The Philosophical Breakfast Club : Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World
The Philosophical Breakfast Club recounts the life and work of four men who met as students at Cambridge University: Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell, and Richard Jones. Recognizing that they shared a love of science (as well as good food and drink) they began to meet on Sunday mornings to talk about the state of science in Britain and the world at large. Inspired by the great 17th century scientific reformer and political figure Francis Bacon--another former student of Cambridge--the Philosophical Breakfast Club plotted to bring about a new scientific revolution. And to a remarkable extent, they succeeded, even in ways they never intended.
Historian of science and philosopher Laura J. Snyder exposes the political passions, religious impulses, friendships, rivalries, and love of knowledge--and power--that drove these extraordinary men. Whewell (who not only invented the word "scientist," but also founded the fields of crystallography, mathematical economics, and the science of tides), Babbage (a mathematical genius who invented the modern computer), Herschel (who mapped the skies of the Southern Hemisphere and contributed to the invention of photography), and Jones (a curate who shaped the science of economics) were at the vanguard of the modernization of science.
This absorbing narrative of people, science and ideas chronicles the intellectual revolution inaugurated by these men, one that continues to mold our understanding of the world around us and of our place within it. Drawing upon the voluminous correspondence between the four men over the fifty years of their work, Laura J. Snyder shows how friendship worked to spur the men on to greater accomplishments, and how it enabled them to transform science and help create the modern world.
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February 22, 2011
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Excerpt from The Philosophical Breakfast Club by Laura Snyder
They were digging the canal the year William Whewell was born. The Lancaster Canal would wend its way from Preston, in the south, where the Ribble River reached into the Irish Sea, up past Garstang, an arm of the canal dipping again into the sea at Glasson, before winding through Lancaster and heading north to Kendal, at the edge of the Lake District. In 1794, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, manufacturing and engineering ruled Britain, and both were present at the great work of building this canal.
Whewell would grow up surrounded by the canal works and the great waterway itself, impressed with these monuments to the immense powers of human invention and technology. Later he would come to see himself as an engineer of Science, plotting the course of a mighty body, just as the canal's engineer, John Rennie, had planned the path of a mighty waterway. This child of the Industrial Revolution would one day initiate a Scientific Revolution that would change the world.
The story of the canal begins in 1772, when a group of Lancaster merchants came together with the idea of constructing a new waterway that would connect with the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, near Wigan, and proceed northward through Preston and Lancaster to Kendal. Work on canals had been going on for some decades, ever since 1755-61, when the Sankey Brook in Lancashire had been turned into a canal for bringing cheap coal to Liverpool; after that, an age of canal building was begun, powered by the industrialists who wanted cheap means of transporting their goods from factories to markets.
In recent times the port of Lancaster had been one of the busiest in Britain. Even today, many fine Georgian buildings stand in the port area, constructed during its heyday in the mid-eighteenth century. But by the last third of the century, trade to the port had been suffering from the silting-up of the Lune estuary, which led from the Irish Sea three miles inland to Lancaster. The newer, larger ships could not make it through the river up to the port.
Lancaster was a major manufacturer of linen textiles, mostly sailcloth. The firms producing the heavy canvas were owned by "flaxmen," suppliers of flax, who transformed themselves into manufacturers by fitting up rooms with heavy sailcloth looms and facilities for warp-winding and starching. If shipping ceased in Lancaster, so would the sailcloth trade. Merchants in Lancaster glanced enviously at their counterparts in Liverpool, who were thriving-in great part because of the success of the Leeds-and- Liverpool Canal.1
The Lancastrians first approached James Brindley, who had designed the famous Bridgewater Canal, which brought coal to Manchester from the Duke of Bridgewater's collieries at Worsley. The first of the great canals, the Bridgewater was an engineering wonder, with its fingers reaching deep into the mine at Worsley, its aqueduct over the Irwell River carrying barges high in the sky, and its destination in Manchester: a tunnel leading the coal right into the center of the city. Ill health forced Brindley to pass the Lancaster job along to his son-in-law, Robert Whitworth. Debates over Whitworth's plans, and those of his successors, dragged on for almost twenty years.2
Finally, in 1791, impatient merchants and rattled traders petitioned Mayor Edward Suart for a public meeting to decide once and for all whether a link with the Leeds and Liverpool Canal would be pursued. At that meeting, a resolution was passed approving the building of a canal. John Rennie-renowned for fitting out corn mills, for his drainage works in the fens, for building waterworks, docks, and harbors-was asked to submit a plan. His survey differed from the earlier ones by proposing to cross the deep Ribble Valley with a tramway rather than with the canal itself, so the canal would be cut in two sections, north from Preston and south from Clayton, connected by a long bridge passing over the valley. Only the southern part of the Lancaster Canal would connect by water with the Leeds-to- Liverpool waterway. But Lancaster would have its connection to the sea, at nearby Glasson. An act of Parliament was obtained to authorize the new navigation, and work on the canal began late in 1792.
Less than two years later, William Whewell came into the world: on May 24, a birthday he would share with the young princess Victoria when she was born twenty-five years later. As a baby and young boy he was sickly; his parents secretly worried over him, especially when they lost two other infant sons soon afterwards. But he would grow up to be a tall, strapping man, one whose physical vigor became, to many, a symbol of his intellectual strengths.
His parents were John and Elizabeth Whewell, who lived on Brock Street in Lancaster, a short distance to the west of the canal works. Both John and Elizabeth were twenty-five when they married; William arrived a scant nine months later. John Whewell was a house carpenter and joiner with a workshop employing one or two journeymen. The business built houses, including the door frames and window frames, repaired fences, and possibly constructed cabinets as well. His people had come to Lancaster from Bolton, farther north in Lancashire, half a century before.3 John Whewell was admitted by all to be a man of great sense.
Elizabeth Whewell was of the old Lancaster family of Bennisons. An intelligent and cultured woman, Elizabeth published her poems in the Lancaster Gazette, the first local newspaper; she bestowed upon her son a love of reading and writing poetry that he never lost. Elizabeth died in 1807, when William was thirteen. He lost his father in 1816, soon before receiving his fellowship at Trinity College. William would also lose three brothers: not only the two who died in infancy, but also a third, John, with whom William was close. Born in 1803, John died when he was eight years old, soon after William left home for Cambridge. From the letters William sent John from school, it is apparent that John, too, was a boy of uncommon abilities; in what would be his last year he was already writing poetry judged quite fine by William, who nevertheless cautioned him, "I would not have you write so much as to neglect reading." Already a teacher at heart, William suggested to John that he study history and parts of natural philosophy, as they were "not above your comprehension."4 William had three sisters. One, Elizabeth, died in 1821; in later life he corresponded frequently with his remaining sisters, Martha and Ann, though they did not see each other often.
No images of William's parents remain, as is to be expected in this time before photography was invented; only the wealthy or important had portraits made. But we can infer from the numerous engravings, paintings, and photographs of William that his father, like William, was tall and vigorous, and that both parents were handsome. Surely they were pleased with their firstborn, who undoubtedly learned quickly; though, if later personality is any indicator, he was a strong-willed toddler who always wanted to have his way.
During William's early years Lancaster was overtaken by hundreds of "navvies"-a name originating from a shortening of "navigators"-who descended on the market village from all over England and Ireland to dig the new canal. (The canal workers would give their nautical name to the hordes later brought in to build the railways, even though the railway workers no longer had anything to do with the sea.) These were hard-drinking men with rough ways, frightening to many, tolerated because of the difficult and often dangerous work they alone were willing to do. First, the ground had to be dug out with pickaxes and spades, and carried away by barrows; when lucky, the navvies had horses to help with the pulling. Then the layers of sedimentary rock beneath the soil had to be blasted with gunpowder, often unpredictable in its force. When the deep channel was finally dug out, the most tedious part of the work began: lining the canal with "puddle," a type of clay kneaded with water. The puddle was spread throughout the dug channel, and then pounded down tight. Sometimes local farmers allowed the navvies to drive their cattle up and down the canal. But often the navvies themselves agonizingly tramped over the puddle, back and forth, for weeks, usually barefooted.
To a young boy the scene would have been almost irresistible: the sound of the gunpowder blasting, the men swearing, the horses complaining; the smell of the earth, the dung, the sweat, the smoke; checking every day to see how much progress had been made-how much deeper was the channel, how much longer the circuit. As William grew, he would often marvel at the ingenuity and engineering skill that had been required to build the bridges linking roads on either side of the canal, so that the waterway could be crossed by foot or with a horse and carriage, and the aqueducts designed to carry barges traveling on the canal over rivers and streams; in the case of the giant Lune Aqueduct, boats were carried sixty-two feet in the air, on a conduit six hundred feet long, traversed by huge pillars supporting five semicircular arches.
There were other changes in Lancaster, no less telling of the times than the new canal. Soon after William was born, a prison was built inside Lancaster Castle for "those who were charged with the crime of poverty," as a contemporary visitor put it: a debtors' prison.5 In those days of war with France, slow trade, and high food prices brought on by bad harvests, many families suffered, and it was easy for a man to find himself in debt merely by trying to feed his children. Other, more dangerous felons were put in the new prison as well. The castle's use as a prison, as well as the courts that were housed within it (which sentenced more people to be hanged than any other court outside London) was also meat for the imagination of a young boy, as well as a warning of what could happen to a man who fell on hard times.
The modern age-with its technological triumphs and its economic tribulations-was present all around William. Yet his future seemed destined to follow a pattern set over centuries: just like any boy of his circumstances for hundreds of years, he was to continue in his father's trade, and take over his business. Instead, his future swerved off course, in a way no one could have imagined.
At first, William was sent to the "Blue School" in Lancaster. Blue Schools were charity schools set up in the eighteenth century to educate the children of the working classes; the name referred to the blue uniforms the students often wore. His parents wanted him to know how to read and write, and do sums, and the education at the Blue School was provided for free. He attended school in the mornings and worked with his father in the afternoons. On Sundays, after church, he read the Bible and poetry with his mother. Soon he would leave school to work with his father full-time. William enjoyed carpentry, and had a flair for it, and he did not chafe against this plan.
William's destiny changed one day in late 1808 or early 1809.6 He was helping his father repair the rail fence separating the backyards of the Owen family and the Reverend Joseph Rowley, the parish curate and headmaster of the local grammar school. William would later become close friends with Richard Owen, ten years his junior, the future comparative anatomist (the one who coined the term dinosaur), and it is Owen's recollections of that day that preserve the occasion.
"Between noon and two p.m. we left school for dinner, and Mr. Rowley found Whewell's son in the garden, his father having gone to his dinner," Owen remembered years later. "He entered into a conversation with the boy, who was_._._._about to be apprenticed to his father, and was struck with his replies to questions as to what he had learnt, and especially in regard to his arithmetic." When William's father returned, Mr. Rowley told him his opinion of the boy's superior abilities, and proposed that he should leave the Blue School and go to the grammar school, which was not free and so was generally reserved for boys from more-prosperous families. Rowley also hinted at the greater opportunities this would offer the young boy.
John Whewell was, understandably, worried about losing William for the carpentry business: "He knows more about parts of my business now than I do, and has a special turn for it," he protested. (This is how Owen described his response. In Whewell's Lancaster accent, it would have sounded more like this: "Worrall eye do wit'owt 'em? 'Es reet gradely wit' a hommer," or, "What will I do without him? He's really very good with a hammer.")7 But out of deference to the clergyman, he agreed to think it over. Mr. Rowley added that he would supply the boy with books, and waive all the fees. John Whewell consented; William went to the grammar school. Forty years later, William said of Rowley that "he was the one main cause of my being sent to college, and of all my subsequent success."8
William's move to the grammar school was, as might be imagined, difficult. He was by then a tall, ungainly lad, and because he was behind the others in nearly all subjects, he was put in a class with the younger boys. But the rate at which he mastered both English and Latin grammar was "a marvel." Before the first year was out, William had moved up into the class of boys his age. His proficiency in and excitement about the subjects did not endear him to the others; the headmaster, seeing how quickly William completed the lessons, gave all the boys more work to do. In the tradition of schoolboys of all time, they threatened him: "Now, Whewell, if you say more than twenty lines of Virgil today, we'll wallop you!"
But that was easier said than done. Whewell was good with his fists, and not afraid to use them. In later years he would be known for his tough physicality, which masked an inner insecurity about his humble origins. As Owen recalled, "I have seen him, with his back to the churchyard wall, flooring first one, then another, of the 'walloppers,' and at last public opinion in the school interposed. 'Any two of you may take Whewell in a fair stand-up fight, but we won't have more at him at once.' After the fate of the first pair, a second was not found willingly."9
One day in the summer of 1809, Mr. Rowley sent William over to the Bridge Inn, between Lancaster and Kendal, to meet an acquaintance of his-Mr. Hudson, a fellow and tutor of Trinity College-in order to determine what chances of success William would have at Cambridge. We can only imagine the trepidation the fifteen-year-old would feel on making the short journey, knowing as he did how his fate hinged on its outcome. Hudson quizzed the boy on his mathematics, telling him at the end of the meeting, "You'll do; you'll be among the first six wranglers," that is, one of the graduating students with the highest scores on the honors examination.
Attending Cambridge had been the plan all along; there was no point to William's getting the grammar school education if he were going to work as a carpenter afterwards. Graduating with honors from Cambridge would give him the opportunity to try for a fellowship, which would support him in an extremely comfortable manner, with little labor, as long as he remained unmarried. If he decided to have a family, he could hope for a position as a parish curate, perhaps combined with one of the few professorships available to married men.