Thursday, February 24, 2011

February 24, 1810 – Henry Cavendish Bequeaths his Notes

Upon his death, eclectic scientist Henry Cavendish cited in a letter secondary to his will that his laboratory and notes should be given to St. Peter’s College at Cambridge, a school that would have served as his alma mater if he stayed through to graduation. Cavendish, son of Lord Charles Cavendish and grandson of William Cavendish, 2nd Duke of Devonshire, and Henry Gray, 1st Duke of Kent, was born in 1731 and lived a life of what was described as “painful shyness.” He left the University of Cambridge without graduating, spoke to female servants only by notes, and reportedly had a back staircase built onto his house so that he could enter without meeting his housekeeper.

Despite his shyness, or perhaps as part of it, Cavendish was a genius. He died one of the wealthiest men in England, having an expert mind for logical business, but not making any personal relationships beyond his immediate family. Cavendish spent much of his time in his laboratory, making discoveries that he would never share. In 1766, his first paper was published as “Factitious Airs”, describing the density of “inflammable air” (later to be known as “dephlogisticated air”, which is, containing oxygen). Even without the bulk of his scientific discoveries mentioned, Cavendish was welcomed into the Royal Society, and he rarely missed weekly meetings. Despite the obvious desire for social interaction, he remained shy, so much so that speaking to him was as speaking to “vacancy” to which only the best would receive a “mumbled reply.” He did publish further papers, however, famously determining the density of the Earth in 1798.

It came as a shock to the scientific world that his laboratory would be donated, so much so that rumors arose about the veracity of his letter. Still, his heirs held no reason to keep the laboratory of an eccentric relative, and Cambridge was given equipment and stacks of notes, provided they were edited properly into a volume commemorating Cavendish. As professors and students organized the pages, it became clear that Cavendish was sitting on a goldmine of discoveries.

He had recognized the elemental nature of hydrogen before Antoine Lavoisier, determined the composition of the atmosphere, and, most significantly, made vast leaps into the research of electricity. He outlined a “degree of electrification” (later renamed the electric potential), measured capacitance, mirrored Charles Augustin de Coulomb’s principle of the inverse square of electrical force to distance two years before the French physicist, and went further to define the flow of electricity in resistance and voltage. Cavendish’s publications exploded into the international scientific community following the fall of Napoleon, and inventor of the battery Count Alessandro Volta set to reward further discoveries that might otherwise go unknown. In 1819, the electromagnet came from Britain’s William Sturgeon, sparking a whole new series of discoveries through its application. Further technology was made possible by Georg Ohm’s 1827 deduction of the unified electromagnetic theory.

Telegraphs, telephones, and electric motors flourished as chemistry and metallurgy caught up with theoretical science. Heavy, messy steam engines were quickly replaced with electricity, proving more cost effective as strategies of broadcasting “free energy” overcame the need for expensive wires. Major cities in Europe and America adapted to the new technology, many competing as to who could produce the most kilowatts in a day. Outside of the “electric islands” of civilization, motors worked via stored energy in hydrogen cells, again adapting much of Cavendish’s work. After 1855, the electric motorcar of Hungarian inventor and lecturer Ányos Jedlik took the world by storm, practically replacing the horse in a matter of decades.

Meanwhile, advances were made in the electrical application by Charles Babbage to the ideas of his difference engine, later, and analytical engine. Scientific groundwork was laid and then taken to great new lengths by James Clerk Maxwell, credited as the Father of Electrical Computing. Automation surged in the second part of the Industrial Revolution, constructing great factories where a single man could supervise a dozen machines crafting goods by themselves. By the time of the Great War, automation had become so ingrained in modern society that it was fought with radio-steered miniature submarines, carefully calculated surgical artillery strikes, soldiers in constant communication through helmet radios, and tactics reviewed on computers in thousands of simulations.

In reality, the notes of Henry Cavendish were not given extensive review until they were given along with an endowment to Cambridge by William Cavendish, 7th Duke of Devonshire, for the Cavendish Laboratory. James Clerk Maxwell, developer of Electromagnetic Theory, became the first Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge, where he would edit Henry Cavendish’s lost notes, bringing forth the quiet scientist’s discoveries to the world in 1879.


  1. Another successful college dropout! So, how did the Cavendish banana get it's name?

  2. Cavendish bananas were named after William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire. Though they were not the first known banana specimens in Europe, in around 1834 Cavendish received a shipment of bananas (from Mauritius) courtesy of the chaplain of Alton Towers (then the seat of the Earls of Shrewsbury). His gardener, Sir Joseph Paxton cultivated them in the greenhouses of Chatsworth House. The plants were botanically described by Paxton as Musa cavendishii, after the Duke.[2]


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