Sir Humphry Davy: Pioneer Chemist and His Invention of the Coal Miner’s “Safe Lamp” at London’s Royal Institution – 1815

humphry-davy-51Among the many examples to be cited of science serving the cause of humanity, one story stands out as exemplary. That narrative profiles a young, pioneering “professional” chemist and his invention which saved the lives of thousands of coal miners while enabling the industrial revolution in nineteenth-century England. The young man was Humphry Davy, who quickly rose to become the most famous chemist/scientist in all of England and Europe by the year 1813. His personal history and the effects of his invention on the growth of “professionalism” in science are a fascinating story.

The year was 1799, and a significant event had occurred. The place: London, England. The setting: The dawning of the industrial revolution, shortly to engulf England and most of Europe. The significant event of which I speak: The chartering of a new, pioneering entity located in the fashionable Mayfair district of London. In 1800, the Royal Institution of Great Britain began operation in a large building at 21 Albemarle Street. Its pioneering mission: To further the cause of scientific research/discovery, particularly as it serves commerce and humanity.


The original staff of the Royal Institution was tiny, headed by its founder, the notable scientist and bon-vivant, Benjamin Thompson, also known as Count Rumford. Quickly, by 1802, a few key members of the founding staff, including Rumford, were gone and the fledgling organization found itself in dis-array and close to closing its doors. Just one year earlier, in 1801, two staff additions had materialized, men who were destined to make their scientific marks in physics and chemistry while righting the floundering ship of the R.I. by virtue of their brilliance – Thomas Young and the object of this post, a young, relatively unknown, pioneering chemist from Penzance/Cornwall, Humphry Davy.

By the year 1800, the industrial revolution was gaining momentum in England and Europe. Science and commerce had already begun to harness the forces of nature required to drive industrial progress rapidly forward. James Watt had invented the steam engine whose motive horsepower was now bridled and serving the cause by the year 1800. The looming industrial electrical age was to dawn two decades later, spearheaded by Michael Faraday, the most illustrious staff member of the Royal Institution, ever, and one of the greatest physicists in the history of science.

In the most unlikely of scenarios at the Royal Institution, Humphry Davy interviewed and hired the very young Faraday as a lab assistant (essentially lab “gofer”) in 1813. By that time, Davy’s star had risen as the premier chemist in England and Europe; little did he know that the young Faraday, who had less than a grade-school education and who worked previously as a bookbinder, would, in twenty short years, ascend to the pinnacle of physics and chemistry and proceed to father the industrial electrical age. The brightness of Faraday’s scientific star soon eclipsed even that of Davy’s, his illustrious benefactor and supervisor.

For more on that story click on this link to my previous post on Michael Faraday:

Wanted: Ever More Coal from England’s Mines 
at the Expense of Thousands Lost in Mine Explosions

Within two short years of obtaining his position at the Royal Institution in 1813, young Faraday found himself working with his idol/mentor Davy on an urgent research project – a chemical examination of the properties of methane gas, or “fire damp,” as it was known by the “colliers,” or coal miners.

The need for increasing amounts of coal to fuel the burgeoning boilers and machinery of the industrial revolution had forced miners deeper and deeper underground in search of rich coal veins. Along with the coal they sought far below the surface, the miners encountered larger pockets of methane gas which, when exposed to the open flame of their miner’s lamp, resulted in a growing series of larger and more deadly mine explosions. The situation escalated to a national crisis in England and resulted in numerous appeals for help from the colliers and from national figures.

By 1815, Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution had received several petitions for help, one of which came from a Reverend Dr. Gray from Sunderland, England, who served as a spokesman/activist for the colliers of that region.

Davy and the Miner’s Safe Lamp:
Science Serving the “Cause of Humanity”

Working feverishly from August and into October, 1815, Davy and Faraday produced what was to become known as the “miner’s safe lamp,” an open flame lamp designed not to explode the pockets of methane gas found deep underground. The first announcement of Davy’s progress and success in his work came in this historic letter to the Reverend Gray dated October 30, 1815.


The announcement heralds one of the earliest, concrete examples of chemistry (and science) put to work to provide a better life for humanity.

Royal Institution
Albermarle St.
Oct 30

 My Dear Sir

                               As it was in consequence of your invitation that I endeavored to investigate the nature of the fire damp I owe to you the first notice of the progress of my experiments.

 My results have been successful far beyond my expectations. I shall inclose a little sketch of my views on the subject & I hope in a few days to be able to send a paper with the apparatus for the Committee.

 I trust the safe lamp will answer all the objects of the collier.

 I consider this at present as a private communication. I wish you to examine the lamps I had constructed before you give any account of my labours to the committee. I have never received so much pleasure from the results of my chemical labours, for I trust the cause of humanity will gain something by it. I beg of you to present my best respects to Mrs. Gray & to remember me to your son.

 I am my dear Sir with many thanks for your hospitality & kindness when I was at Sunderland.


                                                                             H. Davy

This letter is clearly Davy’s initial announcement of a scientifically-based invention which ultimately had a pronounced real and symbolic effect on the nascent idea of “better living through chemistry” – a phrase I recall from early television ads run by a large industrial company like Dupont or Monsanto.


In 1818, Davy published his book on the urgent, but thorough scientific researches he and Faraday conducted in 1815 on the nature of the fire damp (methane gas) and its flammability.


Davy’s coal miner’s safety lamp was the subject of papers presented by Davy before the Royal Society of London in 1816. The Royal Society was, for centuries since its founding by King Charles II in 1662, the foremost scientific body in the world. Sir Isaac Newton, the greatest scientific mind in history, presided as its president from 1703 until his death in 1727. The Society’s presence and considerable influence is still felt today, long afterward.

davy41Davy’s safe lamp had an immediate effect on mine explosions and miner safety, although there were problems which required refinements to the design. The first models featured a wire gauze cylinder surrounding the flame chamber which affected the temperature of the air/methane mixture in the vicinity of the flame. This approach took advantage of the flammability characteristics of methane gas which had been studied so carefully by Davy and his recently hired assistant, Michael Faraday. Ultimately, the principles of the Davy lamp were refined sufficiently to allow the deep-shaft mining of coal to continue in relative safety, literally fueling the industrial revolution.

Humphry Davy was a most unusual individual, as much poet and philosopher in addition to his considerable talents as a scientist. He was close friends with and a kindred spirit to the poets Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth. He relished rhetorical flourish and exhibited a personal idealism in his earlier years, a trait on open display in the letter to the Reverend Gray, shown above, regarding his initial success with the miner’s safe lamp.

“I have never received so much pleasure from the results of my chemical labours, for I trust the cause of humanity will gain something by it.”

As proof of the sincerity of this sentiment, Davy refused to patent his valuable contribution to the safety of thousands of coal miners!

Davy has many scientific “firsts” to his credit:

-Experimented with the physiological effects of the gas nitrous oxide (commonly known as “laughing gas”) and first proposed it as a possible medical/dental anesthetic – which it indeed became years later, in 1829.

-Pioneered the new science of electrochemistry using the largest voltaic pile (battery) in the world, constructed for Davy in the basement of the R.I. Alessandro Volta first demonstrated the principles of the electric pile in 1800, and within two years, Davy was using his pile to perfect electrolysis techniques for separating and identifying “new” fundamental elements from common chemical compounds.

-Separated/identified the elements potassium and sodium in 1807, soon followed by others such as calcium and magnesium.

-In his famous, award-winning Bakerian Lecture of 1806, On Some Chemical Agencies of Electricity, Davy shed light on the entire question concerning the constituents of matter and their chemical properties.

-Demonstrated the “first electric light” in the form of an electric arc-lamp which gave off brilliant light.

-Wrote several books including Elements of Chemical Philosophy in 1812.

In addition to his pioneering scientific work, Davy’s heritage still resonates today for other, more general reasons:

-He pioneered the notion of “professional scientist,” working, as he did, as paid staff in one of the world’s first organized/chartered bodies for the promulgation of science and technology, the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

-As previously noted, Davy is properly regarded as the savior of the Royal Institution. Without him, its doors surely would have closed after only two years. His public lectures in the Institution’s lecture theatre quickly became THE rage of established society in and around London. Davy’s charismatic and informative presentations brought the excitement of the “new sciences” like chemistry and electricity front and center to both ladies and gentlemen. Ladies were notably and fashionably present at his lectures, swept up by Davy’s personal charisma and seduced by the thrill of their newly acquired knowledge… and enlightenment!


The famous 1802 engraving/cartoon by satirist/cartoonist James Gillray
Scientific Researches!….New Discoveries on Pneumaticks!…or…An
Experimental Lecture on the Power of Air!

This very famous hand-colored engraving from 1802 satirically portrays an early public demonstration in the lecture hall of the Royal Institution of the powers of the gas, nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Humphry Davy is shown manning the gas-filled bellows! Note the well-heeled gentry in the audience including many ladies of London. Davy’s scientific reputation led to his eventual English title of Baronet and the honor of Knighthood, thus making him Sir Humphry Davy.

The lecture tradition at the R.I. was begun by Davy in 1801 and continued on for many years thereafter by the young, uneducated man hired by Davy himself in 1813 as lab assistant. Michael Faraday was to become, in only eight short years, the long-tenured shining star of the Royal Institution and a physicist whose contributions to science surpassed those of Davy and were but one rank below the legacies of Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Maxwell. Faraday’s lectures at the R.I. were brilliantly conceived and presented – a must for young scientific minds, both professional and public – and the Royal Institution in London remained a focal point of science for more than three decades under Faraday’s reign, there.


The charter and by-laws of the R.I. published in 1800 and an admission ticket to Michael Faraday’s R.I. lecture on electricity written and signed by him: “Miss Miles or a friend / May 1833”

Although once again facing economic hard times, the Royal Institution exists today – in the same original quarters at 21 Albemarle Street. Its fabulous legacy of promulgating science for over 217 years would not exist were it not for Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday. It was Davy himself who ultimately offered that the greatest of all his discoveries was …Michael Faraday.

Patent Problems and Intellectual Property: “The Indigestion of Success”

Aside from love, one of the great emotions humans can experience is the thrill of discovery and achievement – being the first to reveal more of nature’s immutable laws governing the cosmos or doing something no one else has been able to do. Patent Warning_1 Some aspects of life inevitably go together – a coupling of cause-and-effect, if you will. Sometimes, we simply cannot have one thing without another. The claim that “there is a price to be paid for everything” seems a truism which ably illustrates that contention of coupled cause-and-effect. In that vein, man’s finest intellectual achievements or physical accomplishments materialize only after significant vested effort is expended. Our personal life experiences leave no doubt that hard work is a necessary, though not sufficient, prerequisite for great success…in any venue. We understand that. Not so obvious is the other price often associated with intellectual achievement and intellectual property, a price which is extracted after the fact – the tedious, ongoing, and costly effort required to establish and maintain the legal rights to the intellectual property behind any significant achievement.

I call this second price to be paid for success “the indigestion of success” which is often so severe as to result literally in ulcers if not merely pervasive, never-ending discontent.

The “indigestion of success” begins with proving one’s priority of invention while establishing patent rights, and it continues seemingly forever while vigilantly protecting those rights against usurpers. The motivation to defend one’s intellectual property is typically financial, but, understandably, the battle becomes distinctly a matter of personal principle as we will see…and the consequences can be tragic. It is difficult to overstate the high price – both financially and emotionally – of defending intellectual property and priority, yet this surcharge on success is inevitably demanded of inventors, engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs. The list of such examples is varied and fascinating, stretching far back in recorded history. Gaileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, and Michael Faraday, three of the greatest physicists of all time were each affected by priority controversies during their careers – especially Newton, as we shall see. In the realms of engineering and business, Thomas Edison, Howard Armstrong (radio’s greatest inventor/engineer), Robert Noyce (of integrated circuit fame), and Steve Jobs of Apple Computer were all enveloped by priority controversies and patent battles. Even the Wright brothers, the well-documented founders of modern aviation paid a stiff price defending their marvelous invention, the controllable “flying machine.”

The Wright Brothers: Hard Work, Triumph, then Disillusionment

Wright Glider 1902_1 I just finished reading David McCullough’s new book, The Wright Brothers, which relates the incredible story of the two brothers from Dayton, Ohio – bicycle mechanics/salesmen who created the first true “flying machine”…in their spare time! McCullough is a consummate teller of true stories, but the story of these two men tests the line separating fact from fiction because their stunning success seemed so improbable. The truth is, the Wright Brothers “invented” and successfully flew the first full-sized, self-powered, controllable airplane – a staggering accomplishment for two young men with no formal technical credentials. Their ultimate success was rooted in a fascination at the prospect of manned flight coupled with a single-minded, driven determination to do whatever it takes to accomplish their dream of flying. The two brothers constitute the very best examples of self-made men… engineers and flyers, in their case. Their accomplishments are so thoroughly documented as to seem unassailable and safe from thieves who would steal in the courts of patent law, yet it was not quite that simple. It never is. Author McCullough paints a clear picture on his pages of just how technically challenging their task actually was. What also emerges is the sad turn of events their triumph became once the airplane was designed, tested, documented, and patented. Wilbur Wright, the brilliant engineering mind for whom no technical challenge seemed too large, died early in 1912 at the young age of forty-five years. The official cause of death was typhoid fever, but it seems Wilbur’s spirit was dying for quite some time before his body expired. In May of 1910, the brothers, who did all their own flying from the project’s onset in 1900, went up together in their Wright Flyer for the very first time – some seven years after Orville’s first flight at Kitty Hawk. Their disciplined methodology throughout the project dictated that, should there be an accident, at least one of them should survive to carry on the work. Their flight together that day seemed their tacit acknowledgement that they had completed their life’s dream; all that remained was to form and grow a profitable company which would carry on their work and insure a comfortable livelihood for the brothers and their immediate relatives.

WilburWright7[1]By 1912, two years had passed since Wilbur Wright had last done what he truly loved to do: Piloting the Wright Flyer while perfecting its design. His weeks and months the past two years were spent on business trips to New York and Washington and in courtrooms defending the patent portfolio he and Orville had assembled as the backbone of their new Wright Company… for the manufacture of airplanes. In author McCullough’s account, Orville took note of Wilbur’s restless discontent with the tedium and exasperations of establishing their company, noting that after a day spent in offices dealing with business and patent matters, Wilbur would “come home white.”

Wilbur, himself, wrote of the patent entanglements: “When we think of what we might have accomplished if we had been able to devote this time to experiments, we feel very sad, but it is always easier to deal with things than with men, and no one can direct his life entirely as he would choose.”

Within several years of Wilbur’s death, Orville Wright had sold the Wright Company to others, preferring a peaceful, retiring life to one spent constantly battling corporate demons and those who would usurp the brothers’ past and future accomplishments. His mission for the remainder of his long life: To represent his brother while defending the less materialistic aspects of the Wright brothers’ legacy. I believe I would have done precisely the same, were I in his shoes. Other notable, historical figures in similar circumstances made sadly different decisions when faced with the indigestion of success and the never-ending need to protect intellectual property. The two examples that follow vividly illustrate just how bad these matters of priority and intellectual property can become, especially for the most-principled of participants.

Edwin Howard Armstrong: Radio’s Greatest Inventor/Engineer and Tragic Victim of His Own Success and the Patent System

For radio and electrical engineers who know the history, Edwin Howard Armstrong is the tragic hero of early “wireless” and a victim of the radio empire which he helped to create. Howard Armstrong was the quintessential radio engineer’s engineer – bright, motivated, creative…and stubbornly persistent. He exuded personal integrity. The very qualities which made him the greatest inventor/engineer in the history of radio, led to his downfall and suicide in 1954. Howard Armstrong surfaced in 1912 as a senior electrical engineering major at Columbia University with an obsessive interest in the infant science of “wireless” radio. He was a fine student with a probing, independent mind that suffered no fools. In 1912, while living at home in nearby Yonkers, New York, and commuting daily to Columbia on an Indian-brand motorcycle, he invented a way to greatly increase signal amplification using a single De Forest Audion vacuum tube by feeding part of the tube’s marginally amplified output back to the input of the device where it was amplified over and over again. This technique is now known in the trade as “regeneration,” or positive feedback. Along the way, young Armstrong had made great strides in understanding the technology behind Lee De Forest’s recent invention of the Audion tube, insights far beyond those De Forest himself had offered. While tinkering with the idea of signal regeneration in his bedroom laboratory early on the morning of September 22, 1912, he achieved much greater signal amplification from the Audion than was possible without using regeneration. The entire household was abruptly awakened by young Armstrong’s unrestrained excitement over his discovery, and an important discovery it was for the infant science of “wireless radio.” Regeneration was patented by Armstrong in 1913/14 and was used, under license from him, in countless radios during the early years when radio sets with more than one tube were very expensive to produce, due to the high cost of tubes.

Armstrong Patent_2Armstrong’s 1914 patent on the regenerative receiving circuit – one of the foundations of early wireless radio and a gateway to efficient tube-based radio transmitters, as well. Armstrong_Regen_1 Armstrong’s historic, handwritten chronological account of inventing the regenerative circuit – page one of six; likely written around 1920 to serve as evidence in the litigation with De Forest over Armstrong’s regeneration patent. Note the Sept. 22, 1912 date of his triumph (near the bottom).

In 1914, Lee De Forest stepped forward to challenge Armstrong in court over Armstrong’s patent, claiming that he, De Forest, was the legitimate inventor of regeneration. The litigation in the court system over regeneration went back and forth, lasting twenty years and finally ending up in the United States Supreme Court. Shockingly, De Forest was handed the final decision by the court, but the substantial body of radio engineers across the nation in 1934, who were well aware of the “radio art” and its history, were not buying De Forest’s claim. They fully supported Armstrong as the legitimate inventor – the same view held today. The twenty-year patent litigation battle over regeneration was the longest in U.S. patent court history. Unfortunately, that was only the beginning of Armstrong’s troubles with the patent courts and those who would take advantage of his work.

The Tragedy of Edwin Howard Armstrong

Howard Armstrong was one of the last, great, lone-inventor/engineers. He was long affiliated with his alma-mater, Columbia University, and had extensive business/patent dealings with giant corporations, such as RCA and Philco, which drew their life-blood from his inventions and the industry which he helped to create. By licensing his many important patents to these corporations, Armstrong became a very wealthy man. At one time, he was the largest stockholder in the giant RCA Corporation. Despite such wide-spread affiliations, he was, by temperament, an independent thinker in the lone-inventor mold. As radio entered the late nineteen thirties, men-of-action like Armstrong were becoming obsolete, increasingly overrun by corporate bureaucracies and their in-house armies of engineers. Radio was now out of the hands of the lone-inventor, becoming the exclusive domain of the moneyed corporations with influence at the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) in Washington. Armstrong increasingly found himself defending his legitimate patent rights against large corporations which were treading on those rights, battling their great financial resources and their legions of corporate lawyers. As he continued to lose rightful patent royalties to corporate violations of his patents, he stubbornly fought back fueled by his personal principles of fair play, all the while dissipating his once-great financial security to fund the necessary lawyer’s fees. Armstrong was a man of principled integrity; he could have capitulated, retreated, retired comfortably, and lived out his life, but he chose to fight.

Armstrong's Suicide    004Ultimately, those ceaseless legal battles wore him down, bankrupted him, and destroyed his long marriage. On May 5, 1954, he stepped from his New York apartment window to his death thirteen stories below. In an ironic sense, he fell victim to the industry and the changing times he helped to create. He also was victimized by the very qualities which made him great: Intellectual independence, principled integrity, and the stubborn will to persevere. There are many lessons to be learned from Howard Armstrong’s life-story. The lone crusader was crushed by the corporate “Goliaths” he helped create. Final postscript: After Armstrong’s death, his estranged wife, Marion, took up her husband’s ongoing patent battles with the Goliaths of the radio industry. She eventually prevailed in every single case!

Inventor of the Calculus: Isaac Newton or the German Mathematician, Gottfried Leibniz?

History’s most ardent defender of his intellectual property also happened to be the greatest scientist/mathematician of all time, Sir Isaac Newton. As vindictive as he was brilliant, Newton waged one of history’s most vicious priority battles with Gottfried Leibniz over credit for the development of the calculus, that ubiquitous, indispensable mathematical tool of the engineer and scientist. Newton formulated its fundamentals in 1665/66, the famous “miracle year” spent at his mother’s homestead in isolation from the great plague which swept through England at the time. GodfreyKneller-IsaacNewton-1689[1]Newton’s peerless scientific self-discipline tended to completely desert him when challenged by others on matters of intellectual priority which he felt belonged to him. Leibniz and Robert Hooke were two men who famously felt the full force of Newton’s rage in such matters. For Newton and his circumstances, there was no real money at stake – only prestige and ego, and Newton’s ego was well-developed… and sensitive. Today, both Newton and Leibniz are credited with independently developing the calculus – essentially true, although it appears certain that Leibniz had unauthorized access to some of Newton’s early personal papers on the subject. In that sense, Newton is regarded as the “primary” developer of calculus. Leibniz never quite recovered from the savage and telling effects of Newton’s vindictiveness which was well publicized in scientific circles and which reduced the great Newton to unprincipled deceits in his efforts to discredit his rival. In Newton’s mind, much more was at stake than mere money: For him, personal satisfaction and the ego-satisfying prospect of scientific immortality were far more important motivators. In his defense, one could argue that, for Newton, the long-term stakes riding on his efforts to receive due credit for his brilliance were much higher than most. Nevertheless, when all was said and done, Newton’s personal reputation suffered significantly even if his scientific reputation remained unsullied over the dispute with Leibniz.

What Would You Do?

Milton_Wright_1889[1]If you were ever in the position of enjoying a significant personal success that had already conferred substantial wealth upon you, yet huge wealth beckons you or whoever else takes the enterprise still further – what would you do? Like Orville did, I would have heeded Bishop Milton Wright’s early admonition to his children (paraphrased here) that greed is bad and leads to grief; be content with sufficient money to sustain a comfortable life and require nothing more beyond that than the normal pleasures of life and living. The Bishop also warned against temper and ego. The Bishop was a very wise man; the brothers received some very informed guidance.

 “If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.”

 – Wilbur Wright

Click here to get to last week’s post, The Brothers Wright had “The Right Stuff”

Light and Colors and Isaac Newton’s Very First “Scientific Paper”

Prism Spectrum_PS Invert

The general public has long associated the name of Isaac Newton, the greatest “natural philosopher” (scientist) of all time, with the colors of the rainbow and that intriguing optical device, the prism. Very few people, however, appreciate the fact that science historians credit his 1671/72 journal publication, titled a New Theory About Light and Colors, as the first true example of what is now referred to as a “scientific paper.” Today, hundreds of such “papers” are added weekly to our trove of scientific knowledge. Being the first to publish one’s findings as a paper in a scientific/academic journal is the accepted way to claim priority for important scientific discoveries in today’s academic world. Newton, as usual, set the example of how science should be done with his publication which appeared in the journal of London’s prestigious Royal Society, the Philosophical Transactions.

Note: Beware the olde English style where “f” often represents “s” !


Establishing the Tone for Scientific Disclosure

In his brief thirteen-page account, Newton contributed far more than merely a template on how to publish scientific discoveries, although it is justly famous for that, alone. The paper’s content revealed one of the great discoveries in the history of science: That “white” light is, in reality, composed of many colored light components all normally superimposed upon one-another to give the impression of “white,” or uncolored light! The phenomena of the prism with its ability to display the colors of the rainbow were well-recognized, but not understood, prior to Newton. Prevailing theories suggested that the prism-glass somehow “colored” the white light incident upon it. It had occurred to no one prior to Newton’s publication that “white” light might be composed of colors inherent in it, and that the prism merely bends, or “refracts,” the different colored components to varying degrees, thus producing the brilliant “color-fan” display that is seen. Newton proved his point in his milestone paper by combining logic and hypothesis with irrefutable experimentation – the core of a true scientific “paper.”


Newton understood that the beautiful rainbows that grace the sky when the sun shines through the clouds of a rain-shower are produced by the myriad of water-droplets, each serving as tiny refracting prisms in the sky, dispersing the spectrum of color, far and wide. Newton’s experiments with prisms and a shaft of daylight entering his darkened chamber through a peep-hole in the “shade” were actually performed several years earlier, in 1665/66. His findings were part of his annus mirabilis, or “miracle year” of discovery, a year spent lying-low from the plague which was then sweeping London. It was during that year spent at his mother’s small farmhouse in outlying Woolsthorpe that he carried out these experiments along with others which formed the kernel for his unprecedented advancement of physics and mathematics in the years to come.

Newton Constructs the First Reflecting Telescope;
His First Brush with Fame

The events leading to the publication of Newton’s paper in 1671/72 are interesting and pertinent. His discovery that the colors inherent in “white” light are bent, or refracted, to differing degrees by glass prisms had illustrated to him why more powerful telescopes suffered from “color fringes” around their magnified images. The glass objective focusing lens of a telescope, like a glass prism, also refracts the different colors inherent in the incoming image to varying degrees, hence the “color fringes” surrounding the magnified image at the eyepiece. Armed with this new insight into a common optical problem, Newton decided to build, with his own hands, the first-ever “reflecting” telescope. This then-revolutionary approach utilized a suitably curved mirror-surface to focus the incoming light. Unlike refraction, reflection angles are independent of light color, or “wavelength.” The usual color fringes created by “chromatic aberration” were, thus, eliminated in a reflecting telescope. Newton built his small demonstration reflector while a fellow at Cambridge University where he had completed his initial degree work in 1665.

Reports of Newton’s intellect as well as his reflecting telescope soon reached the prestigious Royal Society of London which received from Newton, not only a requested demonstration of his new “invention,” but a donation of the instrument itself. The normally reticent and reclusive Newton was clearly seduced by the enthusiastic response accorded him and his telescope by the finest scientific minds in London; this flattery produced, from him, the enthusiastic promise to the Society of a special “surprise” to come. That surprise was the almost-immediate submission of his scientific paper on a New Theory About Light and Colors to the society’s secretary, Henry Oldenburg. Right on the heels of that paper – his very first scientific publication – came his second, an account of his reflecting telescope – also in the society’s Philosophical Transactions.

 TLC_2_PS Invert

Fame Brings Storm Clouds for Newton:
Enter Robert Hooke, Newton’s Lifelong Adversary

 Newton’s uncharacteristic euphoria over the initial reception accorded him and his telescope by the Royal Society was short-lived. One of the charter members of the prestigious scientific society which was founded in 1662 under King Charles, the Second, came forth to challenge Newton’s paper on light and colors. Robert Hooke, an acknowledged expert on optical science, began an exchange of letters with Newton which finally caused Newton, in considerable frustration, to abandon all such scientific correspondence with people he considered to be incorrigibly “uninformed” or devious – with Hooke at the head of the list. Hooke was to remain there until the end – literally. In the meantime, Newton reverted to his ingrained reclusive personality, remaining very reticent to publish any of his other momentous accomplishments. It is generally believed that Newton’s second milestone book in physics, the Opticks, which defined the science of light and optics, was intentionally withheld from publication by him until 1703…the year of Hooke’s death! Newton was more greatly annoyed by gadfly “questioners” like Hooke – “smatterers,” he called them – than he was worried about defending the merits of his own work – which took much of his time. For more on Newton, Hooke, and Newton’s greatest work, the Principia of 1687, see my earlier post of October 27, 2013: The Most Important Scientific Book Ever Written: “Conceived” in a London Coffee House. It can be found in my blog archives for October, 2013.

For More on Isaac Newton:

 When I put on my “hat” of complete personal objectivity and proceed to conjure-up the most important person in recorded human history (excluding religious), Isaac Newton comes up number-one with Albert Einstein, a near-second. Their histories, both personal and scientific, are unquestionably among the most interesting and most significant.

Newton Engraving  001

If this and other posts of mine have seriously whetted your appetite to know more about Isaac Newton, I recommend the challenging, but definitive biography, Never at Rest, by the late Newton scholar, Richard Westfall.

The Most Important Scientific Book Ever Written: “Conceived” In a London Coffee House

In last week’s post of October 20, 2013 titled Starbucks and the Long Tradition of Coffee Shops, we reflected on the creative dynamics that are often nurtured in the relaxed, contemplative environment of these establishments. We cited the genesis of the Harry Potter empire and the birth of Isaac Newton’s scientific masterwork, the Principia as examples.


In contemplating how to best present the fascinating story of Newton’s great book in this follow-up post, I decided to press a somewhat lesser work into service (tongue-in-cheek) – namely, my own book, The Elusive Notion of Motion: The Genius of Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein which relates the principles and the historical development of motion physics in terms the layperson can understand.

9781608448296cvr.qxp:Layout 1

Accordingly, the body of this post relating the “conception” of the Principia in a London coffee house is excerpted from chapter 5 of my book. The good news? This chapter excerpt, like most of the book itself, requires no significant background in science/math!For more information about my book and how to order it, click the following link:

My Motion Physics Book

Excerpted from Chapter 5 of The Elusive Notion of Motion:

Newton Applies His Newfound Science of Dynamics
to the Clockwork of the Heavens; Birth of the Principia
from a Coffee House Wager

 The third major contribution to science and civilization to be found within the pages of the Principia is Newton’s application of his new dynamics to the problems of celestial mechanics—the science concerning the behavior of orbiting/moving heavenly bodies. The genesis of the Principia is a fascinating story which began with a specific question pertaining to the motion of the planets. The question was posed in 1684 by three illustrious members of England’s prestigious Royal Society. Their inquiry initiated the gestation process for Newton’s masterwork. At that time, the trio, known for their habit of adjourning to London’s coffee houses for far-ranging discussions of science and philosophy, was considering an important issue. Edmond Halley (of comet fame), Sir Christopher Wren (the famous architect-scientist), and one Robert Hooke raised the following question: What would be the mathematical description of the path of an orbiting planet around the sun if the force of attraction on the planet from the sun were inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them? The actual motion of the planets, based on meticulous observations of Mars, was certainly already available, provided by Johannes Kepler in his famous book of 1609, Astronomia Nova—the New Astronomy. In it, Kepler proposed the first two of his three laws of planetary motion. From chapter 3, we see again that Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion are:

1. The planetary orbits around the sun are elliptical.

2. A planet sweeps out equal areas (over the ellipse) in equal times as it travels around the sun via a line drawn from the sun to the planet. A natural result of this fact is that a planet travels fastest when it is closest to the sun.

3. The mathematical squares of the times of revolution of planets around the sun is proportional to the mathematical cubes of their mean, or average, distances from the sun.

Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion were not so well known in 1684, but it seems plausible that at least his first law specifying the ellipse for planetary orbits was recognized by the trio of Royal Society members. The fact that they were postulating an inverse-square force for such orbiting planets implies an educated guess based, perhaps, partly on Christian Huygens’ recently published result quantifying centrifugal force for a mass moving circularly about a center. At that time, there were no accepted theories as to what held the planets in orbit or how any such force mechanism acted as a function of separation distance. The three laws of Kepler were most certainly known to the young, virtually unknown mathematician-philosopher at Cambridge University, Isaac Newton.

The challenge among the three friends was to prove that the ellipse was the correct path for bodies, subject to a supposed inverse-square force of attraction, something that Kepler was never in a position to do; his first law was determined using Tycho Brahe’s superb observational data and Kepler’s own meticulous curve-fitting calculations.

Robert Hooke promptly claimed that he could demonstrate the argument for an ellipse as the resulting orbit, but he fell far short of the mark when pressed by Wren and Halley to produce his proof. Halley then suggested that they contact the young man out at Cambridge University who had developed a local reputation for clever thinking and a command of mathematics. Hooke had crossed paths with Newton years earlier over the subject of optics and light. Their correspondence on those matters had been hostile, prompting Newton to generally avoid Hooke when possible during the intervening years. Halley took it upon himself to travel out to Cambridge in August of 1684 to meet with Newton. When asked the question concerning the expected orbit of a planet subject to a force proportional to the inverse square of the distance, Newton casually replied that it would be an ellipse. When Halley asked how he knew that, Newton stated that he had calculated it, whereupon the excited Halley pressed to see his proof. Newton shuffled his papers in a halfhearted attempt to find his derivation but sent the disappointed Halley home empty-handed with a promise to renew the proof and send it to him.


  Newton’s Mathematical Derivation of Kepler’s Second  Law of Planetary Motion

De Motu—Newton’s Embryonic Principia

In November of 1684, Halley received by messenger a small, nine-page treatise called De Motu Corporum In Gyrum (On the Motion of Bodies in Orbit).

When Halley perused the paper, he was dumbfounded, recognizing at once that not only had Newton provided the desired mathematical proof, but in so doing he clearly demonstrated elements of a new science of dynamics which, in their generality, would revolutionize science, astronomy, and mathematics. This treatise, De Motu, was, of course, the kernel of what would soon become the Principia, the greatest scientific book ever published. Halley hurried back to Cambridge and, with all his considerable influence and powers of persuasion, convinced Newton to deliver a manuscript copy to the Royal Society in London as soon as possible. At this point, Newton dropped other activities which then heavily centered on alchemy and, finally seized by the importance of the new endeavor, devoted himself completely to it. Expanding his treatise De Motu, Newton soon was working on a manuscript to be published in book form by the Royal Society. Newton worked feverishly on the book for over two years, fashioning a manuscript that would revolutionize both science and man’s potential for future discovery. The resulting manuscript was an incredible compilation of pioneering concepts and mathematical physics which no one else could have likely assembled in a lifetime, let alone two years.

When the time came to publish Newton’s book, the Royal Society had run out of funds due to recent large outlays for a book on fishes which had flopped and drained the organization’s coffers. Halley, being a man of science himself and realizing the great importance of Newton’s manuscript, took responsibility for the arrangements and the cost of publishing by personally guaranteeing funds. Halley was not at all financially flush at this time, so his personal gamble was great; seldom in recorded history has there been a better bet. Other than writing the book itself, Halley shouldered the burden of the entire enterprise, which included dousing a heated imbroglio between Newton and Robert Hooke. This crisis flared when Hooke again surfaced in Newton’s life just prior to publication, soliciting credit for a suggestion on celestial mechanics made in a letter he had sent to Newton back in 1679. That 1679 letter had been composed during a period of reconciliation by Hooke after earlier disputes with Newton over Newton’s publication on the nature of light in 1672. In this new letter, Hooke asked Newton to communicate any objections to his proposal that the motion of the planets could be visualized as the compound result of a tangential motion and an attractive force directed toward a central (to the orbit) body.

What Hooke was proposing here, he had published in his Attempt to Prove the Motion of the Earth, published in 1674. This theory he was asking Newton to critique was no less than the key to the orbital dynamics of heavenly bodies. He proposed that the motion of a planet around the sun—indeed, the motion of any orbiting body—is comprised (compounded) of both a tangential (to the path of the orbit), straight-line motion and a motion toward the central body which is produced by an attractive force between the two bodies. The inherent tendency to move in a straight line along a tangent to the orbit is, or course, due to the property of inertia as ultimately stated in Newton’s first law of motion. The fact that the orbiting body does not take a tangential path out into space but continually “falls” toward the central body is due to the force of gravitational attraction between the two masses, which curves the motion inward. Although Newton had not yet formulated his theory of universal gravitation, he and others such as Hooke were prepared to acknowledge that there could well be an attractive force between heavenly bodies which supported orbital paths. The point here is that Hooke cannot be credited with postulating universal gravitation prior to Newton because Hooke was not really cognizant of a universal force—governed by one consistent equation—for all bodies of mass at all locations in space. Rather, he more likely visualized any attractions between bodies of mass as peculiar to the particular system under consideration.

Although he missed the potential of universal gravitation, Hooke had instead likely been the first to describe and publish the key concept underlying orbital dynamics—his compounded orbital motion theory. Indeed, the argument can be made that, prior to Hooke’s communication, Newton had a fuzzy view of the situation. Newton tended to think of an inward force of gravitational attraction balancing an outward force or tendency which he and others termed centrifugal force. The accepted view of modern physics provides no credence for the concept of centrifugal force. Newton’s response to Hooke’s theory was ambivalent, initially. With his letter, Hooke undoubtedly jarred into action the Cambridge professor’s vast intellectual powers. Once Newton realized at some later point—undoubtedly rather quickly—that Hooke had possibly trumped him and nailed a crucial point defining orbital dynamics, it must have been a bitter pill. In retrospect, it took no less a mind than Newton’s to synthesize the patchwork of known physics into a comprehensive system of the world in the Principia of 1687. Certainly, Hooke, nor anyone else, could have even come close. One cannot fault Hooke for wanting mention in the Principia for, in his mind, contributing a key piece of the puzzle. Curiously, however, he apparently viewed as his claim to fame not his theory of compounded motions but rather the inverse-square (of distance) law for the sun’s attractive force on the planets. The latter concept had been mentioned also in his letter to Newton in 1679 and had been essentially an educated guess on Hooke’s part. Newton had mathematically deciphered the inverse-square force relationship years earlier than Hooke’s letter and was in no mood to give him credit for Hooke’s guesswork on that score. Newton’s fury at Hooke for claiming any form of credit might well be attributed to their generally tempestuous relations over the years, but the fact that Hooke trumped him on the key concept of compounded orbital motion could not have sat well with an ego like Newton’s. It is not likely that Newton would have been receptive to Hooke even if Hooke had more properly claimed credit for his compounded motion theory of orbits instead of the inverse-square law.

Lashing out at Hooke through Halley, Newton threatened to withhold the final part, or third book, of the manuscript, which prompted the harried Halley to exercise all of his considerable tact and diplomacy with Newton. Newton railed at Hooke and his interference, with Halley as intermediary, while claiming that natural philosophy (science) is such a “litigious lady” that one should beware of becoming mired in her clutches. Referring to such priority battles, he claimed to have experienced her (science’s) hostile nature formerly and now each time he “approaches” her.

No mention of original contributions by Hooke appears in the Principia. While Newton did not steal from Hooke, he displayed no finesse in the situation, preferring to lash out at the slightest offense, real or imagined. Much was at stake for Halley personally as well as for science in general, and he finally prevailed as first copies of the completed book left the publisher in July of 1687.

History owes a great debt to Halley for enabling the Principia. Over many years, Halley and Newton remained on very good terms, always respectful of each other. This fact pays generous tribute to Halley’s competence, character, and diplomatic personality, for very few people whose paths crossed Newton’s were able to maintain an amicable relationship with him over any extended period of time.

End of excerpt…and closing comment

For those whose curiosity is tweaked re: Newton’s masterpiece, the Principia, I encourage you to explore the many books (in addition to mine) which relate, in layperson’s language, the essence and importance of his achievement. His book, more than any other, provided a giant leap forward for science and mathematics. Its impact changed and still influences the way we live our lives – lives heavily determined by the technological advances Newton’s genius enabled…and it all began in the coffee houses of London.

Starbucks and the Long Tradition of Coffee Shops

In the 1998 movie You’ve Got Mail, Starbucks provided the backdrop to an opening scene as a smartly-attired Meg Ryan purchases her morning “beverage” on the way to work. A background narration by co-star Tom Hanks puts the unfolding act in humorous perspective as he comments on the difficulty of choosing between Starbucks’ numerous offerings so early in the morning, especially for people who have trouble making decisions of any kind at any time of the day. That opening scene provided one of those “comfortable” movie moments in the form of every-day incidents to which the entire audience can relate. Starbucks had certainly “arrived” by that time not only as a solid business venture, but as an iconic symbol as well.


Starbucks has been an amazing success story from its fledgling 1971 emergence as a small, single-store purveyor of coffee in Seattle. Many of us can remember what existed before the Starbucks tidal wave splashed over our neighborhoods and our consciousness; the early nineteen-seventies saw the emergence of small, independent neighborhood gourmet coffee roasters/suppliers which tapped into the morning appetites of local America. Starbucks turned that boutique trend into big-business, indeed. My wife and I are frequent customers, but we also patronize Peet’s coffee houses and a favorite local downtown shop called The Bean Scene.

Coffee Shops Are Nothing New!
The “Refuge” Tradition Is Centuries-Old

In Europe and other parts of the world, the coffee shop has long been a place to relax, to converse, to work, and to see and be seen. America is a recent convert. In Scotland, an unknown and unnoticed J.K. Rowling reportedly spent many hours toiling on the first manuscript of Harry Potter in small cafes and coffee houses. As I understand it, she was close to being homeless in those days, so the cafes and coffee shops were literally a refuge for her and her young child. You occasionally see Starbucks patrons today who betray a similar plight enjoying a hot cup of coffee as they retreat for a while from the harsh reality of the world outside.


Great Things Emanate from Coffee Shops
Besides Caramel Macchiattos

The Harry Potter tidal wave, which gathered its considerable force over cafe food and cups of coffee/tea as Ms. Rowling toiled, must, despite its huge literary impact, play second fiddle to an even more compelling publishing event, one which saw its gestation in discussions over coffee in the establishments of late seventeenth-century London.

The “Conception” of the Greatest Scientific Book Ever
Written Occurred in London’s Coffee Houses

The greatest and most influential scientific book ever written, authored by the greatest scientist in history, was born of coffee shop discussions in the year 1684. That book was Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which translates from Latin as Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy – also known simply as the Principia – published in 1687.


The author was not present at these discussions over coffee, being far too reclusive by nature to enjoy the camaraderie and atmosphere of such gathering places. The trio of scientific men instrumental in the birth of Newton’s masterpiece included the famous English architect Sir Christopher Wren, the astronomer Edmond Halley (of  comet fame!), and one Robert Hooke, a curious man with a curious mind – one of the leading luminaries in the Royal Society of London, the pre-eminent scientific society at that time.

These three frequented the numerous coffee shops of London to discuss exciting scientific questions of the day. One of these inquiries had to do with the shape of planetary orbits around the sun. Hooke claimed he had the answer, but he did not. Halley took the question to a very young, little-known mathematics professor at Cambridge University, one Isaac Newton. Newton furnished not only the correct answer, but the pertinent fundamental and revolutionary mathematical analysis as well. When Halley laid eyes on Newton’s hand-written manuscript, he knew that the physics of motion, indeed all of science and mathematics, was at the threshold of a new era. The rest is history, and our world was never the same.

Albert Einstein spent countless hours in Swiss cafes and coffee houses discussing physics with his friends and fellow students, often at the expense of his classes in mathematics which were happening at the same time! He borrowed class notes from his friend and fellow student Marcel Grossman in order to keep up with the classes; several years later, poetic justice intervened, requiring Einstein to call upon Grossman for help with the complicated mathematics involved in formulating the general theory of relativity!

Ernest Hemmingway is a notable author who found inspiration in the cafes and coffee shops of Paris. Much of his work was done against the backgrounds of those places.

The Starbucks Philosophy per CEO Howard Schultz:
Echoes of the great Coffee House Tradition

I have heard Schultz explain his operating philosophy for Starbucks. Along with the obvious charter to be successful and profitable and an expanded offering of espresso beverages which are so popular in Europe, he visualized Starbucks as a refuge for the average person, a place to go to get away from the house and the ever-present problems of day-to-day living. Some customers bring books to read; some create new books on art, science, or literature in the congenial atmosphere. Of course, a Starbucks or any other good coffee purveyor provides a venue for socializing – for meeting old friends, and making new ones.

I would say that Schultz had a good concept in mind, given the company’s huge success. Although Starbucks is often a stop-and-go take-out destination on the way to work, one sees many customers enjoying the morning paper or toiling away on their computers. Little has changed, and who knows what other great ideas and projects may be present in embryonic form on those computers and in those animated discussions over coffee!