Decorative Initial S

n 1848, the chemist, Michael Faraday, delivered a lecture at the Royal Institution on the chemical history of the candle to a ‘juvenile audience’. One can contrast the technical explanations that Faraday offers his audience with the way in which Bacon’s Governor from Salomon’s House does not, or perhaps cannot, offer his guests any detailed insight into how their science works. For instance, The Governor asks his guests to accept that on Atlantis they ‘make a number of kinds of serpents, worms, flies, fishes….to be perfect creatures….and have sexes, and do propagate’. While he denies that there is any element of serendipity, he is not prepared to reveal the workings of this eugenics program: ‘Neither do we do this by chance, but we know beforehand of what matter and commixture what kind of those creatures will arise’ (Jones, p. 483).

He has, fortunately for himself, already taken out an insurance against his guests asking any awkward questions by claiming a privileged position. He quotes the prayer which ‘one of the wise men’ of the society of Salomon’s House has offered to the Judaeo-Christian God whom they worship: ‘Lord God of heaven and earth, thou hath vouchsafed of thy grace to those of our order to know the works of thy creation and the secrets of them, and to discern….between divine miracles, works of nature, works of art, and impostures and illusions of all sorts’ (p. 459). By a strange irony, the idea that the workings of the universe are arcanal and that their mystery is granted to a privileged few is, from a secular point of view, a very odd basis for launching scientific investigation but consistent with a religiously inspired commitment to a universal hierarchy. Atlantis is hierarchical; so was Jacobean England; so is Bacon’s approach. But then so is Macaulay’s. All three claim(ed) a purchase on Judaeo-Christianity and the concept of the inductive science of the few applied for the benefit of the many is an ideal with the Pauline teachings on Christian charity deeply inscribed in it. Even though the practice of Christian charity in the Victorian period was clearly more honoured in the breech more than in the observance, it is appropriate to describe the practice of Victorian scientists such as Faraday as the dissemination of their specialist knowledge and their making clear to their audiences the benefits which the professional scientific few were creating for the many. He, however, did not claim divinely sanctioned minority access to truth. His approach was altogether more down to earth- altogether more concerned with facts .

Faraday’s Lectures were published in 1849 and prefaced by William Crookes, with comments couched in the contemporary idiom of triumphal progress which Macaulay and Whewell would have appreciated.

Crooke begins with the huge interval in time between the use of the pine-torch and the invention of the paraffin candle, and, pursuing the idea of progress, asserts that ‘The means adopted by man to illuminate his home at night, stamp at once his position in the scale of Civilisation’, repeating what seems to be at times a Victorian obsession with their relative standing not simply in white Anglo-Saxon but in global civilisation. Hence, in the Gutenberg text, perhaps, Crooke’s capitalization of that initial letter ‘C’. He goes on to assert that the time lapse between the separate inventions of the two forms of lighting may be counted in millennia but in the nineteenth century it has taken only a life-time for the theories behind the invention of the second to be determined during which ‘Atom by atom, link by link, has the reasoning chain been forged’. (Faraday: Crooke’s Preface.) The Governor from Salomon’s House makes a similar assertion when he points out to the English mariners that ‘three thousand years ago….the navigation of the world….was greater than at this day’. However, he assures them that he is perfectly well aware ‘how much it is increased with you within these six-score years’ (Jones, p.462). The Governor pays tribute to the speed of progress in fifteenth century navigation and Crooke pays tribute to speed of progress in nineteenth century inventiveness. But Crooke, repeating a by now familiar theme, also comments implicitly on the necessary limitations on the knowledge possessed by the Governor from Salomon’s. The invention of the paraffin lamp is a triumph for modern science over previous science because now, as opposed to then, scientists enjoy what Walter E. Houghton described as ‘a constantly increasing body of positive truth’ (p. 28). The ‘store of human knowledge’ is much increased; ‘the great phenomena are known’ and ‘the child who masters these Lectures knows more of fire than Aristotle did’. (Faraday: Crooke’s Preface.)

Crooke ends his preface on a distinctly Baconian note: ‘Among the readers of this book some few may devote themselves to increasing the stores of knowledge: the Lamp of Science must burn’ (my emphasis).

In the lecture, Faraday offers his audience what even in this day and age is a fascinating, accessible and fairly comprehensive account of his chosen subject, an account which is the more impressive for being so obviously based on a very confident grasp of technical matters. His professionalism is apparent as he lectures on the sources, structure, mobility and brightness of a candle flame and provides the necessary visual aids. His topics include the air necessary for combustion and the production of water; the nature of water and the functions in the combustion process of hydrogen and oxygen; the production of carbonic acid; the functions in the process of carbon or charcoal; and the similarities between respiration and the burning of a candle.

Faraday’s opening remark refers to an obvious Victorian obligation: ‘But we must speak of candles as they are in commerce’ (p.1). This is a scientific world quite different from that envisaged by Bacon, for Faraday feels obliged to speak of candles as ‘commodities’. The people of Atlantis do not deal in commodities: they ‘maintain a trade, not for gold, silver, or jewels, nor for silks, nor for spices, nor for any other commodity of matter, but only for God’s first creature, which was Light; to have light (I say) of the growth of all parts of the world’ (Jones, p. 469). Faraday’s, however, is a science with a firm purchase on the world of industry and trade. Hence he now describes and illustrates the industrial process which candle-makers use to produce their raw material. His description is detailed and precise.

The fat or tallow is first boiled with quick-lime, and made into a soap… the soap is decomposed by sulphuric acid, which takes away the lime, and leaves the fat re-arranged as stearic acid….a quantity of glycerine is produced at the same time. Glycerine-absolutely a sugar, or a substance similar to sugar-comes out of the tallow in this chemical change. The oil is then pressed out of it; and you see here this series of pressed cakes, shewing how beautifully the impurities are carried out by the oily part as the pressure goes on increasing, and at last you have left that substance which is melted, and cast into candles as here represented. [p. 2

He shows his audience a sample of different candles, made variously of: stearin (three glycerids, monostearin, distearin, tristearin, formed by the combination of stearic acid and glycerine and the chief constituent of tallow or suet); the purified oil of the spermaceti whale; yellow bees-wax and refined bees-wax; and paraffin obtained from the bogs of Ireland. He then presents a final example which has a very interesting provenance and the way in which Faraday refers to it introduces more than a glimpse of Victorian gunboat diplomacy: ‘I have here also a substance brought from Japan, since we have forced an entrance into that out-of-the-way place’. (My emphasis).

He then demonstrates how to transform the raw materials into the finished article.

And how are these candles made? I have told you about dips, and I will shew you how moulds are made….Here is a frame, with a number of moulds fastened in it. The first thing to be….done is to put a wick through them….the tallow is then melted, and the moulds are filled….when the moulds are cool, the excess of tallow is poured off at one corner, and then cleaned off altogether….the ends of the wick are cut away’ [ pp. 2-3]

Mindful that a candle is not only the result of a chemical process but also a commodity, Faraday turns from the subject of ‘mere manufacture’ to the subject of ‘luxury in candles’, and this lecturer in Chemistry now engages his audience in the vexed question of the relationship between the Beautiful and the Useful. He states his objections to ‘beautifully coloured’ and ‘beautifully shaped’ candles quite forcibly: ‘All, however, that is fine and beautiful is not useful. These fluted candles, pretty as they are, are bad candles….when we come to these refinements, we are obliged to sacrifice a little in utility’ (p.3.).

This is not his final word on the issue as he mixes theory and practice in the kind of inductive science so celebrated by William Whewell. In so doing, he remains as he has throughout the lecture, as liberal as ever in his provision of visual aids for his young audience.

As to the light of the candle. We will light one or two, and set them at work in the performance of their proper functions….there is a much more wonderful thing about the burning of a candle than this. You have here a solid substance with no vessel to contain it; and how is it that this solid substance can get up to the place where the flame is? How is it that this solid gets there, it not being a fluid? Or, when it is made a fluid, then how is it that it keeps together? This is a wonderful thing about a candle. [pp. 3-4]

Faraday asks questions that he answers in a piece of inductive science which includes someone else’s serendipity:

Here is a clever invention of some costermonger or street stander in the market-place for the shading of their candles on Saturday nights, when they are selling their greens, or potatoes, or fish. I have very often admired it. They put a lamp-glass round the candle, supported on a kind of gallery, which clasps it, and it can be slipped up and down as required. By the use of this lamp-glass, employed in the same way, you have a steady flame, which you can look at, and carefully examine, as I hope you will do, at home. (p. 4.)

After observing the success of the street trader’s home-made solution to a problem, Faraday moves into theorising about what he has observed.


A beautiful cup is formed… As the air comes to the candle it moves upwards by the force of the current which the heat of the candle produces… and so cools all the sides of the wax, as to keep the edge much cooler than the part within; the part within melts by the flame that runs down the wick as far as it can go before it is extinguished, but the part on the outside does not melt. If I made a current in one direction, my cup would be lop-sided, and the fluid would consequently run over,-for the same force of gravity which holds worlds together holds this fluid in a horizontal position, and if the cup be not horizontal, of course the fluid will run away in guttering. [pp. 4-5]

The explanation which Faraday has offered his audience reinforces for him what he has already claimed about the relationship between the Beautiful and the Useful: ‘You see now why you would have had such a bad result if you were to burn these beautiful candles…which are irregular, intermittent in their shape, and cannot therefore have that nicely-formed edge to the cup which is the great beauty in a candle’.

He argues that you can align beauty and utility: ‘the perfection of a process — that is, its utility — is the better point of beauty about it. It is not the best looking thing, but the best acting thing, which is the most advantageous to us’ (ibid.). To equate a thing’s beauty with its practical benefits to human life is not a surprising piece of aesthetic theorising from a chemist who makes it quite clear in his lectures that he finds the processes and materials with which he deals astonishingly beautiful. Two statements are particularly revealing. In the first he celebrates the candle’s impact on the objects around it:

You have the glittering beauty of gold and silver, and the still higher lustre of jewels, like the ruby and diamond; but none of these rival the brilliancy and beauty of flame. What diamond can shine like flame? It owes its lustre at night-time to the very flame shining upon it. The flame shines in darkness, but the light which the diamond has is as nothing until the flame shine upon it, when it is brilliant again. The candle alone shines by itself, and for itself, or for those who have arranged the materials’. p. 7.)

In the second he finds beauty in the working of the candle: ‘I cannot imagine a more beautiful example than the condition of adjustment under which a candle makes one part subserve to the other to the very end of its action. A combustible thing like that, burning away gradually, never being intruded upon by the flame, is a very beautiful sight’ (p. 7).

Faraday evens uses capillary attraction to assert the beauty he discerns and to assert his modernity. He asks how the flame gets hold of the fuel and answers his own question – capillary attraction which, he declares, is a ‘beautiful point’. He imagines someone objecting to his enthusiasm: ‘Capillary attraction!’ you say, ‘the attraction of hairs’. He replies to the imagined objection: ‘Well, never mind the name: it was given in old times, before we had a good understanding of what the real power was’ (p.5.). He has not actually answered the imagined objection to his finding capillary attraction beautiful, and not to his use of the term. Further, his pinning the responsibility for the name on the ancients is a most intriguing piece of aesthetic theorising which suggests that you cannot recognise and appreciate beauty until you discover the true nature of the power behind it . Substantially he is arguing the same case as Burke and Bell, and after Burke and Bell, Ruskin, all of whom seek to ground the perception of beauty in what is objectively verifiable, whether a matter of observed consistency of physical reactions (Burke), physiological explanations (Bell), or divinely ordained human reactions to the multiplicity of eternal natural truths (Ruskin). Geology and Evolutionary Theories may have been particularly divisive for many Victorians, but the divisions seem to pale in the context of so much celebration of beauty in the richness and the workings of the natural world whether represented by scientists like Darwin and Faraday, or painters like J. W. M. Turner and their advocates like Ruskin.

Mindful of his youthful audience, Faraday asks them a question about a popular game and explains what the players observe during the game as if he were giving a lecture on an aspect of physics.

Am I right in supposing that anybody here has played at snapdragon? I do not know a more beautiful illustration of the philosophy of flame, as to a certain part of its history, than the game of snapdragon. First, here is the dish; and let me say, that when you play snapdragon properly, you ought to have the dish well-warmed; you ought also to have warm plums and warm brandy, which, however, I have not got. When you have put the spirit into the dish, you have the cup and the fuel; and are not the raisins acting like the wicks? I now throw the plums into the dish, and light the spirit, and you see those beautiful tongues of flame that I refer to. You have the air creeping in over the edge of the dish forming these tongues. Why? Because, through the force of the current and the irregularity of the action of the flame, it cannot flow in one uniform stream. The air flows in so irregularly that you have what would otherwise be a single image, broken up into a variety of forms, and each of these little tongues has an independent existence of its own. [p. 9]

Mindful also of the major rationale for his giving a series of scientific lectures, he promises his audience that, having spent so much time in ‘illustrations’, such as playing snapdragon, he will in future ‘hold you more strictly to the philosophy of the thing’, i.e. he will spend more time expatiating on the theoretical issues. He invites them to be involved in a common pursuit: ‘We come here to be philosophers; and I hope you will always remember that whenever a result happens, especially if it be new, you should say, ‘What is the cause? Why does it occur?’ and you will in the course of time find out the reason’. The explanation is clear and purposive, and like all good teachers, Faraday has gauged his arguments and his illustrative material to suit the needs of his ‘juvenile’ audience.

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Last modified 8 January 2018