Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 717:
H.G.J. Moseley

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 717.

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 created them.

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 Harry Moseley.

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 great contribution.

As WW-I began, his widowed mother remarried. In a letter to his sister he expressed doubt. His mother was gambling,

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 nuclei.

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 periodic tables.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

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 July, 1992.

Heilbron, J.L., Moseley, Henry Gwyn Jeffreys. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Vol. ??, (C.C. Gilespie, ed.) Chas. Scribner's Sons, 1970-1980.

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 of cowardice.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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