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The Ingenious Timeline

19th Century

1800 to 1849

House in snow, lit with lamps and hung with Christmas wreaths

After Humphrey Davy invents the first electric light,
19th century inventors work to develop and improve it. Michael Faraday discovers how to produce the electrical power that will provide warmth and light to businesses and homes.
Photo: StanRohrer@istockphoto.com

GENERATING HEAT & LIGHT,
INVESTIGATING
CLOUDS, ATOMS & NERVES

1800-1820s HUMPHREY DAVY UNLOCKS SECRETS OF LAUGHING GAS, ALKALI METALS, AND ELECTRICITY

An exuberant boy who liked to sketch, write poems, collect minerals, and make fireworks, Humphrey Davy finds he likes to experiment, becomes superintendent of the Pneumatic Institution for inhalation gas therapy at the age of 20, where he investigates the properties of laughing gas (nitrous oxide) by experimenting on himself. Davy discovers it can be used as an anaesthetic.

Exploring in another field, Davy publishes his researches into oxides and acids, and isolates and identifies sodium, potassium, calcium, boron, magnesium, strontium, and barium.

With the help of Benjamin Thompson and Henry Cavendish he researches voltaic cells (early forms of electric batteries). Davy makes the world-changing discovery that electricity can be produced by chemical activity and that electrolysis, the interaction of electric currents with chemical compounds, can break a chemical compound into its component parts. In 1800 he invents the first electric light by connecting wires to his battery and a piece of carbon: The carbon glows, producing light.

He also invents a safety 'lamp' for deep-seam mining called the Davy lamp, and a safety helmet. Miners need light to work, but candle flames in the gas-filled mines are a terrible hazard. Based on his understanding that gas must be heated to its ignition point before it explodes, Davy surrounds the flame in his lamp with a metal gauze, which distributes, and reduces the heat.

One of Davy's major discoveries is of quite a different order: He realises young James Faraday has something to offer, and gives him a job.

1802 THOMAS YOUNG DISCOVERS WAVES OF LIGHT

Thomas Young's famous experiment proves that light moves in waves. He splits a source of light into two beams, then recombines them and sees a pattern of light and dark fringes created because the waves and troughs of the two beams are not in phase. Young realizes that when two peaks coincide, they reinforce each other and a line of light results. When a peak and a trough coincide, they cancel each other out and create a dark line. This he defines as the Phenomenon of Interference.

1802 JAMES HUTTON ESTABLISHES SCIENCE OF GEOLOGY WITH REVOLUTIONARY IDEAS

James Hutton was born in 1726, drifted into medicine, and out of it, turned to farming and drifted out of it, and moved to Edinburgh where he found his métier producing sal ammoniac and eating dinner at the Oyster Club with “the economist Adam Smith, the chemist Joseph Black and the philosopher David Hume, as well as such occasional visiting sparks as Benjamin Franklin and James Watt” (Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything).

Becoming interested in questions about the age of the earth, and staring with renewed interest at the rocks on his old farm, Hutton single-handedly created the science of geology by theorising that the process of erosion was countered by the Earth’s renewal and uplift, created by heat within the Earth, and that that these processes required vast amounts of energy and time. His ideas were revolutionary, and not completely understood for 200 years. They were published in 1795 and republished in less opaque prose in 1802.

Constable's lighthouse on bay with ships and clouds

John Constable, Harwich Light-house, 1820, Tate Britain
It is said that Constable's search for truth in painting nature led him to Luke Howard's work on clouds.

1802-1803 LUKE HOWARD NAMES THE CLOUDS, AND DECIPHERS THEIR CLUES TO PREDICT THE WEATHER

Eleven years old in 1783, Luke Howard is fascinated by the sky when violent volcanic eruptions in Iceland cast a pall across Britain, and a fiery meteor flashes through the dust-laden atmosphere. Lower-level gases, and the aerosols generated from them, move eastwards towards Europe, bringing tremendous “dry fogs” that affected the continent for months. A long-lasting acid aerosol cloud moved around the globe for three years after the eruption. The overcast skies that resulted led to Britain's record-breaking cold winters of 1783-1785, and the cold summer of 1784. Luke Howard has just received dramatic inspiration for his life's work.

A number of British scientists are amateurs – they study science as a pastime. Luke Howard makes his living as a chemist, and dedicates time and money to the abolition of the slave trade. In his spare time he becomes an amateur meteorologist who spends his leisure hours studying clouds. At the time clouds had no names, and no one understood their relationship to atmospheric changes.

After years of studying the sky, Howard suggests in a published paper that there is a cause and effect relationship operating in the atmosphere that produces the clouds, and that we can make weather predictions by studying them. He develops the Latin names for cloud types that are still used today –

cumulus (meaning heap), swelling cumulus , cumulo-nimbus, stratus (meaning layer), alto-stratus, cirro-stratus, strato cumulus, nimbostratus, cirrus (meaning curl), alto-cumulus, cirro-cumulus.

It's a bit complicated, as science tends to be, but clear to those who use it. By observing and naming the changes and transitions of these and other cloud forms, Howard understands what they mean for weather, and founds the science of weather prediction. This is a challenging, important, and problematic enterprise since weather changes very fast. Howard's work so impresses Goethe that the great German writer dedicates a poem to him.

Older sailor relaxing and looking at clouds

The Beaufort Wind Force Scale estimates the strength of wind. It aids sailors by describing signs in the sky and on the sea that signal changes in weather. Distances at sea are still measured in British nautical miles, speed in knots, and depths in fathoms.

Photo: Art-Y@istockphoto.com

1805-1806 STORM SURVIVOR FRANCIS BEAUFORT INVENTS WIND FORCE SCALE

Going to sea as a cabin boy when he is thirteen, Francis Beaufort sails with the Royal Navy and survives hundreds of storms. At fifteen he is shipwrecked due to a faulty chart. At sixteen, he begins keeping meteorological notes. By thirty-one he has invented the Wind Force Scale, and is captain of a ship exploring the South Atlantic.

A rather slow-moving Royal Navy finally adopts the Wind Scale in 1838. Beaufort goes on to fight pirates in the Mediterranean. Recalling his earlier misadventure, he also makes sea charts of such accuracy they are still being used 200 years later. Becoming Hydrographer of the British Admiralty at 55, he assembles the world's finest collection of charts, sends James Clark Ross to explore terrestrial magnetism in Antarctica and Charles Darwin as naturalist to the Galapagos Islands.

The Beaufort Wind Scale tells sailors what signs to look for on the surface of the water and in the air on a scale of 0 (dead calm) to 12 (a hurricane) and how to cope.

1807 GEOLOGICAL SOCIETY FOUNDED OVER DINNER

Two hundred years ago, "In the winter of 1807, thirteen like-minded souls in London got together at the Freemasons Tavern at Long Acre, in Convent Garden, to form a dining club to be called the Geological Society. The idea was to meet once a month to swap geological notions over a glass or two of Madeira and a convivial dinner. The price of the meal was set at a deliberately hefty 15 shillings to discourage those whose qualifications were merely cerebral. . .In barely a decade membership grew to 400. . .” (Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything).

Still going strong, the Geological Society celebrated its bicentennial in Burlington House. As you might imagine, it has a great library of geoscientific information, and exists to promote the geoscientists and to provide professional support to over 9,000 members.

Model of atom with electrons flying about the nucleus

John Dalton researches atoms, and learns how to weigh them.

Image: jh020548@istockphoto.com

1808 MOVING FROM WEATHER TO THE HEART OF THE ATOM, JOHN DALTON HELPS TO JUMP START CHEMISTRY

John Dalton becomes a school teacher at the age of twelve. He is fascinated by weather, and never goes anywhere without an apparatus to measure atmospheric pressure. He realises that air is not a stew of gases, but a kind of mechanical system where the pressure exerted by each gas in a mixture is independent of the pressure exerted by the other gases, and the total pressure is the sum of the partial pressures of each gas.

Exhilarated by these new insights, and wondering how air and water mix, Dalton experiments, and confirms the ancient idea that all matter, including air, is made up of atoms. He theorises that atoms are indivisible and indestructible with definite weight and structure.

Counting atoms is akin to herding invisible cats, but Dalton calculates the relative weights of atoms from percentage compositions of compounds, using an arbitrary system to determine the likely atomic structure of each compound. He also contributes valuable observations about the aurora borealis, trade winds, and colour blindness.

A man who lived a simple life and was a member of the Society of Friends, Dalton never wanted accolades, but when he dies, 40,000 people in the city of Manchester walk behind his casket to his grave.           

1810 HENRY MAUDSLAY, 'FATHER OF MACHINE-TOOLS' HITS HIS STRIDE

Starting work at 12 as a powder monkey, Henry Maudslay is a poorly paid apprentice until he goes into business for himself as a smith. Maudslay is one of the first to understand the importance and beauty of precision, standardisation, and interchangeability in tools like standard planes, and to make them. Nuts and bolts are essential to modern life, but they are not much good unless made to an exacting standard.

By 1810 Maudslay has transformed industry by inventing screw-cutting lathes capable of turning out accurate, standard threads on screws. The commercial importance of this invention has been compared to the steam engine. He trains a number of outstanding British engineers in his shop, including Joseph Whitworth, who is the first to manufacture precise, standardised screw threads. His advances will be essential to the achievements of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Surgeons working to repair a hand

Without Bell's research into the nervous system, surgery to repair injuries would be impossible.

Photo: olicito@istockphoto.com

1811-1830 CHARLES BELL EXPLAINS THE NERVOUS SYSTEM

A graduate of the University of Edinburgh, Charles Bell comes to London in 1804 to practice surgery and teach. He spends seven years studying nerves, and publishes the results of his research. His book Idea of a New Anatomy of the Brain (1811) is called "the Magna Carta of neurology" because it frees science from all the old shibboleths and explains how the nerves work.

Bell shows that nerves consist of separate fibres in a common sheath; that a fibre transmits either sensory or motor stimuli, but not both; and that nerves transmit in one direction only. Bell’s Palsy (a partial facial paralysis) is named after him because he identified the affected cranial nerve.

1815 WILLIAM SMITH GOES FROM ROCKS TO RUIN AND BACK AGAIN

ii_geological_map_smith.jpg

William Smith published the world's first geological map in 1815. His map "changed the world". For awhile it wasn't certain he would survive it. Smith lost his whole investment to plagiarists who stole his map and published it. He was sent to debtors' prison.

The young supervisor of construction on a coal canal, Smith had experienced an epiphany after being lowered into a coal mine and observing different layers of strata -

On the evening of 5 January 1796, he was sitting in a coaching inn in Somerset when he jotted down the notion that would eventually make his reputation. To interpret rocks, there needs to be some means of correlation, a basis on which you can tell that those carboniferous rocks from Devon are younger than these Cambrian rocks from Wales. Smith's insight was to realize that the answer lay with fossils. At every change in rock strata certain species of fossils disappeared while others carried on into subsequent levels. By noting which species appeared in which strata, you could work out the relative ages of rocks wherever they appeared. (From Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything)

For 20 years 'Strata' Smith, as he was called, travelled all over Britain to locate, identify and map rock layers below the surface of the earth. His story is described in Simon Winchester's The Map that Changed the World, Rocks, Ruin and Redemption.

Eventually William Smith's contributions were recognized. He was released from prison, and received the Wollastan Medal, geology's "Nobel Prize". In 1838 he was appointed one of the commissioners to select building-stone for the new Palace of Westminster. Mapping strata became pretty indispensable to oil, gold and diamond exploration.

1816 FRANCIS RONALDS INVENTS TELEGRAPH

Born in 1788, the second of eleven children, Francis Ronalds goes to work helping his mother in their cheesemonger’s business when his father dies. But he is fascinated by electricity, and in 1816, in his back garden at Hammersmith, he builds the first electrostatic telegraph, sending messages along wires. The wire is charged using a friction machine. At each end, clockwork dials indicate the letter or figure being transmitted.

Ronalds offers his invention free to the Admiralty, which responds in ponderous and negative tones. It is Charles Wheatstone, who sees the telegraph as a boy, who will patent the first working electric telegraph, with William Cooke, in 1837.

In 1843, Ronalds is appointed the first Honorary Director and Superintendent of the Observatory at Kew. He introduces a system for registering meteorological data using photography. Just before he dies in 1873, he is knighted for his “early and remarkable labours in telegraph investigations”. The Queen at least is aware that her empire runs on the telegraph.

Macadam road winding through country with car light streaming

Drivers want a road that is strong, durable, smooth, and non-slippery, and thanks to John McAdam we have it.

Photo: AVTG@istockphoto.com

1816-1819 JOHN McADAM BUILDS MODERN MACADAM ROADS

John McAdam sails to New York in 1770, makes a fortune, and returns to Britain, where he buys an estate in Ayrshire. He notices the roads are in poor shape, and at his own expense experiments with making them better. In 1798 he moves to Cornwall where he improves roads for the government, and continues his experiments. These, as may be imagined, are rather time-consuming, since he has to build a road and people have to use it for some time before he can see how well it works.

However, McAdam is nothing if not persevering. By 1816 he knows what to do, and he writes Remarks on the Present System of Road-Making.

He recommends that roads be raised above adjacent ground to create good drainage and covered first with large rocks and then with smaller stones. The stones are then bound with fine gravel or slag (a modern substitute is tar). In 1827, as general surveyor of all roads in Great Britain, he oversees the building of what becomes known as macadam roads, which improve travel speeds and communications. They are quickly adopted in the United States.

Smiling baby

Britain is the first nation to conquer infant mortality. By 1820 medical progress has so transformed British life that half the population is under the age of fifteen. As a result many of them leave Britain, and head all over the globe. By 1900 they will have founded thousands of cities and the nations of United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Photo: nazarethman@istockphoto.com

1823 THOMAS WAKLEY PUBLISHES LANCET TO ADVANCE MEDICAL KNOWLEDGE AND REFORM

A surgeon and firebrand reformer, Thomas Wakley barely escapes being murdered when he is twenty-five. He goes on to espouse the cause of working people and to attack medical malpractice. He founds one of the world's oldest peer-reviewed medical journals, naming it after the surgical instrument called a lancet (as well as the arched window that lets in light). The Lancet continues to publish controversial medical studies and reviews.

By steam railroad to Whitby

Travelling to Whitby.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

1825 GEORGE STEPHENSON INVENTS THE RAILROAD LOCOMOTIVE AND TRAIN TRAVEL; HIS SON ROBERT AND NEPHEW GEORGE BUILD RAILROAD BRIDGES

George Stephenson has no formal schooling when he goes to work in a coal mine. When his wife dies, he sends his son Robert to school to study mathematics, and every night when his son comes home from school, they study together. With a mechanical gift that verges on genius, Stephenson wins the post of chief mechanic for steam engines at his coal mine. Every Saturday he forces himself to dismantle and rebuild a colliery engine so he know how they work. They are not working all that well.

He takes the best of previous steam engines and builds an improved locomotive – a steam engine that pulls loads - in 1813. He achieves this by "the 'simple' expedient of increasing the diameter of the boiler flue and applying the power directly to the wheels by connecting rods, thus reducing the need for crudely manufactured gearing. Further developments were directed towards increasing the longevity of the track" (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

At first his locomotive is used in coal mines. In 1825 his locomotive pulls the first passengers – 450 of them – from Darlington to Stockton and into history. This is the beginning of travel by train. George Stephenson becomes a consultant to railroad projects in Britain, Europe, and North America.

His son Robert becomes an outstanding civil engineer and the builder of long-span railroad bridges. His nephew George Stephenson, a “master of marvels,” an “artist” and engineer of the railroad, constructs soaring viaducts to span valleys and cuts tunnels of “unexampled magnitude.” Entrepreneurs send trains and passengers across Britain.

Little girl in red and black-spotted ladybird macintosh

Sometimes the simplest inventions
are the most memorable.

Photo: ngoodman@istockphoto.com

1823 CHARLES MACINTOSH INVENTS FIRST RAINCOAT

A chemist, Charles Macintosh is trying to find uses for the waste products of gasworks when he hits on painting wool cloth with rubber to produce the first waterproof watercoat. There are a few hitches along the way, but the macintosh takes off when vulcanized rubber, which resists temperature changes, becomes available.

1826 THOMAS TELFORD HELPS TO PERFECT THE SUSPENSION BRIDGE

A stone mason who teaches himself engineering, Thomas Telford designs roads, canals, aqueducts , roads, and bridges. Between 1819 and 1826 he builds two suspension bridges, one over the River Conway and the other across the Menai Strait. Telford designs great wrought-iron links – flat iron bars with a circular surface at either end which are bolted together – to suspend the 580-foot-long Menai Bridge deck.

Michael Faraday

Michael Faraday's discoveries led to the invention of the electrical transformer and the electric motor. He is the man behind the electric car.

Painting by Thomas Phillips, 1842, National Portrait Gallery

1820s-1840s MICHAEL FARADAY ESTABLISHES ELECTROMAGNETIC LAWS AND INVENTS THE ELECTRIC MOTOR AND POWER GENERATOR

The son of a blacksmith, Michael Faraday was apprenticed to a bookbinder in London where he read every scientific book he could get his hands on, and conducted experiments. He joined a Philosophical Society, meeting every week to hear lectures on scientific topics and discuss scientific ideas.

When he was twenty-one, he heard scientist Humphrey Davy speak. Faraday persuaded Davy to employ him. He served as Davy's Chemical Assistant at the Royal Institution and for two years as Davy's assistant and valet.

Faraday was an experimental genius, but it took him some time to break free and do the research he longed to do.

Finally, on 3–4 September 1821, Faraday proved that "a vertically mounted wire carrying an electric current would rotate continuously round a magnet protruding from a bowl of mercury. This phenomenon, which Faraday called electromagnetic rotation, showed that it was possible to produce continuous motion from the interaction of electricity and magnetism" (DNB).

Ten years later, on 29 August 1831, he discovered electromagnetic induction – the production of electric current by a change in magnetic intensity. "Very quickly after this discovery, Faraday found how electricity could be generated by passing a magnet in and out of a helix wound with wire. These devices were, in effect, the first transformer and dynamo" (DNB). His discoveries established the practical use of electricity.

Faraday also liquefied chlorine, isolated benzene, and established the laws of electrolysis. With William Whewell he coined many concepts - electrode, electrolyte, anode, cathode and ion.

In the 1840s he seemed to be at a loss to decide what he would explore next. Then William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) asked him a question at a lecture. Faraday began experimenting with heavy glass, and discovered that magnetism was a universal property of matter. He gave a lecture attended by James Clerk Maxwell that laid the foundations of the field theory of electromagnetism - and modern communications.

Faraday was a charming man able to explain complex ideas simply. He taught chemistry to a generation of Royal Engineers. He began a popular science lecture series for adults and another for children that continue today. In the 1840s he made sure that women could become members of the Royal Institution.

Calmly confident that "The book of nature which we have to read is written by the finger of God", Faraday faithfully served the poor and ill all his adult life, and refused to develop poison gas for use during the Crimean War.

1824 JOSEPH ASPDIN INVENTS PORTLAND CEMENT

Jospeh Aspdin was a bricklayer and builder when he develops and patents a process for grinding and burning clay and limestone to create a material that hardens when mixed with water.

He names it Portland cement because it resembles a stone quarried in Portland, Dorset. A crucial part of concrete, Portland cement is indispensable to modern construction. It is part of the foundation of every house and building, road, and bridge built with concrete.

1828 GEORGE GREEN'S MATHEMATICAL THEORIES LAY GROUNDWORK FOR MODERN INDUSTRY

A baker, George Green had only attended school for four terms when he formulates a mathematical theory of electricity and magnetism. His brilliant work, published in 1828, introduces the general mathematical theory of potential and Green’s Theorem, which is applied in the study of the properties of magnetic and electric fields.

His papers remain unknown until William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) discovers them and has them reprinted in 1846. At the age of 40, Green enters Cambridge University, graduates, and teaches mathematics. His mathematical theories will prove crucial to the theories of electricity underlying modern industry.

1831 EDWIN BUDDING INVENTS FIRST LAWNMOWER

In her book Green Thoughts, Eleanor Perenyi writes that Edwin Budding, a textile engineer, “noted a resemblance, which might only have occurred to an Englishman, between the pile on fabric and the velvety pile of grass." Budding proceeds to invent the reel grass mower – ecologically sound, capable of mowing grass to look like strips of moiré silk, and possessing a lovely whirring sound redolent of summer. See the English Garden

1831 WILLIAM BICKFORD INVENTS THE SAFETY FUSE

William Bickford is a leather merchant who lives in a Cornish mining village. He knows men who have been killed in the mines because their fuses malfunction and the dynamite explodes before they are safely away. Bickford decides to do something about it.

He develops a safety fuse that has a core of black powder tightly wrapped in textiles and a waterproofed cord also wrapped in textile. Bickford's safety fuse is dependable in bringing a flame to the charge, and its timing is amazingly accurate. Today's version is not very different. Bickford's fuse has saved the lives of thousands of miners.

1802 - 1830s FRANCIS BAILY IMPROVES FINANCIAL MARKETS AND STAR CATALOGUES AND DISCOVERS BAILY'S BEADS

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Francis Baily, who was born at Newbury, Berkshire, in 1774, toured "the unsettled parts of North America" in 1796–1797 then entered the London Stock Exchange. At the peak of his success, aged 51, he retired to embark on his life's calling.

Baily had a gloriously logical mind. Early in the 19th century he published tables for purchasing and renewing leases and he explained the principles of interest and annuities. He also had a sterling character - he amassed a fortune "through diligence and integrity". But in fact, Baily had to fight for financial integrity and his fight may sound familiar to us today. For those who are interested, the Oxford DNB explains -

Baily's overriding concern was to establish a system to facilitate the buying and selling of annuities and leases with the object of alleviating the state of the national debt. The prevailing funding system had begun well managed—the money required for the service of government was borrowed for only a short duration (five to seven years). However, as the exigencies of the state increased, the term of the loan was lengthened to a period of 99 years and finally to the prevailing system of borrowing money on perpetuities. For Baily each change was more disastrous than the former. Baily's solution to the national debt, drawing heavily on Price, was simply to exchange the perpetuities for terminable annuities. The difference would then be paid through the sinking fund—‘the very purpose for which that fund was established’.

For Baily, speculative projects and theories had to be effectively expelled from the financial and intellectual market. This meant a careful policing of information. The question centred upon what information was accurate and what was not. This is highlighted in his vigilance on the stock exchange, which culminated in his central role exposing the fraud of De Beranger in 1814. De Beranger had been employed to supply intelligence from the scene of the war abroad with the purpose of influencing the price of British funds. Baily epitomized sound, thorough, precise thinking. . .

But the business which Baily loved was astronomy. He had been making contributions to the science even before he left his job as a stock broker. He helped to establish the Royal Astronomical Society and prepared the Society's Catalogue of 2881 stars. Then he began pulling together and recalculating the observations of hundreds of different astronomers from all over Europe. He shepherded the compilation of star catalogues containing 8377 and 57,000 stars. As his friend Herschel put it, he ascertained "all that has really been recorded of the stars. . .to make that totality of knowledge the common property of astronomers".

Baily went on to reform the Nautical Almanac, improving its astronomy and calculations and therefore its accuracy for sailors, whose lives depended on it. He determined the most accurate figure to date of the ellipticity of the Earth, which was later used in reconstructing standards of length. He confirmed the mean density of the Earth by diligently working through 2100 observations. And he served on numerous scientific societies in Britain and abroad, and helped to found the Royal Geographical Society.

Meanwhile he was making his own celestial observations. In 1836, while observing an eclipse of the Sun, he described what we now call Baily's Beads -

As the moon 'grazes' the Sun during a solar eclipse, irradiation and the Moon's rugged topography allows beads of sunlight to shine through. Baily understood what the beads of light said about the surface of the Moon.

1832

 

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