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Henry Joseph Grayson (1856–1918)

by H. C. Bolton

This article was published:

Henry Joseph Grayson (1856-1918), nurseryman and inventor, was born on 9 May 1856 at Worrall, near Sheffield, Yorkshire, England, son of Joseph Grayson, master cutler, and his wife Fanny, née Smith. By 1861 Henry was probably living with his mother and maternal grandfather, George Smith, a nurseryman at nearby Rotherham. Henry began training as a gardener at an early age. He took up the study of botany and bought his first microscope. In the early 1880s he went to New Zealand; in 1884-85 he was listed as a member of the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury (Christchurch). He returned to England, visiting Victoria on the way, and on 11 August 1886 in the Wesleyan Chapel at Davyhulme, near Manchester, married 37-year-old Elizabeth Clare, daughter of a blacksmith. Soon afterwards the couple migrated to Melbourne and for some years Grayson worked in the nursery of Brunning & Sons.

Grayson became acquainted with William Stone and the architect James Fawcett, both amateur scientists and his lifelong friends and eventual executors. He attended meetings of the (Royal) Microscopical Society and the Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria. In 1889 he visited Christchurch again and on his return exhibited New Zealand diatoms and some botanical preparations at the Field Naturalists' Club; his paper on the subject, delivered in September 1892, was published in the Victorian Naturalist the following month. He was elected to the club in May 1901.

Meanwhile Grayson's talent in preparing microscope slides, both biological and petrological, had brought him to the notice of Rev. Walter Fielder, university demonstrator in histology and a keen microscopist. Through Fielder, Grayson obtained a rock-sectioning machine and he relied largely on this and a lathe as his equipment in his home workshop. He used glass where others with more mechanical training and equipment would have used steel.

In microscopy, calibration of the field of view and the quantitative test of objectives require test rulings. Grayson made an entirely new micro-ruling machine in order to have better rulings than those available. The early version of this machine was mainly of glass and wood. It ruled excellent lines, up to 40,000 an inch (25.4 mm), using a diamond fragment and did not show the irregularities of those of his only rival, the Pomeranian physicist, Nobert. For the improved version of the machine, Stone designed and made the central components. Grayson did not publish an account either of this particular machine or of his techniques, but Stone and W. M. Holmes wrote accounts after his death. Grayson's test rulings rapidly achieved international fame and Carl Zeiss commissioned a plate with rulings up to 120,000 an inch to test Abbe's theory of the microscope. In 1894 Grayson had exhibited rulings from 5000 to 120,000 an inch.

In 1898 Grayson was appointed as laboratory assistant in physiology (also designated physiological school porter) at the University of Melbourne. On the arrival of Professor J. W. Gregory in 1900, he was transferred to geology and in 1901-02 was a member of Gregory's expedition to Lake Eyre. He was elected associate member of the Royal Society of Victoria in 1902. His work in geology and his reputation in microscopy gained him support in 1909 from professors (Sir) T. R. Lyle, E. W. Skeats and (Sir) D. O. Masson for a bursary. His election that year to the science faculty was supported by an article in the Argus and he was given an assistant.

Under the stimulus of Stone, Grayson in 1909-10 began the ruling of diffraction gratings, installing his grating-ruling engine under the floor of his workshop at home. In 1912 Lyle arranged for Grayson and his grating-ruling engine to be transferred to the natural philosophy department. In 1913 he was working full time on the grating project under Lyle's guidance. Grayson wrote an article on the engine in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria (1917) and was awarded the David Syme research prize in 1918. His optical blanks were probably not sufficiently flat to rule a grating of the six inches (152 mm) width for which the engine was designed.

Grayson died of heart disease at Clyde on 21 March 1918 and was buried in Boroondara cemetery, Kew. He was survived by his wife (d.1926); they had no children. Grayson's research notes and papers were collected by Stone but were accidentally burnt. Lyle bought the micro-ruling machine and the ruling-engine from his estate. A test in 1972 of one of the gratings made on the engine showed that its performance was good by any standard. Grayson's abilities were acquired by long personal experience, aided by high standards of self-discipline. The quality of his optical work was unsurpassed anywhere in his day.

Select Bibliography

  • Industrial Australian and Mining Standard, 64 (1920), p 63
  • Institute of Physics (London), Journal of Scientific Instruments, 11 (1934), p 1, 14 (1937), p 8
  • J. J. McNeill, ‘Diffracting grating rulings’, Records of the Australian Academy of Science, vol 2 (1972), no 3, p 18, 3 (1974), no 1, p 30
  • Australasian Radiology, 19 (1975), p 216
  • H. C. Bolton and J. J. McNeill, ‘H. J. Grayson. A pioneer ruler of diffraction gratings’, Victorian Historical Journal, 52 (1981), no 1, p 63
  • Grayson papers (University of Melbourne Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

H. C. Bolton, 'Grayson, Henry Joseph (1856–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 12 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 May, 1856
Worrall, Yorkshire, England


21 March, 1918 (aged 61)
Clyde, Victoria, Australia

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