Party animals

<strong>London Lights: the Minds That Moved the City That Shook the World</strong>

James Hamilton

James Hamilton invokes a varied cast of characters in this panorama of intellectual life in early 19th-century London: artists and poets rub shoulders with inventors, engineers and learned amateurs. In the clubs and societies where these luminaries would congregate, it was not uncommon to see the boundaries of human knowledge being pushed back after dinner.

The book abounds with the kind of science that can be done in the garage. Take Anthony Carlisle’s lecture to the Royal Society on muscular movements in fish, for example. Carlisle removed different combinations of fins from a barrel-load of dace in order to see how their movement was impeded. Having removed the tail and all of the fins of one unfortunate specimen, he was intrigued to note that it “remained without motion floating near the surface of the water with its belly upward”. Eureka!

At Charles Babbage’s legendary parties – where you might run into Dickens or Turner – a demonstration of his mechanical difference engine’s prodigious powers was the climax of the evening. London Lights brims with such anecdotal fare, which makes it a frequently enjoyable read but also a rather diffuse book, lacking in focus.