georges Cuvier (1961, 227–238, on 236).
Humphry Davy, quoted in John Davy (1836, 222).
Henry Brougham (1845, 444). Thomas Thomson (1830–1831, 1:337).
Lionel Trilling (1949, 15).
Henry Cavendish’s forebear also wrote, “The enemies of Grace, do lurke under the prayse of Nature.” “Cavendish, Richard,” Dictionary of National Biography, ed. L. Stephen and S. Lee, 22 vols. (New York, Macmillan 1909) 3:1266–67. Hereafter DNB, 1st ed. The second edition, in 60 vols., edited by H.C.G. Matthew and B. Harrison, published by Oxford Universiy Press in 2004 is denoted by DNB. This work being cited throughout the book, the full reference is not repeated in each chapter.
Jacquot (1952, 13, 187, 191).
”Hobbes, Thomas,” DNB 1st ed. 6:444–51, on 444–45.
Meyer (1955, 14).
Allen (1976, 29).
”Boyle, Charles, Fourth Earl of Orrery,” DNB 1st ed. 2:1017.
A. Rupert Hall (1974, 10:200).
If the revolution is not viewed as “glorious” in the “Whig” sense of the term, as the “harbinger of Liberal England,” its significance may be seen to have an “even greater global magnitude.” D. Hoak and M. Feingold (1996, vii–viii).
On this point, see Joseph Priestley’s Lectures on History and General Policy (1826). Quoted and discussed in I.B. Cohen (1976, 263–264).
Lewis Thomas, a redoubtable committeeman of science, has remarked in various places on the indispensability and value of committees and on the inescapable disruptiveness of human individuality in the work of committees. For example, in The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine-Watcher (1983, 171); The Medusa and the Snai (1979, 94–98). Although Cavendish served on committees throughout his sixteen years in the House of Commons, we note that his committee work fell off with time.
Cohen (1976, 264).
”Contents,” PT, abr. 13 (1770–76), i–vii, on iv–v. The classification did not use the category “mixed mathematics,” a common term then for subjects treated mathematically as opposed to pure mathematics. Like any classification, this one had a rationale, but there is no reason to think that Cavendish considered his researches to belong to different categories of science, only to different methods of natural philosophy.
This by now historiographic commonplace was once fresh, serving as an important corrective; for example, R.W. Home (1979).
Newton’s expression, quoted and discussed in Henry Guerlac (1965, 323).
Quoted in Susan Sheets-Pyenson (1990, 399).
Treasures from Chatsworth.The Devonshire Inheritance. A Loan Exhibition from the Devonshire Collection, by Permission of the Duke of Devonshire and the Trustees of the Chatsworth Settlement, Organized and Circulated by the International Exhibitions Foundation 1979–1980, (1979–1980, 67).
Quoted in John A. Garraty (1957, 247).
William Snow Harris, “Abstract of M.S. Papers by the Hon. H. Cavendish.” This twenty-five page abstract, which describes the contents of twenty packets of manuscripts on electricity and four packets on meteorology, is in the Royal Society, MM.16.125.
William Snow Harris (1854). Wilson (1851, 469). James Clerk Maxwell, Introduction to Henry Cavendish (1879, xl).
S.P. Thomson (1901, 218).
Maxwell’s correspondence in 1873 concerning the Cavendish papers is published in The Scientific Letters and Papers of James Clerk Maxwell, Harman (1995, 785–86, 839, 858–59).
Henry Cavendish (1879).
W. Vernon Harcourt (1839, 45). The address is followed by an “Appendix,” 45–68, containing extracts of Cavendish’s papers on heat and chemistry, which in turn is followed by some sixty pages of lithographed facsimiles.
Cavendish, Henry (1921). The Scientific Papers of the Honourable Henry Cavendish. 2 vols. Ed. by J.C. Maxwell and E. Thorpe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. The subtitle of the first volume, edited by Maxwell and revised by Joseph Larmor, is Electrical Researches. The subtitle of the second volume, under E. Thorpe’s general editorship, is Chemical and Dynamical. Hereafter, this work is cited as Sci. Pap. 1 and 2. Because this book is cited often, the full reference is not repeated in each chapter.
A.J. Berry (1960).
Thorpe, “Introduction,” Sci. Pap. (2:1–74, on 1).
George Wilson (1851).
W.H. Brock (1978, 604–605).
Brougham (1845, xi).
Charles Richard Weld (1848, 2:116–117).
George Wilson (1862b, 254). Wilson (1851, 15).
John Pearson (1983, 214).
Peter Harman, editor of Maxwell’s papers, has kindly informed us that he has found no documentation of the switch in name from Devonshire to Cavendish. He thinks it is likely that the name Cavendish stands for the family. Personal communication. J.D. Crowther too does not think that Maxwell regarded the laboratory as a memorial to Henry Cavendish (1974, 35).
George Wilson to Lord Burlington, 15 Mar. 1850, Lancashire Record Office, Miscellaneous Letters, DDCa 22/19/5.
The quotations are from a letter Wilson wrote at the time, included in his sister’s memoir, Jessie Aitken Wilson (1862b, 340–41).
Ibid. (338, 342–43). Wilson completed several chapters of his projected book on chemistry and religion. They were brought out after his death in a volume of essays bearing the title Religio chemici, note 39 above.
”Joseph Farington’s Anecdotes of Walpole, 1793–1797,” in Horace Walpole (1937–1983, 15:316–317).
Thomas Young, “Life of Henry Cavendish,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, Supplement (1816–1824), in Sci. Pap. (1:435–447, on 444).
Thomson (1830–1831, 1:339).
John Barrow (1849, 146–147).
Margaret C. Jacob (1988, 105).
Bickley (1911, 202).
In reference to the membership of the Royal Society in Henry Cavendish’s day: Benjamin Brody to Charles Richard Weld, 7 Apr. 1848, quoted in Weld (1848, 2:153).
Work in the setting of professional science in the next century is the theme of Christa Jungnickel and Russell McCormmach (1986).
Table of Contents
Introduction: The Problem of Cavendish
Part I: Lord Charles Cavendish
Part II: The Honorable Henry Cavendish
17 Last Years
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