Winter, with its cold, dark nights, is a great time for huddling by the fire and telling stories of wonder. These tales could be spooky yarns about ghosts haunting a miser or the madcap adventures of bumbling fools. Or, perhaps, heartbreaking sagas of orphans toiling in workhouses would strike a chord. Anything that warms the heart or electrifies the imagination when it is so frosty outside could do a body well.
By 1850, Charles Dickens could smugly say about all of those plots, “been there, done that!” To great acclaim, he had penned A Christmas Carol, The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and other timeless tales. Nevertheless, the prolific English author was still looking for new writing projects. He had become the editor (or “conductor,” as he put it) of a new magazine called Household Words, and was hunting for ideas to fill its pages.
Dickens was familiar with the popular lectures of British scientist Michael Faraday, who made many important contributions to the study of electricity and magnetism. Thanks to Faraday’s law of induction, we are able to generate electricity through spinning magnetic turbines, such as in modern windmills and hydroelectric plants. One of the remarkable things about Faraday was his humble roots as the son of a blacksmith — which would have appealed to the social activist side of Dickens.
Faraday was not only a brilliant scientist, he also was a pioneering science popularizer, delivering many lectures to eager children and others interested in the workings of the natural world. In 1825, he initiated the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, held annually at the organization’s headquarters in London. Each talk featured a single scientific topic, which Faraday would elucidate to a wide-eyed crowd of young people. He also began a series of Friday Evening Discourses, similarly expounding upon scientific topics for the general public.
Although there is no record of Dickens attending Faraday’s talks, they matched well his interest in educating as well as entertaining. Dickens’s tales often contained didactic elements with hope of enlightening his readers. He saw that Faraday had similar goals, and after decades of delivering these annual lectures, Faraday had his own following among the general public.
On May 28, 1850, Dickens wrote to Faraday requesting his lectures notes from some of his popular talks, with the aim of using them in some form for Household Words.
I take the liberty of addressing you as if I knew you personally; trusting that I may venture to assume that you will excuse that freedom.
It has occurred to me that it would be extremely beneficial to a large class of the public, to have some account of your late lectures on the breakfast-table, and of those you addressed, last year, to children. I should be exceedingly glad to have some papers in reference to them, published in my new enterprise ‘Household Words…’
Your faithful Servant,
In those days, well before the age of mimeographing, photocopying, and electronic printing, lecture notes were almost never duplicated, unless they were actually published by a professional printer. Nevertheless, Faraday generously lent Dickens his original notes. Dickens would write to Faraday several more times, and was immensely grateful for their correspondence. In gratitude, he would send Faraday a copy of David Copperfield when it was published.
With Faraday’s notes on his desktop, Dickens then recruited Dr. Percival Leigh, a physician and humorist, to co-author stories with him based on their themes. The first of these stories “Chemistry of a Candle,” published in the August 3, 1850 issue, was based loosely on Faraday’s 1848 Christmas Lecture, “The Chemical History of a Candle.”
Leigh and Dickens’s story is charming, educational and fun to read, offering an important contribution to the popularization of science. The main character is a boy named Harry Wilkinson, with a fondness for chemistry, who has attended Faraday’s lectures and describes to his family precisely how a candle burns. His account delves into the need for oxygen, the nature of the flame and other features of candles. As Harry explains in one passage:
You know a candle won’t burn without air. There must be always air around the gas, and touching it like, to make it burn. If a candle hasn’t got enough air, it goes out, or burns badly, so that some of the vapour inside of the flame comes out through it in the form of smoke and this is the reason of a candle smoking. So now you know why a great clumsy dip smokes more than a neat wax candle; it is because the thick wick of the dip makes too much fuel in proportion to the air that can get to it.
The next story in the series, “The Mysteries of the Tea Kettle,” begins with a tribute to Faraday:
For it is not the least of the merits of that famous chemist and great man, PROFESSOR FARADAY, that he delights to make the mightiest subject clear to the simplest capacity; and that he shows his mastery of Nature in nothing more than I in being thoroughly imbued with the spirit of her goodness and simplicity.
The tale goes on to cover topics such as the boiling point of water, phase transitions, and thermal expansion, all carefully explained by the young expositor Harry Wilkinson to his curious family. As in the first story, Harry is a junior stand-in in for Faraday himself, echoing what he learned in the great scientist’s lectures. Here’s how Harry, for example, explains to his befuddled Uncle Bagges the concept of latent heat:
It is wholly occupied in preserving the water in an expanded state, and can’t cause the mercury in the thermometer to expand and rise as well. For the same reason, it could give you no feeling of hotness above what boiling water would — if you had the nerve to test it. Whilst it is making steam continue to be steam, it is latent. When the steam becomes water again, it has no longer that work to do, and is set free.
Later contributions to the science series in Household Words included a piece about respiration called “The Laboratory in the Chest,” and one about fermentation called “The Chemistry of a Pint of Beer.” For the latter, Harry could no longer be the designated explainer, as it would be strange for a child to be familiar with brewing. Therefore it includes a new character named James Saunders, who is an expert in that area. As Saunders explains the chemistry of malt, a key ingredient of beer:
What is malt? … Malt is barley, steeped in water, laid out on a floor, let be there till it is just about to sprout, and then dried on a kiln, at a heat high or low, according to the colour you want it to be; pale, or amber, or brown. Here begin the chemical manoeuvres required to produce a pint of beer. Malting is a process of chemistry that goes on in each grain of barley inside of the husk. What are the chemical ingredients of barley? Carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and a little nitrogen. Malt has the same. But the difference between barley and malt is, that the carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen in the barley are in the shape of starch; whereas, in the malt they are in the state of sugar. In going to sprout, the barley gets sweet. The starch in it changes into sugar. Both sugar and starch have the same proportions of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen ; twelve of carbon, ten of oxygen, and ten of hydrogen, in each — that is to say, water and charcoal. The difference between starch and sugar is thought to depend on the carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen in the one, being ranged together in a different way from what they are in the other. The ‘ultimate particles’ of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen, being ‘grouped together,’ as the phrase is, in one way, form starch, and in another, sugar.
By the end of 1850, Dickens felt guilty that he had held onto Faraday’s notes for half a year and arranged to return them. The stories in Household Words helped boost Faraday’s acclaim as a science popularizer even further. Some years later, Faraday’s lecture notes would be published in book form.
Enjoy the holiday season, and share lots of great stories around the fire (real or virtual, as the case may be). If you like, you can follow the example of Dickens, Leigh, and Faraday, and sprinkle ample science into your wondrous tales.
Paul Halpern is the author of fifteen popular science books, including The Quantum Labyrinth: How Richard Feynman and John Wheeler Revolutionized Time and Reality.