Henry Thomas Buckle was born in Lee near London on 2 November 1821 during a family visit. His health was frail and he developed slowly. As the son of a wealthy shipowner and merchant, he entered his father’s business in London. When the father died in 1840, he left the trade and became independent with a large annual income. He regarded his historical research as work and playing chess as leisure.

His family sent him on a Grand Tour to Belgium, Germany, Italy and France. He would make many long journeys in his life. Chess was played and languages were learned in various countries. In 1843 he played a short match against Staunton, who gave pawn and move (Buckle had White in each game and pawn f7 was removed). Buckle lost the first game and won the other six. He made no notation of his moves. Staunton published his win and one loss in his journal The Chess Player’s Chronicle. 

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Henry Thomas Buckle at 24

Howard Staunton


Buckle liked to play chess at the Cigar Divan in London. There he played many casual games against Captain Hugh Alexander Kennedy, an army officer who had become an author. Captain Kennedy wrote very favourable about Buckle’s play, and Staunton enthusiastically selected some of the games for his journal, but the level is disappointing from a present view.

When Buckle travelled to Paris in 1848, he played a series of games against Kieseritzky (+3, -2, =3) in the Café de la Régence. The level of the games was still poor, e.g. Kieseritzky won a rook in game one, but overlooked mate in one.


Captain Kennedy

Lionel Kieseritzky

The breakthrough came in London 1849, when twelve players competed in a chess tournament among frequent visitors to the Cigar Divan at the Strand. The tournament began with two knockout rounds. Buckle defeated Smith in round one (+2) and Williams in round two (+2). He played innovative chess in round two. In the final of three players, Buckle defeated G.W. Medley (+1) and J.R. Medley (+1). 

Ries' 'Cigar' Divan

Jacob Johann Löwenthal


Buckle did not make time for participation in the international tournament London 1851. When it was finished, a series of matches for seven wins began. At his request, Buckle’s match versus Löwenthal was shortened to four wins. Buckle narrowly won (+4, -3, =1). After the match Buckle played casual games against Kieseritzky and Anderssen.

The rising of Buckle and Anderssen marked the end of the Staunton era. Prophylactic play had started with Philidor and Staunton, but Buckle brought it on a modern level. He also had an acceptable tactical ability. Anderssen had crushed Staunton’s slow defensive play with dazzling attacks. Little happened in chess after 1851. A match between Anderssen and Buckle would have been a real treat in the time before Morphy’s stardom. 


Adolf Anderssen

Henry Thomas Buckle at 35


However, Buckle was not the popular mad genius who saw chess as the only goal of his life. He found the victory in a match a ‘frivolous triumph’, and hated the lack of time limitation in chess. "The slowness of genius is hard to bear, but the slowness of mediocrity is intolerable", he remarked. Poor health gave him a short life. He devoted his remaining time to his book ‘History of Civilisation’. Occasionally, he visited the Divan.

William Cluley published a theory of chess strategy in 1857. He considered a draw as the logical end of a game. Fortification is regarded as an important aim of development. An attack needs preparation. Lasker wrongly attributed this theory to Steinitz. Buckle’s play precedes Cluley’s concepts. The decisive game in the match against Löwenthal gives a fine example. Buckle has developed a solid position. The double fianchetto with White precedes a preference of Réti and Kramnik. 

Prophylactic play was fully developed at the beginning of the 1850's. At the end of the decade, fine tactics were added by Morphy, the first complete player.

Buckle liked to read. His photographic memory allowed him te read a book once and evaluate it immediately. His library grew to 22,000 volumes. He could sell half, because he simply knew them. An encyclopaedic knowledge about history had been developed in his mind. He studied nineteen languages on his travels and spoke nine fluently.

Basic ideas for the ‘History of Civilization’ were conceived in the 1840's. Although he devoted much time to this project, it took until 1857 til the first volume was published. Buckle wants to find laws of society beyond its peculiarities. For instance, he finds a relationship between prosperity and early marriages of men. Another find is the slightly higher number of boys than girls at birth, independent of society. A great aphorism is: "Society prepares the crime, the criminal commits it". His search for the laws of civilization resembles the positivism of Comte. The Frenchman developed a reliable method for scientific research: facts form the basis of theory.

Buckle’s lecture in 1858 was published as ‘The influence of Women on the Process of Knowledge’. He advices a fine education of girls, because they instruct future generations. It is based on his own positive experience. When his mother Jane died in 1859, his health further deteriorated. Nevertheless, the second volume of ‘History of Civilization’ was published in 1861. The working title for the planned trilogy had become the modest ‘Introduction to the History of Civilization in Britain’. His book about social evolution had a similar reception as Darwin’s ‘Origins of Species’ (1859) about the evolution of animals and mankind: much appreciation abroad and hatred in Britain. Many conclusions irritated the English arrogance.

Buckle made a journey for mental rest to Egypt and Palestine. He contracted typhoid fever in Jerusalem and died in Damascus on 29 May 1862. His last words are supposed to be: "My book, what about my book?" The answer became ‘The Miscellaneous and Posthumous Works of Henry Thomas Buckle’ (1872).

In chess, Lasker, Botvinnik and Nunn are mentioned as scientists, although they never made an intellectual achievement of lasting value, like me. Buckle was a great chess player and scientist.


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