Henry Clifton Sorby

Sheffield's Greatest Scientist

by Valerie Clinging

Henry Clifton Sorby

Henry Clifton Sorby on board
his yacht "The Glimpse"

(Reproduced by kind permission
of the University of Sheffield)

Henry Clifton Sorby was undoubtedly the greatest scientist that Sheffield has ever produced yet his work is not well known to non-scientists and few people, even in his own home town, are aware of the many scientific achievements of this great man.

His early life

He was born at Woodbourne, Attercliffe in 1826 into a wealthy middle class family. His father was a tool manufacturer, owner of the firm of "John Sorby & Sons" and as an only child Henry Sorby might have been expected to go into the family business but he never did so. Instead at the age of 15 he decided to become a scientist and after leaving Sheffield Collegiate School he studied at home with a private tutor. Although his family could easily have afforded to send him to University there were no university courses at that time dealing solely with the sciences and a degree would not have helped him towards a scientific career. In 1847 when he was 21 his father died and Sorby found himself with a comfortable private income and no need to earn a living. Instead of enjoying the fashionable life of a gentleman he immediately established a scientific laboratory and workshop at his home (Broomfield, Beech Hill Road, Broomhill. The site is now covered by part of the Royal Hallamshire Hospital.) and devoted the rest of 61 years! He was still working until a few days before his death in 1908 at the age of 82. This financial independence was of great importance in his work. Unfettered by the demands of an employer or by financial constraints he was able to pursue his own lines of scientific enquiry even when they seemed to be expensive and unproductive and he was perhaps the last great scientific amateur in an age when science was becoming the concern of professionals.

His geological work

Sorby's main achievements lay in the field of geology and one of the reasons that he is not better known is that he worked in specialist areas which are not easy for the non-scientist to understand. In 1849 he pioneered a new branch of geology -"Microscopical Petrography" the microscopic examination of very thin sections of rock. He ground thin slices of rock by hand to an incredible one thousandth of an inch thickness and then examined them under a microscope in normal and polarised light. This technique was not invented by Sorby but it was he who appreciated its significance for geological study and developed it into an accepted branch of the science. As Sorby himself wrote many years later:

"In those early days people laughed at me. They quoted Saussure who had said that it was not a proper thing to examine mountains with microscopes, and ridiculed my action in every way. Most luckily I took no notice of them."

Sorby pointed out to his critics that no one expected astronomers to confine their observations to what they could see with the naked eye so why should geologists be so restricted and commented that there is no necessary connection between the size of an object observed and the value of the facts and conclusions to be derived from it. By studying rocks in this way Sorby was able to discover a great deal about how they had been formed and in 1853 he applied these microscopical techniques to the study of a controversial phenomenon known as "slaty cleavage" (the fact that slates will form cleavage lines in directions unrelated to the way in which they were originally deposited). Many geologists had studied this problem and several explanations had been put forward but it was Sorby who finally proved conclusively that it was due to mechanical pressure. He was incidentally told at an early stage in his work by the Director-General of the Geological Survey that he had no business to study the subject as it had already been settled, fortunately Sorby again took no notice, continued with his research and proved the Director-General was wrong! In 1857, aged only 31 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in recognition of this work on slaty cleavage.

From Geology to Metallurgy

Sorby was always a scientific pioneer. Once he had solved a problem to his own satisfaction he would move on to another one and leave others to consolidate the fields of study that he had opened up. From his microscopical study of rocks he became interested in the minute fluid cavities in mineral crystals and how these could be used to show the ways in which the rocks themselves had been formed millions of years ago. This led him to study meteorites and meteoric iron and then to the microscopical examination of modern manufactured iron and steel, a very appropriate study in Sheffield. In 1863 he again pioneered a new field of study, that of "Microscopic Metallurgy" which is now an accepted part of modern metallurgy. Towards the end of his life Sorby commented with justifiable satisfaction:

"In those early days, if railway accident had occurred and I had suggested that the company should take up a rail and have it examined with the microscope, I should have been looked upon as a fit man to send to an asylum. But that is what is now being done..."

Further microscopical work

His microscopical work in metallurgy led Sorby to invent a spectrum microscope with a new arrangement to get what is calls "direct vision" and this work pioneered yet another new branch of scientific study, "Microspectroscopy". By this technique he discovered a means for detecting minute traces of blood, even if invisible to the naked eye, which had obvious implications for forensic science. He also applied his spectrum microscope to almost every branch of scientific enquiry in which colour plays a part, studying the pigment of leaves, fungi, birds' eggs, hair wood, the sky, insects, plants, algae and semi precious stones. He published the results of his researches and was always willing to demonstrate the use of his microscope to those who were interested. Among these was John Ruskin who was a friend of Sorby for many years and wrote lyrically of the beauties to be seen through a spectrum microscope. Sorby also thought that he had discovered a new element, which he named Jargonium, by spectrum analysis, but after further work on the subject he realised, much to his disappointment, that he had been mistaken.

Marine biology and other interests

In 1878 Sorby bought himself a yacht. "The Glimpse", perhaps to occupy himself with a new interest after the death of his mother to whom he was devoted. Needless to say this was not intended to be used for pleasure cruises. It is typical of Sorby that before purchasing the yacht he made a detailed study of methods of boat construction and rigging and even lectured on the subject. "The Glimpse" was a large yacht with a crew of five, it was equipped as a floating laboratory and for the next 20 years he cruised up and down the east coast of England every summer studying geology, botany, meteorology, archaeology and above all marine biology. He developed his own special techniques for mounting actual specimens of marine animals and plants directly on to lantern slides so that they could be projected on to a screen without distortion. Many of these slides still exist in Sheffield City Museum and are still in excellent condition. He also studied living organisms in the Thames estuary and collected and examined water samples in connection with the Royal Commission on the Drainage of London. He also studied architecture, archaeology, old churches, mediaeval art, Egyptian hieroglyphics, illuminated manuscripts, and, for relaxation, painted in water-colours.

National Recognition

During his lifetime Sorby received national and international recognition of his work although he never sought honours and regarded the pleasure of following his original research as its own reward. Amongst many awards he received three gold medals, the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society in 1869, the Gold Medal of the Dutch Society of Sciences in 1872 and the Gold Medal of the Royal Society in 1874. He was also made an honorary Doctor of Laws at Cambridge University, He was president at various times of the Royal Microscopical Society, the Mineralogical Society, the Geological Society and the geological branch of the British Association, and there can be few scientists who have achieved so many distinctions in such a wide variety of subjects.

Sorby and Sheffield

Sorby never married and lived his whole life in Sheffield despite being urged many times to move to London where he would have been in touch with the latest scientific developments. He joined the Sheffield Literary and Philosophical Society at the age of 20 and remained an active member for the next 60 years. He was elected President seven times and read many papers to the Society, often presenting his original research to the "Lit. &Phil." before publishing it in a national scientific journal. He also organised regular "conversaziones:, a mixture of social and scientific events combining music, conversation and refreshments with scientific displays, short lectures, and demonstrations of microscopic techniques and other interesting scientific equipment. He was also the first president of the Yorkshire Naturalists' Union, a federation of natural history societies within the county, and in 1879 he was largely responsible for bringing a meeting of the British Association to Sheffield. He was very active, with Mark Firth, in the development of higher education in Sheffield, became the President of Firth College in 1882 after Mark Firth's death and worked hard for the establishment of a University in the City. This was eventually founded in 1905 and in his will Sorby left a very considerable sum to the University to endow a professorship in geology. He also endowed a fellowship to promote original research, such as he had devoted his whole life to studying. He died in 1908 at the age of 82 and was buried in Ecclesall churchyard.


This brief bibliography is by no means complete and is intended merely as a brief introduction to the subject in response to several requests by visitors to this Web site!

DENNY, A., 1929. Resumé of the biological works of Dr. H. C. Sorby, F.R.S. Proceedings of the Sorby Scientific Society, Sheffield. Vol. 1, p.1-4.

EDYVEAN, R. G. J., 1988. Henry Clifton Sorby (1826-1908): studies in marine biology - the algal lantern slides. Archives of Natural History 1988, Vol. 15 part 1, p.35-44.

EDYVEAN, R. G. J. and HAMMOND, C., 1997. The metallurgical work of Henry Clifton Sorby and an annotated catalogue of his extant metallurgical samples. Historical Metallurgy. Vol. 31 No. 2, p.54-85.

ENTWISTLE, A. R., 1963. An account of the exhibits relating to Henry Clifton Sorby, shown at the Sorby centenary in Sheffield, 1963. Metallography, p.313-326.

HAMMOND, C., 1989. The contribution of Henry Clifton Sorby to the study of reflected light microscopy of iron and steel. Historical Metallurgy. Vol. 23 No. 1, p.1-8.

HARDWICK, D. and WILLIAMS, W. M., 1980. The birth of metallography - The work of Henry Clifton Sorby (1826 - 1908). Bulletin of the Canadian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy. Vol. 73 No. 813, p.143-144.

HIGHAM, Norman, 1963. A very scientific gentleman: the major achievements of Henry Clifton Sorby. Oxford: Pergamon.
(This is an excellent general biography covering all aspects of his work but now out of print.)

JUDD, H. W., 1908. Henry Clifton Sorby and the birth of microscopical petrology. Geological Magazine. decade 5 V, p.193.

SHEPPARD, T., 1906. Prominent Yorkshire workers. 1 - Henry Clifton Sorby. The Naturalist, May 1906, p.137-230.
(This lists 250 of Sorby's published papers on a wide variety of subjects.)

SORBY, Henry Clifton, 1897. Fifty years of scientific research. An address delivered before the members of the Sheffield Literary and Philosophical Society, at Firth College, on Tuesday February 2nd, 1897, by the President, H. C. Sorby LLD. FRCS &c. Sheffield, (Independent Press,) 1897.
(This paper also appeared in the Annual Report of the Society for 1898. This short paper is the only published autobiographical account of Sorby's work and gives a brief and modest summary of his achievements.)