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Nicholson, William 1948-

Nicholson, William 1948-


Born 1948, in England; married Virginia Bell (a writer); children: three. Education: Christ's College, Cambridge, B.A., 1973.


Home—Sussex, England. Agent—Sally Wilcox/Carin Sage, Creative Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212-1825.


Writer, playwright, and screenwriter. Former director and producer of documentary films for the British Broadcasting Corporation. Executive producer of Everyman, 1979-82, and Global Report, 1983-84; director, Firelight, Carnival/Wind Dancer, 1997.

Awards, Honors

Best Television Play, British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), 1985, for Shadowlands; Best Television Film designation, New York Film Festival, 1987, Best Television Drama award, BAFTA, 1987, and ACE Award for best picture, 1988, all for Life Story; Banff Festival Best Drama designation, 1988, ACE Award for Best International Drama, 1990, and Royal Television Society's Writer's Award, 1987-88, all for Sweet as You Are; Best Play of 1990, London Evening Standard, for Shadowlands; Emmy Award nomination for best screenplay, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, 1992, for A Private Matter; Golden Globe and Emmy Award nominations for best screenplay, both 1996, both for Crime of the Century; Nestlé Smarties Prize Gold Award, 2000, and Blue Peter Book of the Year Award, 2001, both for The Wind Singer; Academy Award nomination for best screenplay, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 2000, for Gladiator; Antoinette Perry ("Tony") Award nomination for best play, 2004, for The Retreat from Moscow.



The Wind Singer: An Adventure, illustrations by Peter Sis, Hyperion Books for Children (New York, NY), 2000.

Slaves of the Mastery, illustrations by Peter Sis, Hyperion Books for Children (New York, NY), 2001.

Firesong: An Adventure, illustrations by Peter Sis, Hyperion Books for Children (New York, NY), 2002.


Seeker, Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2006.

Jango, Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2007.


The Seventh Level: A Sexual Progress, Stein & Day (New York, NY), 1979.

The Society of Others, Nan A. Talese (New York, NY), 2005.

The Trial of True Love, Nan A Talese (New York, NY), 2005.


Martin Luther, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), 1983.

New World BBC, 1986.

Life Story BBC, 1987.

Sweet as You Are BBC, 1988.

The Vision BBC, 1988.

The March BBC, 1990.

A Private Matter, Home Box Office (HBO), 1992.

Crime of the Century HBO, 1996.

Author's work has been translated into German.


Double Helix (a.k.a. Life Story), Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 1987.

Sarafina, Distant Horizon/Disney, 1992.

Shadowlands (based on the author's television play), Savoy, 1993.

(With Mark Handley) Nell, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1994.

First Knight, Columbia, 1995.

(And director) Firelight, Disney, 1998.

Grey Owl, Allied Pictures, 2000.

(With David Franzoni and John Logan) Gladiator, DreamWorks, 2000.

Long Walk to Freedom, 2004.

The Golden Age, 2007.


Shadowlands (produced in London, England, 1989), Plume (New York, NY), 1990.

Map of the Heart (produced in London, England, 1991), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1991.

Katherine Howard (produced in Chichester, England, 1998), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1999.

The Retreat from Moscow: A Play about a Family (produced in Chichester, England, 1999), Anchor Books (New York, NY), 2004.


The film Shadowlands was adapted as a television film broadcast in England, 1985, as a novel of the same name by Leonore Fleishcer, Signet (New York, NY), 1993, and also as a sound recording by LA Theatre Works (Los Angeles, CA), 2001. Gladiator was adapted into a book by Dewey Gra, Onyx (New York, NY), 2000. The "Wind on Fire" trilogy was adapted for audiobook by BBC Audiobooks America. Seeker was adapted as an audiobook, read by Michael Page, by Brilliance Audio, 2006.


William Nicholson has written screenplays for television and film, plays performed in both England and the United States, and novels, including the "Wind on Fire" trilogy for young-adult readers. Beginning his career in British television, Nicholson gained wide notice in 1985 for his television play Shadowlands, which is about the real-life love affair between British writer and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis and American Joy Davidman. His screenplays include Double Helix (a.k.a. Life Story), a dramatization of the discovery of Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), and Nell, which tells the story of a woman who is discovered, living in virtual isolation in the woods of North Carolina by a local psychologist. As a playwright, Nicholson received the prestigious Tony award for his 2004 stage production, The Retreat from Moscow: A Play about a Family.

In addition to his work for stage and screen, Nicholson is also an accomplished novelist. His young-adult "Wind on Fire" fantasy trilogy features the male-female twins Bowman and Kestrel, who must save the Manth people from slavery in a dystopian world. In the first book, The Wind Singer: An Adventure, the twins set out to recover a pipe organ known as the Wind Singer after they are targeted by the Chief Examiner, who thinks they are misfits. Writing in School Library Journal, John Peters felt that while many of the plot devices read as conveniences, "fans of such barbed journey tales … will enjoy the social commentary." Booklist contributor GraceAnne A. DeCandido asserted that Nicholson's plot lacks "imagination" and "depth … in the heavy-handed portrayal of caste systems, warrior tribes, and smarmy villains," but she admitted that "the background is well delineated" and that The Wind Singer has "comic relief" and a "thrilling denouement."

As the trilogy continues in Slaves of the Mastery, Bowman and Kestrel are once again fighting evil after five years of peace. This time they and their family are made slaves and taken to the city of the Mastery, where the twins use both their cunning and magical abilities to fight back. Writing in Booklist, DeCandido called the book "an astonishing mishmash of lore, myth, and magicking" and noted that Nicholson includes some "splendid battle scenes." Eva Mitnick, writing in School Library Journal, called Slaves of the Mastery a "masterful sequel" in which "every character … is compelling

and full of life." The final installment in the trilogy, Firesong: An Adventure, finds the twins leading their people back home after the fall of the Mastery, facing both a grueling journey and dissent from within. School Library Journal contributor Beth L. Meister wrote that the trilogy's "concluding volume … features fast-paced action, poetic language, and carefully constructed characters."

Also geared for teen readers, Nicholson's "Noble Warriors" series begins with Seeker, described by School Library Journal reviewer June H. Keuhn as "a novel of friendship, loyalty, and accomplishment." A fantasy with a quest at its core, Seeker transports readers to the fictional Island of Anacrea, where an order of warrior monks known as the Nomana are dedicated to defending and serving the one god. Known as the All and Only, the god is revered despite a prophecy that predicts its death at the hands of an assassin. Hoping to follow in the footsteps of his older brother and become a warrior for his god, sixteen-year-old Seeker sets out for Anacrea. Also hoping to prove their worthiness—and following similar and ultimately connecting paths—are a devout girl named Morning Star and a thief named Wildman. At first rejected by the Nomana, the three teens nonetheless fear for the monks' safety when they discover a plot to destroy the island and the All and Only. Together, they embark on a journey to the cosmopolitan city of Radiance, where the worship of a jealous pantheon of competing gods requires human sacrifices. There the three traveler learn of Soren Similin and his plot to both destroy the meek Nomana and end worship of the All and Only. Harnessing the power of terror, Similin's scheme is to send suicide bombers to the remote island and destroy Anacrea's beauty forever. In a review of Seeker for Booklist, Jennifer Mattson cited Nicholson's "tight plotting" as well as his ability to interweave the "numerous perspectives" that "lend the novel a cinematic breadth." Kliatt contributor Deirdre Root dubbed Seeker "an astoundingly beautiful book," and added that the novel's "simplicity belies a complex world" that seems vivid and real due to Nicholson's skill with character and setting.

In addition to his books for young adults, Nicholson has also addressed older readers with novels such as The Society of Others and The Trial of True Love, the latter described by Booklist reviewer Allison Block as a "thought-provoking tale about lives transformed in the blink of an eye." In The Society of Others he introduces a recent college graduate who, becoming disillusioned, flees his family in England and ends up in a totalitarian Eastern bloc country. Accused of terrorism, the young man is paraded on television, then bullied into answering questions while films of brutal torture are played on nearby monitors. The man's ultimate goal is to escape, a task that will require both his wits and the kindness of strangers. Reviewing the novel, Sarah Weinman wrote in the Chicago Tribune that in The Society of Others Nicholson "doesn't skimp on novelistic essentials in his pursuit of intellectual ones," and Piers Paul Read concluded in a Spectator review that with the book Nicholson "has to my mind established himself … as one of the best novelists around."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Booklist, October 15, 2000, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of The Wind Singer: An Adventure, p. 438; October 15, 2001, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Slaves of the Mastery, p. 389; January 1, 2005, Allison Block, review of The Society of Others, p. 821; January 1, 2006, Allison Block, review of The Trial of True Love, p. 58; June 1, 2006, Jennifer Mattson, review of Seeker, p. 63.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June, 2006, April Spisak, review of Seeker, p. 465.

Chicago Tribune, September 4, 1998, Michael Wilmington, review of Firelight, p. A; February 3, 2005, Sarah Weinman, review of The Society of Others, p. 2.

Guardian (London, England), May 31, 2000, Lyn Gardner, review of The Wind Singer, p. 9.

Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 2004, review of The Society of Others, p. 981; January 15, 2006, review of The Trial of True Love, p. 58; May 1, 2006, review of Seeker, p. 464.

Kliatt, July, 2004, Hugh Flick, Jr., review of Firesong, p. 51; July, 2004, review of "Wind on Fire" trilogy, p. 32; May, 2006, Deirdre Root, review of Seeker, p. 12.

Library Journal, November 1, 2004, Lawrence Rungren, review of The Society of Others, p. 76.

New Republic, February 7, 1994, Stanley Kauffmann, review of Shadowlands (film), p. 26; October 12, 1998, Stanley Kauffmann, review of Firelight, p. 30.

New York Times Book Review, February 13, 2005, Tobin Harshaw, review of The Society of Others, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly, August 28, 2000, review of The Wind Singer, p. 84; November 19, 2001, review of The Wind Singer, p. 70; August 26, 2002, review of Firesong, p. 70; September 29, 2003, review of the "Wind in the Fire" trilogy, p. 67; January 17, 2005, review of The Society of Others, p. 36; January 9, 2006, review of The Trial of True Love, p. 32; June 19, 2006, review of Seeker, p. 63.

School Library Journal, December, 2000, John Peters, review of The Wind Singer, p. 146; December, 2001, Eva Mitnick, review of Slaves of the Mastery, p. 141; January, 2003, Beth L. Meister, review of Firesong, p. 141; August, 2006, June H. Keuhn, review of Seeker, p. 126.

Science Fiction Chronicle, February, 2001, Don D'Ammassa, review of The Wind Singer, p. 38.

Spectator, March 20, 2004, Piers Paul Read, review of The Society of Others, p. 50.

Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 2006, Leslie McCombs, review of Seeker, p. 63.


Achuka Web site, (February 24, 2005), "William Nicholson."

Spectrum Web site, (February 25, 2005), interview with Nicholson.

William Nicholson Home Page,http:/// (June 10, 2007).

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Nicholson, William


(b. London, England, 1753; d. London, 21 May 1815)

chemistry, technology.

As is characteristic of minor scientific figures of the British industrial revolution, only fragmentary information survives on William Nicholson’s variegated activities. Many of these endeavors were of considerable significance within the rapidly developing and changing scientific world of his day. Nicholson was successively a servant of the East India Company, a European commercial agent of Josiah Wedgwood, the potter, master of a London mathematical school, patent agent, and water engineer. He also found time to translate foreign scientific works, compile a chemical dictionary, perfect a number of inventions, devise new instruments, act as secretary of the General Chamber of Manufacturers of Great Britain, undertake significant original research and, for sixteen years, edit and promote the monthly scientific journal for which he is most often remembered. Despite—or possibly because of—advanced scientific knowledge and practical ingenuity, “he lived in trouble and died poor.”

The son of a London solicitor, Nicholson was educated in North Yorkshire, before entering the service of the East India Company in 1769. In 1776 he returned home from India. He then spent time in Amsterdam, as Dutch sales agent for Wedgwood. By 1780 he apparently had settled in London with the proceeds of his foreign ventures and had begun to find his métier as inventor, translator, and scientific projector. It was presumably about this time that he married Catherine, daughter of Peter Boullie of London and remote descendant of Edward III. Nothing is known of their family life, save that at least one son reached maturity.

On arriving in London, Nicholson seems to have intended an assault on its literary world. Initially he lodged with the dramatist Thomas Holcroft, with whom he collaborated on at least one novel. The burgeoning scientific life of the capital soon captured his fancy, although a taste for literary and historical works remained with him. Nicholson appears to have run a mathematical school for some years, until other pursuits crowded it out. Reestablished in 1799, the school again experienced its earlier fate. Pedagogic concerns were certainly paramount in Nicholson’s first scientific publication, An Introduction to Natural Philosophy (1781), which enjoyed some success as a Newtonian text.

In December 1783 Nicholson’s serious scientific interests were recognized in his election to the Chapter Coffee House Society, or Philosophical Society. This ephemeral research club flourished throughout the 1780’s and Nicholson soon became its secretary. Among its twenty-five participants the club numbered J. H. de Magellan, Richard Kirwan, and Tiberius Cavallo; Joseph Priestley and Thomas Percival figured among its provincial honorary members. Association with the group no doubt prompted Nicholson’s interest in the intellectual and commercial possibilities of the new French chemistry, then generating intense debate. His translation of A. F. de Fourcroy’s Élémens d’histoire naturelle et de chimie appeared in 1788; that of the French rebuttal of Richard Kirwan’s Essay on Phlogiston, in 1789; and that of J. A. C. Chaptal’s Élémens de chimie, in 1791. A natural consequence of this activity was the publication of Nicholson’s First Principles of Chemistry in 1790 and of a weighty, competent, but pedestrian Dictionary of Chemistry in 1795. At a slightly later date he translated Fourcroy’s Tableaux synoptiques de chimie and also his authoritative eleven-volume Système des connaissances chimiques, as well as Chaptal’s four-volume Chimie appliquée aux arts.

Just as this cluster of works is indicative of growing British concern with chemistry, so the success accorded Nicholson’s decision to found a monthly journal of scientific news and commentary reflects the quickening of British interest across a wider range of natural knowledge. The Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts began publication in April 1797. Its success invited emulation. Alexander Tilloch’s Philosophical Magazine appeared in June 1798 and offered a continuing threat to the less worldly Nicholson. When in 1813 the field was crowded still further by Thomas Thomson’s Annals of Philosophy, Nicholson, already ill, withdrew. His Journal was merged with Tilloch’s, which throughout had shown greater commercial if less scientific acumen, and which continues to flourish (having also ingested Thomson’s Annals).

The reception accorded Nicholson’s Journal reveals the growing number of cultivators of science to be found in the urbanizing and industrializing culture of late-Georgian Britain. Reliable news of scientific discoveries, technical processes, instruments, books, translations, and meetings met an evident demand. The medium itself also created a fresh audience and new possibilities for scientific controversy and intellectual fashion. In July 1800 Nicholson’s Journal enjoyed its greatest coup, when it gave the first report of its proprietor’s sensational electrolysis of water, in collaboration with Anthony Carlisle. The Journal immediately became the accepted vehicle and the powerful reinforcer of the resulting scientific fashion for electrolysis, a fashion which Humphry Davy effectively exploited in his own brilliant demonstration of the newly possible art of scientific careerism. Another illustration of the changes wrought by this fresh medium of scientific communication may be seen in the work of John Dalton. He used the monthly journals to engage critics of his theory of mixed gases and thereby was encouraged to persevere in the work which finally led to his chemical atomic theory.

Nicholson’s real genius was that of a projector. As a researcher he was competent but uninspired; as an entrepreneur, persistent but empty-handed. The range of his inventions was wide, running from hydrometers to machinery for manufacturing files. All were as commercially unrewarding as they were technically excellent. His plans for a new Middlesex waterworks, for supplying Southwark, and for piping water to Portsmouth were important and practical pieces of urban engineering from which he drew little reward. Indeed, Nicholson’s financial problems were such that he spent time in debtor’ prison, deliberately sold his name to the proprietors of the six-volume British Encyclopaedia in 1809, and died in poverty after a lingering illness. He neither became a fellow of the Royal Society nor did he enjoy other public recognition. If his activities illustrate the widening scientific opportunities of a new age, they also show that energy, imagination, and expert knowledge provided no infallible route to personal fortune or social reward.


I. Original Works. There is no bibliography of Nicholson’s works, many of which are now very rare. The following list is necessarily tentative, not definitive. Scientific books are An Introduction to Natural Philosophy, 2 vols. (London, 1781; 5th ed., 1805); First Principles of Chemistry (London, 1790; 3rd ed., 1796); and A Dictionary of Chemistry, 2 vols. (London, 1795), rev. as A Dictionary of Practical and Theoretical Chemistry (London, 1808). Other books are The History of Ayder Ali Khan, Nabob Buhader; or New Memoirs Concerning the East Indies, With Historical Notes, 2 vols. (London, 1783); The Navigator’s Assistant (London, 1784); and Abstract of Such Acts of Parliament as Are Now in Force for Preventing the Exportation of Wool (London, 1786).

Nicholson’s editions and translations of works by others are Ralph’ Critical Review of the Public Buildings, Statues and Ornaments in and About London and Westminster…With Additions (London, 1783); Fourcroy’s Elements of Natural History and Chemistry, 4 vols. (London, 1788) plus Supplement (London, 1789); the French reply to Kirwan’s Essay on Phlogiston, and the Constitution of Acids… With Additional Remarks… (London, 1789); Memoirs and Travels of the Count de Benyowsky, 2 vols. (London, 1791; 4th ed., 1803); Pajot des Charmes’s The Art of Bleaching Piece Goods, Cottons, and Threads…by…Oxygenated Muriatic Acid (London, 1799); G.B. Venturi’s Experimental Enquiries Concerning… Motion in Fluids (London, 1799); Fourcroy’s Synoptic Tables of Chemistry (London, 1801); Fourcroy’s General System of Chemical Knowledge, 11 vols. (London, 1804); and Chaptal’s Chemistry Applied to Arts and Manufactures, 4 vols. (London, 1807).

Scientific papers by Nicholson include “Description of a New Instrument for Measuring the Specific Gravity of Bodies,” in Memoirs of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, 2 (1785), 386–396; “The Principles and Illustration of an Advantageous Method of Arranging the Differences of Logarithms, on Lines Graduated for the Purpose of Computation,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 77 (1787), 246–252; “Experiments and Observations on Electricity,” ibid., 79 (1789), 265–287; “Account of the New Electrical or Galvanic Apparatus of Sig. Alex. Volta, and Experiments Performed With the Same,” in Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts, 4 (1800), 179–187, written with A. Carlisle; and numerous other contributions (many anonymous) to his own journal. A list of 62 papers is in the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, IV, 610–612.

II. Secondary Literature. The best obituary of Nicholson is that in New Monthly Magazine,3 (1815), 569; 4 (1816), 76–77, on which the Dictionary of National Biography leans heavily. There is some additional information in Gentlemen’s Magazine,85 (1815), 570. His mechanical inventions are treated briefly in Samuel Smiles, Men of Invention and Industry (London, 1884), 164, 177, 194, 202; his chemical work is mentioned in J. R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, IV (London, 1964), 19–20. S. Lilley, “Nicholson’s Journal (1797–1813),” in Annals of Science, 6, (1948), 78–101, discusses the content and significance of the Journal. Nicholson’s other publications are exhaustively examined in R. S. Woolner, “Life and Scientific Work of William Nicholson’ (M.Sc. diss., University College, London, 1959). Some further information, and reference to a manuscript biography by his son, are in R.W. Corlass, “A Philosophical Society of a Century Ago,” in Reliquary, 18 (1878), 209–211. The MS minute book of the Chapter Coffee House Society, to which Corlass refers, is now in the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford (MS Gunter 4).

Arnold Thackray

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