Gateway to the Classics: Stories of the Great Scientists by Charles R. Gibson
Stories of the Great Scientists by  Charles R. Gibson

The Hon. Henry Cavendish

The Eccentric Millionaire Chemist

The majority of the heroes whose lives we have considered have been men who required to earn their daily bread. Our present hero, Henry Cavendish, was the eldest son of a peer, the grandson of two Dukes, and the nephew of the third. Duke of Devonshire. The family of Cavendish can be traced back about one thousand years, being descended from a Norman family already famous in the days of William the Conqueror.

Henry Cavendish happened to be born in Italy, at Nice, which has belonged to France since 1860. His mother was delicate and had gone to Nice on account of her health. She died about two years after Henry was born, but he had a younger brother, Frederick. Henry was born in the year 1731.

We know practically nothing of the boyhood of Henry Cavendish, but we know that he went to Cambridge when he was eighteen years of age, and that he matriculated in the first rank. It was said that his father, Lord Charles Cavendish, was very much annoyed that his son would not prepare himself for a political career, and that he accordingly cut down his son's allowance to five hundred pounds a year, a very small sum for his position. But one cannot imagine that this was really the case, for Henry was so painfully shy and eccentric that it must have been most apparent to his father that a public life would never do for his son; it is more probable that the father could not well afford to give him more.

The life of Cavendish was that of a recluse, and although he was left a large fortune by a relative during his father's lifetime, he never came out of his shell, except to attend scientific meetings of the Royal Society, or to be present at their club-dinners and their social meetings at the house of the President, Sir Joseph Banks. All his excursions into society were in pursuit of knowledge.

Cavendish had two houses; one near the British Museum, and the other, "a country residence," at Clapham Common. He was so eccentric that his neighbours believed him to be out of his mind, but he surprised them on one occasion with his quick action and courage by saving a lady from a mad cow.

He seemed utterly indifferent to any social life. Some have supposed that he was a woman-hater, but this also might be explained by his ridiculous shyness. His maid-servants were ordered to keep out of his sight on pain of instant dismissal. Happening one day to meet a house-maid on the stair with a broom in her hand, he immediately ordered a back stair to be built to the house. If he wished to give any instructions about his dinner, he would leave a note on the hall table. I doubt if the inmates of the house would know anything of his life except that on coming in from a meeting he would glide quickly into the study and shut himself in there alone. It was a rare thing for him to have any company.

In Cavendish's house at Clapham the large drawing-room was converted into a laboratory, and even the lawn was spoilt by a huge wooden erection. From this he had access to the top of a large tree, from which he made scientific observations. He kept his library in a separate mansion, because he did not wish to meet those who were at liberty to use his books for scientific research.

One Fellow of the Royal Society tells us that if Cavendish did happen to ask any one to dine with him at his house, he invariably gave them a leg of mutton, and nothing else. On one record occasion four scientific men were to meet at his house for dinner, and Cavendish had put a note on the hall table ordering a leg of mutton. The idea was evidently too much for the housekeeper, and it is stated that she had the audacity to approach her master upon the subject; but probably she may have sent one of the men-servants with her message. In any case, it was suggested to the scientist that a leg of mutton was not enough on this occasion when four guests were coming, the idea being that a more elaborate menu should be arranged, but when Cavendish was informed that the housekeeper did not consider a leg of mutton sufficient for the occasion, he simply said: "Well then, get two."

One of the few journeys that Cavendish made was to visit James Watt at Birmingham, and it is interesting to know of this visit which was made after the great controversy raised by their friends as to which of these two great men had first discovered the composition of water. James Watt was only a few years younger than Cavendish, whereas the hero dealt with in the succeeding chapter, Humphry Davy, and who was also known to Cavendish, was nearly fifty years his junior.

Lord Brougham, although much younger than Cavendish, used to meet him at the Royal Society and at the scientific gatherings at the house of the President, Sir Joseph Banks. Lord Brougham says: "I recollect the shrill cry Cavendish uttered as he shuffled quickly from room to room, seeming to be annoyed if looked at, but sometimes approaching to hear what was passing among others. His dress was of the oldest fashion, a greyish green coat, a small cocked hat, and his hair dressed like a wig (which possibly it was) with a thick clubbed tail. He never appeared in London unless lying back in his carriage. He probably uttered fewer words than any other man (not at all excepting the monks of La Trappe)."

We have many recorded instances of Cavendish's extreme shyness and eccentricity. One scientist who used to meet him at these scientific gatherings tells us that the first time he saw Cavendish was at Sir Joseph Banks's house in Soho Square. The narrator of this incident was telling Sir Joseph of some experiments which he had made with the recently invented voltaic battery, when he observed an old gentleman in a faded suit of clothes, very attentive to what he was describing. "When I caught his eye he retired in great haste, but I soon found he was again listening near me. Upon inquiry I heard that it was Mr. Cavendish, but at the same time was cautioned by Sir Joseph to avoid speaking to him, as he would be offended."

Another scientist states that he adopted a plan suggested by Dr. Wollaston, which was never to attempt directly to draw Cavendish into conversation, but to talk as it were into vacancy, never looking at him, and then it was not unlikely that he might join in the conversation.

Cavendish had reached middle age before he published an account of any of his discoveries, but he soon became famous, both in Great Britain and on the Continent. One evening, at Sir Joseph Banks's house, an Austrian gentleman was introduced to Cavendish, as he had come to this country with the special object of meeting the great scientist. But the foreigner must have been very disappointed, for while he made some most complimentary remarks to Cavendish, that gentleman seemed to be keeping an eye on the crowd of people in the drawing-room, and seeing an opening in the crowd he suddenly "darted through it with all the speed of which he was the master, nor did he stop till he reached his carriage, which drove him directly home."

It is of interest to note that this eccentric genius, living a hundred and fifty years ago, was in a position to have invented a taxi-meter for cabs. He made a wooden instrument, called a way-wiser, which he attached to the wheels of his carriage, and thereby measured the number of miles he travelled.

Needless to say, Henry Cavendish never sat to have his portrait painted, and he was dead before the days of photography. But an artist did make a picture of him. He did this during a dinner-party connected with the Royal Society, and, of course, without the knowledge of Cavendish.

This eccentric genius seems to have had no regard for his property. We are told that on one occasion his bankers, finding an enormous sum of money accumulating in Cavendish's current account, thought it only right to draw the attention of Cavendish to this fact, so that he might arrange for the investment of the money. But his reply was that if they found the balance an inconvenience he could remove it elsewhere. There seems little doubt that it was this utter disregard for his own property that made him thoughtless about others, and for this reason I think any statement as to his lack of charity is unjust.

On one occasion it was suggested to Cavendish that his library would be better for a rearrangement, and that a certain old gentleman, well versed in literary matters, would gladly undertake this. The arrangement was that the old gentleman should live in the house, but his friends hoped that the wealthy Cavendish would make some money payment also, as the old gentleman had not much of this world's goods. However, when the arrangement of the library had been completed, the old gentleman left without any mention of such payment. Some time later the name of this old gentleman happened to be mentioned in Cavendish's hearing; possibly the subject was brought forward on purpose. Cavendish asked how the poor fellow was, and when informed that he was getting along with difficulty, Cavendish remarked that he was sorry for him, whereupon some one said, "We had hoped that you would have done something for him, sir!" "Me, me, me, what could I do?" Then it seemed to dawn on him suddenly, and he asked if a cheque for ten thousand pounds would be of any service, and it goes without saying that the friends of the old gentleman would assure the eccentric millionaire that the sum mentioned would be more than sufficient to meet the necessities of the case.

Cavendish asked his heir, Lord George Cavendish, to meet him once a year, and then only for half an hour. His brother Frederick scarcely ever saw him, although they were said to be attached to one another. But one cannot imagine affection to be one of the characteristics of so eccentric a hermit as Henry Cavendish. His brother was said to have been of a very cheerful disposition, and very generous, though somewhat eccentric also.

The Hon. Henry Cavendish was a philosopher of the highest rank. Cavendish did not confine his studies to Chemistry; he did valuable work in connection with Electricity. Some of the work of Cavendish was unknown till the middle of the nineteenth century, when Lord Kelvin suggested that all the unpublished papers of Cavendish should be examined. This was done by Clerk Maxwell, whose life we shall consider in a succeeding chapter. Many very valuable scientific notes were found; some of these were on the backs of letters or envelopes. It was found that Cavendish had—unknown to any one—forestalled Michael Faraday and other scientists in their original discoveries in Electricity.


One result of Faraday's Discoveries
Here we see a group of electric locomotives. We owe the existance of these to Michael Faraday's fundamental discoveries as explained in Chapter XXI.

He seemed to have no interests whatever apart from scientific pursuits. He was most accurate in his work, though he gave no attention whatever to the appearance of his apparatus. On one occasion a lady of rank (said to have been the Duchess of Gordon) was permitted to visit his laboratory, and when she came to a long row of utensils never intended to meet the eye, she was hurried past without any explanation of the processes of crystallisation for which this eccentric millionaire had used them.

It may be said of Cavendish that he weighed this globe upon which we live, that he analysed the air we breathe, that he discovered the composition of the water which we drink, and that he led the way into entirely new fields of knowledge.

There is something very pathetic about the few facts we know concerning his end. He had reached his eightieth year, and so far as we know he had never been ill, but he took his first and only illness in a very philosophic manner. It is said by some that Cavendish made observations up to the very end as to the progress of disease in his own body, and the gradual extinction of his vital powers, but this is not evident from any personal statements made at the time of his death. One is not surprised to learn that even at the approach of death this lonely man desired still to be alone. His man-servant had been told not to come into the room until a certain hour, Cavendish having probably calculated that his life would have ebbed away by that time. But the servant was doubtless anxious about his dying master, and ventured to return earlier than the appointed hour, whereupon the old gentleman was not pleased. He asked the servant to repeat a message which he had given him to deliver to his heir so soon as the servant was satisfied that his master was dead. Being pleased with the repetition of the message, the old gentleman asked for the lavender water, and told the servant to leave him till the hour named. Returning in half an hour the servant found that his master had expired.

Because we have no evidence of Cavendish's religious beliefs it would be wrong to suppose, as some have done, that he was perfectly indifferent to religion. From what we have seen of his ridiculously shy and retiring nature it will be very evident that Cavendish was not the sort of man to talk about his religion. Although it has been stated that he never attended any place of worship, it would be unreasonable to infer that he did not worship his Creator. I for one could not imagine Cavendish sitting through a church service with the probability of being stared at by those around him.


Some Modern Generators of Electricity
The above illustration shows a group of dynamos being tested at the works of the Electrical Company, Ltd.

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