skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

To Catherine Darwin   [22 November 1846]1



My dear Catherine

I am most sorry to hear how very poorly my dear Father continues: I do hope his cough will get less tight & troublesome at night. Pray write often if it be but a line; you have been very good in writing hitherto & thank you much.

Give our best congratulations to Jos,2 (to whom however I have to write myself) on all his anxiety being over: we are strongly on the girl-side-faction.— Give my best love to Caroline.

I enclose a second letter of FitzRoys’,3 I do not know whether my Father will care to hear it, but it costs only 2d sending & you can read it or not as you like: I must have it returned soon.

I was at tea at Lyell’s on Friday night; he dined at the Millmans4 the day before & met Ld. Lansdown,5 Macaulay6 & other great guns: there was much talk about Dr. Darwin,7 —Dr. Kaye Shutleworth8 was telling about the prophecy of nitric acid making explosive cotton9 & some one added about the potato disease;10 so Macaulay remarked every one has heard of his prophecy on steam vessels & railways & he then repeated the whole passage,11 & added “though we have not yet the navigating balloons, we are of course, as he says so, sure to have them someday.” So his prophetic spirit is the talk of London.—

Yours affect. | C. D.


The date is based on the references to the birth of Lucy Caroline Wedgwood and to Henry Hart Milman’s dinner party. See nn. 2 and 4, below.
Josiah Wedgwood III is being congratulated on the birth of his fourth daughter, Lucy Caroline, on 17 November 1846.
Henry Hart Milman, rector of St Margaret’s, Westminster. Charles Lyell discusses this dinner party in a letter to his father dated 26 November 1846 (K. M. Lyell ed. 1881, 2: 114–15).
Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, 3d marquess of Lansdowne.
Erasmus Darwin, CD’s grandfather.
James Phillips Kay-Shuttleworth, a Poor Law commissioner.
There was great interest in Christian Friedrich Schönbein’s discovery, in 1846, of gun cotton, a highly explosive compound prepared by steeping cotton in nitric and sulphuric acids. Erasmus Darwin in the Botanic garden (Darwin 1791, p. 25 n.) had noted: From the cheapness with which a very powerful gunpowder is likely soon to be manufactured from aerated marine acid, or from a new method of forming nitrous acid by means of mangonese or other calciform ores, it may probably in time be applied to move machinery, and supersede the use of steam.
The potato crop in Ireland had failed for two years, and there was much speculation as to the cause. See also letter to J. S. Henslow, 28 October [1845]. The Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, no. 12, 21 March 1846, p. 179 had quoted Erasmus Darwin’s account of Thomas Andrew Knight’s theory that extended propagation from grafts and bulbs weakened plants and that they might be restored through propagation from seed. Erasmus Darwin had applied the theory to the tuberous propagation of potatoes (Darwin 1800, pp. 95–8).
Darwin 1791 (pp. 29–30), Pt 1, Canto I, lines 289–96: Soon shall thy arm, UNCONQUER’D STEAM! afar Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car; Or on wide-waving wings expanded bear The flying-chariot through the fields of air. —Fair crews triumphant, leaning from above, Shall wave their fluttering kerchiefs as they move; Or warrior-bands alarm the gaping crowd, And armies shrink beneath the shadowy cloud. The associated note to line 254 (p. 26), on steam power, reads: There is reason to believe it may in time be applied to the rowing of barges, and the moving of carriages along the road. As the specific levity of air is too great for the support of great burthens by balloons, there seems no probable method of flying conveniently but by the power of steam, or some other explosive material; which another half century may probably discover.


Darwin, Erasmus. 1791. The economy of vegetation. Part 1 of The botanic garden. London.

Darwin, Erasmus. 1800. Phytologia, or the philosophy of agriculture and gardening. With the theory of draining morasses and with an improved construction of the drill plough. London: J. Johnson.


Concerned about Father’s health.

Forwards a letter from FitzRoy.

Dr Erasmus Darwin’s scientific prophecies are the talk of London.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Emily Catherine (Catherine) Darwin/Emily Catherine (Catherine) Langton
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 92: A1–A2
Physical description
ALS 4pp & C

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1029,” accessed on 21 June 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 3