Today, a hero dies, forgotten. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
It was early morning, August
10th, 1915. 30,000 fresh Turkish troops came down
off Sari Bair hill on Gallipoli Peninsula. They
fell upon the tired, badly positioned British. They
destroyed them in furious hand-to-hand combat.
Among the dead lay a 27-year-old lieutenant. He was
Moseley was the most promising physicist of his
age. Even the German press, the enemy press,
lamented his death. "Ein schwerer Verlust," they
wrote: "A heavy loss -- for science."
Moseley had worked with Rutherford. Rutherford was
a large, loud, much-loved and foul-mouthed genius.
Rutherford had already created the modern theory of
radioactivity. He'd won the Nobel prize in 1908.
But Rutherford's greater work lay ahead. He and his
collaborators sorted out atomic structure. In 1912,
Niels Bohr worked with him. Then Bohr wrote the
quantum theory of electron orbits.
In 1910, when he was 23, Moseley joined Rutherford
at Cambridge University. Rutherford put him to work
on radioactive emissions from atomic nuclei.
Moseley was a patrician -- serious as an
undertaker. He worked day and night. He openly
disapproved of Rutherford's language. He went his
own way. And he tore into the problem of finding
the electric charge in an atomic nucleus.
He invented elegant and simple means for bombarding
samples with cathode rays. He photographed the
resulting X-rays. Then he made a bold theoretical
leap. He figured out how to identify an atom by the
charge on its nucleus.
Within days, Moseley had set the basis for the
periodic tables. He did much more, but that was his
As WW-I began, his widowed mother remarried. In a
letter to his sister he expressed doubt. His mother
a modicum of happiness ... on the excellent [but
uncertain] chance of getting more.
That was Moseley -- stiff, serious, and
upright to a fault! Of course, when war began, he
immediately joined the army. Patriotism and duty were
bred in his bones.
This year a smart 16-year-old student won the
Westinghouse Science Talent Search. He'd used
X-rays to find pollutants in clam shells. It was a
pure variant on Moseley's technique for analyzing
Someone mentioned Moseley to him. "Who's Moseley?"
said the puzzled student. Sadly, that's a question
most of us ask when we hear the name of this fallen
foot-soldier -- whose work made sense of the
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Heilbron, J.L., H.G.J. Moseley: The Life and
Letters of an English Physicist. 1887-1915,
Berkeley: Univ. of Calif. Press, 1974.
Crease, R.P., The Trajectory of Techniques: Lessons
from the Past. Science, Vol. 257, 17
Heilbron, J.L., Moseley, Henry Gwyn Jeffreys.
Dictionary of Scientific Biography.
Vol. ??, (C.C. Gilespie, ed.) Chas. Scribner's
I'm grateful to Professor Michael Gorman, UH
Physics Department, and Professor Donald Kouri, UH
Chemistry Department, for counsel on this episode.
Dr. Edith Sherwood, Houston chemist, called after
this episode aired. Her father was an English
chemist and Moseley's contemporary. He'd told her
that Moseley's real reason for enlisting was that
someone had mailed him a white feather when WW-I
began. A white feather is a traditional accusation
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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