Morley, Edward Williams, 1838-1923

Alternative names
Birth 1838-01-29
Death 1923-02-24

Biographical notes:

Chemist and physician.

From the description of Edward Williams Morley papers, 1833-1923 (bulk 1863-1899). (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 71131048

Chemist, physicist, and professor of natural history and chemistry at Western Reserve University.

From the description of Papers, 1851-1922. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 81988912

Biographical Note

  • 1838, Jan. 29: Born, Newark, N. J.
  • 1860: Graduated, Williams College, Williamstown, Mass.
  • 1861 - 1864 : Student, Andover Theological Seminary, Andover, Mass.
  • 1864: Licensed as minister in Congregational Church
  • 1864 - 1865 : Served with United States Sanitary Commission, Fortress Monroe, Va.
  • 1865 - 1868 : Taught private school, Marlboro, Mass.
  • 1868: Married Isabella Birdsall
  • 1869 - 1906 : Professor of chemistry, Western Reserve College, Hudson, Ohio (later Adelbert College of Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio)
  • 1873 - 1888 : Professor of chemistry, Cleveland Medical College, Cleveland, Ohio
  • 1895: President, American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • 1899: President, American Chemical Society
  • 1906: Retired and moved to West Hartford, Conn.
  • 1907: Received Sir Humphry Davy Medal, Royal Society of London, London, England
  • 1912: Received Elliot Cresson Medal, Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, Pa.
  • 1917: Received Willard Gibbs Medal, Chicago, Ill., Section, American Chemical Society
  • 1923, Feb. 24: Died, West Hartford, Conn. (?)

From the guide to the Edward Williams Morley Papers, 1833-1923, (bulk 1863-1899), (Manuscript Division Library of Congress)


Edward Williams Morley was born on 29 January 1838 in Newark, New Jersey, the eldest child of Sardis Brewster Morley, a Congregational minister, and Anna Clarissa Treat. Morley attended Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts (B.A., 1860), and entered Andover Theological Seminary in 1861. He continued his theological course concurrently with his studies in chemistry and physics, receiving a master's degree from Williams in 1863 and his license as a Congregational minister in 1864. His first teaching position was at South Berkshire Academy in New Marlboro, Massachusetts, where he became acquainted with Isabella (Belle) Ashley Birdsall; the two were married in December 1868. During the Civil War, Edward Morley served with a relief agency, the U.S. Sanitary Commission, in Fort Monroe, Virginia, assisting convalescent soldiers. His two younger brothers, Frank and John, both fought with the Union army. In 1868 Edward accepted a call to the ministry in Twinsburg, Ohio, but it soon became evident that he preferred teaching to preaching. He assumed teaching duties at nearby Western Reserve College, and when the college moved to Cleveland in 1882, Morley was named to the chair of chemistry and natural history. He also held a professorship in chemistry and toxicology at the Cleveland Medical School. Morley retired to West Hartford, Connecticut, in 1906 where he lived until his death in 1923. He and his wife had no children.

Morley's scientific work was experimental in character and was marked by his concern with precise and accurate measurement. He analyzed the oxygen content of the atmosphere to within .0025 percent ( Dictionary of Scientific Biography , 1980) and measured the atomic weight of oxygen. His result challenged the hypothesis of William Prout (1815) that all atomic weights were multiples of the atomic weight of hydrogen, which would represent unity. Morley is best remembered today for his collaboration with physicist Albert A. Michelson, then of the Case School of Applied Science in Cleveland, beginning in 1887, on the ether-drift experiment. It was then posited that light consisted of waves, and light waves, like waves in water, had to move through a medium that occupied all space; this was called the ether. By means of ultra-precise measurement using an interferometer, Michelson and Morley attempted to measure the relative motion of the Earth to the surrounding ether. Their experiment found no detectable stationary ether through which the Earth moved. Although in practice a negative outcome, their finding had important consequences for the understanding of light and ultimately for recognizing the speed of light as a universal constant. (Michelson won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1907, for his important investigations with optical instruments.)

Morley was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1895, and to the National Academy of Sciences in 1897. He became president of the American Chemical Society in 1899-1900.

From the guide to the Edward Williams Morley Family Papers, 1828-1922, (California Institute of Technology. Caltech Archives)


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