" I say then, let every considerate scholar in this University have the good sense to perceive, that when we are discouraging the disobedient, the riotous, and gross offenders of every kind, we are, in fact, pleading his own cause, and supporting his own credit and personal reputation." Isaac Milner
"It is in the direct interest of every scholar, who has any pretensions to parts, morals, or learning, that should be distinguished from the turbulent, the riotous, and I fear, I may add, the almost incurable." Isaac Milner
Isaac Milner (1750--1820), the seventh Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, started his undergraduate years at Cambridge as a sizar at Queens' College. He was a student who rose to eventually become president of the college and vice-chancellor of the university. He was respected as an administrator and accomplished in several academic fields. His early family life was a poor one, made more difficult by the early death of his father. He was given the opportunity to attend Cambridge by the help of his older brother Joseph and his own abilities. While a student at Cambridge he was required to perform many menial tasks because he was a sizar. The story is told that one day, after suffering yet another indignity performing one of these tasks, he uttered that when he got into power, he would remove the requirements. When he got into power, he in fact removed the requirements.1
The year of his graduation, 1774, he was first place winner in the tripos, designated senior wrangler, and winner of the Smith's prize. Milner's performance on the tripos was so spectacular that the examiners used the term Incomparibilis to describe him in the record book. They also left a blank line after his name to further highlight his separation from the rest of the candidates.2 He was elected a fellow of Queens' College in 1776, the year after he was ordained as a deacon, and elected to the Royal Society. In 1777 he proceeded to the degree of M.A. In addition, he received a bachelor of divinity in 1786,3 and doctor of divinity in 1788, the same year he was elected president of the college.4
Milner's career started in mathematics, which he dropped in favor of chemistry, and later dropped to concentrate on administration, but he also published works in astronomy. Milner was an accomplished man, but he was plagued with health problems for most of his life. In 1779, he unfortunately inhaled some kind of "noxious gas," which caused him problems for the rest of life. The early history of chemistry was dangerous, since those doing research were working in the unknown. Some of the discoveries came at a high, personal price.5 Milner was the first to hold the Jacksonian Chair of Natural Philosophy, elected in 1783, primarily for chemistry. One result of the Chair's bequest was that a building was erected for the delivery of public lectures for the Jacksonian professor and the professor of botany. It was the first building at the University that was designed specifically for science teaching.6
Milner was elected president of Queens' College in 1788 and later served as vice-chancellor for the university on two occasions, the first time late in 1792. 7 The vice-chancellor acted as the source of discipline for the university, not only for students, but for all connected with the university. He often held court, proceeding in trial fashion, to settle disputes between faculty members or to censure students who had broken the rules. Milner's view of the academic life with high moral standards can be seen in his written decisions and opinions in these cases.
During his tenure, he was involved in the banishment of a fellow, William Frend, who had written a document that was deemed an attack on established religion. After seeking legal counsel and making sure he had support from the powers at Cambridge, Milner began the proceedings against Frend. The trial was a difficult one which Frend never forgot.8In 1798, when Milner was elected to the Lucasian Professorship, Frend opposed him using the argument that Milner was not eligible because he was the master of Queens' College. The lawyers consulted gave the opinion that it was not relevant that Milner was president of the college.
Milner's second election to vice-chancellor was in 1809. The usual course of events was for the master of each college to have his turn for a one year appointment. This year it was anticipated that the master of Christ's College would be appointed. Unfortunately, because he had made himself so unpopular, the electors passed over him in favor of Milner. Milner had demonstrated his ability to handle the position even in difficult circumstances, so he became the obvious alternative.9
The university press benefited greatly from Milner's presence at Cambridge. He was interested in its operation and worked to improve its status. In his final address of the second term as vice-chancellor he listed the main objectives of the press:
1st. To produce accurate and well--printed Bibles and Prayer-books;
2nd. To print better editions of the Classics than are now in circulation;
3rd. To print, occasionally, various other works of learning; and
Lastly, To take care that every thing which we print be sold to the public on as reasonable terms as possible.10
This short list of objectives points out Milner's view of the university. He saw the university's first and foremost goal the promotion of the established Church of England and the religious principles for which it stood. Thus the printing of Bibles and prayer books was of prime importance. The classics were also important to him and he wanted to improve their publications. He worked long and hard to raise the standards of the university.
One can only conjecture, however, how he would view the press today on the third and fourth points. The "occasional" printing of other works of learning has become a large number of books covering as broad a spectrum of learning as can be imagined. The cost of books published by Cambridge University Press can be questioned if his standard of reasonable cost is applied.
Milner further suggested that the press be managed for the benefit of all and warned against the power of the press being placed in the hands of the few. He suggested that checks could be put into place, but cautioned against the restrictions on a press that go too far. He valued a free press, especially an academic one.11 He also recommended that the press be run by a deputy or some other administrative officer, rather than by the vice-chancellor12
While Milner was a professor at Cambridge he gave informal instruction and examined students, but he did not give lectures while Lucasian Professor. As the first Jacksonian Professor, he had given lectures in optics and chemistry. His poor health prevented him from giving lectures after he resigned from the Jacksonian Chair and assumed the deanery of Carlisle13 in 1792. He was too sick to attend his installation ceremony and was installed by proxy.14 He had continued to give lectures on chemistry even though he was not required to do so.
Milner was elected to the Lucasian chair in 1798 and remained until his death in 1820. The chair paid about 350 pounds per year at that time.15He examined students for the Smith's Prize as a duty of his tenure. He succeeded Edward Waring whom Milner considered always prepared to lecture and help students. He published his lectures to meet the requirement of depositing his lectures in the library as an obligation of the Lucasian Professorship.
While at Cambridge, he argued successfully against eliminating the "opponency" that all bachelor degree candidates were required to undergo.16 He also refused to sign a petition to eliminate the requirement for subscription to the Thirty-nine Articles. He was not a reformer, but was more interested in raising the academic status of Queens' College. He was against the Jacobites, referring to them in the same breath with infidels. Whenever he had an opportunity to cause them difficulty, he took it. On one occasion, he refused to appoint several otherwise qualified fellows because they were Jacobites.17
Milner devoted himself first to mathematics and then to chemistry. He is also able to claim a first in chemistry, the oxidation of ammonia to nitric acid.18 It was known during his time that ammonia could be obtained from nitric acid, but the reverse had not been done. Given that it was difficult then to get apparatus for experiments, he had to be resourceful. Milner used gun barrels for his experiments, which was fortuitous in the end. He boiled nitrous acid at one end of the barrel, while the other end was in water. This produced nitrogen, nitric oxide and nitrous oxide. He varied the amounts of iron in the gun barrels by adding iron filings, varied the rate of boiling and varied the degree of heat. He could thus control the quantities of the various forms of nitrogen.
This experiment was similar to one performed earlier by Joseph Priestley, but Milner was able to produce nitrogen much more easily. As Milner refined his experiment, he added alkali to create larger amounts of nitrogen, discovering he could produce "nitrous ammoniac." He took the next step, using "calcined green vitriol" to oxidize ammonia to nitric acid.
The oxidization of ammonia to nitric acid was a small step in the history of chemistry, but there came a surprising twist a few years later when England went to war with France. England had blockaded the import of nitre which came from Asia, but somehow France was able to obtain enough of it to continue making large quantities of gunpowder. It appears that they used Milner's method to create the needed nitre.19
Milner's chemistry lectures given from 1784 to 1788 were placed in the libraries of the university and in Trinity College. The lectures describe the state of the theories of heat at the time. He presented three alternatives, the first that fire is a fluid material consisting of a collection of particles that were all the same and infinitely small. These particles were constantly moving in all directions. This fluid would combine with other substances and would not show any characteristics of heat while combined. This material was known as phlogistan. The second theory was similar, except that the particles did not combine with anything. Their presence alone was fire. The third theory was that heat was a form of motion, as we know it today. The theory of phlogistan and the nature of heat was a topic of extensive discussion during the latter part of the 1700s. Milner came down on the side of progress and correct understanding.20
Phlogistan was thought to be a substance released from material that was burned. A professor at Halle University in Germany, Georg Stahl (1660-1734), was the principal architect of this theory. By 1750, phlogistan was an accepted explanation of heat throughout Europe.21 The first real attacks on this theory came from Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794), the main player in the Chemical Revolution of the late 1700s. The revolution was precipitated by the discovery of "dephlogisticated air" by Joseph Priestley in England and Karl Scheele in Sweden. Priestley announced his findings in 1775 and Scheele two years later, although Scheele had made his discovery two years earlier than Priestley.22 It was Lavoisier however that made the connection between this new "air" and fire. He realized this was a new element that combined with a substance when it burned, not something that was released. He named this new element oxygen. Priestley defended the phlogistan theory until his death in 1804. Lavoisier published his Traite Elementaire de Chimie in 1789, putting an end to the phlogistan theory of Stahl. His publication was the real birth of modern chemistry. In another important discovery that contributed to the moving ahead of science Count Rumford (Benjamin Thompson) performed experiments that showed that friction produces heat. He presented his findings to the Royal Society in 1798 that heat was just another form of motion. Lavoisier had given the name caloric to the fluid that he thought was heat in spite of his brilliant deductions concerning phlogistan.23 Milner had accepted that heat was a form of motion and that phlogistan was not a true description of the workings of combustion. He showed insight and understanding, but unfortunately did not prove any of his ideas with experiments.
Milner was one of the original members of the Society for the Promotion of Philosophy and General Literature established in 1784. This group of distinguished professors wanted to create a forum for communicating research results. Newton had tried to form something similar, but there was not enough experimental interest to sustain a group. The society lasted for two years, with Milner presenting two papers in 1786, its final year. In 1819 Milner participated in the founding of the Cambridge Philosophical Society which was a successful venture. Milner was very interested in mechanical devices. He had acquired a substantial array of airpumps and related apparatus.24
Milner invented several items, for example, a lamp that was actually sold by a servant for several years, making a profit. Milner had turned over the lamp to the servant. The lamp was invented because for Milner candle light was not good enough for reading. The main problem was the diffusion of light throughout the room. He made a shade that focused the light on the reading material. Another invention of his was a water clock with a small lamp behind the face, made of a translucent material, so that the clock could be read during the night. It worked as both a night lamp and clock.25
Milner was clearly enveloped in religion with strong opinions that were enforced from his positions of power within the university. He was engaged in numerous controversies, wrote several religious works and edited the religious works of his brother, Joseph Milner.26 In fact, a good deal of his life was engaged in editing his brother's works which were left incomplete by Joseph's early death. Isaac completed the works, wrote commentary and even wrote his brother's biography. All of these works were religious in nature.
Joseph Milner's Church History was very popular in Germany, having been translated and distributed by Peter Mortimer, acting on his own accord.27 He wrote a letter to Isaac asking for the changes to the new edition. He also listed a number of countries that were reading the book. Milner was against the emancipation of Catholic's in England, having stated thus openly in sermons delivered publicly and published.28
- Dictionary of National Biography (London: Oxford University Press, 1882).
- B. B. Edwards, Biography of Self Taught Men (Boston: Perkins & Marvin, 1832), 173.
- Dictionary of National Biography.
- Edwards, 174.
- Mary Milner, Life of Isaac Milner, D.D., F.R.S. (London: Parker, 1842), 28.
- L. M. Coleby, "Isaac Milner and the Jacksonian Chair of Natural Philosophy," Annals of Science 10 (1954): 236.
- Milner, 86.
- Milner, 381.
- Milner, 436.
- Milner, 437.
- Milner, 439.
- Milner, 51.
- Milner, 74.
- Edwards, 175.
- Dictionary of National Biography.
- Milner, 243.
- Coleby, 238.
- Coleby, 241.
- Coleby, 244.
Will Durant, The Age of Voltaire (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965), 524.
- Cohen 1985 515.
- Weaver 1987 670.
- Milner, 70.
- Milner, 416.
- Dictionary of National Biography.
- Milner, M. 1842 336.
- Milner, M. 1842 344.