Friedrich Koenig

1774 (Eisleben, Germany) – 1833 (Würzburg)

Koenig couldn’t interest anyone in Germany in his proposals for a high-speed printing-press, so he moved to London and patented it with the help of Nicholson (in his guise as patent agent). A revolutionary but undeveloped idea of Nicholson’s was central to the version of his machine that was successfully sold to The Times, effectively starting the age of mass media. Koenig’s patents proved hard to enforce, however, and in the face of widespread pirating of his designs he quit London and returned to Germany.

Friedrich Koenig knew…

George Antheil

1900 (Trenton, N.J.) – 1959 (New York)

Antheil was an ambitiously avant-garde composer whose Ballet Mécanique scores, composed for Léger’s film, have entered the modernist canon. Stravinsky, met in Berlin, was his hero (though Antheil’s abuse of their friendship cut it short). In Paris, Picasso, Yeats and Joyce championed him, and especially Pound (even though he understood nothing of Antheil’s music), both Pound and Joyce (a good musician) planning various collaborations with him. Eliot and Werfel helped him with a crime novel. He dined with Satie and Cocteau, corresponded widely, and really did patent an advanced torpedo guidance system with Lamarr.

Richard Lovell Edgeworth

1744 (Bath, England) – 1817 (Edgeworthstown, Ireland)

The inventive Edgeworth, an uncategorisable radical thinker and father to 22 children, is particularly known for his enquiring, child-centred ideas about education. Darwin, Wedgwood, Boulton, Watt, Keir and Small were all Lunar Society friends, the first two especially close. Johnson published his best-known work, co-written with his daughter Maria. His translator Pictet drew him to France, where he met Montgolfier, and where he and his lifelong friend Day visited their hero Rousseau. He was introduced by his friend Banks to Hunter, Cook, Solander, Maskelyne and Smeaton, and constructed an early and unsuccessful telegraph across Ireland with Beaufort.

William Henry Fox Talbot

1800 (Melbury, England) – 1877 (Lacock)

Talbot (or Fox Talbot – both are used, though Talbot is correct), one of the great founders of photography, was also a noted mathematician, astronomer, botanist and more. His two great lifelong friends and colleagues were John Herschel and Brewster; Herschel’s chemical knowledge and terminological wisdom were critical, while Brewster’s interest in light and optics closely paralleled Talbot’s own. Talbot worked with Arago at his Paris observatory, ordered optics from Fraunhofer, and swapped seeds with Hooker. He corresponded with Crelle about calculus, Hincks about cuneiform translation and Zach about astronomy, among many others.

Dmitri Mendeleev

Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev;Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev;Dmitri Mendeleyev;Dmitri Mendelejew

1834 (Tobol'sk, Russia) – 1907 (St Petersburg)

As well as being responsible for the periodic table and doing extensive other research, Mendeleev got Russia to adopt the metric system. He studied under Bunsen and Kirchhoff in Heidelberg (much favoured by Russian students), and met Zinin and invited Borodin there. He also studied with Regnault, and met Dumas and Berthelot in Paris, and Liebig in Munich. Blok married his daughter Lyubov. Repin was among the artists he lectured to about colour chemistry, while the auto-didact Tsiolkovsky wrote and got his advice. If Turgenev didn’t meet him in Paris or in Heidelberg, he wrote about a notably similar man.

Dmitri Mendeleev knew…

Thomas Edison

1847 (Milan, Ohio) – 1931 (West Orange, N.J.)

The prolific Edison invented the phonograph, popularised electric light, and (among much else) founded the world’s first industrial research lab. Acheson, Dickson, Hammer and Tesla all worked with or under him, though he never appreciated Tesla’s genius. Marey’s meeting with him helped inspire the kinetoscope, while Muybridge’s led to the first ever moving image with sound (Muybridge despairing at its crudeness). Eastman and Edison clashed over X-rays but successfully collaborated on photographic and movie technology. Edison ignored his family and had few friends, though Eastman and Ford became close.

Thomas Edison knew…

Alexander Graham Bell

1847 (Edinburgh) – 1922 (Beinn Breagh, Nova Scotia, Canada)

Bell wasn’t the sole inventor of the telephone, but was the first to get it working effectively, and was a famous teacher of the deaf. His father took him, aged 15, to meet Wheatstone, a pivotal moment. Henry encouraged his sound-transmission experiments. Gray competed with him, accusing him of stealing his design, but in letters acknowledged Bell’s own prior work. Bell demonstrated his invention to Thomson, giving him some sets. Generous with money, he helped fund Michelson’s research. De Candolle, James, Draper, Longfellow, Holmes and Marconi — whom he invited to visit — were among his correspondents.

Robert Fulton

1765 (Lancaster County, Pa.) – 1815 (New York)

Fulton, equally entrepreneurial and practical, was a pioneer of steam navigation and of the submarine. He studied painting in London with West. Becoming interested in canal projects, he met Watt, and in Manchester also met Owen (who fruitlessly backed his mechanical-excavation scheme), Dalton and Coleridge. In France he met Paine (another with a good practical imagination), Carnot (who tried to interest the French navy in his submarine) and Bossut (whose hydrodynamic researches helped his steamboat designs). Franklin had been a friend in Philadelphia. Boulton was met only once, on steam-engine business.

Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring

Samuel Thomas von Soemmerring

1755 (Thorn, Prussia, now Toruń, Poland) – 1830 (Frankfurt am Main)

Blumenbach (a real friend) and Lichtenberg taught Sömmerring; Heyne was another long-term Göttingen connection. His work on cranial nerves as a 23-year-old remains valid, two centuries later. Sömmerring met Forster (becoming close friends) and Hunter in London, and Camper in Friesland. Forster, now in Kassel, arranged a professorship in anatomy for him there (they later fell out as neighbours in Mainz). Sömmerring got to know his lifelong correspondent Goethe through a shared interest in comparative anatomy, and famously sent him an elephant’s skull. Kant, ignoring its philosophical discrepancies, wrote an afterword for his essay on the soul.

Carl Auer von Welsbach

Carl Auer

1858 (Vienna) – 1929 (Mölbling, Austria)

Auer von Welsbach is known for his isolation of new chemical elements, his work with rare earths, and his production of radically-improved gas-mantles, lighter-flints and light-bulbs. He did his doctoral research under Bunsen and Kirchhoff at Heidelberg; following Bunsen’s death, he acquired his library. Aston and Rutherford were among his correspondents; he sent Rutherford radioactive isotopes to experiment with.

Carl Auer von Welsbach knew…