This page contains affiliate links. As Amazon Associates we earn from qualifying purchases.
  • 1895
Buy it on Amazon Listen via Audible FREE Audible 30 days


There can be no doubt that a special significance attached to the new discovery at this particular epoch in the history of science. It must be remembered that in those days the doctrine of Copernicus, declaring that the sun, and not the earth, was the centre of the system, that the earth revolved on its axis once a day, and that it described a mighty circle round the sun once a year, had only recently been promulgated. This new view of the scheme of nature had been encountered with the most furious opposition. It may possibly have been that Galileo himself had not felt quite confident in the soundness of the Copernican theory, prior to the discovery of the satellites of Jupiter. But when a picture was there exhibited in which a number of relatively small globes were shown to be revolving around a single large globe in the centre, it seemed impossible not to feel that the beautiful spectacle so displayed was an emblem of the relations of the planets to the sun. It was thus made manifest to Galileo that the Copernican theory of the planetary system must be the true one. The momentous import of this opinion upon the future welfare of the great philosopher will presently appear.

It would seem that Galileo regarded his residence at Padua as a state of undesirable exile from his beloved Tuscany. He had always a yearning to go back to his own country and at last the desired opportunity presented itself. For now that Galileo’s fame had become so great, the Grand Duke of Tuscany desired to have the philosopher resident at Florence, in the belief that he would shed lustre on the Duke’s dominions. Overtures were accordingly made to Galileo, and the consequence was that in 1616 we find him residing at Florence, bearing the title of Mathematician and Philosopher to the Grand Duke.

Two daughters, Polissena and Virginia, and one son, Vincenzo, had been born to Galileo in Padua. It was the custom in those days that as soon as the daughter of an Italian gentleman had grown up, her future career was somewhat summarily decided. Either a husband was to be forthwith sought out, or she was to enter the convent with the object of taking the veil as a professed nun. It was arranged that the two daughters of Galileo, while still scarcely more than children, should both enter the Franciscan convent of St. Matthew, at Arcetri. The elder daughter Polissena, took the name of Sister Maria Celeste, while Virginia became Sister Arcangela. The latter seems to have been always delicate and subject to prolonged melancholy, and she is of but little account in the narrative of the life of Galileo. But Sister Maria Celeste, though never leaving the convent, managed to preserve a close intimacy with her beloved father. This was maintained only partly by Galileo’s visits, which were very irregular and were, indeed, often suspended for long intervals. But his letters to this daughter were evidently frequent and affectionate, especially in the latter part of his life. Most unfortunately, however, all his letters have been lost. There are grounds for believing that they were deliberately destroyed when Galileo was seized by the Inquisition, lest they should have been used as evidence against him, or lest they should have compromised the convent where they were received. But Sister Maria Celeste’s letters to her father have happily been preserved, and most touching these letters are. We can hardly read them without thinking how the sweet and gentle nun would have shrunk from the idea of their publication.

Her loving little notes to her “dearest lord and father,” as she used affectionately to call Galileo, were almost invariably accompanied by some gift, trifling it may be, but always the best the poor nun had to bestow. The tender grace of these endearing communications was all the more precious to him from the fact that the rest of Galileo’s relatives were of quite a worthless description. He always acknowledged the ties of his kindred in the most generous way, but their follies and their vices, their selfishness and their importunities, were an incessant source of annoyance to him, almost to the last day of his life.

On 19th December, 1625, Sister Maria Celeste writes:–

“I send two baked pears for these days of vigil. But as the greatest treat of all, I send you a rose, which ought to please you extremely, seeing what a rarity it is at this season; and with the rose you must accept its thorns, which represent the bitter passion of our Lord, whilst the green leaves represent the hope we may entertain that through the same sacred passion we, having passed through the darkness of the short winter of our mortal life, may attain to the brightness and felicity of an eternal spring in heaven.”

When the wife and children of Galileo’s shiftless brother came to take up their abode in the philosopher’s home, Sister Maria Celeste feels glad to think that her father has now some one who, however imperfectly, may fulfil the duty of looking after him. A graceful note on Christmas Eve accompanies her little gifts. She hopes that–

“In these holy days the peace of God may rest on him and all the house. The largest collar and sleeves I mean for Albertino, the other two for the two younger boys, the little dog for baby, and the cakes for everybody, except the spice-cakes, which are for you. Accept the good-will which would readily do much more.”

The extraordinary forbearance with which Galileo continually placed his time, his purse, and his influence at the service of those who had repeatedly proved themselves utterly unworthy of his countenance, is thus commented on by the good nun.–

“Now it seems to me, dearest lord and father, that your lordship is walking in the right path, since you take hold of every occasion that presents itself to shower continual benefits on those who only repay you with ingratitude. This is an action which is all the more virtuous and perfect as it is the more difficult.”

When the plague was raging in the neighbourhood, the loving daughter’s solicitude is thus shown:–

“I send you two pots of electuary as a preventive against the plague. The one without the label consists of dried figs, walnuts, rue, and salt, mixed together with honey. A piece of the size of a walnut to be taken in the morning, fasting, with a little Greek wine.”

The plague increasing still more, Sister Maria Celeste obtained with much difficulty, a small quantity of a renowned liqueur, made by Abbess Ursula, an exceptionally saintly nun. This she sends to her father with the words:–

“I pray your lordship to have faith in this remedy. For if you have so much faith in my poor miserable prayers, much more may you have in those of such a holy person; indeed, through her merits you may feel sure of escaping all danger from the plague.”

Whether Galileo took the remedy we do not know, but at all events he escaped the plague.

Galileo’s residence, where Milton visited him.]

From Galileo’s new home in Florence the telescope was again directed to the skies, and again did astounding discoveries reward the astronomer’s labours. The great success which he had met with in studying Jupiter naturally led Galileo to look at Saturn. Here he saw a spectacle which was sufficiently amazing, though he failed to interpret it accurately. It was quite manifest that Saturn did not exhibit a simple circular disc like Jupiter, or like Mars. It seemed to Galileo as if the planet consisted of three bodies, a large globe in the centre, and a smaller one on each side. The enigmatical nature of the discovery led Galileo to announce it in an enigmatical manner. He published a string of letters which, when duly transposed, made up a sentence which affirmed that the planet Saturn was threefold. Of course we now know that this remarkable appearance of the planet was due to the two projecting portions of the ring. With the feeble power of Galileo’s telescope, these seemed merely like small globes or appendages to the large central body.

The last Of Galileo’s great astronomical discoveries related to the libration of the moon. I think that the detection of this phenomenon shows his acuteness of observation more remarkably than does any one of his other achievements with the telescope. It is well known that the moon constantly keeps the same face turned towards the earth. When, however, careful measurements have been made with regard to the spots and marks on the lunar surface, it is found that there is a slight periodic variation which permits us to see now a little to the east or to the west, now a little to the north or to the south of the average lunar disc.

But the circumstances which make the career of Galileo so especially interesting from the biographer’s point of view, are hardly so much the triumphs that he won as the sufferings that he endured. The sufferings and the triumphs were, however, closely connected, and it is fitting that we should give due consideration to what was perhaps the greatest drama in the history of science.

On the appearance of the immortal work of Copernicus, in which it was taught that the earth rotated on its axis, and that the earth, like the other planets, revolved round the sun, orthodoxy stood aghast. The Holy Roman Church submitted this treatise, which bore the name “De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium,” to the Congregation of the Index. After due examination it was condemned as heretical in 1615. Galileo was suspected, on no doubt excellent grounds, of entertaining the objectionable views of Copernicus. He was accordingly privately summoned before Cardinal Bellarmine on 26th February 1616, and duly admonished that he was on no account to teach or to defend the obnoxious doctrines. Galileo was much distressed by this intimation. He felt it a serious matter to be deprived of the privilege of discoursing with his friends about the Copernican system, and of instructing his disciples in the principles of the great theory of whose truth he was perfectly convinced. It pained him, however, still more to think, devout Catholic as he was, that such suspicions of his fervent allegiance to his Church should ever have existed, as were implied by the words and monitions of Cardinal Bellarmine.

In 1616, Galileo had an interview with Pope Paul V., who received the great astronomer very graciously, and walked up and down with him in conversation for three-quarters of an hour. Galileo complained to his Holiness of the attempts made by his enemies to embarrass him with the authorities of the Church, but the Pope bade him be comforted. His Holiness had himself no doubts of Galileo’s orthodoxy, and he assured him that the Congregation of the Index should give Galileo no further trouble so long as Paul V. was in the chair of St. Peter.

On the death of Paul V. in 1623, Maffeo Barberini was elected Pope, as Urban VIII. This new Pope, while a cardinal, had been an intimate friend of Galileo’s, and had indeed written Latin verses in praise of the great astronomer and his discoveries. It was therefore not unnatural for Galileo to think that the time had arrived when, with the use of due circumspection, he might continue his studies and his writings, without fear of incurring the displeasure of the Church. Indeed, in 1624, one of Galileo’s friends writing from Rome, urges Galileo to visit the city again, and added that–

“Under the auspices of this most excellent, learned, and benignant Pontiff, science must flourish. Your arrival will be welcome to his Holiness. He asked me if you were coming, and when, and in short, he seems to love and esteem you more than ever.”

The visit was duly paid, and when Galileo returned to Florence, the Pope wrote a letter from which the following is an extract, commanding the philosopher to the good offices of the young Ferdinand, who had shortly before succeeded his father in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

“We find in Galileo not only literary distinction, but also the love of piety, and he is also strong in those qualities by which the pontifical good-will is easily obtained. And now, when he has been brought to this city to congratulate us on our elevation, we have very lovingly embraced him; nor can we suffer him to return to the country whither your liberality calls him, without an ample provision of pontifical love. And that you may know how dear he is to us, we have willed to give him this honourable testimonial of virtue and piety. And we further signify that every benefit which you shall confer upon him, imitating or even surpassing your father’s liberality, will conduce to our gratification.”

The favourable reception which had been accorded to him by Pope Urban VIII. seems to have led Galileo to expect that there might be some corresponding change in the attitude of the Papal authorities on the great question of the stability of the earth. He accordingly proceeded with the preparation of the chief work of his life, “The Dialogue of the two Systems.” It was submitted for inspection by the constituted authorities. The Pope himself thought that, if a few conditions which he laid down were duly complied with, there could be no objection to the publication of the work. In the first place, the title of the book was to be so carefully worded as to show plainly that the Copernican doctrine was merely to be regarded as an hypothesis, and not as a scientific fact. Galileo was also instructed to conclude the book with special arguments which had been supplied by the Pope himself, and which appeared to his Holiness to be quite conclusive against the new doctrine of Copernicus.

Formal leave for the publication of the Dialogue was then given to Galileo by the Inquisitor General, and it was accordingly sent to the press. It might be thought that the anxieties of the astronomer about his book would then have terminated. As a matter of fact, they had not yet seriously begun. Riccardi, the Master of the Sacred Palace, having suddenly had some further misgivings, sent to Galileo for the manuscript while the work was at the printer’s, in order that the doctrine it implied might be once again examined. Apparently, Riccardi had come to the conclusion that he had not given the matter sufficient attention, when the authority to go to press had been first and, perhaps, hastily given. Considerable delay in the issue of the book was the result of these further deliberations. At last, however, in June, 1632, Galileo’s great work, “The Dialogue of the two Systems,” was produced for the instruction of the world, though the occasion was fraught with ruin to the immortal author.


The book, on its publication, was received and read with the greatest avidity. But presently the Master of The Sacred Palace found reason to regret that he had given his consent to its appearance. He accordingly issued a peremptory order to sequestrate every copy in Italy. This sudden change in the Papal attitude towards Galileo formed the subject of a strong remonstrance addressed to the Roman authorities by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. The Pope himself seemed to have become impressed all at once with the belief that the work contained matter of an heretical description. The general interpretation put upon the book seems to have shown the authorities that they had mistaken its true tendency, notwithstanding the fact that it had been examined again and again by theologians deputed for the duty. To the communication from the Grand Duke the Pope returned answer, that he had decided to submit the book to a congregation of “learned, grave, and saintly men,” who would weigh every word in it. The views of his Holiness personally on the subject were expressed in his belief that the Dialogue contained the most perverse matter that could come into a reader’s hands.

The Master of the Sacred Palace was greatly blamed by the authorities for having given his sanction to its issue. He pleaded that the book had not been printed in the precise terms of the original manuscript which had been submitted to him. It was also alleged that Galileo had not adhered to his promise of inserting properly the arguments which the Pope himself had given in support of the old and orthodox view. One of these had, no doubt, been introduced, but, so far from mending Galileo’s case, it had made matters really look worse for the poor philosopher. The Pope’s argument had been put into the mouth of one of the characters in the Dialogue named “Simplicio.” Galileo’s enemies maintained that by adopting such a method for the expression of his Holiness’s opinion, Galileo had intended to hold the Pope himself up to ridicule. Galileo’s friends maintained that nothing could have been farther from his intention. It seems, however, highly probable that the suspicions thus aroused had something to say to the sudden change of front on the part of the Papal authorities.

On 1st October, 1632, Galileo received an order to appear before the Inquisition at Rome on the grave charge of heresy. Galileo, of course, expressed his submission, but pleaded for a respite from compliance with the summons, on the ground of his advanced age and his failing health. The Pope was, however, inexorable; he said that he had warned Galileo of his danger while he was still his friend. The command could not be disobeyed. Galileo might perform the journey as slowly as he pleased, but it was imperatively necessary for him to set forth and at once.

On 20th January, 1633, Galileo started on his weary journey to Rome, in compliance with this peremptory summons. On 13th February he was received as the guest of Niccolini, the Tuscan ambassador, who had acted as his wise and ever-kind friend throughout the whole affair. It seemed plain that the Holy Office were inclined to treat Galileo with as much clemency and consideration as was consistent with the determination that the case against him should be proceeded with to the end. The Pope intimated that in consequence of his respect for the Grand Duke of Tuscany he should permit Galileo to enjoy the privilege, quite unprecedented for a prisoner charged with heresy, of remaining as an inmate in the ambassador’s house. He ought, strictly, to have been placed in the dungeons of the Inquisition. When the examination of the accused had actually commenced, Galileo was confined, not, indeed, in the dungeons, but in comfortable rooms at the Holy Office.

By the judicious and conciliatory language of submission which Niccolini had urged Galileo to use before the Inquisitors, they were so far satisfied that they interceded with the Pope for his release. During the remainder of the trial Galileo was accordingly permitted to go back to the ambassador’s, where he was most heartily welcomed. Sister Maria Celeste, evidently thinking this meant that the whole case was at an end, thus expresses herself:–

“The joy that your last dear letter brought me, and the having to read it over and over to the nuns, who made quite a jubilee on hearing its contents, put me into such an excited state that at last I got a severe attack of headache.”

In his defence Galileo urged that he had already been acquitted in 1616 by Cardinal Bellarmine, when a charge of heresy was brought against him, and he contended that anything he might now have done, was no more than he had done on the preceding occasion, when the orthodoxy of his doctrines received solemn confirmation. The Inquisition seemed certainly inclined to clemency, but the Pope was not satisfied. Galileo was accordingly summoned again on the 21st June. He was to be threatened with torture if he did not forthwith give satisfactory explanations as to the reasons which led him to write the Dialogue. In this proceeding the Pope assured the Tuscan ambassador that he was treating Galileo with the utmost consideration possible in consequence of his esteem and regard for the Grand Duke, whose servant Galileo was. It was, however, necessary that some exemplary punishment be meted out to the astronomer, inasmuch as by the publication of the Dialogue he had distinctly disobeyed the injunction of silence laid upon him by the decree of 1616. Nor was it admissible for Galileo to plead that his book had been sanctioned by the Master of the Sacred College, to whose inspection it had been again and again submitted. It was held, that if the Master of the Sacred College had been unaware of the solemn warning the philosopher had already received sixteen years previously, it was the duty of Galileo to have drawn his attention to that fact.

On the 22nd June, 1633, Galileo was led to the great hall of the Inquisition, and compelled to kneel before the cardinals there assembled and hear his sentence. In a long document, most elaborately drawn up, it is definitely charged against Galileo that, in publishing the Dialogue, he committed the essentially grave error of treating the doctrine of the earth’s motion as open to discussion. Galileo knew, so the document affirmed, that the Church had emphatically pronounced this notion to be contrary to Holy Writ, and that for him to consider a doctrine so stigmatized as having any shadow of probability in its favour was an act of disrespect to the authority of the Church which could not be overlooked. It was also charged against Galileo that in his Dialogue he has put the strongest arguments into the mouth, not of those who supported the orthodox doctrine, but of those who held the theory as to the earth’s motion which the Church had so deliberately condemned.

After due consideration of the defence made by the prisoner, it was thereupon decreed that he had rendered himself vehemently suspected of heresy by the Holy Office, and in consequence had incurred all the censures and penalties of the sacred canons, and other decrees promulgated against such persons. The graver portion of these punishments would be remitted, if Galileo would solemnly repudiate the heresies referred to by an abjuration to be pronounced by him in the terms laid down.

At the same time it was necessary to mark, in some emphatic manner, the serious offence which had been committed, so that it might serve both as a punishment to Galileo and as a warning to others. It was accordingly decreed that he should be condemned to imprisonment in the Holy Office during the pleasure of the Papal authorities, and that he should recite once a week for three years the seven Penitential Psalms.

Then followed that ever-memorable scene in the great hall of the Inquisition, in which the aged and infirm Galileo, the inventor of the telescope and the famous astronomer, knelt down to abjure before the most eminent and reverend Lords Cardinal, Inquisitors General throughout the Christian Republic against heretical depravity. With his hands on the Gospels, Galileo was made to curse and detest the false opinion that the sun was the centre of the universe and immovable, and that the earth was not the centre of the same, and that it moved. He swore that for the future he will never say nor write such things as may bring him under suspicion, and that if he does so he submits to all the pains and penalties of the sacred canons. This abjuration was subsequently read in Florence before Galileo’s disciples, who had been specially summoned to attend.

It has been noted that neither on the first occasion, in 1616, nor on the second in 1633, did the reigning Pope sign the decrees concerning Galileo. The contention has accordingly been made that Paul V. and Urban VIII. are both alike vindicated from any technical responsibility for the attitude of the Romish Church towards the Copernican doctrines. The significance of this circumstance has been commented on in connection with the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope.

We can judge of the anxiety felt by Sister Maria Celeste about her beloved father during these terrible trials. The wife of the ambassador Niccolini, Galileo’s steadfast friend, most kindly wrote to give the nun whatever quieting assurances the case would permit. There is a renewed flow of these touching epistles from the daughter to her father. Thus she sends word–

“The news of your fresh trouble has pierced my soul with grief all the more that it came quite unexpectedly.”

And again, on hearing that he had been permitted to leave Rome, she writes–

“I wish I could describe the rejoicing of all the mothers and sisters on hearing of your happy arrival at Siena. It was indeed most extraordinary. On hearing the news the Mother Abbess and many of the nuns ran to me, embracing me and weeping for joy and tenderness.”

The sentence of imprisonment was at first interpreted leniently by the Pope. Galileo was allowed to reside in qualified durance in the archbishop’s house at Siena. Evidently the greatest pain that he endured arose from the forced separation from that daughter, whom he had at last learned to love with an affection almost comparable with that she bore to him. She had often told him that she never had any pleasure equal to that with which she rendered any service to her father. To her joy, she discovers that she can relieve him from the task of reciting the seven Penitential Psalms which had been imposed as a Penance:–

“I began to do this a while ago,” she writes, “and it gives me much pleasure. First, because I am persuaded that prayer in obedience to Holy Church must be efficacious; secondly, in order to save you the trouble of remembering it. If I had been able to do more, most willingly would I have entered a straiter prison than the one I live in now, if by so doing I could have set you at liberty.”


Sister Maria Celeste was gradually failing in health, but the great privilege was accorded to her of being able once again to embrace her beloved lord and master. Galileo had, in fact, been permitted to return to his old home; but on the very day when he heard of his daughter’s death came the final decree directing him to remain in his own house in perpetual solitude.

Amid the advancing infirmities of age, the isolation from friends, and the loss of his daughter, Galileo once again sought consolation in hard work. He commenced his famous dialogue on Motion. Gradually, however, his sight began to fail, and blindness was at last added to his other troubles. On January 2nd, 1638, he writes to Diodati:–

“Alas, your dear friend and servant, Galileo, has been for the last month perfectly blind, so that this heaven, this earth, this universe which I by my marvellous discoveries and clear demonstrations have enlarged a hundred thousand times beyond the belief of the wise men of bygone ages, henceforward is for me shrunk into such a small space as is filled by my own bodily sensations.”

But the end was approaching–the great philosopher, was attacked by low fever, from which he died on the 8th January, 1643.


While the illustrious astronomer, Tycho Brahe, lay on his death-bed, he had an interview which must ever rank as one of the important incidents in the history of science. The life of Tycho had been passed, as we have seen, in the accumulation of vast stores of careful observations of the positions of the heavenly bodies. It was not given to him to deduce from his splendid work the results to which they were destined to lead. It was reserved for another astronomer to distil, so to speak, from the volumes in which Tycho’s figures were recorded, the great truths of the universe which those figures contained. Tycho felt that his work required an interpreter, and he recognised in the genius of a young man with whom he was acquainted the agent by whom the world was to be taught some of the great truths of nature. To the bedside of the great Danish astronomer the youthful philosopher was summoned, and with his last breath Tycho besought of him to spare no labour in the performance of those calculations, by which alone the secrets of the movements of the heavens could be revealed. The solemn trust thus imposed was duly accepted, and the man who accepted it bore the immortal name of Kepler.

Kepler was born on the 27th December, 1571, at Weil, in the Duchy of Wurtemberg. It would seem that the circumstances of his childhood must have been singularly unhappy. His father, sprung from a well-connected family, was but a shiftless and idle adventurer; nor was the great astronomer much more fortunate in his other parent. His mother was an ignorant and ill-tempered woman; indeed, the ill-assorted union came to an abrupt end through the desertion of the wife by her husband when their eldest son John, the hero of our present sketch, was eighteen years old. The childhood of this lad, destined for such fame, was still further embittered by the circumstance that when he was four years old he had a severe attack of small-pox. Not only was his eyesight permanently injured, but even his constitution appears to have been much weakened by this terrible malady.

It seems, however, that the bodily infirmities of young John Kepler were the immediate cause of his attention being directed to the pursuit of knowledge. Had the boy been fitted like other boys for ordinary manual work, there can be hardly any doubt that to manual work his life must have been devoted. But, though his body was feeble, he soon gave indications of the possession of considerable mental power. It was accordingly thought that a suitable sphere for his talents might be found in the Church which, in those days, was almost the only profession that afforded an opening for an intellectual career. We thus find that by the time John Kepler was seventeen years old he had attained a sufficient standard of knowledge to entitle him to admission on the foundation of the University at Tubingen.

In the course of his studies at this institution he seems to have divided his attention equally between astronomy and divinity. It not unfrequently happens that when a man has attained considerable proficiency in two branches of knowledge he is not able to see very clearly in which of the two pursuits his true vocation lies. His friends and onlookers are often able to judge more wisely than he himself can do as to which Of the two lines it would be better for him to pursue. This incapacity for perceiving the path in which greatness awaited him, existed in the case of Kepler. Personally, he inclined to enter the ministry, in which a promising career seemed open to him. He yielded, however, to friends, who evidently knew him better than he knew himself, and accepted in 1594, the important Professorship of astronomy which had been offered to him in the University of Gratz.

It is difficult for us in these modern days to realise the somewhat extraordinary duties which were expected from an astronomical professor in the sixteenth century. He was, of course, required to employ his knowledge of the heavens in the prediction of eclipses, and of the movements of the heavenly bodies generally. This seems reasonable enough; but what we are not prepared to accept is the obligation which lay on the astronomers to predict the fates of nations and the destinies of individuals.

It must be remembered that it was the almost universal belief in those days, that all the celestial spheres revolved in some mysterious fashion around the earth, which appeared by far the most important body in the universe. It was imagined that the sun, the moon, and the stars indicated, in the vicissitudes of their movements, the careers of nations and of individuals. Such being the generally accepted notion, it seemed to follow that a professor who was charged with the duty of expounding the movements of the heavenly bodies must necessarily be looked to for the purpose of deciphering the celestial decrees regarding the fate of man which the heavenly luminaries were designed to announce.

Kepler threw himself with characteristic ardour into even this fantastic phase of the labours of the astronomical professor; he diligently studied the rules of astrology, which the fancies of antiquity had compiled. Believing sincerely as he did in the connection between the aspect of the stars and the state of human affairs, he even thought that he perceived, in the events of his own life, a corroboration of the doctrine which affirmed the influence of the planets upon the fate of individuals.


But quite independently of astrology there seem to have been many other delusions current among the philosophers of Kepler’s time. It is now almost incomprehensible how the ablest men of a few centuries ago should have entertained such preposterous notions, as they did, with respect to the system of the universe. As an instance of what is here referred to, we may cite the extraordinary notion which, under the designation of a discovery, first brought Kepler into fame. Geometers had long known that there were five, but no more than five, regular solid figures. There is, for instance, the cube with six sides, which is, of course, the most familiar of these solids. Besides the cube there are other figures of four, eight, twelve, and twenty sides respectively. It also happened that there were five planets, but no more than five, known to the ancients, namely, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. To Kepler’s lively imaginations this coincidence suggested the idea that the five regular solids corresponded to the five planets, and a number of fancied numerical relations were adduced on the subject. The absurdity of this doctrine is obvious enough, especially when we observe that, as is now well known, there are two large planets, and a host of small planets, over and above the magical number of the regular solids. In Kepler’s time, however, this doctrine was so far from being regarded as absurd, that its announcement was hailed as a great intellectual triumph. Kepler was at once regarded with favour. It seems, indeed, to have been the circumstance which brought him into correspondence with Tycho Brahe. By its means also he became known to Galileo.

The career of a scientific professor in those early days appears generally to have been marked by rather more striking vicissitudes than usually befall a professor in a modern university. Kepler was a Protestant, and as such he had been appointed to his professorship at Gratz. A change, however, having taken place in the religious belief entertained by the ruling powers of the University, the Protestant professors were expelled. It seems that special influence having been exerted in Kepler’s case on account of his exceptional eminence, he was recalled to Gratz and reinstated in the tenure of his chair. But his pupils had vanished, so that the great astronomer was glad to accept a post offered him by Tycho Brahe in the observatory which the latter had recently established near Prague.

On Tycho’s death, which occurred soon after, an opening presented itself which gave Kepler the opportunity his genius demanded. He was appointed to succeed Tycho in the position of imperial mathematician. But a far more important point, both for Kepler and for science, was that to him was confided the use of Tycho’s observations. It was, indeed, by the discussion of Tycho’s results that Kepler was enabled to make the discoveries which form such an important part of astronomical history.

Kepler must also be remembered as one of the first great astronomers who ever had the privilege of viewing celestial bodies through a telescope. It was in 1610 that he first held in his hands one of those little instruments which had been so recently applied to the heavens by Galileo. It should, however, be borne in mind that the epoch-making achievements of Kepler did not arise from any telescopic observations that he made, or, indeed, that any one else made. They were all elaborately deduced from Tycho’s measurements of the positions of the planets, obtained with his great instruments, which were unprovided with telescopic assistance.

To realise the tremendous advance which science received from Kepler’s great work, it is to be understood that all the astronomers who laboured before him at the difficult subject of the celestial motions, took it for granted that the planets must revolve in circles. If it did not appear that a planet moved in a fixed circle, then the ready answer was provided by Ptolemy’s theory that the circle in which the planet did move was itself in motion, so that its centre described another circle.

When Kepler had before him that wonderful series of observations of the planet, Mars, which had been accumulated by the extraordinary skill of Tycho, he proved, after much labour, that the movements of the planet refused to be represented in a circular form. Nor would it do to suppose that Mars revolved in one circle, the centre of which revolved in another circle. On no such supposition could the movements of the planets be made to tally with those which Tycho had actually observed. This led to the astonishing discovery of the true form of a planet’s orbit. For the first time in the history of astronomy the principle was laid down that the movement of a planet could not be represented by a circle, nor even by combinations of circles, but that it could be represented by an elliptic path. In this path the sun is situated at one of those two points in the ellipse which are known as its foci.


Very simple apparatus is needed for the drawing of one of those ellipses which Kepler has shown to possess such astonishing astronomical significance. Two pins are stuck through a sheet of paper on a board, the point of a pencil is inserted in a loop of string which passes over the pins, and as the pencil is moved round in such a way as to keep the string stretched, that beautiful curve known as the ellipse is delineated, while the positions of the pins indicate the two foci of the curve. If the length of the loop of string is unchanged then the nearer the pins are together, the greater will be the resemblance between the ellipse and the circle, whereas the more the pins are separated the more elongated does the ellipse become. The orbit of a great planet is, in general, one of those ellipses which approaches a nearly circular form. It fortunately happens, however, that the orbit of Mars makes a wider departure from the circular form than any of the other important planets. It is, doubtless, to this circumstance that we must attribute the astonishing success of Kepler in detecting the true shape of a planetary orbit. Tycho’s observations would not have been sufficiently accurate to have exhibited the elliptic nature of a planetary orbit which, like that of Venus, differed very little from a circle.

The more we ponder on this memorable achievement the more striking will it appear. It must be remembered that in these days we know of the physical necessity which requires that a planet shall revolve in an ellipse and not in any other curve. But Kepler had no such knowledge. Even to the last hour of his life he remained in ignorance of the existence of any natural cause which ordained that planets should follow those particular curves which geometers know so well. Kepler’s assignment of the ellipse as the true form of the planetary orbit is to be regarded as a brilliant guess, the truth of which Tycho’s observations enabled him to verify. Kepler also succeeded in pointing out the law according to which the velocity of a planet at different points of its path could be accurately specified. Here, again, we have to admire the sagacity with which this marvellously acute astronomer guessed the deep truth of nature. In this case also he was quite unprovided with any reason for expecting from physical principles that such a law as he discovered must be obeyed. It is quite true that Kepler had some slight knowledge of the existence of what we now know as gravitation. He had even enunciated the remarkable doctrine that the ebb and flow of the tide must be attributed to the attraction of the moon on the waters of the earth. He does not, however, appear to have had any anticipation of those wonderful discoveries which Newton was destined to make a little later, in which he demonstrated that the laws detected by Kepler’s marvellous acumen were necessary consequences of the principle of universal gravitation.


To appreciate the relations of Kepler and Tycho it is necessary to note the very different way in which these illustrious astronomers viewed the system of the heavens. It should be observed that Copernicus had already expounded the true system, which located the sun at the centre of the planetary system. But in the days of Tycho Brahe this doctrine had not as yet commanded universal assent. In fact, the great observer himself did not accept the new views of Copernicus. It appeared to Tycho that the earth not only appeared to be the centre of things celestial, but that it actually was the centre. It is, indeed, not a little remarkable that a student of the heavens so accurate as Tycho should have deliberately rejected the Copernican doctrine in favour of the system which now seems so preposterous. Throughout his great career, Tycho steadily observed the places of the sun, the moon, and the planets, and as steadily maintained that all those bodies revolved around the earth fixed in the centre. Kepler, however, had the advantage of belonging to the new school. He utilised the observations of Tycho in developing the great Copernican theory whose teaching Tycho stoutly resisted.

Perhaps a chapter in modern science may illustrate the intellectual relation of these great men. The revolution produced by Copernicus in the doctrine of the heavens has often been likened to the revolution which the Darwinian theory produced in the views held by biologists as to life on this earth. The Darwinian theory did not at first command universal assent even among those naturalists whose lives had been devoted with the greatest success to the study of organisms. Take, for instance, that great naturalist, Professor Owen, by whose labours vast extension has been given to our knowledge of the fossil animals which dwelt on the earth in past ages. Now, though Owens researches were intimately connected with the great labours of Darwin, and afforded the latter material for his epoch-making generalization, yet Owen deliberately refused to accept the new doctrines. Like Tycho, he kept on rigidly accumulating his facts under the influence of a set of ideas as to the origin of living forms which are now universally admitted to be erroneous. If, therefore, we liken Darwin to Copernicus, and Owen to Tycho, we may liken the biologists of the present day to Kepler, who interpreted the results of accurate observation upon sound theoretical principles.

In reading the works of Kepler in the light of our modern knowledge we are often struck by the extent to which his perception of the sublimest truths in nature was associated with the most extravagant errors and absurdities. But, of course, it must be remembered that he wrote in an age in which even the rudiments of science, as we now understand it, were almost entirely unknown.

It may well be doubted whether any joy experienced by mortals is more genuine than that which rewards the successful searcher after natural truths. Every science-worker, be his efforts ever so humble, will be able to sympathise with the enthusiastic delight of Kepler when at last, after years of toil, the glorious light broke forth, and that which he considered to be the greatest of his astonishing laws first dawned upon him. Kepler rightly judged that the number of days which a planet required to perform its voyage round the sun must be connected in some manner with the distance from the planet to the sun; that is to say, with the radius of the planet’s orbit, inasmuch as we may for our present object regard the planet’s orbit as circular.

Here, again, in his search for the unknown law, Kepler had no accurate dynamical principles to guide his steps. Of course, we now know not only what the connection between the planet’s distance and the planet’s periodic time actually is, but we also know that it is a necessary consequence of the law of universal gravitation. Kepler, it is true, was not without certain surmises on the subject, but they were of the most fanciful description. His notions of the planets, accurate as they were in certain important respects, were mixed up with vague ideas as to the properties of metals and the geometrical relations of the regular solids. Above all, his reasoning was penetrated by the supposed astrological influences of the stars and their significant relation to human fate. Under the influence of such a farrago of notions, Kepler resolved to make all sorts of trials in his search for the connection between the distance of a planet from the sun and the time in which the revolution of that planet was accomplished.

It was quite easily demonstrated that the greater the distance of the planet from the sun the longer was the time required for its journey. It might have been thought that the time would be directly proportional to the distance. It was, however, easy to show that this supposition did not agree with the fact. Finding that this simple relation would not do, Kepler undertook a vast series of calculations to find out the true method of expressing the connection. At last, after many vain attempts, he found, to his indescribable joy, that the square of the time in which a planet revolves around the sun was proportional to the cube of the average distance of the planet from that body.

The extraordinary way in which Kepler’s views on celestial matters were associated with the wildest speculations, is well illustrated in the work in which he propounded his splendid discovery just referred to. The announcement of the law connecting the distances of the planets from the sun with their periodic times, was then mixed up with a preposterous conception about the properties of the different planets. They were supposed to be associated with some profound music of the spheres inaudible to human ears, and performed only for the benefit of that being whose soul formed the animating spirit of the sun.

Kepler was also the first astronomer who ever ventured to predict the occurrence of that remarkable phenomenon, the transit of a planet in front of the sun’s disc. He published, in 1629, a notice to the curious in things celestial, in which he announced that both of the planets, Mercury and Venus, were to make a transit across the sun on specified days in the winter of 1631. The transit of Mercury was duly observed by Gassendi, and the transit of Venus also took place, though, as we now know, the circumstances were such that it was not possible for the phenomenon to be witnessed by any European astronomer.

In addition to Kepler’s discoveries already mentioned, with which his name will be for ever associated, his claim on the gratitude of astronomers chiefly depends on the publication of his famous Rudolphine tables. In this remarkable work means are provided for finding the places of the planets with far greater accuracy than had previously been attainable.

Kepler, it must be always remembered, was not an astronomical observer. It was his function to deal with the observations made by Tycho, and, from close study and comparison of the results, to work out the movements of the heavenly bodies. It was, in fact, Tycho who provided as it were the raw material, while it was the genius of Kepler which wrought that material into a beautiful and serviceable form. For more than a century the Rudolphine tables were regarded as a standard astronomical work. In these days we are accustomed to find the movements of the heavenly bodies set forth with all desirable exactitude in the NAUTICAL ALMANACK, and the similar publication issued by foreign Governments. Let it be remembered that it was Kepler who first imparted the proper impulse in this direction.


When Kepler was twenty-six he married an heiress from Styria, who, though only twenty-three years old, had already had some experience in matrimony. Her first husband had died; and it was after her second husband had divorced her that she received the addresses of Kepler. It will not be surprising to hear that his domestic affairs do not appear to have been particularly happy, and his wife died in 1611. Two years later, undeterred by the want of success in his first venture, he sought a second partner, and he evidently determined not to make a mistake this time. Indeed, the methodical manner in which he made his choice of the lady to whom he should propose has been duly set forth by him and preserved for our edification. With some self-assurance he asserts that there were no fewer than eleven spinsters desirous of sharing his joys and sorrows. He has carefully estimated and recorded the merits and demerits of each of these would-be brides. The result of his deliberations was that he awarded himself to an orphan girl, destitute even of a portion. Success attended his choice, and his second marriage seems to have proved a much more suitable union than his first. He had five children by the first wife and seven by the second.

The years of Kepler’s middle life were sorely distracted by a trouble which, though not uncommon in those days, is one which we find it difficult to realise at the present time. His mother, Catherine Kepler, had attained undesirable notoriety by the suspicion that she was guilty of witchcraft. Years were spent in legal investigations, and it was only after unceasing exertions on the part of the astronomer for upwards of a twelvemonth that he was finally able to procure her acquittal and release from prison.

It is interesting for us to note that at one time there was a proposal that Kepler should forsake his native country and adopt England as a home. It arose in this wise. The great man was distressed throughout the greater part of his life by pecuniary anxieties. Finding him in a strait of this description, the English ambassador in Venice, Sir Henry Wotton, in the year 1620, besought Kepler to come over to England, where he assured him that he would obtain a favourable reception, and where, he was able to add, Kepler’s great scientific work was already highly esteemed. But his efforts were unavailing; Kepler would not leave his own country. He was then forty-nine years of age, and doubtless a home in a foreign land, where people spoke a strange tongue, had not sufficient attraction for him, even when accompanied with the substantial inducements which the ambassador was able to offer. Had Kepler accepted this invitation, he would, in transferring his home to England, have anticipated the similar change which took place in the career of another great astronomer two centuries later. It will be remembered that Herschel, in his younger days, did transfer himself to England, and thus gave to England the imperishable fame of association with his triumphs.

The publication of the Rudolphine tables of the celestial movements entailed much expense. A considerable part of this was defrayed by the Government at Venice but the balance occasioned no little trouble and anxiety to Kepler. No doubt the authorities of those days were even less Willing to spend money on scientific matters than are the Governments of more recent times. For several years the imperial Treasury was importuned to relieve him from his anxieties. The effects of so much worry, and of the long journeys which were involved, at last broke down Kepler’s health completely. As we have already mentioned, he had never been strong from infancy, and he finally succumbed to a fever in November, 1630, at the age of fifty-nine. He was interred at St. Peter’s Church at Ratisbon.

Though Kepler had not those personal characteristics which have made his great predecessor, Tycho Brahe, such a romantic figure, yet a picturesque element in Kepler’s character is not wanting. It was, however, of an intellectual kind. His imagination, as well as his reasoning faculties, always worked together. He was incessantly prompted by the most extraordinary speculations. The great majority of them were in a high degree wild and chimerical, but every now and then one of his fancies struck right to the heart of nature, and an immortal truth was brought to light.

I remember visiting the observatory of one of our greatest modern astronomers, and in a large desk he showed me a multitude of photographs which he had attempted but which had not been successful, and then he showed me the few and rare pictures which had succeeded, and by which important truths had been revealed. With a felicity of expression which I have often since thought of, he alluded to the contents of the desk as the “chips.” They were useless, but they were necessary incidents in the truly successful work. So it is in all great and good work. Even the most skilful man of science pursues many a wrong scent. Time after time he goes off on some track that plays him false. The greater the man’s genius and intellectual resource, the more numerous will be the ventures which he makes, and the great majority of those ventures are certain to be fruitless. They are in fact, the “chips.” In Kepler’s case the chips were numerous enough. They were of the most extraordinary variety and structure. But every now and then a sublime discovery was made of such a character as to make us regard even the most fantastic of Kepler’s chips with the greatest veneration and respect.


It was just a year after the death of Galileo, that an infant came into the world who was christened Isaac Newton. Even the great fame of Galileo himself must be relegated to a second place in comparison with that of the philosopher who first expounded the true theory of the universe.

Isaac Newton was born on the 25th of December (old style), 1642, at Woolsthorpe, in Lincolnshire, about a half-mile from Colsterworth, and eight miles south of Grantham. His father, Mr. Isaac Newton, had died a few months after his marriage to Harriet Ayscough, the daughter of Mr. James Ayscough, of Market Overton, in Rutlandshire. The little Isaac was at first so excessively frail and weakly that his life was despaired of. The watchful mother, however, tended her delicate child with such success that he seems to have thriven better than might have been expected from the circumstances of his infancy, and he ultimately acquired a frame strong enough to outlast the ordinary span of human life.

For three years they continued to live at Woolsthorpe, the widow’s means of livelihood being supplemented by the income from another small estate at Sewstern, in a neighbouring part of Leicestershire.

Showing solar dial made by Newton when a boy.]

In 1645, Mrs. Newton took as a second husband the Rev. Barnabas Smith, and on moving to her new home, about a mile from Woolsthorpe, she entrusted little Isaac to her mother, Mrs. Ayscough. In due time we find that the boy was sent to the public school at Grantham, the name of the master being Stokes. For the purpose of being near his work, the embryo philosopher was boarded at the house of Mr. Clark, an apothecary at Grantham. We learn from Newton himself that at first he had a very low place in the class lists of the school, and was by no means one of those model school-boys who find favour in the eyes of the school-master by attention to Latin grammar. Isaac’s first incentive to diligent study seems to have been derived from the circumstance that he was severely kicked by one of the boys who was above him in the class. This indignity had the effect of stimulating young Newton’s activity to such an extent that he not only attained the desired object of passing over the head of the boy who had maltreated him, but continued to rise until he became the head of the school.

The play-hours of the great philosopher were devoted to pursuits very different from those of most school-boys. His chief amusement was found in making mechanical toys and various ingenious contrivances. He watched day by day with great interest the workmen engaged in constructing a windmill in the neighbourhood of the school, the result of which was that the boy made a working model of the windmill and of its machinery, which seems to have been much admired, as indicating his aptitude for mechanics. We are told that Isaac also indulged in somewhat higher flights of mechanical enterprise. He constructed a carriage, the wheels of which were to be driven by the hands of the occupant, while the first philosophical instrument he made was a clock, which was actuated by water. He also devoted much attention to the construction of paper kites, and his skill in this respect was highly appreciated by his schoolfellows. Like a true philosopher, even at this stage he experimented on the best methods of attaching the string, and on the proportions which the tail ought to have. He also made lanthorns of paper to provide himself with light as he walked to school in the dark winter mornings.

The only love affair in Newton’s life appears to have commenced while he was still of tender years. The incidents are thus described in Brewster’s “Life of Newton,” a work to which I am much indebted in this chapter.

“In the house where he lodged there were some female inmates, in whose company he appears to have taken much pleasure. One of these, a Miss Storey, sister to Dr. Storey, a physician at Buckminster, near Colsterworth, was two or three years younger than Newton and to great personal attractions she seems to have added more than the usual allotment of female talent. The society of this young lady and her companions was always preferred to that of his own school-fellows, and it was one of his most agreeable occupations to construct for them little tables and cupboards, and other utensils for holding their dolls and their trinkets. He had lived nearly six years in the same house with Miss Storey, and there is reason to believe that their youthful friendship gradually rose to a higher passion; but the smallness of her portion, and the inadequacy of his own fortune, appear to have prevented the consummation of their happiness. Miss Storey was afterwards twice married, and under the name of Mrs. Vincent, Dr. Stukeley visited her at Grantham in 1727, at the age of eighty-two, and obtained from her many particulars respecting the early history of our author. Newton’s esteem for her continued unabated during his life. He regularly visited her when he went to Lincolnshire, and never failed to relieve her from little pecuniary difficulties which seem to have beset her family.”

The schoolboy at Grantham was only fourteen years of age when his mother became a widow for the second time. She then returned to the old family home at Woolsthorpe, bringing with her the three children of her second marriage. Her means appear to have been somewhat scanty, and it was consequently thought necessary to recall Isaac from the school. His recently-born industry had been such that he had already made good progress in his studies, and his mother hoped that he would now lay aside his books, and those silent meditations to which, even at this early age, he had become addicted. It was expected that, instead of such pursuits, which were deemed quite useless, the boy would enter busily into the duties of the farm and the details of a country life. But before long it became manifest that the study of nature and the pursuit of knowledge had such a fascination for the youth that he could give little attention to aught else. It was plain that he would make but an indifferent farmer. He greatly preferred experimenting on his water-wheels to looking after labourers, while he found that working at mathematics behind a hedge was much more interesting than chaffering about the price of bullocks in the market place. Fortunately for humanity his mother, like a wise woman, determined to let her boy’s genius have the scope which it required. He was accordingly sent back to Grantham school, with the object of being trained in the knowledge which would fit him for entering the University of Cambridge.

Showing Newton’s rooms; on the leads of the gateway he placed his telescope.]

It was the 5th of June, 1660, when Isaac Newton, a youth of eighteen, was enrolled as an undergraduate of Trinity College, Cambridge. Little did those who sent him there dream that this boy was destined to be the most illustrious student who ever entered the portals of that great seat of learning. Little could the youth himself have foreseen that the rooms near the gateway which he occupied would acquire a celebrity from the fact that he dwelt in them, or that the ante-chapel of his college was in good time to be adorned by that noble statue, which is regarded as one of the chief art treasures of Cambridge University, both on account of its intrinsic beauty and the fact that it commemorates the fame of her most distinguished alumnus, Isaac Newton, the immortal astronomer. Indeed, his advent at the University seemed to have been by no means auspicious or brilliant. His birth was, as we have seen, comparatively obscure, and though he had already given indication of his capacity for reflecting on philosophical matters, yet he seems to have been but ill-equipped with the routine knowledge which youths are generally expected to take with them to the Universities.

From the outset of his college career, Newton’s attention seems to have been mainly directed to mathematics. Here he began to give evidence of that marvellous insight into the deep secrets of nature which more than a century later led so dispassionate a judge as Laplace to pronounce Newton’s immortal work as pre-eminent above all the productions of the human intellect. But though Newton was one of the very greatest mathematicians that ever lived, he was never a mathematician for the mere sake of mathematics. He employed his mathematics as an instrument for discovering the laws of nature. His industry and genius soon brought him under the notice of the University authorities. It is stated in the University records that he obtained a Scholarship in 1664. Two years later we find that Newton, as well as many residents in the University, had to leave Cambridge temporarily on account of the breaking out of the plague. The philosopher retired for a season to his old home at Woolsthorpe, and there he remained until he was appointed a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1667. From this time onwards, Newton’s reputation as a mathematician and as a natural philosopher steadily advanced, so that in 1669, while still but twenty-seven years of age, he was appointed to the distinguished position of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. Here he found the opportunity to continue and develop that marvellous career of discovery which formed his life’s work.

The earliest of Newton’s great achievements in natural philosophy was his detection of the composite character of light. That a beam of ordinary sunlight is, in fact, a mixture of a very great number of different-coloured lights, is a doctrine now familiar to every one who has the slightest education in physical science. We must, however, remember that this discovery was really a tremendous advance in knowledge at the time when Newton announced it.


We here give the little diagram originally drawn by Newton, to explain the experiment by which he first learned the composition of light. A sunbeam is admitted into a darkened room through an opening, H, in a shutter. This beam when not interfered with will travel in a straight line to the screen, and there reproduce a bright spot of the same shape as the hole in the shutter. If, however, a prism of glass, A B C, be introduced so that the beam traverse it, then it will be seen at once that the light is deflected from its original track. There is, however, a further and most important change which takes place. The spot of light is not alone removed to another part of the screen, but it becomes spread out into a long band beautifully coloured, and exhibiting the hues of the rainbow. At the top are the violet rays, and then in descending order we have the indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red.

The circumstance in this phenomenon which appears to have particularly arrested Newton’s attention, was the elongation which the luminous spot underwent in consequence of its passage through the prism. When the prism was absent the spot was nearly circular, but when the prism was introduced the spot was about five times as long as it was broad. To ascertain the explanation of this was the first problem to be solved. It seemed natural to suppose that it might be due to the thickness of the glass in the prism which the light traversed, or to the angle of incidence at which the light fell upon the prism. He found, however, upon careful trial, that the phenomenon could not be thus accounted for. It was not until after much patient labour that the true explanation dawned upon him. He discovered that though the beam of white light looks so pure and so simple, yet in reality it is composed of differently coloured lights blended together. These are, of course, indistinguishable in the compound beam, but they are separated or disentangled, so to speak, by the action of the prism. The rays at the blue end of the spectrum are more powerfully deflected by the action of the glass than are the rays at the red end. Thus, the rays variously coloured red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, are each conducted to a different part of the screen. In this way the prism has the effect of exhibiting the constitution of the composite beam of light.

To us this now seems quite obvious, but Newton did not adopt it hastily. With characteristic caution he verified the explanation by many different experiments, all of which confirmed his discovery. One of these may be mentioned. He made a hole in the screen at that part on which the violet rays fell. Thus a violet ray was allowed to pass through, all the rest of the light being intercepted, and on this beam so isolated he was able to try further experiments. For instance, when he interposed another prism in its path, he found, as he expected, that it was again deflected, and he measured the amount of the deflection. Again he tried the same experiment with one of the red rays from the opposite end of the coloured band. He allowed it to pass through the same aperture in the screen, and he tested the amount by which the second prism was capable of producing deflection. He thus found, as he had expected to find, that the second prism was more efficacious in bending the violet rays than in bending the red rays. Thus he confirmed the fact that the various hues of the rainbow were each bent by a prism to a different extent, violet being acted upon the most, and red the least.


Not only did Newton decompose a white beam into its constituent colours, but conversely by interposing a second prism with its angle turned upwards, he reunited the different colours, and thus reproduced the original beam of white light. In several other ways also he illustrated his famous proposition, which then seemed so startling, that white light was the result of a mixture of all hues of the rainbow. By combining painters’ colours in the right proportion he did not indeed succeed in producing a mixture which would ordinarily be called white, but he obtained a grey pigment. Some of this he put on the floor of his room for comparison with a piece of white paper. He allowed a beam of bright sunlight to fall upon the paper and the mixed colours side by side, and a friend he called in for his opinion pronounced that under these circumstances the mixed colours looked the whiter of the two.

By repeated demonstrations Newton thus established his great discovery of the composite character of light. He at once perceived that his researches had an important bearing upon the principles involved in the construction of a telescope. Those who employed the telescope for looking at the stars, had been long aware of the imperfections which prevented all the various rays from being conducted to the same focus. But this imperfection had hitherto been erroneously accounted for. It had been supposed that the reason why success had not been attained in the construction of a refracting telescope was due to the fact that the object glass, made as it then was of a single piece, had not been properly shaped. Mathematicians had abundantly demonstrated that a single lens, if properly figured, must conduct all rays of light to the same focus, provided all rays experienced equal refraction in passing through the glass. Until Newton’s discovery of the composition of white light, it had been taken for granted that the several rays in a white beam were equally refrangible. No doubt if this had been the case, a perfect telescope could have been produced by properly shaping the object glass. But when Newton had demonstrated that light was by no means so simple as had been supposed, it became obvious that a satisfactory refracting telescope was an impossibility when only a single object lens was employed, however carefully that lens might have been wrought. Such an objective might, no doubt, be made to conduct any one group of rays of a particular shade to the same focus, but the rays of other colours in the beam of white light must necessarily travel somewhat astray. In this way Newton accounted for a great part of the difficulties which had hitherto beset the attempts to construct a perfect refracting telescope.

We now know how these difficulties can be, to a great extent, overcome, by employing for the objective a composite lens made of two pieces of glass possessing different qualities. To these achromatic object glasses, as they are called, the great development of astronomical knowledge, since Newton’s time, is due. But it must be remarked that, although the theoretical possibility of constructing an achromatic lens was investigated by Newton, he certainly came to the conclusion that the difficulty could not be removed by employing a composite objective, with two different kinds of glass. In this his marvellous sagacity in the interpretation of nature seems for once to have deserted him. We can, however, hardly regret that Newton failed to discover the achromatic objective, when we observe that it was in consequence of his deeming an achromatic objective to be impossible that he was led to the invention of the reflecting telescope. Finding, as he believed, that the defects of the telescope could not be remedied by any application of the principle of refraction he was led to look in quite a different direction for the improvement of the tool on which the advancement of astronomy depended. The REFRACTION of light depended as he had found, upon the colour of the light. The laws of REFLECTION were, however, quite independent of the colour. Whether rays be red or green, blue or yellow, they are all reflected in precisely the same manner from a mirror. Accordingly, Newton perceived that if he could construct a telescope the action of which depended upon reflection, instead of upon refraction, the difficulty which had hitherto proved an insuperable obstacle to the improvement of the instrument would be evaded.


For this purpose Newton fashioned a concave mirror from a mixture of copper and tin, a combination which gives a surface with almost the lustre of silver. When the light of a star fell upon the surface, an image of the star was produced in the focus of this mirror, and then this image was examined by a magnifying eye-piece. Such is the principle of the famous reflecting telescope which bears the name of Newton. The little reflector which he constructed, represented in the adjoining figure, is still preserved as one of the treasures of the Royal Society. The telescope tube had the very modest dimension of one inch in diameter. It was, however, the precursor of a whole series of magnificent instruments, each outstripping the other in magnitude, until at last the culminating point was attained in 1845, by the construction of Lord Rosse’s mammoth reflector of six feet in aperture.

Newton’s discovery of the composition of light led to an embittered controversy, which caused no little worry to the great Philosopher. Some of those who attacked him enjoyed considerable and, it must be admitted, even well-merited repute in the ranks of science. They alleged, however, that the elongation of the coloured band which Newton had noticed was due to this, to that, or to the other–to anything, in fact, rather than to the true cause which Newton assigned. With characteristic patience and love of truth, Newton steadily replied to each such attack. He showed most completely how utterly his adversaries had misunderstood the subject, and how slight indeed was their acquaintance with the natural phenomenon in question. In reply to each point raised, he was ever able to cite fresh experiments and adduce fresh illustrations, until at last his opponents retired worsted from the combat.

It has been often a matter for surprise that Newton, throughout his whole career, should have taken so much trouble to expose the errors of those who attacked his views. He used even to do this when it plainly appeared that his adversaries did not understand the subject they were discussing. A philosopher might have said, “I know I am right, and whether others think I am right or not may be a matter of concern to them, but it is certainly not a matter about which I need trouble. If after having been told the truth they elect to remain in error, so much the worse for them; my time can be better employed than in seeking to put such people right.” This, however, was not Newton’s method. He spent much valuable time in overthrowing objections which were often of a very futile description. Indeed, he suffered a great deal of annoyance from the persistency, and in some cases one might almost say from the rancour, of the attacks which were made upon him. Unfortunately for himself, he did not possess that capacity for sublime indifference to what men may say, which is often the happy possession of intellects greatly inferior to his.

The subject of optics still continuing to engross Newton’s attention, he followed up his researches into the structure of the sunbeam by many other valuable investigations in connection with light. Every one has noticed the beautiful colours manifested in a soap-bubble. Here was a subject which not unnaturally attracted the attention of one who had expounded the colours of the spectrum with such success. He perceived that similar hues were produced by other thin plates of transparent material besides soap-bubbles, and his ingenuity was sufficient to devise a method by which the thicknesses of the different films could be measured. We can hardly, indeed, say that a like success attended his interpretation of these phenomena to that which had been so conspicuous in his explanation of the spectrum. It implies no disparagement to the sublime genius of Newton to admit that the doctrines he put forth as to the causes of the colours in the soap-bubbles can be no longer accepted. We must remember that Newton was a pioneer in accounting for the physical properties of light. The facts that he established are indeed unquestionable, but the explanations which he was led to offer of some of them are seen to be untenable in the fuller light of our present knowledge.


Had Newton done nothing beyond making his wonderful discoveries in light, his fame would have gone down to posterity as one of the greatest of Nature’s interpreters. But it was reserved for him to accomplish other discoveries, which have pushed even his analysis of the sunbeam into the background; it is he who has expounded the system of the universe by the discovery of the law of universal gravitation.

The age had indeed become ripe for the advent of the genius of Newton. Kepler had discovered with marvellous penetration the laws which govern the movements of the planets around the sun, and in various directions it had been more or less vaguely felt that the explanation of Kepler’s laws, as well as of many other phenomena, must be sought for in connection with the attractive power of matter. But the mathematical analysis which alone could deal with this subject was wanting; it had to be created by Newton.

At Woolsthorpe, in the year 1666, Newton’s attention appears to have been concentrated upon the subject of gravitation. Whatever may be the extent to which we accept the more or less mythical story as to how the fall of an apple first directed the attention of the philosopher to the fact that gravitation must extend through space, it seems, at all events, certain that this is an excellent illustration of the line of reasoning which he followed. He argued in this way. The earth attracts the apple; it would do so, no matter how high might be the tree from which that apple fell. It would then seem to follow that this power which resides in the earth by which it can draw all external bodies towards it, extends far beyond the altitude of the loftiest tree. Indeed, we seem to find no limit to it. At the greatest elevation that has ever been attained, the attractive power of the earth is still exerted, and though we cannot by any actual experiment reach an altitude more than a few miles above the earth, yet it is certain that gravitation would extend to elevations far greater. It is plain, thought Newton, that an apple let fall from a point a hundred miles above this earth’s surface, would be drawn down by the attraction, and would continually gather fresh velocity until it reached the ground. From a hundred miles it was natural to think of what would happen at a thousand miles, or at hundreds of thousands of miles. No doubt the intensity of the attraction becomes weaker with every increase in the altitude, but that action would still exist to some extent, however lofty might be the elevation which had been attained.

It then occurred to Newton, that though the moon is at a distance of two hundred and forty thousand miles from the earth, yet the attractive power of the earth must extend to the moon. He was particularly led to think of the moon in this connection, not only because the moon is so much closer to the earth than are any other celestial bodies, but also because the moon is an appendage to the earth, always revolving around it. The moon is certainly attracted to the earth, and yet the moon does not fall down; how is this to be accounted for? The explanation was to be found in the character of the moon’s present motion. If the moon were left for a moment at rest, there can be no doubt that the attraction of the earth would begin to draw the lunar globe in towards our globe. In the course of a few days our satellite would come down on the earth with a most fearful crash. This catastrophe is averted by the circumstance that the moon has a movement of revolution around the earth. Newton was able to calculate from the known laws of mechanics, which he had himself been mainly instrumental in discovering, what the attractive power of the earth must be, so that the moon shall move precisely as we find it to move. It then appeared that the very power which makes an apple fall at the earth’s surface is the power which guides the moon in its orbit.


Once this step had been taken, the whole scheme of the universe might almost be said to have become unrolled before the eye of the philosopher. It was natural to suppose that just as the moon was guided and controlled by the attraction of the earth, so the earth itself, in the course of its great annual progress, should be guided and controlled by the supreme attractive power of the sun. If this were so with regard to the earth, then it would be impossible to doubt that in the same way the movements of the planets could be explained to be consequences of solar attraction.

It was at this point that the great laws of Kepler became especially significant. Kepler had shown how each of the planets revolves in an ellipse around the sun, which is situated on one of the foci. This discovery had been arrived at from the interpretation of observations. Kepler had himself assigned no reason why the orbit of a planet should be an ellipse rather than any other of the infinite number of closed curves which might be traced around the sun. Kepler had also shown, and here again he was merely deducing the results from observation, that when the movements of two planets were compared together, the squares of the periodic times in which each planet revolved were proportional to the cubes of their mean distances from the sun. This also Kepler merely knew to be true as a fact, he gave no demonstration of the reason why nature should have adopted this particular relation between the distance and the periodic time rather than any other. Then, too, there was the law by which Kepler with unparalleled ingenuity, explained the way in which the velocity of a planet varies at the different points of its track, when he showed how the line drawn from the sun to the planet described equal areas around the sun in equal times. These were the materials with which Newton set to work. He proposed to infer from these the actual laws regulating the force by which the sun guides the planets. Here it was that his sublime mathematical genius came into play. Step by step Newton advanced until he had completely accounted for all the phenomena.

In the first place, he showed that as the planet describes equal areas in equal times about the sun, the attractive force which the sun exerts upon it must necessarily be directed in a straight line towards the sun itself. He also demonstrated the converse truth, that whatever be the nature of the force which emanated from a sun, yet so long as that force was directed through the sun’s centre, any body which revolved around it must describe equal areas in equal times, and this it must do, whatever be the actual character of the law according to which the intensity of the force varies at different parts of the planet’s journey. Thus the first advance was taken in the exposition of the scheme of the universe.

The next step was to determine the law according to which the force thus proved to reside in the sun varied with the distance of the planet. Newton presently showed by a most superb effort of mathematical reasoning, that if the orbit of a planet were an ellipse and if the sun were at one of the foci of that ellipse, the intensity of the attractive force must vary inversely as the square of the planet’s distance. If the law had any other expression than the inverse square of the distance, then the orbit which the planet must follow would not be an ellipse; or if an ellipse, it would, at all events, not have the sun in the focus. Hence he was able to show from Kepler’s laws alone that the force which guided the planets was an attractive power emanating from the sun, and that the intensity of this attractive power varied with the inverse square of the distance between the two bodies.

These circumstances being known, it was then easy to show that the last of Kepler’s three laws must necessarily follow. If a number of planets were revolving around the sun, then supposing the materials of all these bodies were equally affected by gravitation, it can be demonstrated that the square of the periodic time in which each planet completes its orbit is proportional to the cube of the greatest diameter in that orbit.


These superb discoveries were, however, but the starting point from which Newton entered on a series of researches, which disclosed many of the profoundest secrets in the scheme of celestial mechanics. His natural insight showed that not only large masses like the sun and the earth, and the moon, attract each other, but that every particle in the universe must attract every other particle with a force which varies inversely as the square of the distance between them. If, for example, the two particles were placed twice as far apart, then the intensity of the force which sought to bring them together would be reduced to one-fourth. If two particles, originally ten miles asunder, attracted each other with a certain force, then, when the distance was reduced to one mile, the intensity of the attraction between the two particles would be increased one-hundred-fold. This fertile principle extends throughout the whole of nature. In some cases, however, the calculation of its effect upon the actual problems of nature would be hardly possible, were it not for another discovery which Newton’s genius enabled him to accomplish. In the case of two globes like the earth and the moon, we must remember that we are dealing not with particles, but with two mighty masses of matter, each composed of innumerable myriads of particles. Every particle in the earth does attract every particle in the moon with a force which varies inversely as the square of their distance. The calculation of such attractions is rendered feasible by the following principle. Assuming that the earth consists of materials symmetrically arranged in shells of varying densities, we may then, in calculating its attraction, regard the whole mass of the globe as concentrated at its centre. Similarly we may regard the moon as concentrated at the centre of its mass. In this way the earth and the moon can both be regarded as particles in point of size, each particle having, however, the entire mass of the corresponding globe. The attraction of one particle for another is a much more simple matter to investigate than the attraction of the myriad different points of the earth upon the myriad different points of the moon.

Many great discoveries now crowded in upon Newton. He first of all gave the explanation of the tides that ebb and flow around our shores. Even in the earliest times the tides had been shown to be related to the moon. It was noticed that the tides were specially high during full moon or during new moon, and this circumstance obviously pointed to the existence of some connection between the moon and these movements of the water, though as to what that connection was no one had any accurate conception until Newton announced the law of gravitation. Newton then made it plain that the rise and fall of the water was simply a consequence of the attractive power which the moon exerted upon the oceans lying upon our globe. He showed also that to a certain extent the sun produces tides, and he was able to explain how it was that when the sun and the moon both conspire, the joint result was to produce especially high tides, which we call “spring tides”; whereas if the solar tide was low, while the lunar tide was high, then we had the phenomenon of “neap” tides.

But perhaps the most signal of Newton’s applications of the law of gravitation was connected with certain irregularities in the movements of the moon. In its orbit round the earth our satellite is, of course, mainly guided by the great attraction of our globe. If there were no other body in the universe, then the centre of the moon must necessarily perform an ellipse, and the centre of the earth would lie in the focus of that ellipse. Nature, however, does not allow the movements to possess the simplicity which this arrangement would imply, for the sun is present as a source of disturbance. The sun attracts the moon, and the sun attracts the earth, but in different degrees, and the consequence is that the moon’s movement with regard to the earth is seriously affected by the influence of the sun. It is not allowed to move exactly in an ellipse, nor is the earth exactly in the focus. How great was Newton’s achievement in the solution of this problem will be appreciated if we realise that he not only had to determine from the law of gravitation the nature of the disturbance of the moon, but he had actually to construct the mathematical tools by which alone such calculations could be effected.

The resources of Newton’s genius seemed, however, to prove equal to almost any demand that could be made upon it. He saw that each planet must disturb the other, and in that way he was able to render a satisfactory account of certain phenomena which had perplexed all preceding investigators. That mysterious movement by which the pole of the earth sways about among the stars had been long an unsolved enigma, but Newton showed that the moon grasped with its attraction the protuberant mass at the equatorial regions of the earth, and thus tilted the earth’s axis in a way that accounted for the phenomenon which had been known but had never been explained for two thousand years. All these discoveries were brought together in that immortal work, Newton’s “Principia.”

Down to the year 1687, when the “Principia” was published, Newton had lived the life of a recluse at Cambridge, being entirely occupied with those transcendent researches to which we have referred. But in that year he issued from his seclusion under circumstances of considerable historical interest. King James the Second attempted an invasion of the rights and privileges of the University of Cambridge by issuing a command that Father Francis, a Benedictine monk, should be received as a Master of Arts in the University, without having taken the oaths of allegiance and supremacy. With this arbitrary command the University sternly refused to comply. The Vice-Chancellor was accordingly summoned to answer for an act of contempt to the authority of the Crown. Newton was one of nine delegates who were chosen to defend the independence of the University before the High Court. They were able to show that Charles the Second, who had issued a MANDAMUS under somewhat similar circumstances, had been induced after due consideration to withdraw it. This argument appeared satisfactory, and the University gained their case. Newton’s next step in public life was his election, by a narrow majority, as member for the University, and during the years 1688 and 1689, he seems to have attended to his parliamentary duties with considerable regularity.

An incident which happened in 1692 was apparently the cause of considerable disturbance in Newton’s equanimity, if not in his health. He had gone to early morning chapel, leaving a lighted candle among his papers on his desk. Tradition asserts that his little dog “Diamond” upset the candle; at all events, when Newton came back he found that many valuable papers had perished in a conflagration. The loss of these manuscripts seems to have had a serious effect. Indeed, it has been asserted that the distress reduced Newton to a state of mental aberration for a considerable time. This has, apparently, not been confirmed, but there is no doubt that he experienced considerable disquiet, for in writing on September 13th, 1693, to Mr. Pepys, he says:

“I am extremely troubled at the embroilment I am in, and have neither ate nor slept well this twelvemonth, nor have my former consistency of mind.”

Notwithstanding the fame which Newton had achieved, by the publication of his, “Principia,” and by all his researches, the State had not as yet taken any notice whatever of the most illustrious man of science that this or any other country has ever produced. Many of his friends had exerted themselves to procure him some permanent appointment, but without success. It happened, however, that Mr. Montagu, who had sat with Newton in Parliament, was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1694. Ambitious of distinction in his new office, Mr. Montagu addressed himself to the improvement of the current coin, which was then in a very debased condition. It fortunately happened that an opportunity occurred of appointing a new official in the Mint; and Mr. Montagu on the 19th of March, 1695, wrote to offer Mr. Newton the position of warden. The salary was to be five or six hundred a year, and the business would not require more attendance than Newton could spare. The Lucasian professor accepted this post, and forthwith entered upon his new duties.

The knowledge of physics which Newton had acquired by his experiments was of much use in connection with his duties at the Mint. He carried out the re-coinage with great skill in the course of two years, and as a reward for his exertions, he was appointed, in 1697, to the Mastership of the Mint, with a salary between 1,200 Pounds and 1,500 Pounds per annum. In 1701, his duties at the Mint being so engrossing, he resigned his Lucasian professorship at Cambridge, and at the same time he had to surrender his fellowship at Trinity College. This closed his connection with the University of Cambridge. It should, however, be remarked that at a somewhat earlier stage in his career he was very nearly being appointed to an office which might have enabled the University to retain the great philosopher within its precincts. Some of his friends had almost succeeded in securing his nomination to the Provostship of King’s College, Cambridge; the appointment, however, fell through, inasmuch as the statute could not be evaded, which required that the Provost of King’s College should be in holy orders.

In those days it was often the custom for illustrious mathematicians, when they had discovered a solution for some new and striking problem, to publish that problem as a challenge to the world, while withholding their own solution. A famous instance of this is found in what is known as the Brachistochrone problem, which was solved by John Bernouilli. The nature of this problem may be mentioned. It was to find the shape of the curve along which a body would slide down from one point (A) to another point (B) in the shortest time. It might at first be thought that the straight line from A to B, as it is undoubtedly the shortest distance between the points, would also be the path of quickest descent; but this is not so. There is a curved line, down which a bead, let us say, would run on a smooth wire from A to B in a shorter time than the same bead would require to run down the straight wire. Bernouilli’s problem was to find out what that curve must be. Newton solved it correctly; he showed that the curve was a part of what is termed a cycloid–that is to say, a curve like that which is described by a point on the rim of a carriage-wheel as the wheel runs along the ground. Such was Newton’s geometrical insight that he was able to transmit a solution of the problem on the day after he had received it, to the President of the Royal Society.

In 1703 Newton, whose world wide fame was now established, was elected President of the Royal Society. Year after year he was re-elected to this distinguished position, and his tenure, which lasted twenty-five years, only terminated with his life. It was in discharge of his duties as President of the Royal Society that Newton was brought into contact with Prince George of Denmark. In April, 1705, the Queen paid a visit to Cambridge as the guest of Dr. Bentley, the then Master of Trinity, and in a court held at Trinity Lodge on April 15th, 1705, the honour of knighthood was conferred upon the discoverer of gravitation.

Urged by illustrious friends, who sought the promotion of knowledge, Newton gave his attention to the publication of a new edition of the “Principia.” His duties at the Mint, however, added to the supreme duty of carrying on his original investigations, left him but little time for the more ordinary task of the revision. He was accordingly induced to associate with himself for this purpose a distinguished young mathematician, Roger Coates, a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, who had recently been appointed Plumian Professor of Astronomy. On July 27th, 1713, Newton, by this time a favourite at Court, waited on the Queen, and presented her with a copy of the new edition of the “Principia.”

Throughout his life Newton appears to have been greatly interested in theological studies, and he specially devoted his attention to the subject of prophecy. He left behind him a manuscript on the prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John, and he also wrote various theological papers. Many other subjects had from time to time engaged his attention. He studied the laws of heat; he experimented in pursuit of the dreams of the Alchymist; while the philosopher who had revealed the mechanism of the heavens found occasional relaxation in trying to interpret hieroglyphics. In the last few years of his life he bore with fortitude a painful ailment, and on Monday, March 20th, 1727, he died in the eighty-fifth year of his age. On Tuesday, March 28th, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Though Newton lived long enough to receive the honour that his astonishing discoveries so justly merited, and though for many years of his life his renown was much greater than that of any of his contemporaries, yet it is not too much to say that, in the years which have since elapsed, Newton’s fame has been ever steadily advancing, so that it never stood higher than it does at this moment.

We hardly know whether to admire more the sublime discoveries at which he arrived, or the extraordinary character of the intellectual processes by which those discoveries were reached. Viewed from either standpoint, Newton’s “Principia” is incomparably the greatest work on science that has ever yet been produced.



Among the manuscripts preserved at Greenwich Observatory are certain documents in which Flamsteed gives an account of his own life. We may commence our sketch by quoting the following passage from this autobiography:–“To keep myself from idleness, and to recreate myself, I have intended here to give some account of my life, in my youth, before the actions thereof, and the providences of God therein, be too far passed out of my memory; and to observe the accidents of all my years, and inclinations of my mind, that whosoever may light upon these papers may see I was not so wholly taken up, either with my father’s business or my mathematics, but that I both admitted and found time for other as weighty considerations.”

The chief interest which attaches to the name of Flamsteed arises from the fact that he was the first of the illustrious series of Astronomers Royal who have presided over Greenwich Observatory. In that capacity Flamsteed was able to render material assistance to Newton by providing him with the observations which his lunar theory required.

John Flamsteed was born at Denby, in Derbyshire, on the 19th of August, 1646. His mother died when he was three years old, and the second wife, whom his father took three years later, only lived until Flamsteed was eight, there being also two younger sisters. In his boyhood the future astronomer tells us that he was very fond of those romances which affect boy’s imagination, but as he writes, “At twelve years of age I left all the wild ones and betook myself to read the better sort of them, which, though they were not probable, yet carried no seeming impossibility in the picturing.” By the time Flamsteed was fifteen years old he had embarked in still more serious work, for he had read Plutarch’s “Lives,” Tacitus’ “Roman History,” and many other books of a similar description. In 1661 he became ill with some serious rheumatic affection, which obliged him to be withdrawn from school. It was then for the first time that he received the rudiments of a scientific education. He had, however, attained his sixteenth year before he made any progress in arithmetic. He tells us how his father taught him “the doctrine of fractions,” and “the golden rule of three”–lessons which he seemed to have learned easily and quickly. One of the books which he read at this time directed his attention to astronomical instruments, and he was thus led to construct for himself a quadrant, by which he could take some simple astronomical observations. He further calculated a table to give the sun’s altitudes at different hours, and thus displayed those tastes for practical astronomy which he lived to develop so greatly. It appears that these scientific studies were discountenanced by his father, who designed that his son should follow a business career. Flamsteed’s natural inclination, however, forced him to prosecute astronomical work, notwithstanding the impediments that lay in his path. Unfortunately, his constitutional delicacy seems to have increased, and he had just completed his eighteenth year, “when,” to use his own words, “the winter came on and thrust me again into the chimney, whence the heat and the dryness of the preceding summer had happily once before withdrawn me. But, it not being a fit season for physic, it was thought fit to let me alone this winter, and try the skill of another physician on me in the spring.”

It appears that at this time a quack named Valentine Greatrackes, was reputed to have effected most astonishing cures in Ireland merely by the stroke of his hands, without the application of any medicine whatever. Flamsteed’s father, despairing of any remedy for his son from the legitimate branch of the profession, despatched him to Ireland on August 26th, 1665, he being then, as recorded with astronomical accuracy, “nineteen years, six days, and eleven hours old.” The young astronomer, accompanied by a friend, arrived on a Tuesday at Liverpool but the wind not being favourable, they remained there till the following Friday, when a shift of the wind to the east took place. They embarked accordingly on a vessel called the SUPPLY at noon, and on Saturday night came in sight of Dublin. Ere they could land, however, they were nearly being wrecked on Lambay Island. This peril safely passed, there was a long delay for quarantine before they were at last allowed on shore. On Thursday, September 6th, they set out from Dublin, where they had been sojourning at the “Ship” Hotel, in Dame Street, towards Assaune, where Greatrackes received his patients.


Flamsteed gives an interesting account of his travels in Ireland. They dined at Naas on the first day, and on September 8th they reached Carlow, a town which is described as one of the fairest they saw on their journey. By Sunday morning, September 10th, having lost their way several times, they reached Castleton, called commonly Four Mile Waters. Flamsteed inquired of the host in the inn where they might find a church, but was told that the minister lived twelve miles away, and that they had no sermon except when he came to receive his tithes once a year, and a woman added that “they had plenty enough of everything necessary except the word of God.” The travellers accordingly went on to Cappoquin, which lies up the river Blackwater, on the road to Lismore, eight miles from Youghal. Thence they immediately started on foot to Assaune. About a mile from Cappoquin, and entering into the house of Mr. Greatrackes, they saw him touch several patients, “whereof some were nearly cured, others were on the mending hand, and some on whom his strokes had no effect.” Flamsteed was touched by the famous quack on the afternoon of September 11th, but we are hardly surprised to hear his remark that “he found not his disease to stir.” Next morning the astronomer came again to see Mr. Greatrackes, who had “a kind of majestical yet affable presence, and a composed carriage.” Even after the third touching had been submitted to, no benefit seems to have been derived. We must, however record, to the credit of Mr. Greatrackes, that he refused to accept any payment from Flamsteed, because he was a stranger.

Finding it useless to protract his stay any longer, Flamsteed and his friend set out on their return to Dublin. In the course of his journey he seems to have been much impressed with Clonmel, which he describes as an “exceedingly pleasantly seated town.” But in those days a journey to Ireland was so serious an enterprise that when Flamsteed did arrive safely back at Derby after an absence of a month, he adds, “For God’s providence in this journey, His name be praised, Amen.”

As to the expected benefits to his health from the expedition we may quote his own words: “In the winter following I was indifferent hearty, and my disease was not so violent as it used to be at that time formerly. But whether through God’s mercy I received this through Mr. Greatrackes’ touch, or my journey and vomiting at sea, I am uncertain; but, by some circumstances, I guess that I received a benefit from both.”

It is evident that by this time Flamsteed’s interest in all astronomical matters had greatly increased. He studied the construction of sun-dials, he formed a catalogue of seventy of the fixed stars, with their places on the heavens, and he computed the circumstances of the solar eclipse which was to happen on June 22nd, 1666. It is interesting to note that even in those days the doctrines of the astrologers still found a considerable degree of credence, and Flamsteed spent a good deal of his time in astrological studies and computations. He investigated the methods of casting a nativity, but a suspicion, or, indeed, rather more than a suspicion, seems to have crossed his mind as to the value of these astrological predictions, for he says in fine, “I found astrology to give generally strong conjectural hints, not perfect declarations.”

All this time, however, the future Astronomer Royal was steadily advancing in astronomical inquiries of a recondite nature. He had investigated the obliquity of the ecliptic with extreme care, so far as the circumstances of astronomical observation would at that time permit. He had also sought to discover the sun’s distance from the earth in so far as it could be obtained by determining when the moon was exactly half illuminated, and he had measured, with much accuracy, the length of the tropical year. It will thus be seen that, even at the age of twenty, Flamsteed had made marked progress, considering how much his time had been interfered with by ill-health.

Other branches of astronomy began also to claim his attention. We learn that in 1669 and 1670 he compared the planets Jupiter and Mars with certain fixed stars near which they passed. His instrumental means, though very imperfect, were still sufficient to enable him to measure the intervals on the celestial sphere between the planets and the stars. As the places of the stars were known, Flamsteed was thus able to obtain the places of the planets. This is substantially the way in which astronomers of the present day still proceed when they desire to determine the places of the planets, inasmuch as, directly or indirectly those places are always obtained relatively to the fixed stars. By his observations at this early period, Flamsteed was, it is true, not able to obtain any great degree of accuracy; he succeeded, however, in proving that the tables by which the places of the planets were ordinarily given were not to be relied upon.


Flamsteed’s labours in astronomy and in the allied branches of science were now becoming generally known, and he gradually came to correspond with many distinguished men of learning. One of the first occasions which brought the talents of the young astronomer into fame was the publication of some calculations concerning certain astronomical phenomena which were to happen in the year 1670. In the monthly revolution of the moon its disc passes over those stars which lie along its track. The disappearance of a star by the interposition of the moon is called an “occultation.” Owing to the fact that our satellite is comparatively near us, the position which the moon appears to occupy on the heavens varies from different parts of the earth, it consequently happens that a star which would be occulted to an observer in one locality, would often not be occulted to an observer who was situated elsewhere. Even when an occultation is visible from both places, the times at which the star disappears from view will, generally speaking, be different. Much calculation is therefore necessary to decide the circumstances under which the occultations of stars may be visible from any particular station. Having a taste for such computations, Flamsteed calculated the occultations which were to happen in the year 1670, it being the case that several remarkable stars would be passed over by the moon during this year. Of course at the present time, we find such information duly set forth in the NAUTICAL ALMANAC, but a couple of centuries ago there was no such source of astronomical knowledge as is now to be found in that invaluable publication, which astronomers and navigators know so well. Flamsteed accordingly sent the results of his work to the President of the Royal Society. The paper which contained them was received very favourably, and at once brought Flamsteed into notice among the most eminent members of that illustrious body, one of whom, Mr. Collins, became through life his faithful friend and constant correspondent. Flamsteed’s father was naturally gratified with the remarkable notice which his son was receiving from the great and learned; accordingly he desired him to go to London, that he might make the personal acquaintance of those scientific friends whom he had only known by correspondence previously. Flamsteed was indeed glad to avail himself of this opportunity. Thus he became acquainted with Dr. Barrow, and especially with Newton, who was then Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. It seems to have been in consequence of this visit to London that Flamsteed entered himself as a member of Jesus College, Cambridge. We have but little information as to his University career, but at all events he took his degree of M.A. on June 5th, 1674.

Up to this time it would seem that Flamsteed had been engaged, to a certain extent, in the business carried on by his father. It is true that he does not give any explicit details, yet there are frequent references to journeys which he had to take on business matters. But the time now approached when Flamsteed was to start on an independent career, and it appears that he took his degree in Cambridge with the object of entering into holy orders, so that he might settle in a small living near Derby, which was in the gift of a friend of his father, and would be at the disposal of the young astronomer. This scheme was, however, not carried out, but Flamsteed does not tell us why it failed, his only remark being, that “the good providence of God that had designed me for another station ordered it otherwise.”

Sir Jonas Moore, one of the influential friends whom Flamsteed’s talents had attracted, seems to have procured for him the position of king’s astronomer, with a salary of 100 pounds per annum. A larger salary appears to have been designed at first for this office, which was now being newly created, but as Flamsteed was resolved on taking holy orders, a lesser salary was in his case deemed sufficient. The building of the observatory, in which the first Astronomer Royal was to be installed, seems to have been brought about, or, at all events, its progress was accelerated, in a somewhat curious manner.

A Frenchman, named Le Sieur de S. Pierre, came over to London to promulgate a scheme for discovering longitudes, then a question of much importance. He brought with him introductions to distinguished people, and his mission attracted a great deal of attention. The proposals which he made came under Flamsteed’s notice, who pointed out that the Frenchman’s projects were quite inapplicable in the present state of astronomical science, inasmuch as the places of the stars were not known with the degree of accuracy which would be necessary if such methods were to be rendered available. Flamsteed then goes on to say:–“I heard no more of the Frenchman after this; but was told that my letters had been shown King Charles. He was startled at the assertion of the fixed stars’ places being false in the catalogue, and said, with some vehemence, he must have them anew observed, examined, and corrected, for the use of his seamen.”

The first question to be settled was the site for the new observatory. Hyde Park and Chelsea College were both mentioned as suitable localities, but, at Sir Christopher Wren’s suggestion, Greenwich Hill was finally resolved upon. The king made a grant of five hundred pounds of money. He gave bricks from Tilbury Fort, while materials, in the shape of wood, iron, and lead, were available from a gatehouse demolished in the Tower. The king also promised whatever further material aid might be shown to be necessary. The first stone of the Royal Observatory was laid on August 10th, 1675, and within a few years a building was erected in which the art of modern practical astronomy was to be created. Flamsteed strove with extraordinary diligence, and in spite of many difficulties, to obtain a due provision of astronomical instruments, and to arrange for the carrying on of his observations. Notwithstanding the king’s promises, the astronomer was, however, but scantily provided with means, and he had no assistants to help him in his work. It follows that all the observations, as well as the reductions, and, indeed, all the incidental work of the observatory, had to be carried on by himself alone. Flamsteed, as we have seen, had, however, many staunch friends. Sir Jonas Moore in particular at all times rendered him most valuable assistance, and encouraged him by the warm sympathy and keen interest which he showed in astronomy. The work of the first Astronomer Royal was frequently interrupted by recurrent attacks of the complaints to which we have already referred. He says himself that “his distempers stick so close that that he cannot remove them,” and he lost much time by prostration from headaches, as well as from more serious affections.

The year 1678 found him in the full tide of work in his observatory. He was specially engaged on the problem of the earth’s motion, which he sought to derive from observations of the sun and of Venus. But this, as well as many other astronomical researches which he undertook, were only subsidiary to that which he made the main task of his life, namely, the formation of a catalogue of fixed stars. At the time when Flamsteed commenced his career, the only available catalogue of fixed stars was that of Tycho Brahe. This work had been published at the commencement of the seventeenth century, and it contained about a thousand stars. The positions assigned to these stars, though obtained with wonderful skill, considering the many difficulties under which Tycho laboured, were quite inaccurate when judged by our modern standards. Tycho’s instruments were necessarily most rudely divided, and he had, of course, no telescopes to aid him. Consequently it was merely by a process of sighting that he could obtain the places of the stars. It must further be remembered that Tycho had no clocks, and no micrometers. He had, indeed, but little correct knowledge of the motions of the heavenly bodies to guide him. To determine the longitudes of a few principal stars he conceived the ingenious idea of measuring by day the position of Venus with respect to the sun, an observation which the exceptional brightness of this planet rendered possible without telescopic aid, and then by night he observed the position of Venus with regard to the stars.

It has been well remarked by Mr. Baily, in his introduction to the “British Catalogue of Stars,” that “Flamsteed’s observations, by a fortunate combination of circumstances, commenced a new and a