Henry Moseley

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9 July 1801
Long Buckby, Northamptonshire, England
20 January 1872
Olveston, Gloucestershire, England

Henry Moseley was an English churchman, mathematician, and scientist. He served as Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy and Astronomy at King's College, London. He then became of of the first H.M. inspectors of schools.


Henry Moseley was the son of William Moseley and Margaret Robins. Let us make it clear before we proceed that the details at the beginning of the Dictionary of National Biography article [16], contain errors. The article begins:-
Moseley, Henry (1801-1872), mathematician and writer on mechanics, was born on 9 July 1801, the son of Dr William Willis Moseley, who kept a large private school at Newcastle under Lyme, and his wife, Margaret Jackson. He was educated at the grammar school in Newcastle under Lyme ...
William Moseley was a student at Hoxton Academy in London which was for dissenting divinity students. He was invited to become a pastor at Atherstone in Warwickshire in a church formed on 19 February 1794, he left Atherstone to become an independent pastor in Long Buckby, Northamptonshire in 1795. On 27 May 1796 he married Margaret Robins, the daughter of Robert and Margaret Robins. Their first child, William Michael Robert Moseley, was born in Long Buckby on 25 January 1798; he became an architect. Their second child was Henry Moseley, the subject of this biography. In 1802 the family moved to Hanley in Staffordshire when the Rev William Moseley was appointed as a Congregational minister at the Independent Hanley Tabernacle Church on the High Street [13]:-
The Congregationalists possess one of the finest groups of buildings in [Hanley], known as the Tabernacle Church, to which are attached a lecture hall, schools, vestries, and class rooms. The buildings, which are situated in High Street, are in the perpendicular style of architecture, erected with red brick and stone. In the centre rises an embattled tower, with octagonal stair turret and pyramidal spire, attaining a total height of 100 feet. The lecture hall, which is a very spacious apartment, has a richly traceried window of seven lights. Below the chapel is a large hall, around which are placed the various school and class rooms, and a library.
We note that Hanley was in the parish of Stoke but not far from Newcastle-under-Lyme. The Moseley family remained in Hanley until 1814, so Henry was brought up in this town where he was a member of an ever increasing family. Children born after Henry included Margaret (born 1802), Francis Xavier (born 1804), Eliza (born 1805), Harriot (born 1809), Louisa (born 1810), Andrew (born 1814), Joseph Newman (born 1816), Emma (born 1818), and George Willis (born 1820). We note that the births were recorded several years after the children were born and there are many inconsistencies in the dates of birth. For example, the birth of Henry, the subject of this biography, is recorded as 19 July 1800 while, in later life, he seemed to believe his birth was on 9 July 1801.

Let us note that the Rev William Moseley published several books, some consisting of his sermons, such as Essays on the Evidences of Christianity (1797), A Memoir on the Importance and Practicality of Translating and Printing the Holy Scriptures in the Chinese language (Second Edition, 1801), Actual sin and future misery traced to their real causes; in which the Doctrine of Reprobation is examined (1805), and The New Token for Children (1805). While in Hanley, he was also making a map [14]:-
The Rev William Moseley, of Hanley, Staffordshire, has long been engaged in preparing a map to exhibit the geography and history of the Old Testament at one view, and he has now nearly completed his design. This map will contain all the places of any note mentioned in the writings of Moses and the prophets, the division of the Land of Israel into tribes, the distances of the principal places, and the travels of the children of Israel from Egypt into Canaan, with an historical account of each place.
After leaving Hanley in 1814, the family probably spent time in Abbeville, Somme, France; certainly Henry attended school there. By 1816 they were living in Hampshire Terrace, Southsea, Portsmouth, Hampshire when Joseph Newman Moseley was born. Henry attended a naval school in Portsmouth and while there wrote the paper On measuring the Depth of the Cavities seen on the Surface of the Moon. By 1818 the family were living at Canonbury, Islington, Middlesex, and from there on 26 September, he submitted the paper to the Philosophical Magazine. His paper begins:-
The attention of astronomers having for years past been directed to measuring the altitudes of lunar mountains, I have frequently been surprised that no attempts have yet been made to ascertain the depth of those cavities which are so conspicuous on the surface of the moon. Under a conviction that determining the depths of such cavities will not be considered unworthy of notice, after the first astronomers of Europe have endeavoured to ascertain the heights of mountains on the moon's surface, I beg leave to submit to the examination of your readers the enclosed method of measuring the depths of lunar cavities.
From the same address on 12 July 1819, Moseley sent the letter "On cohesion" to the Philosophical Magazine. In it he wrote [4]:-
Convinced that the known properties of matter present us with sufficient data for ascertaining the true law of cohesion, and that the ill success of a few, whose aim was rather to reconcile experiment with theories the favourite phantoms of their imaginations, than to deduce such theories from facts, did not stamp impossibility on the undertaking; I have been induced to commence an investigation of the subject, the result of which I beg leave to submit to the public through the medium of your valuable magazine.
We are unable to find the article with the results of his investigation which he promised.

Moseley was admitted as a pensioner at St John's College, Cambridge on 21 August 1821. Being a pensioner means that he did not have a scholarship and paid for his tuition. He matriculated in the Michaelmas term of 1822 and began his study of the mathematical tripos. He attended lectures by George Peacock and William Whewell, the latter being a particularly important influence on Moseley since he published the textbooks An Elementary Treatise on Mechanics (1819) and A Treatise on Dynamics (1823). Also at St John's College at this time was John Hymers (1803-1887) and John Hallowes Miller (1801-1880) who were both studying the mathematical tripos. In the B.A. examinations of 1826, Hymers was Second Wrangler, Miller was Fifth Wrangler, and Moseley was Seventh Wrangler. One of his friends at Cambridge was James Challis (1803-1882) who studied at Trinity College and graduated as Senior Wrangler in the mathematical tripos in 1825. Challis was elected to a fellowship at Trinity College in 1826, was ordained in 1830 and became director of the Cambridge Observatory and Plumian Professor in 1836.

Following his degree from Cambridge, Moseley entered the Church of England. He was ordained a deacon in Bath and Wells on 23 December 1827 and a priest on 19 April 1828; he then became a curate at West Monkton, near Taunton, in Somerset. He certainly had not left mathematics and natural philosophy behind, however, for during his time as a curate he was writing the textbook A treatise on hydrostatics and hydrodynamics for the use of students in the University which was published in 1830. His friendship with James Challis was clearly important to Moseley for he wrote in the Preface [6]:-
... the Author has to acknowledge his important obligations to his friend Mr Challis, of Trinity College. He is indebted to that Gentleman for the Chapter (VII) on the general Equations of the Motion of Fluids, and the Appendix (A) on the Oscillations of a cylindrical Column of Air. In the former of these papers, Mr Challis has completely solved the general equation expressing the continuity of a moving fluid.
You can read the whole Preface to this book and see information about other books by Moseley at THIS LINK.

Moseley was appointed Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy and Astronomy at King's College, London, on the 20 January 1831. Now King's College, London had been founded in 1829 and required governors and professors to be members of the Church of England but the College was open to "nonconformists of all sorts to enter the college freely." This would seem to fit Moseley particularly well, being ordained in the Church of England but having a father, William Moseley, as a well-known nonconformist. In fact, in addition to his professorship at King's College, London, he was chaplain there during 1831-33. As the first Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy and Astronomy at King's College, London, he was responsible for building the College's Department of Engineering and Applied Science.

Few people publish a book giving the syllabus of the first university course they will teach before they actually teach it, but this is precisely what Moseley did, publishing Syllabus of a Course of Experimental Lectures on The Theory of Equilibrium in 1831. The syllabus is for a course [5]:-
... to be delivered at The King's College, London, in the October Term of the year 1831 by Rev H Moseley, Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy. These Lectures require no introductory course of mathematical reading; the method of demonstration being exclusively experimental.
On 23 April 1835, Moseley married Harriet Nottidge, the daughter of William and Mary Nottidge of Wandsworth Common, Surrey. William Nottidge (1767-1853) had married Louisa Browning in 1792 but, following her death in 1797, he married Mary Varnham, daughter of John Varnham, in 1799. Harriet, their second daughter, was born on 1 October 1801 and baptised on 17 November 1801 at Saint Mary Magdalene, Bermondsey, London. Henry and Harriet Moseley had daughters Harriet Mary Moseley, born 19 December 1836, and Emily Moseley, born in July 1839, and a son Henry Nottidge Moseley, born 14 November 1844. Henry Nottidge Moseley became a leading naturalist and he sailed on the global scientific expedition of the HMS Challenger in 1872 to 1876. At the time of the 1841 UK census, the family were living in St Ann's Lane, Wandsworth.

During the years 1831 to 1844 Moseley was Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy at King's College, London, and during this time wrote important papers and books [1]:-
Moseley embarked upon a rigorous investigation of the statics of masonry arches and published his findings in 1833, 'On the theory of resistance in statics', and 'On a new principle in statics, called the principle of least pressures' ...
The first of these papers begins:-
In a paper inserted in the 'Philosophical Magazine' for October, I have given a demonstration of the following theorem: "If there be a system of forces in equilibrium among which there enter the resistances of any number of fixed points, then are these resistances such that their sum is a minimum; each being considered a function of the coordinates of its point of application, taken with a positive sign, and subjected to the conditions imposed by the equilibrium of the whole.: I have also pointed out the steps by which this principle may be applied to the actual determination of the amount and direction of the resistance upon each point of the system in terms of the other forces which compose it. It is my object at present to give the actual solution of that particular but very important case, of the more general proposition, in which the forces and resistances of the system are all parallel to one another. The solution of this case is entirely free from that elaboration of analysis which besets the more general proposition.
In addition to the two books mentioned above, he published several others. In 1834 he published A Treatise on Mechanics applied to The Arts; including Statics and Hydrostatics. He writes in the Preface [7]:-
The following work contains treatises on the sciences of Statics and Hydrostatics, comprising the whole theory of Equilibrium. It was intended as the first volume of a course of Natural Philosophy, for the use of those who have no knowledge of Mathematics, or who have made but little progress in their mathematical reading.
In 1838 he published Lectures on Astronomy delivered at King's College, London. He writes in the Preface [8]:-
This work originally formed part of a course of Lectures delivered to the Class of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy, at King's College. They were subsequently printed in the 'Magazine of Popular Science', and have since been revised by the Author, and adapted for publication in a separate volume, in the belief that it may serve the purposes of Popular Instruction.
He published Illustrations of Mechanics in 1839, writing in the Preface [9]:-
This work is the first of a series, entitled 'Illustrations of Science', by Professors of King's College, London, to be published at intervals of three months, and continued until the circle of the Physical Sciences, and the Sciences of Observation, is embraced in it. The author has proposed to himself the development of that system of experimental facts and theoretical principles on which the whole superstructure of mechanical art may be considered to rest, and its introduction, under an available form, to the great business of practical education.
His most famous book, however, was The Mechanical Principles of Engineering and Architecture published in 1843. T M Charlton writes [1]:-
There seems little doubt that Moseley's major contribution to bridge construction related to the development of the wrought iron girder bridge. The appearance of his excellent book could hardly have been more timely: it was only a few years later that Robert Stephenson, I K Brunel and others with the cooperation of William Fairbairn, were to embark upon some spectacular railway bridge projects taking advantage of the merits of the then novel rolled iron plate and bars. The tubular or hollow iron girder, forerunner of the currently fashionable box girder, was one result.
For more information about all these books, see THIS LINK.

Moseley was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London in February 1839. A couple of years earlier, in October 1836, his father William Moseley had been tried at Middlesex sessions charged with [15]:-
Keeping an unlicensed house in Charlotte Street, Bloomsbury [Middlesex] for the reception of lunatics.
His initial sentence was twelve months imprisonment in Middlesex House of Correction and a fine of £50. William Moseley petitioned with the following grounds for clemency [15]:-
Acted out of ignorance when housed two lunatics in his house; then applied for licence but convicted before had time to comply with conditions of licence; has wife and seven children dependent on him; sale of house will cover his debts; willing to enter into recognisance; elderly age; committed on false information that house was intended for dangerous lunatics not harmless ones; all magistrates involved recommend reducing sentence further from 6 to 3 months.
In January 1844 Moseley resigned his professorship at St John's College. London, and was appointed as one of the first of Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools. One of his first reports was on Chester College. He observed the construction of the College chapel:-
When I visited the College in November, I found [the students] busily employed in quarrying the stone of which an abundant supply is found on the premises, they had made some progress with the oak carvings, and the stonework of a very beautiful window was nearly completed. Nothing could be more lively or interesting than the scene presented by the grounds and workshops during the intervals of study. In one place the foundations of the structure were being dug out; in another the stone was quarried. In the workshops I found carpenters, turners, carvers in oak and blacksmiths, plying their several trades; and, in a shed, a group of stone-cutters carving with great success the arch mouldings, mullions, and lights of a decorated window.
He published a number of reports as an Inspector of Schools, for example Report on the Battersea Training School and the Battersea Village School for Boys (1846), An Account of the King's Somborne School: Extracted with Permission from the Minutes of the Committee of Council of Education 1847-1848 (1849), and Special report on grants to aid in the purchase of apparatus for instruction in science (1853).

Moseley also addressed the Metropolitan Association of Church Schoolmasters on 20 May 1854, delivering the address Faith in the Work of the Teacher. You can read a version of his address at THIS LINK.

He continued his work as a school inspector until 1853 and while undertaking these duties, he continued his mathematical research publishing works such as On a machine for calculating the products, quotients, logarithms, and powers of numbers (1847), On the dynamical stability and on the oscillations of floating bodies (1850), On dynamical stability, and on the oscillations of floating bodies (1851), and On the rolling motion of a cylinder (1851).

In 1851 the Exhibition of The Works of Industry of all Nations, known as the 'Great Exhibition', was held in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park in London. In 1850 the Royal Commission for the Great Exhibition of 1851 had been set up to administer the Exhibition. The Royal Commission, with Prince Albert as its President, set up an extensive jury system to judge all the exhibits displayed in the Crystal Palace. From 17000 exhibitors, the jurors selected the Prize Medal winners and those who should receive an Honourable Mention, and also recommended exhibitors for the prestigious Council Medal. Moseley was asked to be one of the jurors and he was pleased to accept. He was then appointed as Chairman of Class V: Machines for direct use, including Carriages and Railway and Naval Mechanism. This class was divided into seven Sections:
Section A: Steam Engines and Boilers.

Section B: Separate Parts of Machines, Specimens of Workmanship.

Section C: Pneumatic Machines.

Section D: Hydraulic Machines, Cranes, Pile Drivers etc.

Section E: Railway.

Section F: Railway Machinery and Permanent Ways.

Section G: Weighing, Measuring and Registering Machines for Commercial and not for Philosophical Purposes.
Moseley's Report, detailing the medals awarded by his jurors, was published in [11]. As Chairman of one of the juries, he came to the attention of Prince Albert who then sought to further his career [2]:-
... in 1853 he was presented to a residential canonry in Bristol Cathedral; in 1854 he became vicar of Olveston, Gloucestershire, and he was appointed chaplain in ordinary to Queen Victoria in 1855.
We have already mentioned Moseley's election to the Royal Society in 1839. He was also honoured by election as a Corresponding member in the Mechanics Section of the Académie de Sciences on 6 March 1848. Oxford University awarded him an honorary D.C.L. (Doctor of Civil Law) in 1870.

At the time of the 1861 UK Census, Moseley was living at the Parsonage, Fernhill Road, Olveston, Gloucestershire with his wife, daughter Emily Moseley, son Henry Nottidge Moseley, and five servants: a cook, parlour maid, house maid, lady's maid, and kitchen maid. He gives his occupation as Canon of Bristol Cathedral and Vicar of Olveston. At the time of the 1871 UK Census, he was living alone at Canon's House, Deanery Road, Bristol, except for his four servants: a butler, cook and two housemaids. He gives his occupation as Canon of Bristol Cathedral.

During his time as Canon of Bristol Cathedral, Moseley continued to undertake research and publish articles. Rather remarkably, he published six papers in the last two years of his life. Papers he published after 1854 include: On the rolling motion of a cylinder (1854), On the descent of glaciers (1856), On certain elementary formulae, &c. (1857), On the motion of a plate of metal on an inclined plane, when dilated and contracted; and on the descent of glaciers (1862), On the descent of a solid body on an inclined plane when subjected to alternations of temperature (1869), On the mechanical possibility of the descent of glaciers, by their weight only (1869), On the uniform motion of an imperfect fluid (1869), On the "Veined Structure" of the ice of glaciers (1870), On the mechanical properties of ice (1870), On the uniform flow of a liquid (1871), and On the steady flow of a liquid (1871).

Moseley died in Olveston, Gloucestershire and his wife went to live at Cecil Lodge, Stoke Bishop. She died there four years after her husband on 9 March 1876.

Let us note that Moseley's son Henry Nottidge Moseley (1844-1891) married Amabel Gwyn Jeffreys (1852-1928) in 1881 and their son, Henry Gwyn Jeffreys Moseley (1887-1915), one of five children, became a well-known physicist who developed the important law of X-ray spectra which provided a major step forward in atomic theory and provided experimental evidence supporting Niels Bohr's theory.

References (show)

  1. T M Charlton, Contributions to the Science of Bridge-Building in the Nineteenth Century by Henry Moseley, Hon. LL.D., F.R.S. and William Pole, D.Mus., F.R.S., Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 30 (2) (1976), 169-179.
  2. R C Cox, Moseley, Henry (1801-1872), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).
  3. P G Lowe, Engineering and Education, in Horace R Drew and Sergio Pellegrino (eds.), New Approaches to Structural Mechanics, Shells and Biological Structures (Springer Science & Business Media, 2013), 165-174.
  4. H Moseley, On cohesion, Philosophical Magazine 54 (256) (1819), 81.
  5. H Moseley, Syllabus of a Course of Experimental Lectures on The Theory of Equilibrium (King's College, London, 1831).
  6. H Moseley, A treatise on hydrostatics and hydrodynamics for the use of students in the University (T Stevenson, Cambridge, 1830).
  7. H Moseley, A Treatise on Mechanics applied to The Arts; including Statics and Hydrostatics (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 1834).
  8. H Moseley, Lectures on Astronomy delivered at King's College, London (John W Parker, London, 1838).
  9. H Moseley, Illustrations of Mechanics (Longman, Orme, Brown, Green & Longmans, London, 1839).
  10. H Moseley, The Mechanical Principles of Engineering and Architecture (Longman, Orme, Brown, Green & Longmans, London, 1843).
  11. H Moseley, Report of Class V Jury, Exhibition 1851. Reports of the Juries (William Clowes and Sons, 1852), 167-191.
  12. Henry Moseley, Cambridge Alumni Database, University of Cambridge (2018).
  13. The Independent Hanley Tabernacle Church, The Potteries (illustrated) (1893).
  14. Varieties, Literary and Philosophical, The Monthly Magazine, or British Register 16 (1803), 460.
  15. William Moseley, alias William Willis, Criminal Department, Home Office (The National Archives).
  16. B B Woodward, Moseley, Henry (1801-1872, Dictionary of National Biography 39 (1885-1900), 175-176.

Additional Resources (show)

Honours (show)

Honours awarded to Henry Moseley

  1. Fellow of the Royal Society 1839

Cross-references (show)

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update March 2021