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John Michell

Born: 1724
Birthplace: Nottinghamshire, England
Died: 21-Apr-1793
Location of death: Thornhill, Yorkshire, England
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Religion: Anglican/Episcopalian
Race or Ethnicity: White [1]
Occupation: Geologist, Astronomer

Nationality: England
Executive summary: Phaenomena of Earthquakes

English geologist, astronomer, and natural philosopher, born in 1724, and educated at Queen's College, Cambridge. His name appears fourth in the Tripos list for 1748-49; and in 1755 he was moderator in that examination. He became M.A. in 1752, and B.D. in 1761. He was a fellow of his college, and was appointed Woodwardian professor of geology in 1762, and in 1767 rector of Thornhill in Yorkshire, where he died on the 29th of April 1793. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in the same year as Henry Cavendish (1760). In 1750 he published at Cambridge a work of some eighty pages entitled A Treatise of Artificial Magnets, in which is shown an easy and expeditious method of making them superior to the best natural ones. Besides the description of the method of magnetization which still bears his name, this work contains a variety of accurate magnetic observations, and is distinguished by a lucid exposition of the nature of magnetic induction.

Michell was the original inventor of the torsion balance, which afterwards became so famous in the hands of its second inventor Coulomb. He described it in his proposal of a method for obtaining the mean density of the earth. Michell did not live to put his method into practice; but this was done by Henry Cavendish, who made, by means of Michell's apparatus, the celebrated determination that now goes by the name of Cavendish's experiment (Philosophical Transactions, 1708). His most important geological essay was that entitled Conjectures concerning the Cause and Observations upon the Phaenomena of Earthquakes (ibid., 1760), which showed a remarkable knowledge of the strata in various parts of England and abroad.

Michells other contributions to science are: "Observations On the Comet of January 1760 at Cambridge", Philosophical Transactions (1760); "A Recommendation of Hadley's Quadrant for Surveying", ibid. (1765); "Proposal of a Method for measuring Degrees of Longitude upon Parallels of the Equator", ibid. (1766); "An Inquiry into the Probable Parallax and Magnitude of the Fixed Stars", ibid. (1767); "On the Twinkling of the Fixed Stars", ibid. (1767), "On the Means of Discovering the Distance, Magnitude, etc., of the Fixed Stars", ibid. (1784).


[1] An account apparently purports him to be "a little short man, of black complexion, and fat", though we have been unable to locate any specific contemporary source. However, such words even if used do not necessarily indicate he is of black-African descent, as the term can refer also to Spaniards, Italians, Greeks, Arabs, Ethiopians, or Jews. Jonathan Swift uses the expression "a tall, thin, very black man, like a Spaniard or Jew." In the given context it is almost certainly intended as a slight against Michell by painting him as something he was likely not. The Royal Society famously refused election to Jamaican scientist Francis Williams (1702-1770), on account of his complexion, and it almost certainly would not have elected a black man as early as 1760. Moses Da Costa became the first Jew elected to the Society in 1736, and a second was elected in 1747; the first female was not elected until 1945. The earliest black individual we could determine that attended Queens College, Cambridge was an American, Alexander Crummell, who graduated 1853.

    University: MA, Queen's College, Cambridge University (1752)
    University: BD, Queen's College, Cambridge University (1761)
    Professor: Geology, Cambridge University (1762-67)

    Royal Society 1760


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