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Two Owners of Conversations on Chemistry


ow let us listen as the ghosts of two former owners whisper from the pages of Marcet's Conversations on Chemistry. One was well-to-do, the other not. First, the well-to-do owner

One Mary Anne Howley has signed my copy. She was the daughter of William Howley, who later became Archbishop of Canterbury. Her birth date is uncertain – probably around 1806. In 1825 she married the eighth baronet of Beaumont; and, only nine years later, she died – not yet thirty years old. Very little is written about her. We have a letter written a year before her death from her husband to the famous painter John Constable. He says that they won't be able to meet since Lady Beaumont, as Mary Anne Howley is now called, has suffered "a violent relapse of the prevailing Epidemic." Five years before, she'd given birth to yet another, a ninth, baronet.

My edition of Marcet's chemistry book came out when Howley was around seven, but her signature has the speed and fluency of someone older. Most likely she read the book as one of the teenagers for whom Marcet intended it. Only the first two hundred pages of the first volume have been cut. Someone has yet to take a letter opener to the remaining folded signatures. One has the feeling that Mary Anne Howley/Lady Beaumont became distracted about the time Marcet was explaining hydrogen.

But she appears to have finished the part on heat. Determined women (like Marcet) were just then asserting a new role for women. If Mary Anne Howley failed to emerge from the shadows of history, others were about to. For them, these books were agents of transformation, while for Howley, we have the feeling that this was only a talisman of hope for a better future.

Our second reader of Marcet's chemistry book was a boy whose identity I shall withhold for a moment. His prospects were far less promising than Howley's, but his story has a much happier outcome. He was born poor in 1791, the son of an out-of-work blacksmith. Worse yet, he spoke and wrote with great difficulty, his memory played tricks on him, and he did poorly in the symbolic language of math. These are all symptoms of what we call dyslexia, today. He was, however, gifted with an uncanny ability to visualize – to see things whole.

The boy's break came at the age of thirteen. He had been apprenticed to a London bookbinder, and what happened next is best told in a letter that he wrote as an old man, 54 years later. It is addressed to his friend, the French scientist Auguste-Arthur de la Rive:

My dear Friend, – Your subject interests me deeply every way; for Mrs. Marcet was a good friend to me, as she must have been to many of the human race. I entered the shop of a bookseller and bookbinder at the age of 13, in the year 1804, remained there eight years, and during the chief part of the time bound books. Now it was in those books, in the hours after work, that I found the beginning of my philosophy. There were two that especially helped, the "Encyclop�dia Britannica," from which I gained my first notions of electricity, and Mrs. Marcet's "Conversations on Chemistry," which gave me my foundation in that science.

Do not suppose that I was a very deep thinker, or was marked as a precocious person. I was a very lively imaginative person, and could believe in the "Arabian Nights" as easily as in the "Encyclop�dia." But facts were important to me, and saved me. I could trust a fact, and always cross-examined an assertion. So when I questioned Mrs. Marcet's book by such little experiments as I could find means to perform, and found it true to the facts as I could understand them, I felt that I had got hold of an anchor in chemical Knowledge, and clung fast to it. Thence my deep veneration for Mrs. Marcet – first as one who had conferred great personal good and pleasure on me; and then as one able to convey the truth and principle of those boundless fields of knowledge which concern natural things, to the young untaught, and inquiring mind.

This remarkable letter is signed by none other than Michael Faraday, one of the towering giants of the 19th century. Faraday not only pays grateful homage to our little known textbook writer; he also lays out the dynamic of learning as it would mark his new print-driven century.

During the last year of Faraday's apprenticeship, Sir Humphry Davy was giving a series of dazzling public lectures in chemistry. Faraday attended them and took careful notes. He bound the notes in a book and sent it to Davy. In 1813 Davy hired him as an assistant and only eleven years later, the Royal Society had made Faraday a fellow for his work on electromagnetism.

In one early experiment, Faraday created the predecessor of the electric motor when he used an electric field to spin a magnet. He went on to explain electrolysis, dielectric constants, and induction. He set the stage for Maxwell's field theory a little later in the century.

The quiet Michael Faraday had found his voice, literally as well as figuratively, for his lecture demonstrations were spellbinding. He was part of a gentle, off-beat, fundamentalist sect called the Sandemanians. They believed, among other things, in forming loving communities.

So, while other scientists waged scientific priority wars, Faraday created science lectures for young people. He used science to express his belief in the unity of nature. The agnostic physicist John Tyndall once remarked that Faraday drank from a fount on Sunday that refreshed his soul for a week. He must have. For this genius educated in a bookbindery – this lover of children and nature, this reader of books, this electric inventor – had near mystic means for seeing through to the very core of things.

Faraday left his own ghost behind. I've met that ghost in two books. One was an 1833 edition of Marcet's chemistry in which an editor had added a version of the experiment in which Faraday anticipated the electric motor. In that crowning irony, a late edition of the book carried within it, the very fruit of all the first edition had accomplished in Faraday's life.

Faraday's ghost also inhabits our library's 1749 edition of Benjamin Franklin's treatise on electricity. For it carries Faraday's nameplate in the front. I like to believe that Franklin's ghost touched Faraday as clearly as his touches us when we take this venerable volume into our hands.

Much of what we know Mary Anne Howley comes from mentions in articles on William Howley and Sir George Howland Beaumont in The Dictionary of National Biography.

For more on Faraday, see: T. G. West, In The Mind's Eye. (New York: Prometheus Books, 1991), especially Chapter 4, or J. Tyndall, Faraday as a Discoverer. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co. 1868).

B. Franklin, Experiments and Observations Made in America at Philadelphia ... 4th ed. (London: Printed for David Henry; and sold by Francis Newbery, at the corner of St. Paul's Church Yard: MDCCLXIX). (This copy, with Faraday's nameplate in it, is located in Special Collections, M. D. Anderson Library, University of Houston.)