WILLIAM NICHOLSON (1753-1815), English writer on natural philosophy, was born in London in 1753, and after leaving school made two voyages as midshipman in the East India service. He subsequently entered an attorney's office, but, having become acquainted, in 1775, with Josiah Wedgwood, he lived for some years at Amsterdam as agent for the sale of pottery. On his return to England he was induced by Thomas Holcroft to devote himself to the composition of light literature for periodicals, assisting that writer also with some of his plays and novels. Meanwhile he employed himself on the preparation of An Introduction to Natural Philosophy, which was published in 1781 and was at once successful. A translation of Voltaire's Elements of the Newtonian Philosophy soon followed, and he now entirely devoted himself to scientific pursuits and philosophical journalism. In 1784 he was appointed secretary to the General Chamber of Manufacturers of Great Britain, and he was also connected with the Society for the Encouragement of Naval Architecture, established in 1791. He bestowed much attention upon the construction of various machines for comb-cutting, file-making, cylinder printing, &c.; he also invented an areometer. In 1800 he began in London a course of public lectures on natural philosophy and chemistry, and about this period he made the discovery of the decomposition of water by the voltaic current. In 1797 the Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts, generally known as Nicholson's Journal, the earliest work of the kind in Great Britain, was begun; it was carried on till 1814. During the later years of his life Nicholson's attention was chiefly directed to waterworks engineering at Portsmouth, at Gosport and in Southwark. He died in London on the 21st of May 1815.
Besides considerable contributions to the Philosophical Transactions, Nicholson wrote translations of Fourcroy's Chemistry (1787) and Chaptal's Chemistry (1788), First Principles of Chemistry (1788) and a Chemical Dictionary (1795); he also edited the British Encyclopaedia, or Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (6 vols., 8vo, London, 1809).
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