John Michell proposed black holes in the 18th century, hundreds of years before Schwarzschild and Einstein.

His ideas were said to to be away head of his time, that he died in obscurity. I assume racism might play a role in this as he was a black man.

The APS states that while

he was one of the most brilliant and original scientists of his time, Michell remains virtually unknown today, in part because he did little to develop and promote his own path-breaking ideas.

closed as primarily opinion-based by Gerald Edgar, José Carlos Santos, Alexandre Eremenko, Carl Witthoft, Conifold Dec 3 at 22:53

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    It looks like you are asking for opinions. – Gerald Edgar Dec 2 at 1:21
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    In order to keep this interesting topic on the site, can I suggest editing the question to be more data-focused in terms of writings, topics/semantics, etc. – New Alexandria Dec 2 at 2:01
  • do you put him above Newton at least? – user4281 Dec 2 at 8:43
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    "If John Michell was more well known, would he ... ?" Maybe... – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Dec 2 at 10:51
  • An opinion is all I can offer, but I like this question anyway. – John Duffield Dec 2 at 16:36

I'd argue Michell is more like Schwarzschild (albeit perhaps more prolific than him, but then he did live longer).

Michell's dark stars aren't really analogous to Schwarzschild's black holes, because in Newtonian mechanics there's no limit to how fast something can go, and the speed of light is relative like everything else, albeit so fast you couldn't test that in Michell's lifetime. All Michell did was calculate the size of an object needed to get an escape velocity equal to the measured speed of light, and even then he would have made an errant density assumption, which is why he thought it would take 500 solar masses.

Obviously Michell had other contributions to physics, but dark stars illustrate a general principle. Newton and Einstein added new fundamental principles to physics that challenged what came before: the former explained motion with second-order differential equations, and said gravity was inverse-square; Einstein challenged Galilean invariance and instant transmission of gravity. Neither Michell nor Schwarzschild did such things; they merely calculated the implications of ideas they took for granted.

  • thanks for the answer, J.G... I guess your right that its a stretch to rank him alongside Newton and Einstein..., but on another question. Is it true that Michell was also of African descent, he is described as having "black complexion"? – user4281 Dec 3 at 3:46
  • @user4281 Everyone is of African descent at some point. From what little I can find about his genealogy, it's unclear when his most recent African ancestry may have been. Be wary of descriptions like "black complexion"; the conditions for their usage may have been very different in the 1700s (e.g. it may have meant Asian descent). – J.G. Dec 3 at 6:34
  • @user4281 Assuming that this picture is accurate, I would guess that he was not of African descent according to the common usage of descent. – Nick R Dec 4 at 0:45
  • @NickR That image is more like the "dark" man Shania Twain imagines in one of her songs. However, I'd read we don't have a Michell portrait, plus this man doesn't look fat. – J.G. Dec 4 at 6:05
  • @J.G. Yes, in the picture his dress is Victorian (19th C) rather than the Georgian garb one would expect from a 18th C Englishman. The idea of a photograph is also a bit of a problem to place in the 18thC. – Nick R Dec 4 at 23:05

If John Michell was more well known, would he rank above Isaac Newton in the history of science?

I don't think so. Yes, Michell was a smart guy all right. He's the man who devised the torsion balance used by Henry Cavendish to determine the mass of the Earth. And he was way ahead of his time when it came to dark stars. See his paper here:

"Dear Sir, The method, which I mentioned to you when I was last in London, by which it might perhaps be possible to ind the distance, magnitude, and weight of some of the fixed stars, by means of the diminution of the velocity of their light, occurred to me soon after i wrote what is mentioned by Dr. Priestley in his History of optics, concerning the diminution of the velocity of light in consequence of the attraction of the sun; but the extreme difficulty, and perhaps impossibility, of procuring the other data necessary for this purpose appeared to be to be such objections against the scheme, when I first thought of it, that I gave it them no farther consideration. As some late observations, however, begin to give us a little more chance of procuring some at least of these date, I thought it would not be amiss, that astronomers should be apprized of the method, I propose (which, as far as I know, has not been suggested by any one else) left, for want of being aware of the use, which may be made of them, they should neglect to make the proper observations, when in their power; I shall therefore beg the favour of you to present the following paper on this subject to the Royal Society..."

I just love this bit:

“if any other luminous bodies should happen to revolve about them we might still perhaps from the motions of these revolving bodies infer the existence of the central ones with some degree of probability”.

That’s exactly what we’ve done to establish the existence of a supermassive black hole in the centre of our galaxy. But I think Newton was a true genius. I've done a lot of research into the history of physics. and I'm something of an Einstein fan. But I have to say I think Newton is number one. That's why I wrote a little physicsworld article called Mr Newton's classroom back in 2010. I've done a lot more reading since then, and I still think Newton is number one.

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