Fr. Nicholas Callan was born in 1799 in County Louth. He was the fifth of six children born to a prosperous farming family. Noting that their son was remarkably clever, they sent him to the best private school available, which was run by a Presbyterian Clergyman (in the wake of the recent Penal Laws, there were few Catholic school options) while entrusting his Catholic education to the local parish priest.
Both pious and intellectually gifted, Callan was accepted at the newly established Catholic college at Maynooth. Here, Callan was greatly influenced by his Professor of Natural Philosophy (the 19th-century term for the science which we would call Physics and a philosophy that encouraged experimentation), Fr. Cornelius Denvir. Ordained in 1823, Callan traveled to Rome to pursue his Doctor of Divinity which he obtained in less than three years. Callan had developed a keen interest in the new fields of electricity and magnetism, which was reinforced with his meeting of two Italian pioneers in the field: Luigi Galvani (discoverer of bioelectricity) and Alessandro Volta (the inventor of the battery).
Callan returned to Maynooth in 1827, where he took over the role of Professor of Natural Philosophy from his mentor, Fr. Cornelius Denvir, who had recently been confirmed a Bishop. Over the course of a 38-year career at Maynooth, Callan would publish twenty books on religious topics in addition to his teaching duties, one of which was cited by John Henry Newman as influencing his conversion to Catholicism.
However, Fr. Callan never lost his fascination with the science of electricity and magnetism and continued his research
and experimentation in the new field. Being a pioneer in a new field of science, where proper instrumentation was still
lacking, required some unorthodox out-of-the-box thinking. In order to determine the voltage generated by his apparatus. Callan would have a chain of fifteen students hold hands while the ones on the ends touched the terminals; he would gauge the power by how high they jumped with the resulting shock. Another time he constructed what was then the largest battery in the world by linking 577 smaller batteries; Callan tested the strength of an electromagnet it powered by inviting strongmen from the surrounding farm community to try to beat it in a tug of war. Not without humor, it was noted that Fr. Callan was often in the habit of turning off the device without warning at demonstrations to see the team of testers go tumbling.
However, Fr. Callan’s greatest achievement was that he discovered that if he wound two coils of wire around an iron core, with one coil attached to a low voltage battery and then that current was interrupted, it produced a high voltage current in the second coil; the more frequently he interrupted the current, the greater the spark. Cannibalizing the workings from a grandfather clock, he was able to interrupt the current twenty times a second and produce over 60,000 volts, the greatest amount of artificial electricity produced up to that time.
The device that Fr. Callan had invented was the induction coil and the forerunner to the transformer which we use daily
in our cars and to deliver power to our homes and businesses. Fr. Callan also invented the ‘Maynooth Battery,’ which was of a much simpler and cheaper design than the batteries of the time, making batteries much more available for research and a form of galvanization to protect the iron he used in his experiments.
Fr. Callan was interested in science for the pursuit of advancing knowledge, not for advancing himself; any royalties he
received he donated to the poor. Sadly, his nobility had the unintended consequence of this great mind and its
achievements being unrecognized. In one case, another has claimed credit for Fr. Callan’s work, which has recently been disproved restoring rightful credit to Fr. Callan. That oversight was somewhat corrected when in the millennial year of 2000, Fr. Callan was honored in a series of stamps issued by the Irish Government that also included Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Marie Curie. Fr. Callan is yet another example of the Irish being omitted from the textbooks that we must make every effort to remember.
Neil F. Cosgrove, Division Historian