A Little-Known 18th Century English Polymath – Professor Alan Zinober – 15th June 2020

A polymath is ‘a person of great and varied learning’ and this certainly described the Reverend John Michell ( 25 Dec 1742 – 12 April 1793).

Michell was a natural philosopher and a clergyman and seems to be almost unknown although he was:

  • The first person to suggest that earthquakes are caused by movement of rocks beneath the Earth’s surface.
  • Someone who produced cheap permanent magnets.
  • The one who suggested that the force between two magnets followed the inverse square law.
  • The first person to suggest that ‘Dark Stars’ (now called ‘Black Holes’) exist.

John Michell was educated at Queens College.

He later became a Professor who taught Arithmetic, Theology, Geometry, Greek, Hebrew and Philosophy.

He had to relinquish his lecturing post when he married because only single men were allowed to lecture at the college.

He became Rector at a church near Leeds, but continued his interest in Philosophy and Astronomy.

Michell theorised that a very massive sun would have such a huge gravitational field that its escape velocity would be so large that light would not be able to escape from it.

Because of this it would not be visible but it would affect the motion of a binary star nearby.

He called this type of body ‘a Dark Star’.

He knew Cavendish, Benjamin Franklin and Priestley, and he wrote to Cavendish about his ideas about the effect of gravity on light.

Michell was not a particularly outgoing person so he did not publish his many ideas widely.

This is possibly why he is not well known but is considered by many to be the greatest unsung scientist of all time.

Alan Zinober’s Zoom meeting contained much more interesting information and was something completely new to Stumperlowe Probus.  It was a welcome treat for the many members that ‘attended’.