Article 14

ART. XIV. A Manual of Analytical Mineralogy, &c. &c. By Frederick Accum, Honorary Member of the Irish Academy; Operative Chemist, &c. pp. 560, 2 vols. 12mo. London, Kearsley, 1808.

[pp. 153-161] [original article in PDF format]

  1. BEING as yet novices in the art on which we have entered, and therefore, perhaps, unwilling to substitute our own opinions for those of the author, we shall in the present instance, only aim at literally fulfilling the duties of our office: and having perused the book before us, entitled 'A Manual of Analytical Mineralogy,' &c. present such a sketch [153] of its character and contents, as in our humble opinion is calculated to give a discerning public the power of appreciating its merits.

  2. The work consists of two duodecimo volumes containing altogether about 560 pages; but as very nearly 300 of these are copied from the English translation of Klaproth's Analytical Essays, and from similar publications of Mr. Davy, and various chemists and mineralogists, this part of the work may fairly claim an exemption from criticism : since it would be neither just that others should share in our praises of the author; nor that he should have to answer for their errors and imperfections. It is enough for them to know, to use Mr. Accum's emphatical language, that 'he has detailed their respective analyses with as much accuracy and fidelity as his slender abilities could suggest,' p. viii. and it would be unpardonable in us not to bear the most ample testimony to the truth of this assertion. So great, indeed, is his fidelity, in the discharge of this part of his duty, that he is not even tempted to swerve from it by the lure of a grammatical error; as may be seen by the following passage, from p. 376: 'But what concerns the soda, it is no matter of wonder that it has escaped his attention.'—Klaproth's Essays, vol. ii. p. 201. We much question whether Mr. Porson or Mr. Gaisford would hate shewn such disinterested abstinence. Equally accurate is he in his translations from the French, &c. What, for instance, can be more closely rendered than 'oligistous iron,' p. 89, for 'fer oligiste;' or than 'Amphigenic lithoidal lavas,' p. 88, for 'Laves lithoides Amphigéniques?' in the last of which instances, if not in both, it may almost be said, that the terms correspond so closely, as to render it difficult to decide which is the translation and which the original.

  3. We believe, that in his whole work one only instance occurs in which he has deviated from his accustomed 'accuracy and fidelity.' It is that in which he makes Mr. Klaproth propose an hypothetical conclusion in the following words, 'which to suppose I am induced to believe from the vapours, &c.;' p. 364. in Klaproth's Essays standing thus—'which to suppose I am induced from the vapours,' &c. Klap. Essays, vol. ii. p. 192 : But even the severest critic will allow, and indeed it is visible to be seen (to imitate Mr. Accum's mode of expression in the present case) that the original has not lost any thing by the variation here adopted. The licence however which Mr. Accum has in this instance assumed, is somewhat remarkable, because he himself seems to rejoice not so much in pleonasms as in ellipses; witness [154] the following observation on the mineral called sulphate of strontian: 'its colour is most commonly reddish, or sky blue, and sometimes colourless.' p. 465.

  4. But, to quit this digression, the accuracy of our author's mind is equally conspicuous where he distributes his information from his own stores; of which one or two examples will be sufficient for the present purpose. Thus, after having forcibly impressed upon us the necessity that the balances or scales employed in analysis should be as delicate and correct as possible, he proceeds to the consideration of weights, and introduces the subject with the following sensible observation; 'As the utility of analytical research depends greatly upon the determination of the quantities of the ingredients and products, not only accurate scales but accurate weights are also necessary,' p. 13. Again, speaking of the method of ascertaining the specific gravity of particular bodies, he says, 'The substance in question must be reduced into fine powder, unless it be already in that shape,' p. 27. The precision of this caution is admirably calculated to prevent the embarrassment of a certain description of philosophers, who in default of direct rules for proceeding are in the habit of adopting that sentiment of Plutarch, ; and may be considered as a counterpart of the excellent introduction to the well known receipt for dressing a carp, 'First, catch your carp.'

  5. On another occasion, in treating of the classification of minerals, he concludes with the following presumption; which we are sure the greatest sceptic need not be afraid of admitting : 'When the analysis of a mineral has been effected, we presume that a similarity of composition will exist in other specimens which agree with it closely in their internal and external characters,' p. 62. But if his caution in drawing his own conclusions is great, his boldness in opposing the unfounded speculations of others is equally great: thus, in the second page of his work, he at once cuts short the philosophical reveries of Dr. Plot; and settles for ever a question of which the learned and unlearned have long doubted, by asserting, quasi ex cathedrà, that 'Minerals absolutely possess no life.' The passage which follows, is not perhaps strictly connected with the present question ; but it is pathetic, and we shall therefore take the liberty of transcribing it. 'Minerals may increase in size,' he says, 'but their growth is exceedingly different from the growth of organic beings; since it does not take place by virtue of nutrition and subsequent expansion of organic matter; is not affected by external functions; [155] and produces no advantage to the individual.' p. 2. Accordingly, adverting to this subject in another part of his work, he observes, with just indignation, 'the popular opinion that coals grow like vegetables, so that the mines that are exhausted may be opened again, and worked after a series of years, is too erroneous to need any formal refutation,' p. 529.

  6. Of the language of our author we speak with great diffidence, as of one more addicted to writing than we ourselves have been, or even hope to be. Perhaps however we may venture to suggest that there is a slight degree of affectation in his mode of spelling, particularly in the case of Greek derivatives; as kaupolite, onix, lythomarge, botroydal, &c. for koupholite, onyx, &c.: and, considering that he writes in prose, he seems rather too partial to the latter clause of that convenient licence with respect to letters, which, according to the grammarian Busbeïus, 'duplat vel tollit medias pro carminis usu;' as in the words thalite, dialage, alochroite, &c. for thallite, diallage, allochroïte, &c.

  7. He is also very fond of a word, which we presume is delicately discriminative, but which we often found ourselves unable to construe: thus, in speaking of inflammable substances, he says 'they are all insoluble, at least in their totality, in alkohol.' p. 526.

  8. We have not the pleasure of knowing the author's family, but were very happy in seeing a poor relative brought forward in a conspicuous point of view in the following sentence; 'the only combustible substance of what it will be necessary to speak, are coals;' p. 530, particularly as there are instances in which he seems to want the same charity. Doubtless however he has good grounds for what he does in those instances, and therefore we willingly forego the invidious task of producing the passages which contain them; contenting ourselves with saying that those as wish to see them may consult pp.21 and 523 of the work, and p. viii. of the preface.

  9. Mr. Accum possesses in a remarkable degree the pleasing and useful talent of introducing, incidentally as it were, collateral points of information. Thus, in treating of fuel and the application of heat, he delights those who knew not the facts before, by acquainting them that 'spirit of wine, oil, and melted tallow are burnt in lamps of various constructions; and that wood, turf, coal, charcoal, and coke are burnt in grates and furnaces.' p. 48. So again, having alluded to the experiment made by Dr. Maskelyne, on the sides of Schihallien, for the purpose of ascertaining the mean density of the earth; and having paid a flattering compliment [156] to the skill of that philosopher, he modestly suggests an improvement upon his mode of conducting the experiment; in the course of which he teaches us, by the way, that mountains themselves, which run east and west, may be considered 'as composed of a number of parallel and vertical slices, formed by planes, in the direction of the meridian.' p. 54. It is so long since we attended Mr. Walker's lectures on experimental philosophy, that we feel obliged to Mr. Accum for mentioning a circumstance which we confess had almost escaped our recollection; namely, that 'a ship might be made of iron, or copper, or in short of any other substance whose specific gravity far exceeds that of water, and yet it would float as well as a ship which is made of wood in the usual way.' p. 23. But the most interesting examples of his talent for communicating collateral information remain to be noticed: the first of these occurs in that part of the work where having closed an account of the operations of Analysis by a long list of 'instruments of experiment,' and chemical preparations called 'reagents or tests,' he enhances the value of this index to the reader, though more, probably, to himself, by the subjoined notice that all the substances there enumerated 'may be had at the author's laboratory, as a companion to this essay.' p. 42. Other examples may be found in pp. 97, 157, 194, 319, 406, 530, and 555; in which having descanted on the topics before him as far as appeared convenient, he, to the very agreeable surprise of his readers, and with kind solicitude for their future improvement, informs them 'that for a more circumstantial account of the general nature of those subjects they may consult a system of mineralogy and mineralogical chemistry, now in the press, which will be published by him shortly.' Some invidious critics will perhaps suspect that this idea is borrowed from the well known dramatist, 'whose benefit is fixed, &.c. &c.' to which we shall only answer, in the words of our author on a different occasion, 'such an opinion does not need any formal refutation.'

  10. The subject of geology, which every competent judge will allow to be both delicate and difficult, and on which so many volumes have been written in vain, is elucidated by Mr. Accum with brevity and perspicuity: and we think it would be an injustice on this occasion to use any other words than his own. 'Different opinions,' he says,'have been formed concerning the question in what manner our earth was brought into the present distribution of its parts.' p. 54. He then states several theories very briefly, among the most interesting of which are the following [157]:—'Some have conceived the idea of a world perhaps without beginning, but by the action of internal fires, with volcanic orifices, continually lacerated, undermined and subverted, with the constant rise of a new earth, the residue and product from those fires by which the former was demolished.' pp. 55 and 56.

  11. 'Others, again, have fancied a continual flitting of the ocean around the globe; by which that which was lately land becomes now the bottom of the sea, and that which is now covered by the sea is again to become land.' p. 56. Perhaps he may be thought by some to be too severe in his strictures on the authors of these very ingenious theories, when he says 'These fanciful opinions, to say nothing of the impious nature of some of them, have generally rather resembled philosophical dreams, than the conceptions of waking and sober reason.' p. 56. Severity, however is not his characteristic; and accordingly he hastens to acquaint us that 'amidst all the splendid rubbish with which this department of natural history has been incumbered, some precious treasures have been brought to light:' and 'amidst the speculations which have darkened counsel, large additions have been made to our knowledge of this important subject.' p. 56 and 57. In another part of his work he says, 'In vain have philosophers endeavoured to form perfect theories of this subject. If it were permitted to man to follow, during several ages, the various changes which are produced on the surface of our globe, by the numerous agents that alter it, we might perhaps be in possession at this moment of the most valuable information respecting this subject; but thrown as we are upon a small point of this vast theatre of observation, we can only fix our attention for a minute, to reason upon subjects which have employed the works of nature for ages, and disappear ourselves at the moment wherein we have proceeded so far as to collect a few facts.' p. 318. And here again he mitigates the severity of his former censures, by observing 'It must nevertheless be acknowledged that those men, who, by the mere efforts of their imagination, have endeavoured to form ideas respecting the construction and the great phenomena of this subject, have numerous claims to our indulgence.' p. 318. Surely the hardest hearted stoic will not refuse them this; especially when their cause is so eloquently pleaded as in the following sentences : 'In their proceedings we behold the efforts of genius tormented with the desire of acquiring knowledge, and irritated at the prospect of the scanty means which nature has put in. its power. They have endeavoured to embellish their hypotheses with every ornament which imagination and eloquence can furnish, [158] either as instruments of illusion or entertainment: we ought to consider ourselves highly indebted to them.' p. 318 and 319. With respect to the subject of geology we cannot exactly ascertain whether Mr. Accum patronizes the Neptunian or the Plutonian theory: we suspect, the former; because, after having insisted on the existence of every physical and moral proof in support of it, he concludes with great naïveté, 'accordingly it is very remarkable that a great majority of modern theorists have embraced this doctrine.' p. 60.

  12. We very much regret not having had earlier information of a circumstance stated in p. 527, 'that coals are found on the mountains, in strata from a few inches to some feet in thickness:' for we happen to live in a hilly district, where but for our ignorance we might have obtained good store of that useful commodity in the late severe weather, at a very cheap rate; whereas the dishonest dealer who sold them to us at an enormous price, justified himself by a plausible story that they were dug at a vast expence and trouble many feet below the level of the earth. By the way, the author's theory of the origin of coals is ingenious: 'with respect to the origin of coals' he says, 'the most probable supposition is this; that they originate from vegetables: but a few forests being buried in the earth are not sufficient to form the mountains of coal which exist in its bowels,' p. 528. This position we presume will be granted. Mr. Accum then observes 'a greater cause more proportioned to the magnitude of the effect is required; and we find it only in that prodigious quantity of vegetables which grow in the sea, and is increased by the immense mass of those which are carried down by rivers.' p. 528 and 529. The latter part of this hypothesis has been we fear illustrated by many distressing instances during the recent floods: and as it is to be hoped that this part of the supply at least will be in future withheld, government would do well perhaps in offering a premium to scullery maids, for the greatest quantity of cabbage leaves, potatoe parings, &c. which they are in the habit of reserving for the pigs or for the dunghill, and which it now appears may be applied to a much more important purpose; for Mr. Accum says that these vegetables carried away by the currents, are agitated, heaped together, and broken by the waves; and afterwards become covered with strata of argillaceous earth, or sand; they undergo a gradual decomposition, and form so many strata of coal, placed alternately with strata of clay and sand.' p. 529. They who are fond of investigating the links which, insensibly as it ware, unite the different kingdoms of nature with [159] each other, will be agreeably surprised to find in one part of the foregoing theory that the 'vegetable origin' of coals 'is fairly inferred' among other proofs, 'from the impressions of animals' contained within their substance.

  13. It is a good old practice for reviewers to produce specimens of their author's style: this has been already done in part, and we shall therefore only select one more passage. It comprehends the two first pages of the preface, and begins thus:

    'In the lines prefixed to the first edition of this book the reader is informed that the work was not originally drawn up for public inspection, but that it was intended to serve as a text book for my pupils, to render more useful the series of lectures I deliver on the subject of which it treats. By the repeated desire of others, whose judgment and advice I respect, it was afterwards re-published in the manner it was originally composed.

    'The unexpected public and private approbations which the work met with, amongst a scientific public, are flattering proofs that my labours were considered as not altogether useless. And the rapid sale of an uncommonly large edition, which was disposed of in less than eighteen months after its publication, gives me reason to think that the votaries of the science are numerous. Indeed there is no extravagance in saying that there never was a time in which the science of mineralogy was cultivated in Great Britain with more ardour and success than at present; and in which it has contributed more strikingly to the improvement of our arts and the extension of our commerce. The foreign mining establishments and manufactures are overwhelmed and greatly ruined by the dreadful political storms in which they have been, and still are, engaged; whereas the British miner can carry on his subterraneous workings without molestation, and with success. The smelter is not driven from his furnace, nor the potter from his lathe, by political commotions; and the theatre of the war which we wage with foreign enemies is, and, whatever they may desperately attempt, will continue to be remote.'

    The assurance in the concluding paragraph of the foregoing passage, to say nothing of its eloquence, is truly comfortable; and has quieted in our minds a thousand patriotic fears and apprehensions which had arisen from the melancholy forebodings of some of our brethren, whose authority in politics we consider 'tantum non' as high as that immediately before us.

  14. With respect to Mr. Accum's 'method of communicating knowledge to others,' though we perfectly agree with the Philosophical Magazine (quoted by our author on the opposite side of the title page of his manual) that it is 'engaging;' yet we think that it is occasionally too esoteric: as when, in entering upon the [160] history of metallic substances, he says, 'all metals are combustible,' p. 93, and again when he endeavours to point out to 'the unlearned farmer,' the easiest method of chemically examining marls! p. 392. The 'students' and 'beginners' also, for whom he has expressly written this essay, will perhaps not admire his determination of 'seldom entering into explanatory discussions' of the processes. (Preface, p. ix.) But these are matters of opinion, which we propose, not without hesitation; and with respect to those few errors which we here and there met with, as in the mode of estimating the quantity of iron contained in a mineral, p. 102, and of copper, p. 107, we consider them as oversights which the author will correct in his third edition; and at all events, of too little consequence to deserve any severe censure.

  15. Thus far in perfect good humour, and without the least intention of injuring or offending one of whom we neither know nor suspect any harm. Mr. Accum indeed seems to be an active, industrious, and acute man in his sphere of life; and as such, we cannot wonder at, and can scarcely blame, him for converting the follies of his neighbours to his own advantage. Yet, if he will listen to a word of advice offered with a friendly intention, we cannot help thinking that neither himself nor others will suffer by adopting it. If then, omitting all philosophical discussions, and leaving the details of such experienced chemists as Klaproth for the use of those who have passed the threshold of the science, he would frame a set of simple directions to be observed in the analysis of minerals; if, disregarding for the present the more rare and cosily varieties, he would detail the processes necessary for the analysis of common limestones, of marls and clays, and of those metallic ores which are frequently found in this island— pointing out the appearances that are most likely to embarrass a beginner, and the errors into which in various instances he is most likely to fall;—we think, that in this case he would render a real benefit to a branch of science which is neither useless nor inelegant; and would at the same time secure to himself an equal degree of profit and fame, better adapted to his situation in life, than he can possibly reap from his present labours. [161]