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Finding Aid for the Edward Williams Morley Family Papers 1828-1922
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Access
  • Publication Rights
  • Preferred Citation
  • Acquisition Information
  • Processing History
  • Biography
  • Scope and Content
  • Related Material
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Edward Williams Morley Family Papers,
    Date (inclusive): 1828-1922
    Collection number: 10023-MS
    Creator: Morley, Edward Williams 1838-1923
    Extent: 4.5 linear feet
    Repository: California Institute of Technology. Caltech Archives
    Pasadena, California 91125
    Abstract: Letters primarily to the nineteenth-century American chemist Edward Williams Morley, and letters to and from other members of his family including his parents and siblings, also including an important collection of Civil War letters, in addition to miscellaneous historical documents, form the collection titled the Edward Williams Morley Family Papers in the Archives of the California Institute of Technology. Edward Morley is best known for his collaboration with Albert A. Michelson on the ether-drift experiment (the Michelson-Morley experiment). Morley also conducted important experiments on atomic weights and other constants of nature.
    Physical location: Archives, California Institute of Technology.
    Language of Material:
    Languages represented in the collection:
    English GermanFrench


    The collection is open for research. Researchers must apply in writing for access.

    Publication Rights

    Copyright may not have been assigned to the California Institute of Technology Archives. All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the Caltech Archivist. Permission for publication is given on behalf of the California Institute of Technology Archives as the owner of the physical items and, unless explicitly stated otherwise, is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], Edward Williams Morley Family Papers, 10023-MS, Caltech Archives, California Institute of Technology.

    Acquisition Information

    The Edward Williams Morley Family Papers were donated to the Caltech Archives by Mr. and Mrs. William K. Morley of Altadena, California, in 1977. William K. Morley is the grand-nephew of Edward Williams Morley.

    Processing History

    Processed by Ann Underleak, 1977. Updated Charlotte E. Erwin, May 2007.
    In 2007 a new finding aid was created for the Morley family papers. The papers themselves were not rearranged. One file containing letters of Florence Morley to her husband, Frank J. Morley, Edward Morley's nephew, was returned to the donor, William K. Morley, in October 1977. Several small pieces of apparatus that accompanied the Morley Family Papers have been moved to the Caltech Archives' Science and Technology Artifacts Collection. These items are: 2 spring balances; 1 balance with glass dishes; 2 boxed of sets of brass weights; and an additional boxed set of weights and a balance. A copy of the biography, Edward Williams Morley: his Influence on Science in America, by Howard R. Williams (1957), inscribed to Frank J. Morley, has been transferred to the Archives landmark books collection.


    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.

    Scope and Content

    The Edward Williams Morley Family Papers consist of correspondence and a small number of miscellaneous papers of members of the Morley family from 1828 to 1922. Although there are few holograph letters from the chemist Edward Williams Morley himself (see box 6, folder 15), the family correspondence provides an extensive record of an upper-class, educated New England family of prominent clerics and educators in nineteenth-century America. It also contains an important collection of Civil War letters, including those written to Edward in the army, and those written by his brothers, especially the correspondence of Frank Gibson Morley and his parents, and additionally the letters of their father, Sardis Brewster Morley, who served as an army chaplain.
    The Morley collection was originally arranged without series designation, and the revision of 2007 has imposed a series and subseries structure on an existing arrangement with almost no disruption of the original sequence of files. There are now five series, the first four of which are almost exclusively correspondence files. The first of these, arranged in two subseries, contain the correspondence and papers of Sardis Brewster Morley (1804-1889), father of Edward, who graduated from Williams College in 1829, from the Yale Theological Seminary (now Divinity School) in 1833, and became a Congregational minister. Most of these letters are from Sardis's friends from Williams College, and many concern theological questions. Among the Sardis Brewster Morley letters in this subseries are some notebooks on Morley family history and chronology (box 1, folders 16-17). The second subseries is correspondence between Sardis Brewster Morley and Anna Clarissa Treat; they were married in 1834. The correspondence covers their years of courtship, 1830-1834, includes Civil War letters, and extends to 1880.
    The second series comprises letters to and from Edward Williams Morley himself. The first subseries is letters to Edward from his parents, brothers, and sister beginning in August 1859 during his school years, in particular at Andover Theological Seminary. The letters continue through the Civil War period while Edward was in the army and doing relief work at Fort Monroe, Virginia. Included here are letters from Edward's father (box 3, folders 21-24), one of which, dated April 17, 1865, is of special interest for its description of his and other Union soldiers' reaction to Lincoln's assassination. The next three sections, subseries 2-4, comprise letters to Edward and his wife, Belle, from Edward's various family members following Edward's marriage in December of 1868 and at the beginning of his teaching at Western Reserve. The first group is from Edward's parents. The next (subseries 3) is from Edward's sister Lizzie Morley. Lizzie attended Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary, one of the first institutions of higher learning for women in America, and her letters from there convey a sense life and attitudes among the women of her social and intellectual class. Lizzie later moved to Lexington, Massachusetts, to attend Dio (Dioclesian) Lewis's school for young ladies which was "based on hygienic principles." Lewis was both a temperance lecturer and a pioneer in physical education for women. (Edward had been offered a position in Lewis's school: see box 6, folder 14). The next group of letters, subseries 4, is from Edward's brothers. Notable here are the letters from Frank Gibson Morley, who had run away from home to enlist in the Union army and consequently had the most extensive experience of combat within the Morley family. Frank's letters continue up to the year before his death in 1875. (See also Frank's letters to his parents, series 3.) The remaining brother, John Henry Morley, also served in the Civil War (box 5, folders 36-37), after which he became a minister and moved to Iowa and subsequently to Minnesota, where he became superintendent of the Minneapolis Congregational Home Missionary Society. His letters to Edward continue until 1904. The next group of letters, subseries 5, contains the letters of Belle Birdsall Morley to her husband, Edward, between the years 1867 and 1874. Finally, subseries 6 contains miscellaneous papers and letters which include three autograph letters of Edward Williams Morley himself.
    Series 3, as noted, contains the correspondence of Frank Gibson Morley and his parents during the Civil War and afterwards. Series 4 dates from an earlier time, beginning in 1828, and contains letters and papers concerning the Treat family, the family of Edward Williams Morley's mother, Anna Clarissa. Finally, series 5 contains the scientific reprints and a few miscellaneous papers of Edward Williams Morley, including published papers relating to the Michelson-Morley experiment. Some photos of Morley's scientific apparatus are included here. Of special interest are four rare examples of sound wave tracings made by Morley's colleague and collaborator at Case School of Applied Science, Dayton C. Miller. These are in the form of one positive film tracing of Miller's voice, and three negative photographic prints of Miller's voice and the sounds of two musical instruments, a flute and a bell. The tracings were made on the apparatus called a phonodeik (alternate spelling, phonodiek) invented by Miller. The tracings were evidently given to Morley by Dayton Miller and preserved among his papers.
    The collection is organized into the following series:
    • Series 1. Sardis Brewster Morley (1804-1889) Letters and Papers
    • Series 2. Edward Williams Morley Letters and Papers
    • Series 3. Frank Gibson Morley Correspondence with Parents
    • Series 4. Treat Family Letters and Papers (Edward Morley's mother's family)
    • Series 5. Edward Williams Morley Reprints and Miscellaneous Papers

    Related Material

    Related materials in the Caltech Archives are: Science and Technology Artifacts Collection; and Historical File on Edward Williams Morley.
    The Library of Congress holds the collection titled Papers of Edward Williams Morley, call number MMC-3310, 1.2 linear feet of personal correspondence and photographs deposited by the Morley biographer, Howard R. Williams, in the 1950s.

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in the library's online public access catalog.


    California Institute of Technology
    Morley family
    Albert Abraham Michelson, 1852-1931
    Dayton Clarence Miller, 1866-1941
    Atomic weights
    Chemistry, Physical and theoretical
    Sound analyzers
    United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865


    Chemists--History--19th century
    Chemists--United States
    Physicists--United States