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The Right Noble Cavendish

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

      It has often been said that the ducal house of Gower has no brighter gem in its coronet than the fact of its having given birth to the author of the ‘Confesseo Amantis.' Almost the same may be said of the ducal house of Cavendish. It is not often that great philosophers arc born in the wealthiest and noblest families: necessity is usually the mother not only of invention, but of inventions and of discoveries in the field of science; but there are exceptions to every rule, and such an exception may be claimed for the Cavendishes, who have produced two generations of men of science within the last century or so. The present Duke of Devonshire, it will be remembered, was second I Wrangler' at Cambridge in his day, and is devoted to all sorts of philosophical pursuits.
     But the chief glory of the Cavendishes in the domain of science was Mr. Henry Cavendish, who died when this century was just ten years old. He was a son of Charles, the second son of William, second Duke of Bedford, and grandson of Lady Rachel Russell, widow of the martyred patriot, the friend of Algernon Sydney. He was born at Nice in the year 1781, spent a few years at a small school at Hackney, and, having studied at Cambridge, devoted the whole of his life to scientific investigations. He derived his taste for science chiefly from his father, who not only was in the habit of amusing himself ,with philosophical experiments, but was a good mathematician, and at the time of his death was senior member of the Royal Society. Mr. Henry Cavendish had at an early ago exhibited an attachment to scientific pursuits, to which, indeed, he had resolved to dedicate his life, and to sacrifice every other object of ambition, at a time when he had but the prospect of a very moderate patrimony. It was only after he had passed his fortieth year that he came into the possession of a large fortune, which was unexpectedly left him by an uncle. Ho was admitted a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1760, and very soon began to distinguish himself as one of the most active members of that learned body. It would be impossible here to attempt a detailed analysis of the papers with which he continued to enrich the transactions of the Royal Society for a period of nearly fifty years; suffice it to say, that they range over various departments of natural philosophy and chemistry, and are I marked throughout by an accuracy, elegance, and often an originality of investigation, which make them models of scientific research and reasoning.' Indeed, as a philosopher, Mr. Cavendish is entitled to the highest rank. Not to mention his important contributions to the theory of electricity, some of his experiments and determinations in pneumatic chemistry may be fairly ranked among the most remarkable discoveries of the last century.
     Prior to his time, pneumatic chemistry, of which he became so great a master, had hardly an existence. In 1760 he discovered the extreme levity of inflammable air, now known as  hydrogen gas-a discovery which led to balloon experiments and projects for aerial navigation; and later he ascertained that water resulted from the union of two gases. 'What is there,' writes the author of 'The Pursuit of Knowledge under Difficulties,' 'more calculated to interest and astonish, even the unscientific mind, than his discovery of the composition of water, so long regarded by all as a perfectly simple element, if there was any such in nature?  The manner, too, in which he made this discovery affords us a beautiful and instructive example of the right method of examining nature-of that cautious and scrutinizing observation by which alone truth is to be detected: The accuracy and completeness of the experiments made by Mr. Cavendish were indeed remarkable. No less an authority than Sir Humphry Davy declared that 'they were all of a finished nature, and though many of them were performed in the very infancy of chemical science, yet their accuracy and their beauty have remained unimpaired amidst the progress of discovery.'
     But, with all his philosophy, Henry Cavendish had his weaknesses.  He liked to pose, or at all events he posed through life, as an eccentric of the first degree. 'The man who weighed the world,' wrote his kinsman, the late Duke of Devonshire, 'buried his science and his wealth in solitude and insignificance at Clapham: It should be stated here that a century ago Clapham was a rural and retired village, inhabited not by titled personages, but by wealthy merchants and clerical philanthropists, whose society afterwards developed, auspices of Evangelical teaching, into what Macaulay styles 'the Clapham sect:
     Here almost the whole of his house was converted to practical uses, all subservient to the tastes and studies of its master. The lower portion was turned to account as a series of workshops. The passages and the sitting rooms were all covered with thermometers, barometers, and weather-gauges. In the hall was .a registering thermometer, constructed by himself, which served as a sort of landmark to the house, and which, after his death, was treasured as a relic by the late Professor Brande. Only one or two small rooms on the first floor were set apart for the purposes of daily life. The master wanted no more, as he entertained very few friends, and rarely saw visitors. 'The upper rooms constituted an astronomical observatory. What is now the drawing-room was the laboratory. In an adjoining room, was placed a forge. The lawn was invaded by a wooden stage, from which access could be gained to a large tree, to the top of which Air. Cavendish occasionally would ascend in the course of his astronomical, meteorological, electrical, or other researches. His library was of immense extent, and he fixed it at a short distance from the rest of his house, in order that he might not be disturbed by those who came to consult it. His own particular friends were allowed to borrow books; but neither they nor even Mr. Cavendish himself ever withdrew a book from its shelves, without giving a formal receipt or acknowledgment for it.'*
It is well-known that Cavendish passed a very secluded life in this quiet and select suburb, and that he was most reserved to strangers, whose presence he considered an intrusion, and a cause of interruption. Lord Brougham tells us that, to such au extent did lie carry his solitary habits, he would never even see or allow himself to be seen by a female servant, and that he used to order his dinner daily by a note, which lie left at a certain hour on the hall table, from which his housekeeper would take it and note her master's instructions as to the culinary arrangements, which, as became a true philosopher, were extremely simple. He kept up less correspondence than any other learned man with his fellow-workers in science; and his autograph letters are therefore extremely rare, and fetch good prices at sales whenever they turn up.
     Not unnaturally Mr. Cavendish's extreme shyness and reserve were taken or mistaken by strangers for pride, though of pride in the ordinary sense of the word he had little in his composition. In Bruhn's 'Life of Humboldt' it is related that, whilst that great philosopher and savant was traveling in England in 1790, in company with George Forster, he obtained special permission to inspect and make use of Mr. Cavendish's library at Clapham, but that he gained this privilege only on condition that he teas on no account to presume to speak to or even to greet the shy and eccentric master of it in case he should meet him in one of the rooms. Humboldt tells this story in a letter to the Baron Bunsen, and adds, in a sly tone of sarcasm, 'I imagine that Cavendish little suspected at that day that it was I who was to be, upon his death, his successor in the Academy of Sciences.'
     'Although experimental science was Mr. Cavendish's favorite pursuit, and that on his success in which his fame rests, 'observes the author of 'The Pursuit of Knowledge,' already quoted, 'his stores of information upon other subjects were known to his friends to be various and extensive. Indeed, he spent his life, if any man ever did, in the 'pursuit of knowledge," malting it his only amusement as well as his only business. The simple and inexpensive habits of life which be had formed in his earlier years underwent no change on his coming into possession of his large fortune. He had accustomed himself from his youth to the utmost regularity in all his movements; and his practice, in this respect, to his last days, nothing was ever sufficient to derange. His 'inexpensive habits,' in fact, were apt at times to show themselves in a rather ludicrous manner; and, owing to his frugal habits, ha, gradually became very wealthy-so wealthy, indeed, that he did not know what to do with his money, and really cared very little about it.
     In respect of this feature in his character the following story is told by Lord Brougham:

'The bankers with whom he kept his account, finding that his balance had accumulated to upwards of £80,000, commissioned one of the partners to wait on him, and to ask him what lie wished done with it. On reaching Clapham, and finding Mr. Cavendish's house, he rang the bell, but had the greatest difficulty in obtaining admission. 'You must wait," said the servant,  " 'till my master rings his bell, and then I will let him know that yon are here." In about a quarter-of-an-hour the bell rang, and the fact of the banker's arrival was duly communicated to the abstracted chemist. Mr. Cavendish, is great agitation, desired that the banker might be shown up, and, as he entered the room, saluted him with a few words asking him the object of his visit. "Sir, I thought proper to wait on you, as we have in hand a very large balance of yours, and we wish for your orders respecting it."--" Oh, if it is any trouble to you, I will take it out of your hands. Do not come here to plague me about money."  "It is not in the least trouble to us, sir; but we thought you might like some of it turned to account, and invested."  "Well, well; what do you want to do?"  " Perhaps you would like to have £40,000 invested?"  "Yes; do so, if you like; but don't come here to trouble me any more, or I will remove my balance." '
     Mr. Cavendish had for many years a town house at the corner of Montague Place and Gower Street. Here, as at Clapham, but few visitors were admitted; and some of those who were fortunate enough to cross the threshold have reported that books and apparatus formed its chief furniture. For the former, however, Cavendish set apart a separate mansion in Dean Street, Soho. Here he collected a large and carefully chosen library of works on science, which he threw open to all engaged in research. Cavendish, it is asserted, lived comfortably, but made no display; and his few guests were treated on all occasions to the same fare, and it was not very sumptuous. A Fellow of the Royal Society reports that, ‘ if anyone dined with Cavendish, he invariably gave them a leg of mutton and nothing else.'  Another Fellow says that Cavendish seldom had company at his house; but on one occasion three or four scientific men were to dine with him, and when his housekeeper came to ask what was to be got for dinner, he said,
   'A leg of mutton!'
   Sir, that will not be enough for five!'
   'Well, then, get two,' was the reply.
     Even in his last moments something of his love of watching and scrutinizing the phenomena of Nature showed itself. He insisted upon being left to die alone, apparently that lie might be able to observe the symptoms of approaching dissolution with the more undisturbed attention. Accordingly, when his servant, whom be had sent out of the room, returned sooner than be was desired, he immediately ordered him again to retire; and when the man came back the second time, he found that his master had just breathed his last.
     His fortune at the time of his death is said to have amounted to twelve hundred thousand pounds. He may well be described, therefore, to have been, as Monsieur Bist in the Biographie Universale quaintly expresses it, ‘the richest of all the learned of his time, as well as probably the most learned of all the rich.'
     It is not often that a devoted servant of the Muses dies rich. But it was otherwise fated in the case of Cavendish, who left more than a million of money to be divided among his relatives; and this in spite of the fact that he never sought or cared for wealth. He inherited a fortune; he lived a bachelor, and most frugally; and therefore accumulated large sums, for which be had no use; indeed, his disregard of money was one of his chief eccentricities.
     Sir Humphry Davy, in addition to an elegant eulogium passed on Mr. Cavendish soon after his death, has left amongst his papers the following still more graphic sketch of the philosopher:  'Cavendish was a great man with extraordinary singularities. His voice was squeaky, his manner nervous; be was afraid of strangers, and seemed, when embarrassed, even to articulate with difficulty.  He wore the costume of our grandfathers; was enormously rich, but made no use of his wealth. He gave me once some bits of platinum for my experiments, and came to see my results on the decomposition of the alkalis, and seemed to take an interest in them; but he encouraged no intimacy with anyone.  He lived latterly the life of a solitary, came to the club dinner, and to the Royal Society, but received nobody at his own house. He was acute, sagacious, and profound, and, I think, the most accomplished British philosopher of his time.'

* See "Old and New London" by E. Walford,

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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