Margaret Bryan: A Scientist Ahead of Her Time

April 23rd, World Book Day, is an ideal opportunity to showcase one of the AHC Toppan Rare Book Library’s books. Lectures on Natural Philosophy by Margaret Bryan is but one sample of the many rare books the AHC has to offer. Published in 1806, it is an unusual treatise on a subject that few women at the time pursued – science. The book itself is handsome, with gold tooled binding and marbled edges. It features a frontispiece portrait of Bryan.

Portrait of Margaret Bryan from Lectures on Natural Philosophy.
American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The year of Bryan’s birth is unknown, but likely to have been before 1760. In addition to being a published author of scientific literature, she also ran a school for young ladies at Blackheath, a village south-east of London. Bryan began her publication with an open letter to her pupils, which included her own two daughters, entreating them to apply the lessons towards bettering themselves. She dedicated the book to “Her Royal Highness, The Princess Charlotte of Wales.” In 1806, the date of publication, Princess Charlotte was ten years old, granddaughter of the King and third in the line of succession to the throne in the United Kingdom.

Introductory page and dedication to The Princess Charlotte of Wales, from Lectures on Natural Philosophy.
American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The book itself is a compendium of thirteen lectures based on eight years of study and seven years of practical experience as a scientist, in an era in which it was remarkable for a woman to pursue scientific interests. The lectures had been previously distributed singly to subscribers – lords, ladies, dukes and bishops as well as university professors and booksellers. Lectures on Natural Philosophy was intended to instruct pupils and interested readers in the fundamentals of physics alongside a brief study of astronomy. The lectures are supplemented with questions and exercises designed to test her students’ knowledge of geography and astronomy.

Bryan’s first chapter addresses gravity and the contributions to science of Newton and Galileo. It moves on to the study of fire, the science behind the mercury thermometer and evaporation as a key to understanding the function of the steam engine. Bryan believed that science was intertwined with religion and that God had granted humans with the intellect needed to study and appreciate science. Her discussion of mechanics reads like a modern-day Physics book, with examples of pulleys, levers, screws and springs. She segues seamlessly into a study of man as a machine and the human physiology that makes breathing possible.

Bryan illustrated her lectures with experiments and diagrams, explaining the function of pneumatics and the mechanics of an air rifle, an unusual topic of study for young women. She summarized the physics behind both the hot air balloon and the diving bell.

Illustration of various experiments including the diving bell, from Lectures on Natural Philosophy.
American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

At the time, the scientific study of electricity was in its infancy, so Bryan outlined the two competing theories of the day. One of the two theories was Benjamin Franklin’s. Bryan’s book outlines more than forty experiments that her pupils could perform to illustrate the merits of both theories of electricity. She did caution them, though, not to repeat Franklin’s famous kite, key and lightning experiment, as the electricity in the atmosphere was known to be so powerful “as to destroy animal existence.”

Bryan concluded her book with a fifteen-page glossary of terms, including the forward-thinking aeronaut, defined as “a person sailing through the air” and corpuscles, described as “small bodies or atoms.”

Learn more about the remarkable Margaret Bryan and scientific understanding at the beginning of the 19th century by viewing Lectures on Natural Philosophy in the American Heritage Center’s Toppan Rare Book Library.

Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.


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