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Henry Clifton Sorby

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Henry Clifton Sorby (c1827-1908) scientist.

1826 Born at Woodbourne near Sheffield

1857 Fellow of the Royal Society.[1]

c.1865 Proposed microscopic investigation of the properties of iron and steel - thought to have been the first to do so

1869 Presented with the Woolaston Gold Medal of the Geological Study for application of the microscope to the study of rocks

1908 Died in Sheffield


1908 Obituary [2]

HENRY CLIFTON SORBY, the scientist of world-wide reputation, died at his residence in Sheffield on March 9, 1908, in his eighty-second year. Coming of a family which had been associated with Sheffield since the time of Henry VIII., he was born on May 10, 1826, his father, the late Henry Sorby, of Woodbourne, Attercliffe, being a member of the well-known firm of J. & H. Sorby, of Spital Hill, edge tool manufacturers. He was educated at the Sheffield Collegiate School and by private tutors, and he early evinced an interest in chemistry and other sciences. His name began to be known in connection with scientific work before he had reached the age of twenty-one. He published his first paper, the subject being agricultural chemistry, in 1847, and since that time he has written no fewer than two hundred and forty publications on various topics connected with his investigations. As an original investigator his work has been keenly appreciated by various learned societies.

In 1853 he was elected a Fellow of the Geological Society of London, and was in 1869 presented with the Woollaston Gold Medal for his application of the microscope to the study of rocks. He was President of the Society from 1878 to 1880. In 1857 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society, and served on the Council in 1876 and 1877, receiving in 1874 one of the two gold medals given by the late Queen. He was one of the eighteen foreign members of the Academy of the Sciences in Rome, the oldest scientific society in the world.

In 1872 he was presented with the Medal of the Dutch Society of Science, which is awarded once in twenty years to the one who has done most to advance geology and mineralogy in that period. He was President of the Royal Microscopical Society in 1875, and was re-elected in 1876 and 1877. In 1876 he was appointed the first President of the Mineralogical Society of Great Britain and Ireland. The University of Cambridge conferred the honorary degree of LL.D. upon him in 1879.

For a number of years he was one of the secretaries of the Geological Section of the British Association, and was President of that section at the Swansea meeting in 1880. When the British Association visited Sheffield in 1879, he was one of the local secretaries, and was subsequently elected to the Council. He was also a member of the Imperial Mineralogical Society of St. Petersburg, the Dutch Society of Science, and Mineralogical Society of Brussels, a corresponding member of the Lyceum of Natural History, and of the Academy of Natural Science in New York, the Academy of Natural Science in Philadelphia, and of many British societies.

In Sheffield he was President of the Literary and Philosophical Society in 1852. He was re-elected to that office several times, and on the occasion of his completing his fifty years' connection with the society he was again re-elected to the chair and presented with his portrait, alike to celebrate the jubilee, and, in the words of the inscription, "to commemorate his world-wide scientific reputation." Dr. Sorby rendered conspicuous service to his native city, notably in the establishment of the Technical School, which is now a Department of Sheffield University. He worked hard to secure the success of that institution, and, on its being successfully established, was appointed its first chairman. He was also one of the most generous contributors to its funds. He was President of Firth College from 1882 to 1897. In the latter year the College became the University College of Sheffield, and he resigned in order that the Duke of Norfolk might be elected to the presidency. He remained, however, on the governing body of the College, and on the charter for a university being granted, he was appointed to the Council, was a member of the Committee for the Department of Applied Science, and held both these positions up to his death.

In 1849 he founded the science of petrography, having prepared in that year the first rock section ever examined by transmitted light. In. 1856 he enunciated his theory, now generally accepted, that the Cleveland ironstone hills had been originally calcium carbonate, which had been gradually replaced by carbonate of iron derived from associated strata. The study of rocks led him to that of meteorites, and enabled him to show that they have interesting points of relation to volcanic rocks and consolidated ashes. In order to throw light on meteoric iron he was led to prepare slightly etched sections of artificial irons and steels, and it was soon found that by studying these by means of illuminators contrived by himself and others, not before applied to such a purpose, most important information could be gained, so as to put our knowledge of iron and steel on an entirely new footing. He read papers on the subject, and exhibited microscopic photographs before the British Association at Bath in 1864, and before the Sheffield Literary and Philosophical Society, but though the specimens were often publicly exhibited and described, the subject attracted little or no notice for more than twenty years, when, at the request of Dr. Percy in 1886, he contributed to the Iron and Steel Institute a paper on the application of very high powers to the study of the microscopical structure of steel. This was followed in 1887 by a paper giving the complete results of his twenty years' study of the microscopical investigation of iron and steel. Referring to this paper Dr. Percy, the President, said that he had a strong impression that, from a scientific point of view, great results were likely to flow from this line of investigation, which might possibly admit of valuable application in the manufacture and working of iron and steel. Dr. Percy's prediction was borne out by results, and in the words of the obituary notice in Nature (vol. lxxvii. p. 466), " Dr. Sorby placed in the hands of metallurgists for all time a new and most valuable method of scientific investigation."

Dr. Sorby was elected a member of the Iron and Steel Institute in 1886, and the last time he appeared at its meetings was in 1906 at Sheffield, when, as a member of the Reception Committee, he was wheeled into the Firth Hall of the new University buildings wearing his academic robes, and expressed his pleasure that so much interest was now taken in the study of the microscopic structure of steel compared with the little interest taken twenty years previously, when he contributed his papers on the subject to the Institute.


1909 Obituary [3]

. . . the establishment of the Technical School, which is now a Department of Sheffield University . . . [more]


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