Working Life in London, Public Lectures and "Operative Chemist"
Early in 1800, Accum moved to premises in Old Compton Street, Soho, where he set up his own laboratory and established a very successful business as a supplier of scientific apparatus and materials. In addition to supplying scientific materials, Accum undertook a considerable amount of analytical work into the purity of a wide range of commercial products and came, later, to base his publications on this expertise.
Old Compton Street 2001
In 1803 he published his "System of Theoretical and Practical Chemistry" in two volumes to support his teaching activities. Chemistry was not, then, a school subject and there was certainly no National Curriculum to worry about. Teachers of chemistry - there weren't many of them about at this time - simply taught whatever interested them.
© Used with permission from the Journal of Chemical Education, Vol. 2, No. 10, 1925, p. 838
Chemistry was then a very fashionable subject and the people who bought the book or went to the lectures were leisured men and women with time on their hands.
Accum was a great believer in setting up demonstrations and in getting his pupils to do their own experiments. His series of "Chemical Demonstrations or Private Lectures" proved highly popular and for a long time, his laboratory was the only institution where instruction in practical chemistry was offered. His advertisements for the courses were very persuasive and claimed that skill could only be acquired by actual practice. To achieve this, he offered private, as well as public lectures and took resident pupils.
The Surrey Institution where Accum lectured
At the same time as Accum was teaching, performing analytical work and supplying chemical apparatus and materials, he also became involved with the commercial production of coal gas. F A Winsor had taken out a patent in 1804 for a gas-making process and Accum undertook the experimental work necessary to overcome the objections raised by Winsor's competitor, William Murdoch. His expertise in this field led to his appearing before a House of Commons Committee in 1809, which was considering Winsor's application for a charter, contested by Murdoch.
Accum soon developed an ability to make enemies, in spite of his expertise - he created a bad impression when his answers indicated that he was not prepared to divulge further technical information without being paid. Parliament eventually passed the Bill which allowed the incorporation of Winsor's company which was eventually established in 1812 as "The Chartered Gas-Light and Coke Company". One result of this was that Westminster Bridge was lit by gas in the following year and by 1815, no less than 15 miles of London streets were lit by this method.
A Peep at the Gas Lights in Pall Mall
Unsurprisingly, Accum seized the moment and published "A Description of the Process of Manufacturing Coal Gas with Elevations, Sections and Plans...of the most improved Sorts of Apparatus now employed at the Gas Works in London...". This richly illustrated book, priced at twelve shillings, deals not only with the manufacture of coal gas but also includes sections detailing the cost of a complete installation and the operating costs.
Ornamental gas lamp posts and columns, fitted complete, ready for lighting were supplied at six guineas each and a complete plant installation was costed at £7079, prices which are put in perspective by the weekly wage of eighteen shillings of the gas works employees, who were shift-working a seven-day week.
Accum's "operative chemistry" included mineralogy and his American pupils included James Freeman Dana, the originator of the best-known system of mineral classification, Benjamin Silliman, Sr, who became Yale's first Professor of Chemistry, and Harvard's Professor William Peck. In his memoirs, Silliman revealed that Accum paid little attention to personal safety and that it was not unusual to be working one morning in a fume filled laboratory and then spending the next few days ill in bed.
In 1817 he published "Chemical Amusement" - a small book of experiments to be performed at home "with a view to blend chemical science with rational amusement". No-one reading this volume today would go so far as to agree that the experiments "may be performed with ease and safety in the closet". Experiment 24 is headed "To render bodies luminous in the dark, so as to give a sufficient light to shew the hour on the dial of a watch, at night." It involves a solution of yellow phosphorus in almond oil and after describing the glow appearing inside a vial of the solution when it is unstoppered, Accum continues "If rubbed on the face, taking care to shut the eyes, the appearance is most hideously frightful".
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