7 March 1815
It is so long since you have heard from me that I fear you will think me negligent, but we have gone on so regularly here that I have little to communicate except the vagaries of a charlatan who has been pestering me for this fortnight under more shapes than Proteus ever assumed. His first attack I considered one of those hoaxes that have been so frequent of late, and had it been one it would not have been destitute of merit. The wit of such tricks, where they have any, must consist in their ludicrous application, or misapplication, to the individual on whom they are practised.
One morning, before my students had left the laboratory, I was summoned to attend Mr Peregrine Project, who informed me that having a great chemical discovery to impart, he knew of no one more deserving its participation than myself, or more likely to promote his interest with Lord Aircastle, to whom he was desirous of an introduction. I was not long in learning to what this tended.
It is understood that M. Berzelius some years since declared himself possessed of the secret of making gold, but he said that the process was so tedious and so expensive that the precious metal was bought too dear. Mr Project had however not only succeeded in discovering M. Berzelius’s method, but had also devised a shorter way of procuring it. This secret he was desirous of communicating to Lord Aircastle or to me, and of embarking with us in an extensive speculation. It is rather too late, thought I, for the dreams of alchemy, and the story of Berzelius is well known, though as that philosopher cannot be suspected of a wish to deceive others, I have always thought that he deceived himself. But let me endeavour to ascertain the depth of this man’s knowledge on the subject.
He was not difficult to sound. A very few minutes of conversation, in which he named most the great chemists of this and former ages, but not one without a blunder, enabled me completely to fathom the imposture. But of its author it was not so easy to get rid; and some of his schemes had a kind of whimsical ingenuity, and a false lustre, that might easily dazzle the ignorant. He dwelt long on a project for warming the streets of London by steam, in subterranean pipes parallel to those which already convey light and water beneath our feet. The condensation of this steam was to furnish a constant supply of boiling water to all houses that wished to have it laid on, and might moreover be employed to work pumps and engines in all directions. His next idea was for improving the alphabet by cutting off all the angles from the letters. He said he had often heard it hinted, and had now proved by actual experiment that a clear type and hot-pressed paper were bad for the eyes, and that the brilliancy of argand lamps tended much to injure them. The eye became much sooner fatigued by gazing on rough and above all on angular objects than my contemplating those that were smooth and round. Bad paper and bad type were therefore infinitely to be preferred by those in the habit of reading, to the dazzling lustre of a whiter paper and the sharp angles of a clearer print: and as brilliant lights were found injurious he advised all those who were careful of their sight to envelop their lamps in a veil of black crape.
His next scheme was for the introduction of sexagesimal, or rather duodecimal arithmetic, in preference to the decimal mode now used. This idea is however an evident plagiarism, and I told him that great as the advantages derived from it would be, they had not been deemed equal to the inconveniences of alteration; and that though astronomers, in England at least, for the French savants have adopted the centigrade system for everything, generally made use of sexagesimal calculation, and though the number twelve possessed great advantages from the multitude of its divisors, yet I did not think we should find it easy to change the established customs of almost every nation. “You cannot forget,” said I, “that when it was proposed to regulate the common clocks of France by mean instead of solar time, the Institute thought this improvement too great for the vulgar, and determined to retain its advantages in their own heads. John Bull, it is true, had long discarded solar time, but he may not easily be induced to forget that he has but ten fingers and ten toes, and that ten times ten make a hundred.”
I at last wearied my visitor, who impertinently told me that, having enriched myself by one bubble, he saw I had no inclination to endanger myself by another, yet that having risen by my wits, I might have shewn more consideration towards those who were still obliged to depend on theirs. But I fear, Sir, you are as much fatigued with Mr Project as was then
your obliged Servant