In marked contrast to Pope and Swift, Johnson was a good deal interested in science — particularly in chemistry, medicine, anatomy, astonomy, and Natural History, from which he derived numerous images and metaphors which appear in his various works — though the general trend of his remarks on the subject, as on most others, may have been, "on the whole," as W. K. Wimsatt has it, "melancholy." Johnson's interest in the sciences derived from his inexhaustible curiosity and his continual psychological need to distract his mind, to keep it from preying upon itself: he conducted scientific experiments of his own, and was, in general, interested in those which had been conducted by others, so long as their results agreed with his own observations and beliefs. He had, of course, been brought up to a trade himself — books which he bound with his own hands are still extant — and he respected trade and the "mechanic arts."

His friend Henry Thrale was a wealthy brewer, and after Thrale's death Johnson was appointed executor of his estate. When he was discovered bustling, in his official capacity, about Thrale's brewery, he was asked what he thought the value of the establishment might be, and is said to have replied "We are not here to sell a parcel of boilers and vats, but the potentiality of growing rich, beyond the dreams of avarice."

He took care, in the course of his travels, to observe and comment on various manufacturing processes — glassmaking in England, the production of tapestries and china in France, brass, copper, and iron works in Wales. In a letter to Susannah Thrale he advised her that because "all truth is valuable," she should avail herself of "all opportunities of knowledge that offer themselves": "Look in Herschel's telescope;" he told her (despite his satirical treatment of the astronomer in Rasselas), "go into a chymist's laboratory; if you see a manufactorer at work, remark his operations." What ought we to make of Johnson's tendency to derive imagery, both in his poetry and in his prose, from the science of his day? In what ways is his interest in science and technology characteristic of Johnson, and to what extent is it unexpected? What does it tell us about "The Age of Johnson" itself, considered as a transitional phase in the ongoing Industrial Revolution?

Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000