Henry Cavendish, noted for his discovery of hydrogen, was a “notoriously shy man”. He communicated with his female servants only by notes. By one account, Cavendish had a back staircase added to his house to avoid encountering his housekeeper.

Henry Cavendish

For other people named Henry Cavendish, see Henry Cavendish (disambiguation).

Henry Cavendish FRS (/ˈkævəndɪʃ/; 10 October 1731 – 24 February 1810) was an English natural philosopher, scientist, and an important experimental and theoretical chemist and physicist. He is noted for his discovery of hydrogen, which he termed “inflammable air”. He described the density of inflammable air, which formed water on combustion, in a 1766 paper, On Factitious Airs. Antoine Lavoisier later reproduced Cavendish’s experiment and gave the element its name.

A notoriously shy man, Cavendish was nonetheless distinguished for great accuracy and precision in his researches into the composition of atmospheric air, the properties of different gases, the s… Continue Reading (13 minute read)

11 thoughts on “Henry Cavendish, noted for his discovery of hydrogen, was a “notoriously shy man”. He communicated with his female servants only by notes. By one account, Cavendish had a back staircase added to his house to avoid encountering his housekeeper.”

  1. notrexhudler

    Man, back staircase for avoiding people. Living the dream.

  2. KitBitSit

    I first read about him in a book about scientists through the ages. He was an interesting man. Some people today believe he had a form of autism, Asperger’s Syndrome.

    Due to his reticent nature, he never published many of findings, which were subsequently credited to others. He was also an extremely wealthy man.

    >Cavendish inherited two fortunes that were so large that Jean Baptiste Biot called him “the richest of all the savants and the most knowledgeable of the rich”. At his death, Cavendish was the largest depositor in the Bank of England. He was a shy man who was uncomfortable in society and avoided it when he could. He could speak to only one person at a time, and only if the person were known to him and male. He conversed little, always dressed in an old-fashioned suit, and developed no known deep personal attachments outside his family. Cavendish was taciturn and solitary and regarded by many as eccentric.

  3. antiquemule

    He was one of the great expermentalists. One of the best measured the density of the earth. From Wikipedia: *”What was extraordinary about Cavendish’s experiment was its elimination of every source of error and every factor that could disturb the experiment, and its precision in measuring an astonishingly small attraction, a mere 1/50,000,000 of the weight of the lead balls. The result that Cavendish obtained for the density of the Earth is within 1 percent of the currently accepted figure.”*

    His unpublished studies were of such high quality that James Clerk-Maxwell (one of the three greatest physicists) took the trouble to edit them and have them published. Some of the results were decades ahead of their discovery by others.

  4. phi-sequence

    To add: I’m aware that most wealthy houses back then had back staircases for their servants. However, I think this particular case with Cavendish and his shyness is humorous.

    > His only social outlet was the Royal Society Club, whose members dined together before weekly meetings. Cavendish seldom missed these meetings, and was profoundly respected by his contemporaries. However, his shyness made those who “sought his views… speak as if into vacancy. If their remarks were…worthy, they might receive a mumbled reply, but more often than not they would hear a peeved squeak (his voice appears to have been high-pitched) and turn to find an actual vacancy and the sight of Cavendish fleeing to find a more peaceful corner”.

  5. CrimsonPig

    He considered researching other elements, but the idea of multiple protons interacting made him nervous.

  6. Inbox_Goblin

    I read about this fellow in Neurotribes. He also calculated the density of Earth within a 1% margin using a method of measuring the attraction between two suspended lead weights.

    Apparently he took measurements for several hours in a day for months to narrow it down due to countless other physical interactions that polluted the experiment’s consistency.

    That’s probably why the experiment hadn’t been done before; other scientists knew it was possible, but it was just such an immense time sink that it wasn’t practical. Cavendish’s obsessive nature on the matter left him undeterred.

    When pressed on the matters of his research he’d often dismiss the notion that much of his work was actually impressive or important. After his death some contemporaries found a number of his unpublished experiments that would have predated major discoveries by a matter of years or even decades. The Wikipedia page lists a few in the Legacies section.

    As to why he didn’t communicate much it’s quite likely he had ASD. His peers remarked that it was difficult to get him to join in on conversations, and that the timbre of his voice was either monotonous or rapidly fluctuating whenever he spoke with them, often rising to an abnormally high pitch.

    There’s additional observations from peers that are consistent with ASD.

  7. xynix_ie

    Sounds like he may have been on the Spectrum eh?

  8. djnehi

    Sounds reasonable. People suck.

  9. AgentElman

    Houses with servants often had separate staircases for the servants. So this would not have been unusual.

  10. Shiny_Mega_Rayquaza

    Cavendish seems kind of bananas

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