Science (Almost) in Earnest

3D front cover of Philosophy in Sport Made Science in Earnest 3 Volume Set by John Ayrton ParisA recent addition to our series on the history of education is the rather wordy, three-volume Philosophy in Sport Made Science in Earnest, by John Ayrton Paris, who was also the author of a two-volume life of Sir Humphry Davy and of a ‘biographical sketch’ of the polymath physician and botanist William Maton, his mentor. (The life of Davy was sufficiently controversial that it prompted the great scientist’s brother to write a biography himself.)

Paris was probably born in 1785 in or near Cambridge (he was baptised at St Bene’t’s church on 5 August), and was educated by a Mr Barker at Trinity Hall and at a grammar school in Linton, Cambs., before entering Gonville and Caius College, from which he graduated as a bachelor of medicine in 1808.  After serving on the medical staff of the Westminster Hospital in London alongside Maton, in 1813 he was appointed physician to the Penzance Dispensary, on the latter’s recommendation. In Cornwall, he was a founder member of what became the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall, but returned to London in 1817 in an effort to boost his income (he had had to rely on private patients in Cornwall as the dispensary post was not salaried).

As well as continuing his private practice, Paris lectured on material medica, and published Pharmacologia, or the History of Medical Substances in 1812: it went into several editions in the next thirty years, and may have made him as much as £5000. Further publications on diet, medical chemistry and medical jurisprudence were accompanied by more ‘popular’ works, of which the most famous was Philosophy in Sport. Dedicated to Maria Edgeworth, in admiration for her own educational works, the work seeks to lead children (of both sexes) into performing scientific experiments and making scientific deductions through play (the ‘sport’ of the title), and frequently using their playthings as the basic experimental equipment.

The work takes the form of a novel: Master Tom Seymour, the apple of his father’s eye, has just returned to Overton Lodge for the holidays, bearing a glowing report from his schoolmaster. ‘Tom asked his papa whether he remembered the promise he had made him, on quitting home for school, that of furnishing him with some new amusements during the holidays.’  Papa replies that what he has in mind is a continuation of the methodology of Mrs Marcet’s Dialogues [sic] on Natural Philosophy, which Tom’s Mama had already given him to read. This explained the ‘philosophy of toys’, and Papa proposes to furnish more examples of the ways in which toys (even those which Tom has grown out of) produce their ‘amusing effects’. ‘”Thank you, thank you, dear papa”, was simultaneously shouted by several voices, and the happy children looked forward to the morrow, with that mixed sensation of impatience and delight which always attends juvenile anticipations.’

The children are then entertained and enlightened through three volumes by Papa’s ingenious devices, with comic relief being provided by the benign local vicar, Mr Twaddleton (who received the wooden spoon at Cambridge for his uselessness at mathematics), and the bevy of parish spinsters who have designs upon him.

There are frequent asides and in-jokes which illustrate the work’s wider context. Mr Twaddleton may be a mathematical non-starter, but he is a member of the Society of Antiquaries and an expert on ancient coins, and has written sermons on the evils of slavery; Mr Seymour has a geological shrine devoted to Werner in his grounds, as well as a floral ‘clock’ planted on Linnaean principles; Mr Twaddleton has in his collection a specimen of a ‘druidical rock basin’, ‘collected by no less a geologist than the curator of the cabinet at Penzance’.

And, best of all, Mr Seymour produces, to illustrate elasticity, an india-rubber ball on which was painted ‘an exact resemblance of the worthy vicar, executed … by that inimitable artist, George Cruikshank’. It was indeed Cruikshank who provided the drawings – both the head-pieces to the chapters and the scattered diagrams – for this work. The most famous graphic artist of the period, and especially notorious for his caricatures of the Prince Regent, now King George IV, and his bawdy court, Cruikshank (1792–1878) was probably better known than his author (and the same would be true of Charles Dickens when Cruikshank agreed to illustrate Sketches by Boz in 1835–6). The first book George and his brother Robert had worked on was Pierce Egan’s Life in London, the riotous adventures through Regency London of Corinthian Tom and Jerry Hawthorne – definitely not suitable for the children into whose hands Paris hoped Philosophy in Sport would be placed.

The ‘curriculum’ of the three volumes is extensive: weight and gravity, motion, elasticity, rotary motion, oscillation, atmospheric pressure, principles of flight, music, and optical illusions are all covered, and intertwined with all sorts of comic alarums and excursions and romantic interludes. As Paris remarks to the parents of his potential child readers: ‘If it be argued that several of my comic representations are calculated, like seasoning, to stimulate the palate of the novel reader, rather than to nourish the minds of the younger class … I may … plead common usage; for does not the director of a juvenile fête courteously introduce a few piquant dishes, for the entertainment of those elder personages who may attend in the character of a chaperone?’ Plenty of tasty morsels at this fête!


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1 Response to Science (Almost) in Earnest

  1. Pingback: Don’t Try This At Home | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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