He suffered from shyness to a degree “bordering on disease”.
Henry Cavendish is one of the greatest English chemists and physicists of his time. Although fairly unknown to the majority of us normal people, Cavendish is a distinguished name among the scientific community. For instance, I bet you didn’t know that Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University is named in commemoration of him. Cavendish was a bona fide genius. But most interesting of all – he suffered from a crippling social anxiety.
Just to demonstrate to you how amazingly self-effacing Henry Cavendish was, he first discovered 5 entire laws that were never even attributed to him. These were:
- Richter’s Law of Reciprocal Proportions,
- Ohm’s Law,
- Dalton’s Law of Partial Pressures,
- Coulomb’s Law
- Charles’s Law of Gases
Why did he never take the credit? Why did none of these laws bare his name? Because he was extremely introverted, and extremely shy. Due to Henry’s asocial and secretive behavior, he eschewed and avoided publishing his findings. Many of his discoveries weren’t even told to his fellow scientists at all. But, thanks to James Clerk Maxwell (a Mathematical Physicist and Professor of course), Cavendish was finally appreciated for what he was. A limelight-shrinking genius. After going through Cavendish’s papers long after his death to edit them, Maxwell realized that much of what Henry found or anticipated had been accredited to others.
Cavendish is most famous for measuring the weight of the Earth with uncanny accuracy – despite working with equipment that resembled one of Saw’s torture devices (i.e. counterweights, pendulums, shafts, and torsion wires).
Cavendish estimated the Earth weighed a little over 13,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 pounds, or six billion trillion metric tons. Almost 250 years – and a Terminator movie franchise – later, today’s scientists with the most advanced technology disposable to man, estimate the earth to weigh around 5.9725 billion trillion metric tons; this is a difference of around 1% of his findings. Not only this, but Cavendish was also a pioneer in noble gas experimenting, being the first person to successfully isolate hydrogen and the first to combine hydrogen and oxygen to form water.
Henry’s biographers describe him as man of a “most reserved disposition“, other people even claiming he suffered from shyness to a degree “bordering on disease“. What is certain is that Cavendish was a very solitary and eccentric man. People brought him such great discomfort in my opinion due to the death of his mother in childbirth, at a very young age. Born into a plush family in 1731, Cavendish was the grandson of Dukes, and the eldest son of Lord Charles Cavendish. When Cavendish’s father passed away, he inherited an immense fortune that was used to finance his bizarre nature and anti-social behavior.
3 Asocial Quirks Of Henry Cavendish
- Cavendish ordered the installation of secret staircases in his home in an attempt to avoid his housekeeper as much as possible. This was because female company caused him “extreme distress” – unsurprisingly he never married. In order to communicate with his housemaid, Cavendish devised a note system he would use to talk to his maid (perhaps Post-It Notes are another of his unaccredited inventions).
- The only known socializing Cavendish would ever perform was at the Royal Society on Thursday’s to attend dinner with his fellow scientists. It was made clear however to the other guests that Henry was on no account to be approached or even looked at. If you wanted to ask his opinion regarding a topic, you were advised to wander into his proximity casually, as if by chance, and to “speak as it were into vacancy“. If he found your thoughts on the matter of any significance he would timidly mumble a reply, although more often you would hear a slight hesitant gasp of surprise and turn to find an empty void of space with the sight of Henry’s posterior vanishing to a calmer corner of the room.
- It’s reported that on one occasion Cavendish answered the door and was surprised by an admirer that had come all the way from Vienna, Austria. The Austrian immediately started showering him with compliments that were received by Cavendish like percussion’s to the head with a blunt instrument. Unable to deal with this any further, he fleeted out the door and onto the road leaving the front door entirely open. It was only several hours later that he was found in some nearby woods and they could convince him that it was safe to return into the property.
Almost nothing Cavendish did was divorced from strangeness or the ludicrous. And for this reason, Henry Cavendish remains one of my all time favorite historical and obscure loner characters.
Source: Cavendish: The Experimental Life