Touching and feeling: Henry Moyes redux

Further to my last post, I have had a number of suggestions about what it is that the 18th-century natural philosophy lecturer Henry Moyes is holding in his portrait. In addition to those given in comments there, my thanks go to Rebecca Pohancenik, Tim Skellett, Alan (Gamma Counter), Charlotte Frost, Thony Christie and Ian Hopkinson for further suggestions. Chemical flask or, rather, measuring cylinder is the most popular suggestion. It must be said that it hardly looks as if the object is made of glass, but the shape is absolutely right. But see these 18th- (right) and 19th-century (left) examples from the NMSI Collections website for comparison:


Such an object is apt for a chemist (although perhaps not as iconic as the flask, or, later, test tube) but it begs the question: how would a blind man use a measuring cylinder? I can’t think that Russell, the artist, would have just given Moyes a standard bit of chemical kit as an attribute, since his ability to perform chemical experiments despite his blindness was key to his renown. As I suggested in the comment below, perhaps he had added a modification that allowed him to measure a device pushed up by the height of the liquid or, indeed, a hydrometer? If this is the case, though, the key part appears to be missing.

Going back over my previous post, I also realised that the link I had provided to another portrait, or caricature, of Moyes was not working, so here is the image in question. It is by John Kay, who published it with the biographical sketch I quoted.

We have the darkened glasses, a candle, handkerchief and bottle. I am not sure what the thing on the right might be (suggestions again, please!) and am also intrigued by the fact that Moyes seems to be enumerating something on his fingers as he talks.

Googling my way around some of these issues, I came across some further references to Moyes. Particularly interesting was a paper, read before the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society in 1782. This was by George Bew, a physician and, at some time, Vice President of the Society. Entitled ‘Observations on Blindness, and on the Employment of the Other Senses to Supply the Loss of Sight‘, it lauded man’s gift of sight, but also the fact that its loss was compensated to some degree by the heightening of the other senses, particularly hearing and touch. Anecdotal in nature, the paper referred to a number of individual examples, including Moyes, “the elegant reader on philosophical chemistry”.

Bew notes that many members at the Manchester Lit and Phil had attended Moyes’s lectures and were personally acquainted with him. Bew himself says that he enjoyed an “agreeable intimacy, and frequent intercourse” with him, which gave him:

an opportunity of repeatedly observing the peculiar manner, in which he arranged his ideas, and acquired his information. Whenever he was introduced into company, I remarked, that he continued some time silent. The sound directed him to judge of the dimensions of the room, and the different voices, of the number of persons that were present. His distinction, in these respects, was very accuate; and his memory so retentive, that he seldom was mistaken. I have known him instantly recognize a person, on first hearing him speak, though more than two years had elapsed since the time of their last meeting. He dertermined, pretty nearly, the stature of those he was speaking with, by the direction of their voices; and he made tolerable conjectures, respecting their tempers and dispositions, by the manner in which they conducted their conversation.

Bew went on to say, however, that Moyes was not in fact completely blind:

The rays refracted through a prism, when sufficiently vivid, produced certain distinguishable effects on [his eyes]. The red gave him a disagreeable sensation, which he compared to the touch of a saw. As the colours declined in violence, the harshness lessened, until the green afforded a sensation that was highly pleasing to him; and which he described, as conveying an idea similar to what he felt, in running his hand over smooth polished surfaces.

There seems something very theatrical in this claim, and I can certainly imagine it going down well in one of his lectures. I would be interested to know how common this sort colour-specific sensation might be. I think it is clear, though, that Moyes found it important to develop means of communicating with his audiences and acquaintances in a way that made them credit his observations [sic] and judgement. Bew goes on:

Polished surfaces, meandering streams, and the gentle declivities, were the figures, by which he expressed his ideas of beauty. Rugged rocks, irregular points, and boisterous elements, furnished him with expressions for terror and disgust. He excelled in the charms of conversation; was happy in his allusions to visual objects; and discoursed on the nature, composition, and beauty of colours, with pertinence and precision.

Bew concludes that “Doctor Moyes was a striking instance of the power, the human soul possesses, of finding sources of satisfaction, even under the most rigorous calamities” and that, “though destitute of other support than his genius, and under the mercenary protection of a person, whose integrity he suspected [Ed. Could this have been Adam Smith?] – still Dr. Moyes was generally chearful, and apparently happy”.

I hope he was, genuinely as well as generally, happy. He was clearly a remarkable man.


5 thoughts on “Touching and feeling: Henry Moyes redux

  1. He was clearly very musical, with an exceptionally keen ear and a highly retentive auditory memory. So I wonder if he could judge the quantity of liquid in his measuring cylinder by tapping it and listening to the pitch? With a cylinder with which he was very familiar, and which he had “calibrated” by ear with known volumes of liquid, he might have been able to make pretty accurate measurements. Also, the cylinder wouldn’t need to have been made of glass. Link relevant!

    • Thanks John: I like this! The only thing against it is that one would imagine that this would have been mentioned by Bew and others, as it would have been quite a party piece.

    • Yes he did – I mentioned his nephew (who later became a mineralogist) in the previous post, a fact which came from the wikipedia entry: he doesn’t get mentioned in the accounts I’ve read. One would, indeed, imagine that his assistant would have done all the measuring and prep…

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