Saturday 22 March 2014

The Electrified Life of John Canton

John Canton FRS (Stroud, Gloucestershire, England, 31st July 1718 – London, England, 22nd March 1772) 

John Canton

The salon welcomes a gentleman of science today as I share a pot of tea with John Canton of Stroud, a physicist of some renown who made his name thanks to a most magnetic personality.

Canton was born to a non-conformist weaver, John, and his wife, Esther, and showed a keen intelligence early in life. Despite his academic ambitions, the child was taken out of school before his tenth birthday to take up the family trade but continued with education in the evenings once his working day was finished. He designed and carved a sundial that was displayed in front of the family home and passing travellers called in to enquire as to who created the device. One of these was Dr Henry Miles who, upon learning of the boy's talents, took a personal interest in his education.

Eventually it became apparent to his father that Canton's gifts did not rest in weaving and he agreed that his son could travel to London, where he lodged with Dr Miles, who saw in his boarder great potential. With encouragement from his patron, at the age of 19 he became a clerk to Samuel Watkins, the master of Spital Academy, a school in Spital Square, London. 

Once his five year apprenticeship was finished, Canton enter into partnership with Watkins and remained at Spital Square until his death. In fact, he would eventually take over the School entirely in 1745, whilst his social circles expanded to include scientific and philosophical names. Just a year before he became Master of the Academy, he married Penelope Colebrooke and the couple had three sons together.

Although he later participated in a number of experiments around electricity and was the first man in England to trial Benjamin Franklin's experiments with lightning, it was for his interest in magnetism that Canton was known. He appeared before the Royal Society in 1750 to read his paper on artificial magnets, which resulted in his being elected as a fellow. Ignoring apparently unfounded allegations of plagiarism from John Michell of Cambridge, the Society awarded Canton the Copley Medal for his achievements in 1751. 

He continued his interest in electricity and and phosphorescent materials, all the time continuing to work as a schoolmaster whilst winning a second Copley nomination for his experiments that proved water was compressible. A highly sociable chap with a love of society and good food, Canton died of dropsy aged just 53.


Unknown said...

What abfascinating life and so far ahead of his time. These folks who do so much to improve themselves are a real inspiration and a great example for what's possible with the right mindset.

Catherine Curzon said...

Indeed; such dedication and tenacity!

Mari Christian said...

Thank goodness--by a trick of fate-- his talents were allowed to flourish.

Catherine Curzon said...

It's not quite rags to riches, but it's in the same spirit!