Cavendish: The Experimental Life

Cavendish: The Experimental Life

Cavendish: The Experimental Life

Cavendish: The Experimental Life


"This biography is an extensive revision of the authors' earlier Cavendish. Based upon new archival and secondary sources, it offers an enlarged understanding of the eighteenth-century world of science, a reevaluation of the person of Henry Cavendish, and the first, and complete, edition of Henry Cavendish's scientific letters." "The Cavendishes flourished during the high tide of British aristocracy following the revolution of 1688-89, and the case can be made that this aristocracy knew its finest hour when Henry Cavendish gently laid his delicate weights in the pan of his incomparable precision balance. For this it took two generations and two kinds of invention, one in social forms and the other in scientific technique. This biography tells how it came to pass." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved


Henry Cavendish, 1731–1810, is described in superlatives. They are often of praise or wonder. Regarding matters of intellect and fortune, he is called the “the wisest of the rich and the richest of the wise.” in his dedication to science, he is compared with “the most austere anchorites,” who were “not more faithful to their vows.” His accomplishment is likened to the highest example: since the death of Newton, England has suffered “no scientific loss so great as that of Cavendish.” Superlatives of another kind are used as well. Cavendish is a man of a “most reserved disposition,” of a “degree bordering on disease.” Cavendish was, to be sure, one of the greatest scientists of his century, one of the richest men of the realm, a scion of one of the most powerful aristocratic families, a scientific fanatic, and a neurotic of the first order. These tilings being the case, it would seem that Cavendish’s biographers are called upon to paint a psychological portrait of a tormented genius. We have, however, taken a different approach, which we now explain.

Until we looked closely at the life of his father, Lord Charles Cavendish, 1704–83, we did not have a firm understanding of Henry’s life. Coming from a family of politicians, Lord Charles predictably entered public life as a politician. While he was active in politics, he also pursued science as a side interest, at a certain point leaving politics to devote himself primarily to science. His direction

J. B. Biot, “Cavendish (Henri),” Biographic Universelle, vol. 7 (Paris, 1813), 272–73, on 273.

Georges Cuvier, “Henry Cavendish.” This biography from 1812 is translated by D. S. Faber in Great Chemists, ed. E. Faber (New York: Interscience Publishers, 1961), 227–38, on 236.

Humphry Davy, quoted in John Davy, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Humphry Davy, Bart., 2 vols. (London, 1836), 1:222.

Henry, Lord Brougham, “Cavendish,” in his Lives of Men of Letters and Science Who Flourished in the Time of George iii, 2 vols. (London, 1845–46) 1:429–47, on 444. Thomas Thomson, The History of Chemistry, 2 vols. (London, 1830–31) 1:337.

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