Is this famous Henry Clifton Sorby microscope?

Henry Clifton Sorby around 1860
Henry Clifton Sorby around 1860

Was this the microscope that kickstarted Sheffield’s steel industry?

Ever since the museum was founded in 1875, this marvellous brass instrument has been referred to as the Sorby microscope. It was reputed to have belonged to Henry Clifton Sorby (1826 to 1908). Today, Sorby is most well known from the name of the Sorby Natural History Society, but many consider him to have been Sheffield’s greatest home grown scientist. He made countless significant discoveries in several different sciences, but perhaps his most important was the development of techniques to examine metals and minerals under the microscope.

One application of this science was the discovery that iron had a crystalline structure. With this information, Sorby realised that a precise quantity of carbon was required to make good steel. His discovery took much of the guess work out of the mass production of high quality steel that became synonymous with Sheffield. Sorby is internationally known as the father of this branch of science, known as microscopical petrography.

So if this instrument really was Sorby’s microscope, it would be a very important artefact. A few years ago, researchers investigating Henry Clifton Sorby’s scientific work revealed that Sorby did indeed purchase a microscope similar to this one in 1860. However, every microscope made by the manufacturer Smith, Beck & Beck, possessed a unique serial number. The number on the instrument that Sorby was known to have purchased didn’t match the number on our microscope. As it would be very unlikely for Sorby to buy two identical microscopes in the same year, it would appear that our microscope never belonged to Sorby. In which case, why has every curator at Weston Park Museum referred to our instrument as the Sorby microscope?

Over a year later, further evidence of the origin of our microscope came to light. In 1860, Sheffield’s Literary and Philosophical Society, the members of which were Sheffielders with an enthusiasm for learning, purchased a microscope for use in their private museum. In their minutes, it was described as a Sorby pattern microscope. The Sorby pattern was partly designed by Henry Clifton Sorby. 15 years later, the Literary & Philosophical Society gave the contents of their private museum to Sheffield Corporation, who then established Sheffield’s first public museum at Weston Park. This strongly suggests that our microscope is, in fact, the Sorby pattern microscope acquired by the Literary & Philosophical Society in 1860. Although it was never specifically owned by Sorby, the purchase was almost certainly made on his advice, as Sorby was an active member of the Literary & Philosophical Society. To celebrate the centenary of Sorby Natural History Society, this microscope and other artefacts relating to Sorby and the society that bears his name will be at Weston Park Museum from Saturday March 17.