Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sturgeon, William
STURGEON, WILLIAM (1783–1850), electrician, was born on 22 May 1783 at Whittington in Lancashire, a village near Kirkby Lonsdale. His father, John Sturgeon, an ingenious but idle man, a maker by trade, who neglected his family while poaching fish and rearing gamecocks, migrated from Dumfries to Whittington, where he married Betsy Adcock, the daughter of a small shopkeeper. Young Sturgeon was apprenticed to his father's trade at Old Hutton in 1796, under a master who starved and ill-used him. The dexterity which he acquired as a shoemaker proved of service to him in many ways; but in 1802, seeing no hope of advancement in his trade, he enlisted in the Westmoreland militia, and two years later, being then twenty-one, he enlisted as a private in the royal artillery. His attention is said to have been directed to electrical phenomena by a terrific thunderstorm which occurred when he was stationed at Newfoundland. He determined to study natural science; but, finding himself unable to understand what had been written on the subject, he set himself, amid all the disadvantages of barrack life, to acquire the rudiments of an education. A sergeant lent him books, which he studied at night with the connivance of the officers; he is said to have ingratiated himself with the mess by his skill as a cobbler. In this way he worked at mathematics, and learnt sufficient Latin and Greek to grapple with scientific terminology. While stationed at Woolwich his models and electrical experiments seem to have attracted considerable attention. The cadets of the Royal Military Academy ‘used to swarm on the barrack field to get shocks from his exploring kites,’ which were constructed after Franklin's pattern, but with some modifications and improvements of his own. Sturgeon left the army on 1 Oct. 1820, at the age of thirty-seven, his conduct, according to the testimony of his commanding officer, having been ‘altogether unimpeachable.’ In spite, however, of the remarkable talent that he had shown he never rose above the rank of gunner and driver, and his pension on discharge amounted to no more than one shilling a day. For a time he resumed his old trade of bootmaker, opening a shop in Artillery Place, Woolwich (No. 8). Here, during his leisure time, he taught himself turning and lithography, and devoted a good deal of attention to the construction of scientific apparatus. He supplemented his income by lecturing to schools and teaching officers' families. He also began to contribute to the scientific press, especially the ‘London Philosophical Magazine,’ and in 1822 took a prominent part in founding the Woolwich ‘Literary Society,’ among the original members being the chemist James Marsh [q. v.] His first original contribution to science seems to have been the production of a modified form of Ampère's rotating cylinders, described in the ‘Philosophical Magazine’ for 1823, and this was followed in 1824 by four able papers on thermo-electricity. His zeal, amounting to a perfect passion, for chemical and electrical experiments aroused the interest of such men as Olinthus Gilbert Gregory [q. v.], Samuel Hunter Christie [q. v.], and Peter Barlow [q. v.], through whose influence he was at the close of 1824 appointed lecturer in science and philosophy at the East India Company's Royal Military College of Addiscombe.
In 1825 Sturgeon presented to the Society of Arts the set of improved apparatus for electro-magnetic experiments, including his first soft-iron electro-magnet, for which he was awarded the silver medal of the society and a premium of thirty guineas. To him is undoubtedly due, says James Prescott Joule [q. v.], the credit of being the original discoverer, he having constructed electro-magnets in soft iron, both in the straight and horseshoe shape, as early as 1823. In 1826 Sturgeon was busied with the firing of gunpowder by electric discharges, and in 1830, in his fragment called ‘Experimental Researches,’ he describes for the first time the now well-known process of amalgamating the zinc plate of a battery with a film of mercury. Shortly afterwards he began to experiment on the phenomena of the magnetism of rotation discovered by Arago, and came to the conclusion that the effects were probably due to a disturbance of the electric fluid by magnetic action, a kind of reaction to that which takes place in electro-magnetism. The publication of Faraday's brilliant research on magneto-electric induction in 1831 forestalled the complete explanation of which he was in search. In 1832 he constructed an electro-magnetic rotary engine, the first contrivance, according to Joule, by means of which any considerable mechanical force was developed by the electric current.
In 1832 the Adelaide Gallery of Practical Science (upon the site of what is now Messrs. Gatti's restaurant, West Strand) was open for the exhibition of models and inventions to be illustrated by means of lectures, and Sturgeon was nominated upon the lecturing staff of this short-lived institution. A few years later, in 1836, he established a new monthly periodical, ‘The Annals of Electricity,’ which was the first journal exclusively devoted to electrical subjects in this country. He supported this with immense industry and great ability, and with some aid from Joule, down to 1843, when lack of support compelled its discontinuance, though its ten octavo volumes still remain valuable as a work of reference.
Meanwhile, in 1837, Sturgeon produced his electro-magnetic coil machine for giving shocks, and in the same year examined the cause of the frequent fracture of Leyden jars by electrical explosions. He discovered an effectual way of obviating these accidents by means of a connecting rod supporting the ball to the upper edge of the inner coating by cross strips of metal. Aided by this contrivance, during twelve years of active experimenting with heavy charges and discharges he did not break a single jar of his battery. In 1838 he discovered the unequal heating effects found at the two poles of the voltaic arc. Nor did he during this period intermit his experiments in atmospheric electricity. As a result of no less than five hundred kite observations, in one of which he was nearly killed, he succeeded in establishing 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.
In 1840 Sturgeon quitted Woolwich for Manchester, upon an invitation to act as superintendent of the Royal Victoria Gallery of Practical Science, an institution intended for the dissemination of popular science and a pioneer of the highest class of technical school. Sturgeon, now fifty-seven years old, entered upon his new duties with characteristic ardour. Exhibitions, conversaziones, and lecture courses were organised. But the institution was too much in advance of its time to prove a financial success, and, like its ill-fated predecessors in London, the Adelaide Gallery and the Royal Polytechnic, it came to a premature end after an existence of about four years. Sturgeon endeavoured to establish another institution of a similar character, called the Manchester Institution of Natural and Experimental Science, but met with little support. During 1843 Sturgeon also brought out six parts of a new periodical venture, named ‘The Annals of Philosophical Discovery and Monthly Reporter of the Progress of Practical Science.’ Thenceforth he had to depend for a living upon precarious earnings as an itinerant lecturer on scientific subjects in the towns around Manchester. The railway service at that time was rudimentary, and he had to convey his apparatus in a cart. His profits cannot have been large, but his reputation was extended by his expository skill. His style was manly and vigorous. He never aimed at mere effect, though not insensible to the uncommon beauty of many of his experimental illustrations, which were rendered doubly impressive by their novelty.
From 1845 to 1850 Sturgeon felt keenly the pinch of poverty. After many exertions Bishop Prince Lee and Dr. Binney, president of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society (of which Sturgeon was a member), succeeded in obtaining for him from Lord John Russell a grant of 200l., and in 1849 this was supplemented by an annuity of 50l. His health was now beginning to fail. A bronchial attack had led him in 1847 to remove for a time to his native air near Kirkby Lonsdale. There he continued his observations upon atmospheric electricity, as exhibited in several auroral displays, which he minutely described. Upon his return to Manchester he removed to the elevated suburb of Prestwich, where he died on 4 Dec. 1850. He was buried in the graveyard of Prestwich church. A marble tablet was subsequently placed to his memory in Kirkby Lonsdale church.
Sturgeon married, soon after entering the royal artillery, a widow named Hutton, who kept a shoe shop at Woolwich. They had three children, who all died in infancy. In 1829 he married again, Mary Bromley of Shrewsbury, who died on 2 Oct. 1867, aged 77, and was buried beside her husband at Prestwich. Their only child also died an infant; whereupon they adopted Sturgeon's niece, Ellen Coates, who married Luke Brierley, and died on 19 Jan. 1884, aged 51.
Sturgeon was of a tall and well-built frame of body; his forehead was high and his features were strongly marked. His address and conversation were animated. His literary style was vigorous and lucid. A small photograph (probably copied from a daguerreotype) was enlarged and engraved for the ‘Electrician,’ 13 Sept. 1895. An oil painting of Sturgeon is also in the possession of Mr. Luke Brierley of 1 Chorlton Road, Manchester. None of Sturgeon's manuscripts or apparatus have been preserved.
It has been urged against Sturgeon that his work did not result in the discovery of any great generalisations in electrical science. His phraseology, in accordance with ideas current in his day, was from the modern point of view faulty. He spoke of ‘magnetic effluvium,’ of ‘caloric’ particle, electrical fluid, and electric matter. But a glance at the list of his published works will show that, while extending the boundaries of electrical science by the observation of phenomena and the furnishing of facts, he took a high and broad view of electrical manifestations and powers. By his extensive series of experiments upon ‘The Thermo-Magnetism of Homogeneous Bodies’ he endeavoured to discover a definite law of action, and in his paper ‘On the Theory of Magnetic Electricity’ he attempted ‘to reduce the phenomena of magnetic electricity to a definite code of physical laws.’ But he moved very cautiously, being conscious, as he says, of the ‘long silent probation’ that is needed before broad statements ‘can be of any account beyond expanding the region of philosophical speculation.’
His practical inventions covered the whole field of electrical science. Jacobi of St. Petersburg claimed for Sturgeon, in conjunction with Oersted, the discovery of the electro-magnetic engine. No less firmly established, says Joule, is his priority in regard to the magneto-electrical machine. He was the first who devised and executed an apparatus for throwing the opposing currents into one direction, thus accomplishing for this machine exactly what James Watt accomplished for the steam engine. This contrivance, known as the commutator on the continent, and formerly unitress in America, is now universally employed in every magneto-electrical machine. Sturgeon was without doubt the constructor of the first rotary electro-magnetic engine. The (now universally adopted) amalgamation of zinc plates in the voltaic battery was originated by him, while his discoveries in the thermo-electricity and magnetism of homogeneous bodies have placed his name higher than that of any other man of science who, after Seebeck, has cultivated thermo-electricity. Sturgeon clearly perceived the possibilities of the electro-magnet as a motor. And this same invention of the soft-iron electro-magnet has long been the leading feature of the instrument working the Morse system of electricity, while it has also proved the parent of the dynamo machine, which has exerted enormous influence upon modern industrial life.
Sturgeon's inventive efforts were constantly directed towards the simplifying and cheapening of apparatus, and so rendering his discoveries more practically available in the development of the scientific industries. Thus, for example, a Grove's battery, costing at the time 7l., and a Daniel's 6l., were superseded by Sturgeon's batteries of equal power for 3l. 10s.
With the prevision of genius, Sturgeon foresaw that electricity would become the prevailing illuminant. Exhibiting the electric light actuated by a galvanic battery of one hundred jars at one of his lectures in 1849, he said that he ‘quite anticipated that the electric light would supersede gas for public, whatever it might do for private, purposes.’ He also showed the process of electro-gilding by a magnetic machine of his own construction, and translated from the German of Professor Jacobi ‘The Whole Galvanoplastik Art or Method of forming Electrotypes of Medallions, Coins, Statuary, Bronzes, Ornaments, &c.’ Several of these inventions were afterwards patented at Woolwich and Birmingham; but Sturgeon was not benefited, as his desire was to place ‘this apparatus in the hands of the public, and [to make it] alike available to all artisans wishing to employ it.’
Only a few weeks before his death Sturgeon completed, in one large and handsome volume, a reprint of his original contributions to science (scattered through numerous periodicals) under the title of ‘Scientific Researches.’ This volume was published by subscription (Manchester, 1850, 4to), and was illustrated by a number of finely engraved plates. Of the papers contained in this volume, the earlier ones had first seen the light in the ‘London Philosophical Magazine.’ To this periodical Sturgeon's chief contributions, all on electrical subjects, were as follows: September 1823 (a description of the revolving ‘Sturgeon's disk,’ a modification of the pendulum of Marsh and the star-wheel of Barlow); February, April, October 1824, May and June 1825, June 1826 (ignition of gunpowder by electrical discharge); January 1827, July, August 1831, March 1832 (on electro-magnets); April, May, July 1832, January, February, March, May, November 1833, November and December 1834 (kite experiments); April and November 1835, and August 1836. To the ‘Edinburgh Philosophical Journal’ (July 1825) Sturgeon contributed an investigation of the action of magnets upon non-ferruginous metals. His ‘Researches in Electrodynamics,’ a paper read before the Royal Society on 16 June 1836, was not printed in the ‘Philosophical Transactions,’ but it is given in full, with an explanation of a temporary friction between Sturgeon and Faraday, in the quarto ‘Researches’ (No. xii.). Sturgeon's ‘Address to the London Electrical Society on 7 Oct. 1837,’ and four papers read before the society, are printed in the ‘Electrical Society's Transactions,’ 1837 and 1838. From 1836 to 1843 Sturgeon's activity is best traced in the pages of his own periodical, the ‘Annals of Electricity.’ In October 1839 a paper which there appeared upon ‘Marine Lightning Conductors’ led to an animated controversy with Sir William Snow Harris [q. v.] Sturgeon urged that the conductors should not follow the mast down into the hold, but pass over the sides outside the shrouds, the vessel being more or less enclosed in a network of conductors. In the course of this discussion Sturgeon stoutly maintained that the so-called lateral effects of lightning flashes in neighbouring bodies were due not, as Harris maintained, to imperfect neutralisation in the discharge, but to the actual generation of induction-currents, a view now fully accepted. Sturgeon's later papers appeared for the most part in the ‘Memoirs of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society’ (1842, 1846, and 1848).
In addition to the quarto volume of ‘Researches,’ which contained all that the writer deemed of the greatest permanent value among his investigations, Sturgeon published separately ‘Experimental Researches in Electro-magnetism, Galvanism, &c.,’ London, 1830, 8vo; ‘Lectures on Electricity delivered in the Royal Victoria Gallery, Manchester,’ London, 1842, 8vo; and ‘Twelve Elementary Lectures on Galvanism,’ London, 1843, 8vo. He also edited, in 1843, a reissue of the ‘Magnetical Advertisements’ of William Barlow or Barlowe [q. v.][William Sturgeon, a Biographical Note by S[ilvanus] P. T[hompson], privately printed, 1891; Gent. Mag. 1851, i. 102; Vibart's Addiscombe, 1894, pp. 77–80; Manchester Examiner, 14 Dec. 1850; Manchester Chronicle, 9 April and 16 and 23 Oct. 1841; Manchester Guardian; Memoir of Lit. and Phil. Soc. Manchester, vol. xiv.; Angus Smith's Centenary of Science in Manchester, 1850; Electrician, 13 Sept. 1895, by W. W. Haldane Gee, B.Sc.; Athenæum, December 1850; Allibone's Dict. of English Literature.]