Scientists in Lambeth

This article appeared in the Vauxhall Society's Newsletter April 1975

On Thursday 6th February 1975, at the Durning Library, Mr Richard L.S. Taylor Secretary of the South London Astronomical Society, talked to members of the Vauxhall Society about some of the famous scientists who have lived or worked in Lambeth. Mr Taylor began by drawing attention to the popular misconception that the growth of' Civilization' could be measured solely by reference to progress in the fine arts. The sciences had played at least as important a part in the development of our living conditions and had provided the technology without which the arts could not have survived. Many great scientists had also been creative artists and this was not unknown today even if they sometimes chose to cloak their artistic work under a pseudonym. In choosing his seven personalities, Mr Taylor explained that this was not intended to be a comprehensive list, but that he hoped they were representative of the varied work that had been done in Lambeth, and that members of the audience would be encouraged to find out about some of the others. Of the seven, three had been residents in Lambeth, one a distinguished visitor, and the others had done much of their work locally.

The visitor was none other than Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), the American statesman and inventor, whose interest in electricity and magnetism led him to invent the lightning conductor. He invented a smoke-consuming stove and also studied the purification of the air by means of plants, the origin of coal, and the properties of the Gulf Stream. Whilst travelling to England in 1757 he noted the calming effect of fat poured on the sea and recalled the libations to the gods which the ancients had made in stormy seas. Later he was to demonstrate on Clapham pond the effect of a 'mono-molecular film' in reducing the disturbance caused by wind over the surface of water.

Henry Cavendish (173l-l8l0) who lived in Clapham, was immensely wealthy, a misogynist and recluse, but managed also to be outstanding as a chemist, physicist, biologist, and astronomer. His greatest achievement was the measurement of the weight of the Earth, a feat which he accomplished with amazing accuracy at his home in Clapham, and from which he then proceeded to weigh the Sun, Moon and planets.

John Rennie (1761-1821), a friend of James Watt, was an engineer and bridge builder. His first major achievement was the building of the Albion Mills on the South Bank near Waterloo. In 1784 he built the double-action steam engine: he produced pumping machinery to drain the fens and built the Kennet and Avon canal. He also provided stamping machinery for the Royal Mint at Tower Hill and for the mints at Bombay and Calcutta. His main interest was in the science of materials and he was the first fully to exploit the strength of cast iron in bridge building. He built London Bridge and the first Waterloo Bridge, together with Southwark Bridge which survives to this day, and was the first to employ coffer dams in bridge building. He was largely responsible for the building of the Thames embankment but died almost penniless.

Henry Maudslay (177l-183l) , another engineer, had his workshop in North Lambeth and built steam engines, tanks and boilers. Like Rennie, he also manufactured coining presses and invented the screw-cutting lathe, the' sliding scale' measure and the micrometer.

Dr Gideon Mantell (1790-1852) was a physician and geologist. He was the first man to identify the Iguanadon and thence the whole new family of the Dinosaurs. He was also an expert on the chalk deposits of southern England and produced a geological survey of Clapham which is still the most authoritative work on the subject.

James Nasmyth (1808-1890) worked with Maudslay from 1829 and was the inventor of the steam hammer which revolutionised the manufacture of large steel forgings. His interests included astronomy and lunar geology, and with the aid of his 20" reflecting telescope, now in the Science Museum, he constructed meticulous plaster models of the Moon's surface from which wet-plate photographs were made to illustrate his Atlas of the Moon, published in 1874.

Sir William Huggins (1824-1910) was educated at the City of London School. In 1856 he built his own private astronomical observatory at his home, 90 Tulse Hill, with a 5" telescope made by Dollond. His main work was concerned with the spectrographic analysis of the stars, in which he was assisted by his wife. She was personally responsible for discovering the spectrum shift in receding stars caused by the Doppler effect, and the existence of the Sun's atmosphere.

Summing up, Mr Taylor remarked that each of these men had a firm belief in Man's mastery of his own destiny, and in progress by evolution, not revolution: their discoveries and invent- ions were all the result of their wide-ranging interests and their ability to observe the world about them with an enquiring mind.

Click here for details of some of the scientists associated with the Brown Institute