Samuel Johnson and Progress Studies
In the late 1740s, Zachariah Williams was evicted from the Charterhouse, a City of London almshouse for people who require charitable help to live. Williams was a clergyman with an interest in science. He was a trained doctor and had proposed innovative schemes for coal mining. He spent most of his life trying to convince people that he had discovered a method of determining longitude at sea. His ideas, however, were rejected by the Admiralty in 1728, after which he was admitted to the Charterhouse, on the Prime Minister, Robert Walpole’s, recommendation.
Throughout his time at the Charterhouse, Williams continued his experiments, never giving up on his ideas. There was a £20,000 reward for whoever came up with a method of determining longitude at sea, and Williams needed the money. He was neglected at the Charterhouse, where his daughter moved in with him — a clear contravention of the rules. Eventually he was evicted and some of his instruments were smashed. At this point, having heard of the great man’s generosity towards the destitute, Williams wrote to Samuel Johnson.
Johnson should hardly have been looking for anything else to do. He was working on the Dictionary and producing the Rambler twice a week. (One or two references in the Rambler are clearly about Williams.) But he took up the cause nonetheless. Williams and his daughter went to Gough Square to visit Johnson and his wife. Johnson wrote letters in his support, to Lords of the Admiralty and the Earl of Halifax. In 1755, Johnson wrote an account of William’s theories to promote them.
This story is interesting, not just because of Johnson’s fascination with almost everything, but because, as W.P. Courtney says, “Williams’s life provides an unusually rich story representing the countless seekers after longitude money that have slipped into oblivion.” If we want to make great breakthroughs, some people will have to fail. And people with scientific ideas need to collaborate with great communicators. Johnson could write almost anything — adverts, sermons, journalism, moral novellas, dictionaries, poems, Latin poems, political pamphlets — including scientific pamphlets.
The closest modern analogy I can think of to Johnson helping Williams is Cormac McCarthy editing scientific journal articles. The difference, of course, is that Johnson did not edit William’s work. He took the time to understand the theory and then wrote the pamphlet himself. Johnson was inexhaustibly interested in everything. That and his willingness to help, as much as his ability as a writer, was his qualification for the job.
This may not be the best solution for all modern scientist-writer combinations, but a key part of Progress Studies has to be the way ideas are circulated, communicated, and understood. Writing matters. It makes key ideas easier to understand and discover. Well written papers are more likely to be circulated. How many great writers are toiling away on their novel when they might be better employed writing scientific pamphlets? How many good journalists are turning out generic click-bait when they might be writing science blogs or collaborating with academics producing brilliant ideas in terribly written papers?
Johnson was an early proponent of Progress Studies; as he said in Chapter Thirty of Rasselas:
There is no part of history so generally useful as that which relates to the progress of the human mind, the gradual improvement of reason, the successive advances of science, the vicissitudes of learning and ignorance (which are the light and darkness of thinking beings), the extinction and resuscitation of arts, and the revolutions of the intellectual world.
It may well be that the best people for the job are not currently working as writers. Who knows where the people are who have made these studies, what disciplines they are lurking in, or on what blogs they might appear. This could be a task for generalists, for people who have a broad understanding, or who can acquire one. Johnson followed Seneca in putting practice before principle:
Example is always more efficacious than precept. A soldier is formed in war, and a painter must copy pictures. In this, contemplative life has the advantage. Great actions are seldom seen, but the labours of art are always at hand for those who desire to know what art has been able to perform.
We need more Samuel Johnsons. Now is the time, as he said, to “compare our own with former times, and either rejoice at our improvements, or, what is the first motion towards good, discover our defects.” Plenty of good examples exist. We might be entering a Silver Age of Blogging. Works in Progress is promising. And The FitzWilliam (although their style guide is contentious). This will likely become one of the areas of blogging that provides the best content in the near future.
Many of the most productive people writing online, by the way, are mostly unknown, Wikipedia editors and Amazon reviewers and the like. You become one of the most useful writers online by combining broad ranging interests with deep curiosity, just like Samuel Johnson did. Nor does credentialism help you spot this talent. One of Wikipedia’s most prolific editors is a sometime pizza delivery man. He does a lot of typographical edits, but he also wrote the George Orwell bibliography. You will remember that Johnson never got his degree and was not always expected to be a success. Progress studies will rely on many people who share many of Johnson’s qualities, not just his great ones.
On 5th April, I’m holding a discussion salon about Red Crosses by Sasha Filipenko, a heartbreaking novel by a young Belarussian writer, that explores the bridge between the past and the present and the way history is lived out through individual lives. I do hope you can join me.