Recently I found myself trawling through the minute-books of the Royal Society’s Committee of Papers. This was the body responsible for screening the papers read to the Society’s meetings and selecting those of suitable quality for publication in the Philosophical Transactions.
I was trying to reconstruct the historical rejection rate between 1780 and 1830 (about 40%, for anyone who’s interested). Working through a long list of papers in this way has an unusually dizzying time-telescoping effect, as fifty years’ worth of scientific activity is catalogued in a single volume, and a remarkable number of famous names in the history of science make their first published appearances without fanfare – Humphry Davy with a paper on Galvanic combinations, for instance, among many others.
One name I wasn’t particularly expecting to encounter in the annals of the Royal Society at this time was that of Henry Brougham. Brougham is known mainly for his legal and literary career – born and educated in Scotland, he helped found the Edinburgh Review, one of the leading literary periodicals of the nineteenth century, and became Lord Chancellor, the head of the legal profession in England. In fact there are several Lord Chancellors who had close associations with the Royal Society: Sir John Somers was President of the Society in the 1690s; William Cowper and Thomas Parker were both eighteenth-century Fellows, and Parker’s son George also became President; and, of course, the Society’s founding inspiration, Francis Bacon. It turns out, however, that Brougham has an unusual claim to distinction with respect to the Society. We think he may have been the youngest person ever to contribute a paper to the Philosophical Transactions.
Brougham’s paper was entitled ‘Experiments and Observations on the Inflection, Reflection and Colours of Light’, and was read to the Society on 29 January 1796. At that time Brougham was 17 years and 133 days old (he was born on 19 September 1778). His paper was considered for publication in the Transactions on 10 March 1796 and apparently withdrawn (the meeting at which it was considered also featured a paper by Caroline Herschel, the first woman to have a paper published in Transactions under her own name). Unusually, Brougham’s paper was then brought before the Committee again a couple of months later, and this time it was approved for printing.
The exact significance of the sequence of events is hard to parse – a paper’s being withdrawn usually signalled either the author’s dissatisfaction with some aspect of it, or the exertion of pressure upon the author by the Society, which had no intention of printing the paper but did not wish to have to reject it outright. In either event the matter usually rested there, and the slightly tangled path of Brougham’s paper to print may have had to do with the Society’s consciousness of his extreme youth. We would be very curious to hear if any readers of this blog happen to know of any younger authors finding their way into the Transactions. On the subject of child prodigies, incidentally, the Transactions also contains a paper by Daines Barrington about the young Mozart, whom Barrington saw performing on his visit to London in 1764, then aged 8.
Brougham’s connection with the Society didn’t end there. Though he did not pursue a career in science, he was elected to the Society (with the influence of the President, Joseph Banks, in 1802). This was the same year Brougham helped found the Edinburgh Review, and his letter soliciting Banks’s assistance in his election to the Society enclosed a copy of the first issue.
Banks was not particularly pleased with what he found. The new periodical included a scathing review of the Journal of Friedrich Hornemann’s Travels. Banks was a founding member of the African Association, which encouraged and sponsored several expeditions of exploration in Africa, including those of Mungo Park and Hornemann himself. Hornemann’s journal had been sent back to England from Tripoli in 1799 and he himself set off for a further expedition to the interior; in 1802 his fate was unknown and nothing had been heard from him in three years. Banks was plainly disappointed by the tenor of the review; his letter to Brougham does not survive, but its general import is plainly apparent from Brougham’s reply. Brougham told Banks that he heartily agreed with the substance of Banks’s complaint, and had put the same case to the editors:
I communicated your opinion on the review of Horneman’s Journal to the author and the other Critics who compose our sanguinary tribunal. – I also added my own in the same terms – they all agreed, that, if the slightest disrespect was meant to the celebrated body [the African Association] under whose patronage Mr Horneman pursues his adventures, the article deserved suppression. – The author himself declared that such a thought never entered his head, – and that he levelled his Criticism not at all against the African Association, but against the secretary at whom he has conceived some ill will; I know not upon what grounds for he is perfectly unknown both to that Gentleman and to the other members.
Brougham laid the tone of concerned agreement on thick: ‘I urged the apparent tendency of some passages to evince a disrespect towards the Society’, remarking to the author ‘that the world never draws the distinction between an attack levelled at a public body and one directed against its office-bearers. – I added that any such attack from the E. review must be absurd in the extreme, and tend only to draw the public odium and contempt upon the review.’ He stressed, however, that this had proved futile: the author ‘persisted in his plan of criticism, refusing to modify the article in the 2nd edition’ (the first issue of the Edinburgh Review, he proudly reported, had sold out within five days).
The whole letter was, almost needless to add at this point, an elaborate fiction, since the author was probably Brougham himself. One can’t help feeling a little sorry for Banks in this situation, being made game of by a man who was fishing for his support for election into the Society. At the same time it’s hard not to admire the chutzpah of Brougham, a cocky 24-year-old running rings around a long-serving President of the Royal Society with the same aplomb that had led him to communicate original research in optics to the Society while still a teenager.