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William Sturgeon

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William Sturgeon (1783-1850)

William Sturgeon was an electrical engineer and scientific lecturer who devised the first electromagnet capable of supporting more than its own weight. It led to the invention of the telegraph, the electric motor, and numerous other devices basic to modern technology.

1783 William Sturgeon was born on 22 May, at Whittington, Lancashire. He was the only son of John Sturgeon, shoemaker, and his wife, Betsy.

1783 Sturgeon's father was a harsh man and after his mother died, when William was ten, he was sent away as a shoemaker's apprentice and subjected to years of mindless toil. Although he lived for several years in slavish conditions, he learned both musical and mechanical skills, and was capable of cleaning timepieces.

1802 He enlisted in the Westmorland militia, in which he served for two years, before joining the 2nd battalion of the Royal Artillery as a private and gunner.

Sturgeon was posted to the Royal Artillery base in Woolwich. He married a widow, Mary Hutton, who kept a shoe shop there. They had three children but all died in infancy, and his wife died in the 1820s. Sturgeon never saw active service and spent some time in Newfoundland, where he was sent shortly after his marriage. He used the periods of inactivity to improve himself with the help of a sergeant from whom he borrowed many books. He taught himself mathematics, as well as some Greek, Latin, French, German, and Italian. He also studied optics and other branches of natural philosophy, and improved his mechanical skills. While in Newfoundland, Sturgeon witnessed a massive thunderstorm which kindled his interests in electrical phenomena.

1820 Sturgeon left the army, went back to his native north-west and to his trade of shoemaking, but soon returned to Woolwich.

The Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, which trained gentleman cadets for the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers, had one of the largest concentrations of scientific men in the London area at that time. These included Peter Barlow, Samuel Hunter Christie, Olinthus Gilbert Gregory, who all taught mathematics there; and James Marsh, who taught practical chemistry. All were very interested in electromagnetism, discovered by the Dane, Hans Christian Oersted in 1820, and then from the work of many others in the early 1820s, particularly André-Marie Ampère in Paris and Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution in London.

1824 He became lecturer in science at the Royal Military College, Addiscombe, Surrey.

1825 He exhibited his first electromagnet - a 7-ounce (200-gram) magnet that was able to support 9 pounds (4 kilograms) of iron using the current from a single cell.

1832 Sturgeon built an electric motor and invented the commutator, an integral part of most modern electric motors.

1836 In June, Sturgeon offered his first paper to the Royal Society, on magnetic electric machines. Although it was read, it was refused publication in the Philosophical Transactions - he never published anything again in the Philosophical Magazine. In October, he founded the monthly journal Annals of Electricity. He also invented the first suspended coil galvanometer, a device for measuring current.

1840 Sturgeon was invited to become superintendent of the Royal Victoria Gallery of Practical Science in Manchester. He resigned his positions in London and returned to the north-west.

1847 Sturgeon suffered a severe attack of bronchitis from which he never fully recovered. His illness forced him to move to Prestwich, Lancashire, for better air.

1850 At the end of November he caught a cold and died on 8 December in Barnfield Terrace, Prestwich, Lancashire. He was buried in the churchyard there.

An Obituary

'THE LATE WM. STURGEON, ESQ. It was only on Saturday last that we presented our readers with a short notice of the "Scientific Researches" of the above eminently-gifted man of science. It is now our unexpected and melancholy duty to announce his death, which took place at Prestwich on Sunday morning last, after a few days' illness. He was buried on Wednesday, at the parish church of Prestwich, and his remains were followed to the grave by a number of his immediate personal and scientific friends, among whom we noticed the Venerable Archdeacon Rushton, rector of Prestwich; Professor Hodgkinson, F.R.S , Mr. E W. Binney, Mr. Leigh, Mr. Just, master of the Grammar School, Bury; Mr. Dancer, Mr. Burrows, Mr. Holme, Mr. J. P. Joule, F.R.S., &c. The funeral service was conducted by the Rev. Booker.

'William Sturgeon was born at Whittington, in the county of Lancaster, in the year 1783. His parents, who were in humble circumstances of life, apprenticed him to a shoemaker. In 1802 he entered the Westmoreland Militia, and two years afterwards he was enlisted as a private soldier in the Royal Artillery. It was during his service in the latter corps that Mr. Sturgeon began to evince that love of natural science, and that strong, clear-headed judgment in devising the means of disclosing the secrets of Nature, which afterwards so eminently distinguished him. Having procured his discharge from military service in 1820 he was enabled to devote himself with assiduity to the pursuit of his favourite studies. At that period Science had just received a great impulse from the discovery of the celebrated philosopher Oersted, by which the sciences of electricity and magnetism were ever afterwards allied, that a current of voltaic electricity passing through conducting wire is capable of deflecting a poised magnetic needle from its position in the magnetic meridian of the earth. The greater part of the scientific world hastened to cultivate the new field thus opened to investigation, and no one distinguished himself more than Mr. Sturgeon in the research, although the competitors numbered in their ranks such men as Faraday, Herschel, Arago, Ampere, Davy, Seebeck, and others of the highest distinction. Mr. Sturgeon had already obtained a thorough acquaintance with the existing state of the sciences of electricity and magnetism, and he had moreover the great advantage of possessing the mechanical genius by which he was enabled to construct his own instruments of research, to which he could give an accuracy and finish not to be surpassed by the most eminent instrument makers. The piece of his apparatus which became known to the scientific world was a modification of Ampere's rotating cylinders, which has been thus described by Mr. Jones:— "The apparatus consists of two sets of revolving cylinders, one suspended on each pole of an inverted horse-shoe magnet. Upon the insertion of dilute nitric acid, the two sets of cylinders simultaneously enter into rotations in a very interesting and striking manner. The effect is the most pleasing I have ever seen."

'In 1824, Mr. Sturgeon began to give the fruits of investigations to the public in the leading scientific periodicals of the day. In that year, no fewer than four papers of great merit appeared from his pen, on the subjects of electro and thermo-electricity, in the pages of the London Philosophical Magazine.

'In 1825 he published in the Transactions of the Society of Arts the description of a complete set of novel electro-magnetic apparatus. The great merit of this apparatus consisted in the improved adaptation of the magnets, batteries, &c, to one another, by means of which Mr. Sturgeon was enabled to perform, with a voltaic battery of the size of a pint pot, experiments which had previously required the use of a cumbrous and costly battery. The Society of Arts testified their sense of the importance of this contribution by awarding to its author their large silver medal, with a purse of thirty guineas.

'About this time Mr. Sturgeon made his great discovery of the soft iron electro-magnet, and having observed the high degree of polarity acquired by a straight bar of iron on making a current of electricity to circulate around it, as well as the suddenness with which the direction of polarity could be reversed by changing the direction of the current, he proceeded to construct electro-magnets on the same principle, but bent into the form of a horse-shoe, so that the poles, by being brought near one another, could concentrate their action on any given object. This soft iron electro-magnet has entered into the structure of every form of electric telegraph.

'Passing over several highly-valuable communications to the Philosophical Magazine, which, even at this day, would amply repay a careful study, we find him, in 1830, publishing a pamphlet, entitled, Experimental Researches in Electro-Magnetism, Galvanism, &c , comprising an extensive series of original experiments. In this work, Mr. Sturgeon first pointed out the superior effects to be derived from the use of amalgamated plates of rolled zinc in the voltaic battery, instead of the unprepared cast zinc, then in general use. He prepared his plates, by dipping them first into a dilute solution of acid, to cleanse their surfaces, and afterwards plunging them into mercury. He showed that plates prepared in this way do not effervesce in dilute sulphuric acid, as the unprepared plates do, and, in consequence, require to be much less frequently renewed than the latter; whilst, at the same time, the electric current produced is much more intense and constant. It is a remarkable fact, that no further improvement has been effected in the preparation of the positive plates of the galvanic apparatus, and that Mr. Sturgeon's amalgamated zinc plates are, at the present day, employed in every form of improved battery, whether patented or not.

'In our chronological arrangement of Mr. Sturgeon's discoveries, we may next note a highly valuable paper on the Thermo-Magnetism of Homogenous Bodies, a work the merit of which can only be duly appreciated by those who are acquainted with the extreme minuteness of the currents of which it was the object to discover the existence and direction. By a happy combination of industry and sagacity, our author succeeded in proving that electric currents can be developed in any individual mass of pure metal by a mere disturbance of temperature at some particular point, and that the direction of those currents is determined the position of the point of greatest heat and the crystalline structure of the metal—a fact of the highest importance, and which, along with others developed by him about the same time, paved the way to Dr. Faraday's celebrated discovery of magnetic-electricity!

'In 1836, Mr. Sturgeon communicated a paper to the Royal Society, which contains the description of a perfectly original magnetic electrical machine, in which a most ingenious contrivance was adopted for uniting the reciprocating electric currents developed, so as to give them one uniform direction. By this contrivance Mr. Sturgeon succeeded in producing all the effects due to ordinary voltaic currents, by means of the action of magnets on rotating coils of wire. In the same year, the great industry of Mr. Sturgeon was rewarded by two other important inventions. The first of these was that of the electro-magnetic coil machine, an instrument devised for the purpose of giving a succession of electric shocks in medical treatment, and which has been generally preferred by medical men to all others intended for similar purposes. The other was an electro-magnetic engine, for giving motion to machinery.

'In 1838, Mr. Sturgeon noticed a highly interesting electro-calorific phenomenon, produced by a powerful battery of one hundred and sixty pairs, provided by Mr. Gassiot and Mr. Mason. On breaking the battery circuit it was observed that the disruptive discharge of electricity made the positive wire red hot, while the negative remained comparatively cool. Mr. Sturgeon applied this fact to elucidate some important points in the theory of heat. About this time also Mr. Sturgeon prepared a paper for the British Association for the Advancement of Science on the very important subject of marine lightning conductors. His researches on this subject enabled him to point out the danger likely to arise from the conductors then proposed for use in the Royal Navy, by which the lightning was sought to be conveyed through the body of the ship. He propounded at the same time a new system whereby this danger might be obviated.

'In 1843 Mr. Sturgeon published a memoir in the Transactions of the Literary and Philosophical Society of this town, On the direct Action of Caloric on Magnetic Poles and the Displacement of Magnetic Action in Soft Iron by the Influence of Heat. The latter part of these researches develop some curious facts respecting the total absence of magnetic action in soft iron when made red hot, and point out by what means a bar may be converted into several magnets at one and the same time.

'We notice another memoir of even greater importance in the proceedings of the same body for 1846, entitled An Experimental Investigation of the Magnetic Characters of simple Metals, Metallic Alloys, and Salts. The very extraordinary fact arrived at by this research was, that several metallic alloys become endued with magnetic properties, although the constituents separately show no such action ; and that iron and nickel, two metals which, whilst pure, are susceptible of the highest magnetic powers, become almost totally inert to magnetic action when combined with some other metals.

'The subject of atmospheric electricity was one to which Mr. Sturgeon devoted a great deal of attention from the commencement of his scientific career to within short period of his decease. Not satisfied with the ordinary apparatus in use at the electrical observatories, he elevated exploring kites into the atmosphere, and in all seasons and weathers, and even in some instances at considerable risk to his life, did he pursue this important branch of meteorology. The result of more than five hundred kite observations established the important fact, that the atmosphere is in serene weather uniformly positive with regard to the earth, and that the higher we ascend the more positive does it become ; so that if the strata in which the kites are immersed are at altitudes corresponding to the series 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, their relative states of positive electricity would be conveniently represented by those numbers. Besides the above and a multitude of other researches which we have not room to notice, but which in a complete biography it would be impossible to pass in silence, Mr. Sturgeon was an ardent admirer and diligent observer of those grand and magnificent instances of the Creator's power, which are exhibited alike in the lightning flash and the silent corruscations of the aurora-borealis. Most graphic and highly interesting accounts of these natural phenomena appear interspersed among his more elaborate papers.

'The magnitude of Mr. Sturgeon's scientific labours would naturally lead one to imagine that his whole life was given up to original investigation. On the contrary, a large portion of his time was occupied in communicating his stores of knowledge to others. For several years he filled, with great credit to himself, the chair of experimental philosophy in the Hon. East India Company's Military Seminary, Addiscombe. In 1838, he accepted the office of superintendent of the Royal Victoria Gallery of Practical Science in this town; and subsequently to the failure of that institution, through the pressure of the times, he made strenuous, though unfortunately unsuccessful, efforts to establish another institution of kindred character. As a lecturer, he was distinguished by the happy facility with which he conveyed the truths of science to his hearers, and the uniform success of his experimental illustrations. Nor did he confine his efforts to mere oral enunciation. The numerous elementary treatises which he published on electricity, magnetism, and chemistry, show the desire he had to extend sound knowledge as widely possible. At the same time, he performed a real service to the cultivators of science, establishing a new scientific journal, entitled, " The Annals of Electricity, Magnetism, and Chemistry; and Guardian of Experimental Science," which he continued with unexampled industry and perseverance through ten octavo volumes. This work became a medium of much valuable information; and its success gave rise to similar publication on the continent, under the editorship of Professor de la Rive. Mr. Sturgeon's last work, which completed only a few weeks before his death, was to collect into one large quarto volume the whole his published papers. This work, which is got up in first-rate style, and is illustrated by eighteen beautifully engraved plates, should be studied by all who wish to obtain a thorough knowledge of electrical science.

'Convinced of the benefit derived by the public from Mr. Sturgeon's labours, and sympathizing with him in his straitened pecuniary resources, his friends applied to government several years ago for some acknowledgment of his merit on the part of the State. A sum of £200 was hereupon allowed from the limited sum devoted to the assistance of scientific and literary men ; and subsequently, in 1849, a pension of £50 was awarded him, which he has therefore enjoyed for only one year. In stature Mr. Sturgeon was above the average height, and his open brow and upright carriage conveyed the impression of integrity of character, an impression which was sure to be deepened by a personal acquaintance. As a friend he was warm-hearted and generous and always prompt in acknowledging the merit of others, where merit was really due. To the widow and daughter he has left are best known his sterling worth in the domestic circle. In politics he was a Conservative, though it will be readily belleved he had no time to enter the arena of party strife. Conscientiously attached to the Church of England, he enjoyed the friendship of many of its distinguished ornaments.

'In Mr. Sturgeon we have lost a man of high moral worth and European reputation, and it may be doubted whether, with the single exception of Dalton, the scientific society of Manchester has ever experienced a severer calamity than by his death. We are glad to learn, that a committee has been formed for the purpose of assisting the widow and orphan child, comprising, among others, the following distinguished names viz., - The Right Rev. the Lord Bishop of Manchester, D.D., F.R.S ; the Venerable Archdeacon Rushton DD.; James Heywood, Esq. M.P., F. R.S.; Joseph Brotherton, Esq., MP.; Professor Eaton Hodgkinson, F.R.S M.R.I.A., &c; Mr. J. P. Joule, F.R.S.; Mr. E. W. Binney, Mr. John Just, Mr. John Leigh, Mr. Holme, Mr. Jas. Burrows, Mr. J. B. Dancer, &c.'

See Also

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Sources of Information

  • [1] Encyclopaedia Britannica Online
  • [2] Oxford DNB