William Nicholson (chemist)

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William Nicholson, circa 1811

William Nicholson (13 December 1753 – 21 May 1815) was a renowned English chemist and writer on natural philosophy and chemistry, as well as a translator, journalist, publisher, scientist, inventor, patent agent and civil engineer.

Early life[edit]

Nicholson was educated in Yorkshire, and after leaving school, he made two voyages as a midshipman in the service of the British East India Company. His first ship was reportedly called the Boston and the second voyage was on board the Gatton.

Subsequently, having become acquainted with Josiah Wedgwood in 1775, he moved to Amsterdam, where he made a living for a few years as Wedgwood's agent.

On his return to England he was persuaded by Thomas Holcroft to apply his writing talents to the composition of light literature for periodicals, while also assisting Holcroft with some of his plays and novels. Meanwhile, he devoted himself to the preparation of An Introduction to Natural Philosophy, which was published in 1781 and was at once successful. A translation of Voltaire's Elements of the Philosophy of Newton soon followed, and he then entirely devoted himself to scientific pursuits and philosophical journalism.

In 1784 he was proposed by Josiah Wedgwood (the current chairman) and appointed as secretary to the General Chamber of Manufacturers of Great Britain, and he was also connected with the Society for the Encouragement of Naval Architecture, established in 1791. He gave much attention to the construction of various machines for comb-cutting, file-making, cylinder printing and other uses—he also invented an areometer.

Scientific work[edit]

On 12 December 1783, Nicholson was elected to the "Chapter Coffee House Philosophical Society". He was proposed by Jean-Hyacinthe Magellan and seconded by horologist John Whitehurst.[1]

Nicholson communicated to the Royal Society in 1789 two papers on electrical subjects. In the same year he reviewed the controversy which had arisen over Richard Kirwan's essay on phlogiston, and published a translation of the adverse commentaries by the French academicians (Lavoisier, Monge, Berthollet, and Guyton de Morveau) as 'An Essay on Phlogiston, to which are added Notes.'[2]

Nicholson's Hydrometer

In 1790 he invented the Nicholson hydrometer, a constant volume hydrometer with a pan for small weights on top and a small container ("basket") on the bottom into which a sample can be placed.[3]

In 1797 he founded, published, and wrote part of the Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts, generally known as Nicholson's Journal, the earliest monthly scientific work of its kind in Great Britain. The journal published the first known aerodynamic analysis of gliders and heavier-than-air fixed-wing flying machines designs, by George Cayley in 1809–1810.[4] The publication continued until 1814.

In 1799 he established a school in London's Soho Square, where he taught natural philosophy and chemistry, with the aid of a grant of £1,500 from Thomas Pitt.

In May 1800 he with Anthony Carlisle discovered electrolysis, the decomposition of water into hydrogen and oxygen by voltaic current. The two were then appointed to a chemical investigation committee of the new Royal Institution. But his own interests shortly turned elsewhere.[5][6] In 1809 he became a first class corresponding member, living abroad, of the Royal Institute of the Netherlands.[7]

Besides considerable contributions to the Philosophical Transactions, Nicholson wrote translations of Fourcroy's Chemistry (1787) and Chaptal's Chemistry (1788), First Principles of Chemistry (1788) and a Chemical Dictionary (1795); he also edited the British Encyclopedia, or Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (6 vols., London, 1809).

Later life[edit]

During the later years of his life, Nicholson's attention was chiefly directed to water supply engineering at Portsmouth, at Gosport and in Hammersmith. William Nicholson died in Bloomsbury at the age of 61 on 21 May 1815, attended by Sir Anthony Carlisle.


  1. ^ Trevor Harvey Levere, Gerard L'Estrange Turner, Jan Golinski, Larry R. Stewart (2002) "Discussing Chemistry and Steam – The minutes of a coffee house philosophical society 1780–1787", Oxford University Press ISBN 0198515308.
  2. ^ "Nicholson, William (1753-1815)" . Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
  3. ^ http://physics.kenyon.edu/EarlyApparatus/Fluids/Nicholsons_Hydrometer/Nicholsons_Hydrometer.html Nicholson's Hydrometer, kenyon.edu
  4. ^ Cayley, George. "On Aerial Navigation" Part 1 Archived 2013-05-11 at the Wayback Machine, Part 2 Archived 2013-05-11 at the Wayback Machine, Part 3 Archived 2013-05-11 at the Wayback Machine Nicholson's Journal of Natural Philosophy, 1809–1810. (Via NASA).
  5. ^ Golinski, Jan. "Nicholson, William". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/20153. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  6. ^ Enterprise and electrolysis. Chemistry World, August 2003, Royal Society of Chemistry
  7. ^ "William Nicholson (1753–1815)". Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Archived from the original on 5 July 2020.


Largely based on the public domain Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition and Mike Chrimes, article "Nicholson, William", in Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers, vol. 1 1500–1830, 2002 ISBN 0-7277-2939-X

Further reading[edit]

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