Sturgeon William

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(b. Whittington, Lancashire, England, 22 May 1783; d. Prestwick, Manchester, England, 4 December 1850)


Sturgeon’s father, John Sturgeon, is described as an ingenious but idle shoemaker who poached fish and raised gamecocks. His mother, Betsy Adcock, was the daughter of a small shopkeeper.

After a disagreeable apprenticeship to a shoemaker, beginning in 1796, Sturgeon in 1802 joined the militia and two years later enlisted in the Royal Artillery. He was stationed at Woolwich, where he studied natural science at night and performed occasional electrical experiments, which attracted some attention. He left the service in 1820, at the age of thirty-seven, and took up the trade of bootmaker in Woolwich. About 1804 he married a widow named Hutton; they had three children who died in infancy. In 1829 he married Mary Bromley of Shrewsbury; they had one child who died in infancy and one adopted child, Sturgeon’s niece.

Sturgeon had developed mechanical skills useful for making scientific apparatus, and he lectured on science to schools and other groups. He was a member of the Woolwich Literary Society and in 1824 was appointed lecturer in science and philosophy at the East India Company Royal Military College of Addiscombe. In 1832 he was on the lecture staff of the short-lived Adelaide Gallery of Practical Science, and in 1840 he went to Manchester to become superintendent of the Royal Victoria Gallery of Practical Sciences. He held this last post for four years, after which he supported his family from his income as an itinerant lecturer. He was a member of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society and through the influence of its president received a grant of £200 from Lord John Russell and later, in 1849, an annuity of £50.

Sturgeon’s major achievements concerned electromagnetism. In 1825 he received a silver medal and thirty guineas from the Society of Arts in recognition of his electromagnetic apparatus, including his important refinement of the design of the electromagnet. He placed a bar of soft iron in a solenoid and found that the magnetic effect was greatly increased. A coating of shellac on the bar served as insulation between it and the bare wires: Joseph Henry later insulated the wires themselves, thus allowing many more turns and an additional increase in the magnetic force.

Sturgeon’s other contributions were mainly designs of apparatus for displaying electromagnetic phenomena. In this respect he exemplified that small but important group of instrumentmakers and lecturers who sought means of exhibiting electrical science in graphic and exciting ways.

In 1836 Sturgeon established a monthly periodical, Annals of Electricity, which lasted through ten volumes until 1843, when he founded a successor journal, Annals of Philosophical Discovery and Monthly Reporter of the Progress of Science and Art. This journal was terminated at the end of the same year.


I. Original Works. Sturgeon’s works include Experimental Researches in Electromagnetism, Galvanism. . .(London, 1830); Lectures on Electricity Delivered in The Royal Victorian Gallery, Manchester (London, 1842); Twelve Elementary Lectures on Galvanism (London, 1843); and Scientific Researches (Manchester, 1850), which contains all of his important works. In 1843 he edited a reissue of William Barlow’s Magnetical Advertisements (London, 1616).

Sturgeon’s articles, which number about seventy, are listed in the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, V, 876–878. The description of his magnet appears in “Account of an Electromagnetic Apparatus,” in Annals of Philosophy, 12 (1826), 357–361. Apparently none of his manuscripts or apparatus has been preserved.

II. Secondary Literature. A relatively lengthy entry by William Dee appears in the Dictionary of National Biography and a Biographical Note by S. P. Thompson was privately printed in 1891. Other, shorter notices are mentioned in Dee’s account.

Bernard S. Finn