Biography of William Sturgeon


William Sturgeon was an English electrical engineer. In 1825 he built the first practical electromagnet, in 1832 invented the commutator for electric motors and in 1836 made the first moving-coil galvanometer and carried out research into atmospheric charge. His Annals of Electricity (1836) was the first journal of its kind in Britain. His electromagnet was capable of supporting more than its own weight.

This device led to the invention of the telegraph, the electric motor, and numerous other devices basic to modern technology. William Sturgeon was born in Whittington near Kirkby Lonsdale, North Lancashire, England, on 22 May 1783 as the son of John and Betsy (Adcock) Sturgeon. His father was a shoemaker. Sturgeon’s father has been described as an “idle poacher who neglected his family.” Sturgeon received little formal education and, on the death of his mother, was apprenticed to another cobbler when he was just ten years old. It was an unhappy experience and he eventually ran away to join the army.

He entered the Westmorland Militia (1802) and then joined the Royal Artillery in 1804 and served until 1820 when he was 37 years of age. There he borrowed books to teach himself the basics of language, mathematics, and physics. He soon became popular with the cadets for his electric shock-inducing kites, and began to make scientific apparatus. Inspired by a bad thunderstorm, he began to investigate electricaldischarges such as lightening, a study which he continued after leaving the army.

After leaving the military he opened up a boot making business in Woolwich for a short period of time. While stationed at Woolwich he studied natural philosophy (physics) at night and occasionally lectured on natural philosophy. It became apparent that he was extremely skilled in this role. During this time he also became a member of the Woolwich Literary Society.

In 1824, he was appointed lecturer in science and philosophy at the East India Company’s Royal Military College at Addiscombe in Surrey, England. He especially liked Oersted’s experiment of 1820 because it linked electricity and magnetism for public entertainment and edification. In order to demonstrate electrical experiments he needed equipment that was expensive and difficult to operate. While searching for affordable equipment he invented the first practical electromagnet. Sturgeon first applied his ideas of electromagnetism into a solenoiddevice.

He wrapped several turns of wire around an iron core to produce magnetism when an electrical current was passed through the wire. He noticed that the electricity had set up a magnetic field that was concentrated in the iron core. He next varnished the iron to insulate it from the wound wires, and then hit on the idea of the horseshoe shape. He observed that each coil reinforced the next coil because they formed parallel wires with the current moving in the same direction.

In 1825, Sturgeon then of the Royal Academy of Woolwich and with some help from Francis Watkins of London constructed the first practicalelectromagnet by refining Sturgeon’s original ideas. Along with Ampere’s ideas they also pieced together the discoveries of Arago, and took their ideas a step further to develop their electromagnet.

Their electromagnet consisted of a horseshoe shaped piece of iron to form a core with 16 turns of wire wrapped around it without touching each other. When they passed current through the wire, the magnet attracted 9 pounds of metal objects (4 kg or 20 times its own weight). Their practical electromagnet was exhibited in London in the same year, and for this invention Sturgeon received the silver medal of the Royal Society of Arts in 1825.

Sturgeon married Mrs Hilton, and lost all three of their children in infancy. In 1829, he was married a second time to Mary Bromley, and again their one child died in infancy. They then adopted a daughter, Ellen Coates who later became Mrs Luke Brierley.

He authored “Experimental Researches” in 1830. By 1832, Sturgeon was well established as a public lecturer on natural philosophical subjects and as a philosophical instrument maker. From 1832, he lectured at the Adelaide Gallery of Practical Science in London which had just formed.

The Gallery was formed by a variety of patrons, rich and middle class that ranged from wealthy philosopher Ralph Watson to engineer Thomas Telford. The Gallery blended instruction with amusement to promote the arts, invention exhibits, manufacturers, and science. The Gallery was open to the public without charge, and relied on their gratuities. At this time electricity held considerable interest among the English public. The Gallery operated only briefly, however (1832-1840).

Sturgeon built an electric motor in 1832 and invented the commutator, an integral part of most modern electric motors. He also improved the voltaic battery and worked on the theory of thermoelectricity. From more than 500 kite observations he established that in serene weather the atmosphere is invariably charged positively with respect to the Earth, becoming more positive with increasing altitude.

Sturgeon founded the journal “Annals of Electricity” in 1836 and edited it until it folded in 1843, 10 volumes after its start. His journal was the first of its type on electricity in England. Also in 1836, he invented the first suspended coil galvanometer, and thereafter several electromagnetic machines of various types.

Sturgeon’s galvanometer

The basic galvanometer, devised by William Sturgeon in 1825, allows all of the various combinations of current and magnetic needle direction to be tried out. By making suitable connections to the screw terminals, current can flow to the right or to the left, both above and below the needle. Current can be made to travel in a loop to double the effect, and, with the aid of two identical external galvanic circuits, the currents in the two wires can be made parallel and in the same direction. Note that the wires are insulated from each other where they cross.

Sturgeon refuted Faraday’s claims that he had empirical and quantitative proof for the quantity of electricity and its visible effects of his voltameter. Sturgeon did not think Faraday validated his device sufficiently. He thought other procedures should have been used.

Sturgeon pointed out that the voltameter deflections departed on the initial amount of current and in the case of batteries the initial current is the minimum. He even criticized Faraday’s experiment on the chemical effects of electricity. Faraday used different chemicals than that used in batteries that he was decomposing. The debate between Faraday and Sturgeon occurred 8 years after Faraday constructed and published his device. The debate only pointed out that researchers at that time had no standard approach in validating their measurements.

William Sturgeon was also founder of the Electrical Society of London. The Electrical Society of London was formed for the electricians of London in 1836 to serve as a forum to members and guests for reading and discussing papers on electrical experiments. The Society had diversified interests in electricity such as: electrifying rocks, minerals, animals, and vegetables, and included these subjects in their public lectures. At first, members met weekly in Lowther Arcade at the Laboratory of Science of the well known London instrument maker E.M. Clarke. The Electrical Society of London established rules, elected officers, and admitted two kinds of members, resident and nonresident.

The activities of the Society (e.g., public lectures) were immediately popular so meetings were moved to the Adelaide Gallery (where Sturgeon worked) to accommodate the rapidly increasing attendance. The Society had some influential members like J.P. Gassiot, a wealthy businessman; Andrew Grosse, a country gentleman; famous physician Golding Bird; and electricians E.M. Clarke and William Sturgeon.

Social and professional distances were maintained between the electricians and the elite scientists of London (i.e., Faraday, Wollaston). The elite scientists looked at the Electrical Society of London with skepticism. The activities of the electricians were also not well funded. Members of the Society gave public lectures at the Adelaide Gallery of Practical Science and often conducted research privately rather than at the prestigious Royal Institution or the Royal Society.

Also, the electricians associated with William Halse, designer of a very popular faradic electrical battery, who was labeled an irregular rather than an orthodox practitioner of medical electricity. The electricians lectured in physics and electricity at the military establishments rather than at universities. The electricians probably did not hold the degrees for qualifying as professors of the universities.

The Electrical Society of London initially used the journal “Annals of Electricity” to report its activities and publish any science related to electricity. By 1839, as the Society flourished with its 80 members (50% were resident members) an official publication “Proceedings of the Electrical Society of London” was in circulation. The Proceedings or activities of the Society were also printed in the English newspapers.

In 1840, William Sturgeon was appointed superintendent of the Royal Victoria Gallery of Practical Science in Manchester, England, which he held for four years (1840-1844). While there he joined the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, and received grants from the organization to conduct research.

Also in 1840 Sturgeon improved the cell devised by Alessandro Volta. This cell had certain inherent weaknesses – any impurity in the zinc plates used caused erosion of the electrode. Sturgeon developed a long lasting battery that consisted of a single cell cylinder of cast iron into which a cylinder of amalgamated rolled zinc was placed.

Discs of millboard located between the cast iron cell and the cylinder of zinc prevented contact by the different metals. Dilute sulfuric acid was used to charge the battery. Like Grove, Sturgeon measured his battery’s chemical capability through the decomposition of water, and heating a wire to determine the caloric power. In 1843, he published Twelve Elementary Lectures on Galvanism, edited “Magnetical Advertisements”, and was an itinerant lecturer.

However, projects to establish popular science galleries in Manchester all failed because of lack of money. He was ultimately dismissed, and from 1844 until his death he earned a living by lecturing and demonstrating. He used his magnetic electrical machine (dynamo) to give shocks, and demonstrated them on people’s arms and on freshly killed rabbits.

In 1847 he was given a grant of $200 by the Royal Bounty Fund, to which a government pension of $50 a year was added later. This was insufficient for his needs, however. He published the collected works Scientific Researches in 1850. He died penniless, better known in Europe than in his native England, on 4 December 1850 at Prestwick, Manchester, after a long illness and depression. William Sturgeon, inventor of the electro-magnet, known as ‘ The electrician’ is buried under a simple stone in the churchyard of the Parish Church of Saint Mary’s.

Sturgeon’s career in electricity exemplified the group of English electricians at the time who built scientific instruments and lectured. These electricians were not members of the Royal Society, but they portrayed electrical science in exciting and illustrative fashions. Sturgeon published numerous articles in journals on electricity and magnetism during his career. Additionally, Sturgeon’s career as an electrician included the improvement of devices for electromagnetic research, the invention of a dynamo in 1823, an electromagnetic rotary engine in 1832, and an electromagnetic coil machine in 1837.

He also, at one time described a process of amalgamating zinc plates in batteries by using a film of mercury. Sturgeon had the ability to imagine an instrument, and then construct it through skills developed earlier as a shoemaker. A monument to him, “a poor man of science”, is placed in Kirkby Lonsdale Church in the Lake District, which commemorates many of his inventions and discoveries.


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