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Jane Marcet on Chemistry

Preparation of oxygen gas

Jane Marcet’s Conversations on Chemistry serves as a model of successful “popular science” writing. Despite its daunting subject matter, the book was a phenomenon, appearing in seventeen British editions, nearly two dozen American editions, and numerous translations. Though her name didn’t even appear in the first edition of 1806, the book was such a smash that Mrs. Marcet was encouraged by her publishers to duplicate the success she’d achieved with her chemistry book. She went on to publish  on topics ranging from political economy to vegetable physiology.

Conversations on Chemistry was notable for its demystifying approach to a complex subject: the text takes the form of a conversation between a teacher, Mrs. B, and her young charges Emily and Caroline. While the book was initially directed at a female readership, it found its way into the hands of countless male readers as well.

Oxygen and nitrogen

Most famously, Conversations on Chemistry is the book that served as Michael Faraday’s introduction to the chemical universe and to the wider world of science. In Mrs. Marcet, Faraday wrote, he had “got hold of an anchor in chemical knowledge, and clung fast to it.” A poor bookbinder’s apprentice, the young Faraday recreated Marcet’s experiments so far as he could, became an amateur chemist, and was set on a path to becoming the most famous British scientist of his day.

Jane Marcet. Conversations on Chemistry (2nd British edition), 1807

The gratitude and admiration Faraday felt for Mrs. Marcet did not diminish with the passage of time. Decades after reading her book, having become London’s most popular lecturer with his sold-out presentations at the Royal Institution, Faraday let Mrs. Marcet know that merely by appearing at the door – no ticket required – she would always be shown to the best seat in his lecture hall: “I so have given an order.”

George Edward Dering, who assembled the Vail Collection, owned the 14th British edition of Mrs. Marcet’s Conversations and took it with him to school at Rugby.

The MIT Libraries own other editions as well. One of MIT’s copies, pictured here, is the second British edition, the title page of which still did not give the author’s name. This copy is part of the Rogers Collection: it bears the autograph of Emma Savage, who would go on to marry William Barton Rogers, the founder of MIT.

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