Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hauksbee, Francis

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HAUKSBEE, FRANCIS, the elder (d. 1713?), electrician, was admitted fellow of the Royal Society on 30 Nov. 1705, having already acquired a reputation as experimentalist. Some of the facts observed, and in that year recorded by him, had more significance than was then understood, e.g. that (1) mercury shaken in a glass vessel produces light, and the light is very vivid when the air is rarefied one-half; (2) the light is due to friction; and (3) the following bodies produce light by friction in vacuo: amber and glass, glass and glass, woollen and woollen, and many others mentioned. Next year he contrived the first electrical machine, employing, he says, ‘a pretty large glass cylinder, turned by a winch and rubbed by the hand.’ Hauksbee not only attributed the phenomena to a new force, electricity, but compared the resulting light, with respect to its crackling, flashing, and colour, to lightning. He termed the electric light ‘mercurial phosphorus,’ because, as he described it, when passed through mercury in an exhausted receiver, ‘it appeared like a body of fire consisting of abundance of glowing globules.’ In 1709 appeared his ‘Physico-Mechanical Experiments on various subjects, containing an account of several surprising phenomena touching Light and Electricity, producible on the attrition of Bodies.’ The book is dedicated to Lord Somers, and was soon afterwards translated into French and Italian. In his preface Hauksbee recommends the employment in the study of natural philosophy of ‘demonstration and conclusions founded upon experiments judiciously and accurately made,’ and points out that the ‘nature and laws of electrical attractions have not yet been much considered by any.’

In his early experiments on electric light Hauksbee discovered the ‘lateral communication of motion in air,’ and thus suggested an important improvement in air-pumps. One form of that instrument still bears his name. About the same time he determined (before the Royal Society) water to be 885 times heavier than air, a result which is tolerably exact. Many papers by Hauksbee appeared in the ‘Philosophical Transactions;’ the latest posthumously in 1713 (see Watt, Bibl. Brit.) Some letters by Newton referring to Hauksbee are printed in Nichols's ‘Literary Illustrations’ (iv. 509).

Hauksbee, Francis, the younger (1687–1763), was perhaps a son of Francis Hauksbee the elder. He was elected clerk and housekeeper to the Royal Society on 9 May 1723, when he is described in the minute book as ‘a person known to divers members of the society.’ He died on 11 Jan. 1763, aged 75 (Gent. Mag. 1763, p. 46, where he is wrongly spoken of as F.R.S.) According to an advertisement he made and sold air-pumps, hydrostatic balances, and reflecting telescopes in Crane Court, Fleet Street. In 1731 appeared an ‘Essay for introducing a Portable Laboratory by means whereof all the Chemical operations are commodiously performed by P. Shaw and F. Hauksbee.’ It is dedicated to Sir Hans Sloane, bart. (then president of the Royal Society), and contains eight well-engraved copperplates. In 1731 Hauksbee printed ‘Experiments with a view to Practical Philosophy, Arts, Trades, and Business,’ a summary of ordinary chemical operations, with illustrations of distillation, mineralogy, metallurgy, and dyeing. This publication, like ‘Experimental Course of Astronomy proposed by Mr. Whiston and Mr. Hauksbee,’ suited for twenty-five lectures, was a syllabus of a course of experimental lectures. De Morgan conjectured that Hauksbee was the first to give lectures with experiments in London, and began them about 1714 (Budget of Paradoxes, p. 93). In his ‘Proposals for making a large Reflecting Telescope’ we have evidence of his skill as an instrument-maker and his acquaintance with John Hadley [q. v.], inventor of the sextant. In a ‘Course of Mechanical, Optical, and Pneumatical Experiments, to be performed by Francis Hauksbee, and the Explanatory Lectures read by Wm. Whiston, M.A.,’ we find under ‘Pneumatics,’ besides experiments on the ‘qualities of air,’ others ‘concerning the vitreous phosphori,’ and ‘relating to the electricity of bodies.’ Special points illustrated are an ‘electrical machine to revolve a sphere of glass with the air exhausted,’ and the ‘effect of electricity on strings of yarn.’ It is pointed out that the electric light has a purple tint.

[Phil. Trans. xxiv. 2129, 2165, xxv. 2277; Thomson's Hist. Roy. Soc.; Nichols's Illustr. of Lit. i. 810, iv. 59, 506; Watt's Bibl. Brit.]

R. E. A.