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JANUARY 28th, 1852














Three years have now elapsed since the delivery of this Lecture, during which time I have been repeatedly asked to submit it to the public. I have hitherto refused, as I did not consider it worthy of being sent to the press. Becoming however, impressed with the idea that JOHNSON JEX might prove useful to some amongst the working classes, I at length resolved to publish it in the hope that it might act as a stimulus to those who have to struggle with great difficulties in the acquisition of knowledge.
Many of the facts relating to Johnson Jex recorded in these pages appeared originally in a short memoir which I sent to the “Norfolk News”, but much fresh matter, including some original letters, has been added.





The subject of the following sketch was familiarly known in the neighbourhood in which he resided as “The Learned Blacksmith of Letheringsett”. Amid the galaxy of men who have sprung from the lowest grades of society and who by their own unassisted genius have risen to the possession of great mechanical and intellectual power, the anvil has furnished some of the most striking instances. The name of ELIHU BURRITT proves the truth of this assertion, and I believe that for the vigor of understanding and indomitable perseverance, Johnson Jex was in no degree inferior to the American Blacksmith. He might have carved himself as high a niche in the Temple of Fame as Burritt now occupies had he been brought into public notice instead of passing his life in obscurity. I hope that a short account of his life and of his mechanical inventions may be interesting and instructive to many, who, possessing far greater educational advantages than Jex ever enjoyed, have yet perhaps failed to improve, as energetically as he did, the talents that God gave them. Jex was one of whom it might truly be said that he did not belong to “the crowd of those that are faithfully stamped like bank notes with the same marks, with the difference only being worth more guineas or fewer”. He possessed in no common degree the inventive faculty – that special attribute of genius – and it was this that raised him so high above the mass of men who think and act as they are directed by some ‘master spirit’, but who would never originate an idea or discover a new application of any principle if they lived to the age of Methuselah.

Johnson Jex was the son of William Jex, a blacksmith, and was born at Billingford in the county of Norfolk, in or about the year 1778. In boyhood he was sent to a day–school, but he has often been heard to say that although he was sent off to school for years, he never went three months in his life. He frequently went to Foulsham instead, to look in at the shop window of Mr Mayes, a watchmaker, who resided there. He did not even learn to read and write at school, but taught himself afterwards. His mechanical talent manifested itself at a very early age. When about five years old he was left alone in a room at his grandmother’s, at Cley next the Sea, and employed his time in taking a lock off a drawer with an old knife, “to see what was in it”.

With regard to Jex’s first experiment in clock work, the following anecdote is related. When about twelve or thirteen years of age, a watchmaker went to his mother’s house to clean a clock. Jex watched him while he took it in pieces, cleaned the works, and put them together again. No sooner had he left, than the boy determined to try whether he could not do the same. He at once went to work, and completed his task with all the skill and exactitude of an experienced hand. (He did not mention this occurrence until several years afterwards.) From that time he began to turn his attention to watch and clock making, and, without having served an apprenticeship, eventually attained great excellency in the art. When about thirteen years old he became acquainted with Mr. Mayes, of whom mention has already been made. Mr. Mayes’ attention was first attracted towards Jex by frequently observing him looking in at his window. He at length asked him what he wanted. Jex replied, he “wished to see that thing” – pointing to a newly–invented instrument used for either clock or watch making.  Mr. Mayes showed it to him, but did not allow him to touch it. Jex declared he “could make one like it”, and he accordingly did so in about a month. Mr. Mayes was delighted with the talent and ingenuity displayed by the boy, and from that time took great pleasure in showing him anything connected with his business. At his death he left Jex a legacy of £50, as a proof of the high esteem he entertained for him.

In early life Jex was by no means robust in health, and he afterwards declared his belief that working with the Bout hammer, at the blacksmith’s anvil, had been the means of strengthening his constitution and saving his life. Some particulars of Jex’s early life are given in Arthur Young’s “General View of the Agriculture of the County of Norfolk”. I subjoin the following extract written about the year 1802.

“Under the head Implements, I must not conclude without mentioning a person of most extraordinary mechanical talents. Mr Jex, a young blacksmith at Billingford, sixteen years of age, having heard that there was such a machine as a Way–measurer, reflected by what machinery the result could be produced, and set to work to contrive one; the whole was his own invention. It was done as might be expected, in a round–a–bout way, a motion too accelerated, corrected by additional wheels, but throughout the complicity such accurate calculations were the basis of his work, that when finished and tried it was perfectly correct without alteration. His inventive talents are unquestionable. He has made a machine for cutting watch pinions, a depthening tool, a machine for cutting and finishing watch–wheel teeth, of his own invention, a clock barrel and fusee engine, made without ever seeing anything of the kind. He made a clock, the teeth of the wheels cut with a hacksaw, and the balance with a half–round file. He has made an electrical machine, and a powerful horse–shoe magnet. Upon being shown by Mr. Munnings a common barrow–drill, the delivery by a notched cylinder, he invented and wrought an absolutely new delivery; a brass cylinder, with holes, having moveable plugs governed by springs which clear the holes or cups, throwing out the seed of any size with great accuracy; and not liking the application of the springs on the outside of the cylinder, reversed the whole; and in a second, now making, placed them most ingeniously within it. He has not yet failed in anything he has undertaken; he makes everything himself, he models and casts them in iron and brass, having a powerful wind furnace of his own invention. It is melancholy to see such a genius employed in all the work of a common blacksmith. However he is only 23 years of age, and I am mistaken greatly if he does not ere long move in a much higher sphere. This is not a country in which such talents can long be buried: a mind so occupied has had no time for vicious habits; he is a very sober, honest young man, and bears an excellent character.”

Unhappily for the interests of science, the talents which attracted such admiration at so early an age, and which expanded with the growth of years, were destined to remain forever buried in obscurity. Shortly after Young’s notice of him was written, Jex moved to Letheringsett, near Holt, where he worked as a common blacksmith till within thirty–five years of his death. During this latter part of his life he employed workmen in the practical part of his business, but he continued till his decease to live in the house adjoining the blacksmith’s shop. His mother, to whom he was devotedly attached, was his companion until her death, which took place about twenty years before her son’s decease. After the loss of his mother he led a life of perfect solitude. No monk, bound by the vows of his order, ever devoted himself more completely to the service of the church than did Johnson Jex to the pursuit of science. For this he “lived, moved, and had his being”. His thirst for knowledge of every kind was so great that no obstacles in the way of its attainment appeared insurmountable. His natural taste for mechanics led him to devote the greater part of his time to this branch of science; and some of his inventions were evidences of a splendid intellect conjoined with the power of severe and continuous application.

The first watch ever made by Jex was made after he had settled at Letheringsett, for his friend the Rev. T. Munnings, of Gorget, near Dereham. Every part of this watch, including the silver face, and every tool employed in its construction, were of Jex’s own making. At Mr. Munnings’ request he engraved inside the watch these lines:–

“I Johnson Jex, a blacksmith bred,
With some strange crankums in my head,
And tools on which I could depend,
By me invented, for  a friend
This time piece made from end to end.
If this your mind should still perplex,
Behold my name – ‘tis Johnson Jex.”

This watch was stolen by housebreakers, and the particular escapement adopted by Jex in its construction cannot now be ascertained. It is believed, however, to have resembled that known to watchmakers as the “horizontal escapement”, as he actually made a “ruby cylinder” for this watch. This fact was mentioned to Arnold and Earnshaw, two celebrated London watchmakers. The former declared that a ruby cylinder could not be made out of the metropolis, and that only two or three Italians in London could make such a thing. Mr. Earnshaw said it might be possible to have a ruby cylinder made in the country, but it was not probable, and he expressed a great wish to see the “Village Blacksmith” who had achieved such a triumph of skill, offering at the same time to show him all possible attention.
One of the greatest efforts of Jex’s inventive powers was the construction of a gold Chronometer, with what is technically termed a “detached escapement” the principle of which has since been so successfully applied by Arnold and Earnshaw. Jex turned the jewels himself, made the cases, the chain, the mainspring, and indeed every part of the watch except the dial. Nearly all the instruments with which he executed this wonderful piece of mechanism were of his own workmanship. It is only by watchmakers themselves that this triumph of skill can be adequately appreciated. They know that no single man is ever employed to make a complete chronometer, but that different parts of the mechanism are entrusted to different hands, and that many are employed on a single watch. Several watchmakers refused to give credence to the statement when first told, that Johnson Jex, a blacksmith, had made a chronometer by his own unassisted skill – more especially when informed that he had disdained to tread the beaten path, a servile imitator, but had applied an entirely new principle in its mechanism.

There are so many people in this country who call themselves “watchmakers” that the simple fact of Jex’s having made a watch, or even a chronometer, may excite little surprise in the minds of some, but I do not hesitate to affirm that no other man in Norfolk except Johnson Jex ever made a watch at all, much less discovered an entirely new principle for a chronometer and then carried out that principle in construction. Those who are commonly denominated watch–makers are nothing more than watch–sellers and watch–cleaners. Almost all watches are manufactured and put together in London or other large towns and some twenty or thirty individuals are employed on a single watch. The late Mr. Cozens, of London (whose name is familiar to most watchmakers) actually furnished Jex with the gold and the other metals in their rough state from which he manufactured the chronometer. It was made at the request of the late Sir Jacob Astley for his son, Mr. Edward Astley, who took it with him to India, and it has a compensating balance which enabled it to keep time with equal accuracy in the Torrid, the Frigid, or the Temperate Zone. By a curious coincidence it afterwards fell into Mr. Cozens’ hands, and was purchased as a curiosity by Mr. Blakely, of Norwich, in whose possession it still remains. Inside the case are engraved the words “An original invention, by Johnson Jex”. This chronometer was exhibited a few years ago at the Norwich Polytechnic.

In the year 1806 Jex invented a Dibbling machine for sowing wheat, which at the suggestion of his friend Mr. Munnings he exhibited at the “Holkham Sheep Shearing” (This was an Annual Meeting of Norfolk Agriculturalists, held at Holkham, which was continued for a number of years by the late Earl of Leicester). Owing, however, either to its complicated structure or to some personal pique between Mr. Munnings and Mr. Coke, its value was not appreciated. This so disgusted Jex that he declared he would never again bring any of his inventions before the public, and to this resolution he firmly adhered. He took the Implement to pieces and could never be persuaded to put it back together again. Jex’s inventive faculty appears to have taken a wide range and to have been in constant and active operation. The process and the completion of an original invention were sources of perfect delight to him, but he appear to have been destined to revel alone in the richness of his intellectual banquet. He turned his attention about 30 years ago to Horticultural Buildings, and to the cultivation of pines, and he constructed for his Pinery a self–regulating window for preserving a uniform degree of heat through the day. This invention is explained by himself in the following letter which he addressed to Thomas W Coke, Esq., the late Earl of Leicester, soliciting his patronage.

                                                                                    Letheringsett, August 18th, 1825
To T. W. COKE, ESQ., M.P.
I hope the usefulness of the following invention will be considered a sufficient apology for the liberty I have taken in addressing you. For a short account of some of my first productions in the mechanic arts while residing at my native village, Billingford, I will refer you to the Agricultural Survey of Norfolk, by the late Mr. Arthur Young, when Secretary to the Board of Agriculture.
Recently I have been engaged in perfecting an invention of my own relative to the forcing department of Horticulture, and I have now brought into successful action a self–regulating Light which I have applied to a small experimental Pine Pit; and it is adapted of course to Pine Stoves, Hot–houses, Green–houses, Conservatories, &c.
Had the President of the Horticultural Society been in possession of such an apparatus he would not have lost his plants by overheating as stated in his communication.
I have now the gratification of observing that as the glorious Luminary, the fountain of Light and heat, rises in the morning above the horizon, this automaton light opens of itself and admits more and more air as he increases in power, and after he passes his meridian height and the heat decreases, the light will gradually get closer and admit more air. It would also be affected by fire–heat or by whatever means the temperature of the internal atmosphere of the house is raised or depressed; so that it has a tendency to prevent the danger of overheating from solar or artificial heat. If the rays of the sun are intercepted by clouds it will get closer, and when the clouds disperse and the solar rays again display their calorific power, it will again get further open of itself and by enlarging the aperture admit more air, and it can be at pleasure adjusted to begin to admit air in the morning at any degree of heat which may be thought proper, and of course, to close in the evening when the thermometer indicates the same temperature.
This is the first report which I have given and am convinced could not have been addressed better than to a patriot and friend of inventions and improvements going on in this county.

To conclude, I beg leave,

Sir, to subscribe myself,

Your most obedient servant,     


Regarded simply as piece of composition, the style in which this letter is written will cause astonishment when it is remembered that the writer taught himself to read and write! Whether any notice of this invention was ever taken by the Earl of Leicester is unknown, but probably not, as it is believed Jex never applied it to any other building than his own Pine Pit.
About this time it appeared that Jex entered into correspondence with R. Crawshay, Esq., of Honingham Hall, who devoted considerable attention to the cultivation of grapes and other horticultural productions, on the subject of various mechanical inventions relating to the then recently invented system of heating greenhouses with hot water pipes. The subjoined letter on this subject will be read with interest as furnishing another proof of the versatility of his genius.

Letheringsett, June 30th, 1828
To R. Crawshay, Esq.,
If I may use the expression of the Marquis of Worcester in his “Century of Inventions” in former days, I will now endeavour to give you a “scantling” or rough descriptive sketch of what I think may be done to assist your favourite pursuit. Suppose a Pit or Stove were built with my hot water system applied to it, with a vessel of large surface (not cast iron pipes) made of single rolled plate iron, and suppose this vessel or a part of it to be enclosed by some non–conductive substance to work on joints, and in an evening (when the fire is strong) to be close shut, and to be connected with an apparatus, self–acting, so that when the heat in the house towards the morning begins to lower, this apparatus could be made to open these enclosures and expose the naked vessel, it would no doubt be of importance and would prevent too rapid a reduction of temperature, and all this without requiring the attention of any person. Next suppose a double glass roof, with an interval of several inches between the glazing of each, which should be nearly air–tight except a small opening at top and also below. The same fire might heat a retort to produce gas, and there might be a row of burners on the south side between the two glazings, which would prevent the effect of cold nights by its heating the enclosed stratum of air between. It would also illuminate the house, and there might be one or more of my ripening machines in the house to concentrate heat and light on any plant or fruit which might be thought proper. Then there might be top and side ventilators on my self–acting principle and also a self–acting shade. If all this were done I think you will agree with me that it would form an uncommon assemblage, and if it did not prove to be the ne plus ultra of forcing apparatus it would no doubt be greatly superior to most. The action of the Ventilator is to open an aperture to admit air and by that means keep down the heat to a safe degree, which is just the reverse of what the apparatus applied to the hot water vessels would have to perform, as there it would open to produce, or rather to admit, a radiation of caloric from the uncovered surface of the sheet iron vessel, which although it seems to be a contrary action yet I believe it could be produced by similar mechanism, so that one opens to prevent too great a degree of heat and the other opens to prevent too great a degree of cold.

I remain Sir,

Your humble Servant,


N.B. The action of my hot–water system is perfectly satisfactory. I have proved that there is no want of double circulating pipes, nor valves, cocks, nor any vessel in the shape of a boiler. Philosophers have long known that when heat is applied below a vessel of water it will and must of necessity circulate. The portion first heated from below from its alteration in gravity must ascend, and colder water must descend to occupy its place, and this process will go on until the water becomes of near a uniform temperature. One great advantage of the hot–water system over steam is, if there is sufficient surface, that the house can be heated with the water of so low a temperature that even if the leaves of the plant touch the vessel it will not destroy them. Of course there is a very regular genial warmth in every part. Whoever employs in heating by hot water, no greater extent of surface than is used in heating by steam, will no doubt find himself disappointed, as water of a low temperature in that case cannot heat the house.

Amongst other things Jex turned his attention to the manufacture of Lathes, and he succeeded in constructing two of extraordinary ingenuity, one of which he termed “A Triple Prismatic Engine Lathe”. It is a Lathe of multifarious powers, by the means of which he was enabled to cut the teeth of wheels, mathematically correct, into any number, even or odd, up to 2000, by means of a dividing plate. This was purchased after Jex’s death by W. J. J. Bolding, Esq., of Waborne, in whose possession it still remains. The other Lathe is on a very minute scale, for turning diamonds and the finer parts of watch work, and is very complicated in its structure. This must be considered one of the brightest efforts of his inventive genius.
He likewise invented an air–tight furnace door for his own greenhouse, so admirably constructed that the fire would keep lighted from Saturday night till Monday morning, thus obviating the necessity of his attending to it on Sunday.

About ten years ago he invented a method of opening green–house windows for my own green–house, by which means they can be set open at any required width, and so fastened that the wind has now power over them. The contrivance is extremely simple, and yet so effective that it deserves a patent.
In addition to being a watch–maker, Jex was also an iron and brass founder, a glass blower, an maker of mathematical instruments, barometers, thermometers, gun barrels, air guns, &c. The latter he considered extremely unsafe, one of them having burst in his hand, after having been submitted to a very severe proof. Jex understood electricity, galvanism, electro–magnetism, &c., and had a thorough knowledge of chemistry as far as the metals are concerned. He had in his workshop an electrical machine, which he once employed in a ludicrous way. He had been very much annoyed by a dog which kept constantly paying him visits, and was decidedly “more free than welcome”. Jex resolved to cure the dog of its propensity, and accordingly charged his machine, and then baited the wire attached to it with a piece of meat. When next the dog appeared it eagerly seized the dainty morsel, but a severe shock in its nose so terrified the poor animal that it instantly took to its heels, and from that time forth was never seen in Jex’s yard.

Among other sciences Jex understood astronomy, and could calculate the time by the fixed stars. In taking astronomical observations, he was accustomed to make use of his own door–post and a chimney opposite. His knowledge of astronomy, as of everything else, was SELF–ACQUIRED.
He made telescopes and metallic reflectors, which are universally acknowledged to be extremely difficult of construction. He puzzled his brains for some time on the question of “perpetual motion”, but at length gave it up as unattainable.

I find myself utterly incapable of doing justice to Jex as a man of science. It is probably that comparatively few of his successful experiments were ever made known to anyone, as he was always indisposed to reveal his inventions even to his intimate friends, and undoubtedly many of his most important discoveries have perished with him.

It is melancholy to reflect upon such a waste of talent. He was often urged to seek a more suitable field for the exercise of his powers, but could never be induced to leave the secluded village in which he had fixed his home. He never visited London, and it is even believed that he was never out of the county that gave him birth. He had a great dislike of travelling, and never saw a railway train, although he lived within twelve miles of a station.

Some sixty years ago, when he was a mere boy, Jex first heard steam spoken of as a motive power of irresistible force. The boy thought its power was over estimated, and resolved to test it by a most original experiment. He partially filled a gun barrel with water, which he stopped up with a strong plug. He then put the barrel into the blacksmith’s forge, and in the process of time steam was generated, and the plug of course forced out. Jex needed no further experiment to prove the power of steam. He was a first–rate arithmetician, and could work out very complicated calculations. His reasoning powers were of the finest order; nevertheless, paradoxical as it may appear, he was in some things extremely superstitious. For instance, he would never begin anything on a Saturday, and he used to say that therein he followed his mother’s example. He was naturally a timid man, and excessively afraid of contagion, but he did not look upon cleanliness as one great preservative against disease, for he rarely allowed a woman to enter his house for the purpose of cleaning it, and his rooms consequently contained the accumulated dust of years. His disposition was shy and retiring, but whenever he met with anyone whose tastes were similar to his own, he would converse for hours with the greatest delight on any subject connected with the arts and sciences.
Such was Jex’s thirst for information, and such was his resolution to clear away every obstacle that impeded his progress, that, wishing to read some French works on Horology, he mastered, unassisted, the French language, when about 60 years of age! He then read the books in question, but found they contained nothing that was new to English Authors.
If there are any under whose notice these pages may fall who have imbibed the vulgar notion which represents it as an insuperable difficulty to begin the study of an art or science at the age of manhood, let them remember that Jex was in the decline of his life when he learned the French language. Be not therefore paralysed in your efforts by prejudices of this kind, but bear in mind that it is never too late to learn so long as the reasoning powers remain intact.

Like most men of real talent, Jex was wholly devoid of self–conceit: he never paraded his knowledge for the purpose of exciting astonishment or admiration, for his modesty was equal to his profundity. He was a man of the strictest integrity, and of unimpeachable veracity. He was entirely destitute of the love of money, and sought out truth for its own sake, and with no view to any personal gain. Such an example is rare indeed in this grasping and selfish age. He was kind in his manner to the poor, and rarely sent a mendicant away without relief. He was naturally very humane, of which the following is one proof. He used to keep bees, but could not endure the idea of being obliged to burn them in order to get the honey. He therefore invented a new kind of beehive, which entirely prevented the necessity of perpetrating what he considered to be an act of cruelty.
As proof of the sterling uprightness of Jex’s dealings, I must mention a highly characteristic incident. He was fond of music, and meeting with a second–hand barrel–organ purchased it for £6. When he got it home he fancied the price he had given was below its real value, and he therefore sent the person of whom he had bought it £2 additional. This may be thought by some to be too trivial to be recorded, but it will not be considered so by those who remember that very “extensive prospects may be seen through small openings”. The character of Johnson Jex is one in which the moral philosopher may find ample scope for the exercise of his analytical powers. He was a “man of mark”, whose strong intellect burst the barriers of opposing circumstances, and forced for itself a way into light and liberty. Being pre–eminently an original thinker he took nothing for granted, but reasoned deeply on every subject that presented itself for his consideration. He furnishes a striking proof of Burns’ familiar lines –

“The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The man’s the gowd for a’ that.”

Jex’s personal appearance was prepossessing. He was about the average height, and well proportioned. He had a pleasing expression of countenance, and when engaged in conversation, a very animated one. His eye was bright and intelligent, and he had a remarkably fine head, a cast of which has been taken by Bianchi, an artist residing in Norwich.

Johnson Jex was addicted to no vice whatever, but though strictly moral in all his actions, it is to be feared that he was not governed by the higher principles of religion. On this subject however it becomes me to say but little, remembering that his immortal spirit is in the hands of that Being who can alone discover the secret springs of action in that most wonderful of all mechanisms – the human heart. Jex certainly acknowledged the existence of a Supreme Being and regarded the Bible as the word of God. It is not known that he was ever heard to cavil at a single doctrine, or to call in question a single truth of revelation. But so lamentable it is to see a man so gifted, neglecting, to all appearance, the “pearl of great price” and giving no “outward and visible sign” of being governed by that noblest science – Religion. Jex was hardly ever known to attend public worship; indeed it is doubtful whether he ever entered a church half–a–dozen times in his life, or a dissenting chapel more than once. The last sermon he heard was one preached many years ago at Cromer, by the Rev. W. Brock, of Bloomsbury, with whom he was personally acquainted. Mr. Brock’s text was “We preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block, and to the Greeks foolishness, but to them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God”. Jex listened with marked attention and afterwards expressed himself highly delighted with the sermon.

Much as we may admire the talents of a man such as Johnson Jex and wonder at the results of his mechanical genius – greatly as we may reverence his high–toned morality and incorruptible integrity – characteristics which he possessed in such degree as would put many professing Christians to the blush, if brought in comparison with him – we should nevertheless be careful to shun the example he set in his disregard of the Sabbath as a day specially dedicated to the public worship of God.
In 1845 Jex had a stroke of paralysis, from the effects of which he never entirely recovered. His intellect gradually lost much of its original power, and the last year or two especially, a very marked alteration was perceptible. He was again attacked with paralysis in November, 1851, and his death took place in January, 1852. His remains are interred in Letheringsett church–yard and over them is erected a monument bearing the following inscription:–







Many important lessons may be learnt from the history of such a man as JOHNSON JEX. It teaches us that no class can make a monopoly of intellect. The conventional distinctions and boundaries which separate man from his fellows are utterly useless here. The plebeian may rank far above the patrician in the world of the mind, and from the proud elevation he has attained he may look down on the intellectual Lilliputians beneath his feet, who, though wealthy in this world’s goods, have never enriched their minds with the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Intellect is a true leveller. A Philosopher is greater than a sceptered Monarch, and a “Village Blacksmith” may be deserving of far greater esteem than the aristocrat who would disdain to cross his threshold. In the commonwealth of mind there are no artificial distinctions. Each man takes his stand according to his intrinsic merit. He is esteemed for what he is, not for what he has.

From the “masses” have sprung a great number of celebrated men who have trod the paths of knowledge and climbed its most difficult precipices. Nothing daunted by the obstacles which lay in their way, these hindrances only infused fresh vigour and led them on to more laborious achievements. It is generally found that men value little that which costs them nothing. He who in order to reach a certain height has to cur footsteps in the rugged rock and undergo a great amount of labor and fatigue, will on reaching the summit derive so much the greater pleasure from the prospect which meets his gaze. In all probability the magnificent view from Mount Blanc would excite far less admiration if there were no difficulty or danger encountered in the ascent; and this illustration is applicable to the pursuit of learning. Let no one be discouraged by the impediments which obstruct his progress, on the contrary let him recall to remembrance the names of those who, springing from the humblest classes, successfully struggles through far greater difficulties until they established a claim to be held up as ensamples to all succeeding generations. Like a tiny seed dropt into a crevice in a rock, by which force of its inner life gradually expands until it bursts its stony prison, so their vigorous intellects broke all the fetters which enchained them, till, like Samson’s cords, they became as “flax that was burnt with fire”.

What will not earnest, persevering application accomplish? No limits can be assigned to its mighty power. In past ages it has built the Pyramids, levelled mountains, conquered kingdoms and established dynasties. True, its potent for evil as well as good, and in the study of the world’s history it is melancholy to observe that this moral force is far more frequently applied on the side of error, than that of truth. It is incumbent upon all who desire to promote the welfare of their fellow men to use this powerful weapon in the right direction, and to remember that “whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well”. Half–heartedness in the execution has ruined many a skilfully devised project. It is a most erroneous idea, that men gifted with powerful intellects, require to put forth very little exertion in order to accomplish great things. They possess, of course, advantages over others, but even they will never achieve anything worthy of note, unless they diligently and laboriously cultivate their understandings.

Think not that Jex’s inventions cost him little labour. They were the result of deep thought, abstruse calculations and repeated experiments. He employed and improved the talents committed to his care, although it is lamentably true that he did not so use them as permanently to benefit mankind, or promote the glory of the Giver. Still it is a striking instance of the power which the mind of man possesses to vanquish all the obstacles by which it may chance to be surrounded. Other examples of the successful pursuit of knowledge under difficulties, will at once present themselves your recollection. Among these intellectual giants –

“Whose distant footsteps echo
“Through the corridors of time” –

I may mention the great SIR ISAAC NEWTON, who tracked the planets in their courses and discovered the laws by which they move. He was the son of a small farmer. SIR HUMPHRY DAVY, the inventor of the celebrated safety–lamp, was the son of a working man, and CAPTAIN COOK, who circumnavigated the globe, putting a “girdle around the earth”, was the son of a poor farm labourer. The celebrated Admiral, SIR CLOUDSLEY SHOVEL, a native of Norfolk, was the son of parents in humble life and was bound apprentice to a shoemaker.

D’AUBIGNE the historian of the Reformation thus writes:– “God selected the Reformers of the Church from the same class whence he had taken the Apostles. He chose them from among the lower rank which, although not the meanest, does not reach the level of the middle classes. The reformer ZWINGLE emerged from an Alpine shepherd’s hut; MELACTHON, the Theologian of the Reformation, from an armourer’s shop; and LUTHER from the cottage of a poor miner”.

JOHN BUNYAN, whose inimitable allegory has won for its author imperishable renown, was at one time a travelling tinker! GEORGE FOX, the founder of the Society of Friends, was a shoemaker in Nottingham, and we are told, used to “meditate much on the scriptures whilst he wrought at his trade”.

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, of world–wide notoriety, so celebrated both as a Philosopher and as a Statesman, was the son of a tallow chandler, and had to work with his own hands for a livelihood. He only went to school from eight years of age till ten, and was first apprenticed to a printer at Boston, U.S. From this starting point, that of a humble compositor in a printing office, he rose by his own unaided talents, till he became possessed of such influence as to sway the destinies of the Western World! Nor did his powers stop there. He discovered by scientific experiments the nature of the electric fluid and by his invention of conductors he was able to bring down the lightning from the clouds. America may well be proud of her philosophic Statesman, and the masses have equal reason to glory in the fact that he sprang from their midst and rose by merit alone to the high position he afterwards occupied.

It would be easy to furnish a multitude of similar examples, these however will, I hope, suffice to encourage those in the very humblest ranks of life to cultivate with diligence their mental powers. But I cannot forbear alluding to one other instance which is peculiarly pertinent to the subject of this Lecture, inasmuch as he was, like JEX, a blacksmith. I refer to ELIHU BURRITT of world–wide notoriety. He had a very slender education but his thirst for knowledge was so great that he was accustomed to devote eight hours every day to study, in addition to working eight hours at the forge. He had a great aptitude for acquiring languages and succeeded by his plodding perseverance in mastering more than fifty. He has published one or two works remarkable for their originality of thought and illustration. Bright indeed are the “Sparks” from his “Anvil”.

Perhaps some will say such men are geniuses, and therefore places so far above ordinary mortals as to be beyond their imitation. Let those who thus reason, listen to what Elihu Burritt himself says on this point. “None of my friends ever thought that I had any particular genius as it is called; I never thought so myself. All that I have accomplished, or expect, or hope to accomplish, has been and will be by that plodding, patient, persevering process of accretion which builds the ant–heap, particle by particle, thought by thought, fact by fact. And if ever I was actuated by ambition, its highest and warmest aspiration reached no further than the hope to set before the young men of my country an example in employing those invaluable fragments of time called “odd moments”. And I shall esteem it an honor of costlier water than the tiara encircling a monarch’s brow, if my future activity and attainments should encourage American Working Men to be proud and jealous of the credentials which God has given them to ever eminence and immunity in the empire of the mind. These are the views and sentiments with which I have sat down, night by night for years, with blistered hands and brightening hope, to studies which I hoped might be serviceable to that class of the community to which I am proud to belong. This is my ambition, this is the goal of my aspirations.” Thus writes BURRITT, and happy, thrice happy shall I be if the bright examples I have held up for your imitation act as incentives to urge you forward in the preserving pursuit of knowledge. And here I would recommend you to BACON’S sage advice:– “In studying whatsoever subjects are contrary to a man’s natural inclination, let him have set hours for the prosecution of them, but for those subjects that are agreeable to his nature he need not be so strict and rigid as his thoughts will spontaneously fly to them as other studies and businesses will allow.

The mind of man is like a plot of ground which if it be not cultivated and planted with flowers will be certain to produce noxious weeds. There can be no standing still, for the human intellect is so constituted as inevitably to retrograde if its progress be prevented. The mind that is compelled to act as  the mere servant of the body speedily loses all its native vigor, and relapses into a state of mental lethargy. It is the same law as that which governs man’s physical nature. If you were studiously to abstain from exercising any particular limb it is certain that in process of time you would have no power to use it – the muscles would contract and stiffen until they would refuse to obey the will. This furnishes an exact parallel to the effect produced by neglecting to exercise the mental faculties.

It is a solemn duty which we owe to the Creator diligently to cultivate the talents He has given us, but it is a duty which is too often neglected. As far as diligence in mental culture is concerned JOHNSON JEX is an example which all would do well to copy. It is the possession of intellect which distinguishes man from the brutes that perish, and shall the possessor of this inestimable treasure act as if he were unconscious of its value! The infinite superiority of the soul over the body consists in its being an impalpable essence which must exist for ever. All things else will pass away – the stars shall fall from their spheres, “the great globe itself, yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,” and nature herself give up the ghost. The mind of man alone possesses immortality. This is his most important attribute for it is that which most closely allies him to the Deity.

“The Sun is but a spark of fire,
“A transient meteor in the sky,
“The soul, immortal as its Sire,
“Shall never die.”


© Nils Solberg 2008

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