Sorby | Henry Clifton | 1826-1908 | geologist

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Henry Clifton Sorby (1826-1908), a geologist and metallurgist, was introduced to science at the age of fifteen, when he won a book entitled 'Readings in Science' (1833) for the best maths score in his class. His choice of field of study was probably influenced by his background as the son of a cutler, from a family of cutlers, in Sheffield, Britain's steel capital. While he did study at school and under a private tutor, Sorby never attended university, saying that he wanted an education "not [in order] to pass an examination but to qualify myself for a career of original investigation." This spirit of "original investigation" lived on, and he never worked for an institution, and he financed his work himself. He is said to have been one of the last important independent amateur scientists.

Sorby's principal legacy to the science of geology is microscopical petrography, the study of rock samples through a polarising microscope. He was ridiculed at the time for "studying mountains with a microscope", but he always defended himself, and insisted that details were important, regardless of size. He also turned his microscope onto iron and steel, and found that steel in particular, had a structure that resembled a rock - he found crystalline elements and a far less uniform structure than had been assumed until then.

Sorby emerged with an enhanced reputation from the debate over slaty cleavage. Slaty cleavage occurs when slate cracks in a different direction to the strata that make it up. He proved this phenomenon occurs when slate is deformed by non-uniform pressure that reorients the mica particles contained within the rock. He followed a slightly different route when investigating sandstone. He carried out practical experiments on the deposition of sand from water in various conditions, and was thus able to explain, in commendable detail, the manner in which various sandstone deposits had been created.

Sorby also used spectrum analysis of minerals and biological matter. He believed he had found a new element in the mineral jargon with this method - which he tentatively named 'jargonium' - only to find that the spectrum lines were caused by uranium. With his spectrum method, he identified carotene during his studies of pigmentation in plants and animals.

In 1878, Sorby acquired a yacht, the 'Glimpse', which he equipped as a full floating laboratory, in which he spent the summer months of the next 25 years touring Britain in. He left the bulk of his library and money to the newly created University of Sheffield, which he had been a strong supporter of.

He wrote approximately 240 scientific papers in his lifetime.



Other Significant Information


Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1850: Elected Fellow, Geological Society

1857: Elected Fellow of the Royal Society

1869: Awarded Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society

1872: Awarded Gold Medal of the Dutch Society of Sciences

1874: Awarded Gold Medal of the Royal Society

1878-1880: Elected President, Geological Society

1879: Awarded Honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD), University of Cambridge

1882: Appointed President, Firth College, Sheffield


List of sources for the biographical information:

Concise Dictionary of National Biography, ( London (England), Oxford University Press, 1992)

The Sorby Natural History Society, Sheffield, Henry Clifton Sorby: Sheffield's Greatest Scientist, (, Sheffield Hallam University, 02 March 2001)

Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol 20, ( London (England), William Benton, 1976)

Gillispie, Charles C, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol XII, (New York , Scribner's, 1975)