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  William Martin (1772–1851), by George Patten, c.1821 William Martin (1772–1851), by George Patten, c.1821
Martin, William (1772–1851), eccentric and self-proclaimed philosopher, was born on 21 June 1772 at the Twohouse, Haltwhistle, Northumberland, the eldest of four sons of (William) Fenwick Martin (d. 1813), who held several occupations including tanner, publican, coach builder, and fencing master, and his wife, Isabella (d. 1813), daughter of Richard Thompson, a farmer. The second son, Richard, a quartermaster in the guards, served through the Peninsular War and was present at Waterloo. The youngest sons were , arsonist, and , artist. There was one daughter, Ann. William's early years were spent with his maternal grandparents near Haydon Bridge, and he accompanied them when they moved in 1775 to a farm in Kintyre. When his grandparents died he went to live with his father, then foreman of a tannery at Ayr. In 1782 father and son returned to Northumberland. Martin is next heard of working in a ropery at Howdon Dock, and in the following year he joined the Northumberland militia at Durham. Discharged in 1805 Martin, an able mechanic, was granted a patent for improvements to shoes, and began taking an interest in perpetual motion machines. He ridiculed the colliers of the north-east because they were still running their wagons on wooden rails, rather than on iron rails as in the midlands, not understanding that the local cost of iron was uneconomically high.

In 1808 Martin went to London where he exhibited his Eureka perpetual motion machine, which was apparently simply a pendulum driven by a concealed current of air. In the following year he returned to his modest trade of rope making, and in 1810 to the militia. In Ireland with his regiment he learned the elements of line engraving. Apart from his quackery and noisy absurdities Martin's skill brought him in 1814 the Isis silver medal of the Society of Arts for his spring weighing machine with circular dial and index. In the same year he married, describing his wife only as ‘an inoffensive woman, respected by rich and poor, and a celebrated dressmaker’ (W. Martin, Philosopher's Life, 1833, 33). They settled first at Newcastle upon Tyne, then at Wallsend, where, supported by her earnings, he was able to concentrate on his multifarious inventions until her death on 16 January 1832.

He founded the Martinean Society, based on opposition to the Royal Society, and particularly hostile to the Newtonian theory of gravitation, against which he harboured a growing antagonism, which ultimately embraced all men of science. Styling himself ‘anti-newtonian’, Martin began giving lectures, first in the Newcastle district and from 1830 throughout England. Throughout these years his voice was heard at many meetings, ranting against scientists in general. He was inevitably drawn to the annual gatherings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the butt of his polemic The defeat of the eighth scientific meeting of the British Association of Asses, which we may properly call the rich folks' hopping, or the false philosophers in an uproar (1838). Newton remained his chief hate, but Herschel, Faraday, Sedgwick, and Lardner attracted his wrath. Declaring himself a staunch supporter of the Church of England he also denounced papists, bishops, Puseyites, Unitarians, and all those he considered to have left the true path. In a torrent of pamphlets he heaped abuse on impostors, false philosophers, and those who had converted his inventions to their own gain, continuing the while to work on further mechanical projects. In 1835 he proposed a new form of miners' safety lamp, and when it was rejected because of its fragility and uncertain performance he denounced the discoveries of George Stevenson and Humphry Davy in these fields as dishonest, claiming that they had stolen his ideas. Martin was a familiar figure in and around Newcastle: J. B. Langhorne described him as ‘a stout, portly man, perfectly cracked but harmless. He used to strut about wearing the Society of Arts medal round his neck’ (N&Q, 134). From 1849 Martin lived with his brother John at Chelsea, where he died on 9 February 1851.

Thomas Seccombe, rev. Anita McConnell


T. Balston, The life of Jonathan Martin … with some account of William and Richard Martin (1945) · M. A. Richardson, ed., The local historian's table book … historical division, 5 vols. (1841–6), vol. 3, pp. 137–9; vol. 4, pp. 279, 366 · GM, 2nd ser., 35 (1851), 327–8 · GM, 2nd ser., 41 (1854), 433 · J. Sykes, Local records, or, Historical register of remarkable events, which have occurred in Northumberland and Durham, 2 (1833) · J. Latimer, Local records, or, Historical register of remarkable events which have occurred in Northumberland and Durham … 1832–57 (1857) · H. Dircks, Perpetuum mobile, or, A history of the search for self-motive power, from the 13th to the 19th century (1870) [2nd series] · N&Q, 4th ser., 12 (1873), 48, 133–4, 252–3, 278 · R. L. Galloway, Annals of coal mining and the coal trade, 2nd ser. (1904), 159, 315; repr. (1971)


G. Patten, miniature, c.1821, NPG [see illus.] · Collard, line engraving (after H. P. Parker), NPG · Lambert, engraving (after H. P. Parker) · engravings, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle