As I was posting a rare snail-mail the other day, I recalled Sir Rowland Hill, the guy who discovered corruption rife in the British postal service. (Misuse of free franking privileges by some MPs included sending a grand piano, a cow and two maidservants.) He licked the problem in 1840 with the first ever prepaid, adhesive postage stamp, the Penny Black.
Three years later Brazil was stamping, too. Then everybody.
Hill had started out as a schoolteacher and in 1819 opened the radically innovative Hazelwood School in Birmingham. The place had central heating (in England!?), a gym, a swimming pool, modern languages taught by direct method, and a lab for crazy new stuff called science lessons. Hill probably picked up his pedagogic propensities while working for his old man, Thomas, who in 1808 opened a school to make a bit of money after his textile factory failed. To make a bit more money (wife and four sons to support), he also took in private pupils, to whom he taught math. He must have been okay at it. One of his charges, Edwin Guest, went on to become a mathematical star at Caius College, Cambridge, and eventually (in 1852) the College Master and general bigwig. For most of his life, however, Guest was more concerned with antiquity than arithmetic. First with Old English (among his many can't-pick-up linguistic pieces: "Etymology of the Word 'Stonehenge'") and then with Romano-British studies (which he practically founded).
But before finally settling down to stones and bones, in 1824 Guest nipped over to the European mainland for the usual upper-class postuniversity self-improvement tour. During which he spent a year in Weimar, Germany. During which he delivered a copy of Percy Bysshe Shelley's recent translation of Faust to a surprised author (nobody had told him it was being done), the doyen of German Kultur: Johann W. von Goethe. Recognizing that nothing I say about Goethe will avoid annoying somebody, how about: love affairs every 15 minutes; nearly 14 volumes on science, including geology, zoology, botany, mining and optics; a ton of poems, plays, novels, operas, hymns and philosophy. The world beat a path. Even Napoleon reckoned him.
This article was originally published with the title Class Acts.