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  • 1895
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brilliant era. It happened that, at that period, the powerful mind of Newton was directed to this subject; a friendly intercourse then existed between these two distinguished characters; and thus the first observations that could lay any claim to accuracy were at once brought in aid of those deep researches in which our illustrious geometer was then engaged. The first edition of the `Principia’ bears testimony to the assistance afforded by Flamsteed to Newton in these inquiries; although the former considers that the acknowledgment is not so ample as it ought to have been.”

Although Flamsteed’s observations can hardly be said to possess the accuracy of those made in more recent times, when instruments so much superior to his have been available, yet they possess an interest of a special kind from their very antiquity. This circumstance renders them of particular importance to the astronomer, inasmuch as they are calculated to throw light on the proper motions of the stars. Flamsteed’s work may, indeed, be regarded as the origin of all subsequent catalogues, and the nomenclature which he adopted, though in some respects it can hardly be said to be very defensible, is, nevertheless, that which has been adopted by all subsequent astronomers. There were also a great many errors, as might be expected in a work of such extent, composed almost entirely of numerical detail. Many of these errors have been corrected by Baily himself, the assiduous editor of “Flamsteed’s Life and Works,” for Flamsteed was so harassed from various causes in the latter part of his life, and was so subject to infirmities all through his career, that he was unable to revise his computations with the care that would have been necessary. Indeed, he observed many additional stars which he never included in the British Catalogue. It is, as Baily well remarks, “rather a matter of astonishment that he accomplished so much, considering his slender means, his weak frame, and the vexations which he constantly experienced.”

Flamsteed had the misfortune, in the latter part of his life, to become estranged from his most eminent scientific contemporaries. He had supplied Newton with places of the moon, at the urgent solicitation of the author of the “Principia,” in order that the lunar theory should be carefully compared with observation. But Flamsteed appears to have thought that in Newton’s further request for similar information, he appeared to be demanding as a right that which Flamsteed considered he was only called upon to render as a favour. A considerable dispute grew out of this matter, and there are many letters and documents, bearing on the difficulties which subsequently arose, that are not, perhaps, very creditable to either party.

Notwithstanding his feeble constitution, Flamsteed lived to the age of seventy-three, his death occurring on the last day of the year 1719.


Isaac Newton was just fourteen years of age when the birth of Edmund Halley, who was destined in after years to become Newton’s warmly attached friend, and one of his most illustrious scientific contemporaries, took place. There can be little doubt that the fame as an astronomer which Halley ultimately acquired, great as it certainly was, would have been even greater still had it not been somewhat impaired by the misfortune that he had to shine in the same sky as that which was illumined by the unparalleled genius of Newton.

Edmund Halley was born at Haggerston, in the Parish of St. Leonard’s, Shoreditch, on October 29th, 1656. His father, who bore the same name as his famous son, was a soap-boiler in Winchester Street, London, and he had conducted his business with such success that he accumulated an ample fortune. I have been unable to obtain more than a very few particulars with respect to the early life of the future astronomer. It would, however, appear that from boyhood he showed considerable aptitude for the acquisition of various kinds of learning, and he also had some capacity for mechanical invention. Halley seems to have received a sound education at St. Paul’s School, then under the care of Dr. Thomas Gale.

Here, the young philosopher rapidly distanced his competitors in the various branches of ordinary school instruction. His superiority was, however, most conspicuous in mathematical studies, and, as a natural development of such tastes, we learn that by the time he had left school he had already made good progress in astronomy. At the age of seventeen he was entered as a commoner at Queen’s College, Oxford, and the reputation that he brought with him to the University may be inferred from the remark of the writer of “Athenae Oxonienses,” that Halley came to Oxford “with skill in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and such a knowledge of geometry as to make a complete dial.” Though his studies were thus of a somewhat multifarious nature, yet it is plain that from the first his most favourite pursuit was astronomy. His earliest efforts in practical observation were connected with an eclipse which he observed from his father’s house in Winchester Street. It also appears that he had studied theoretical branches of astronomy so far as to be conversant with the application of mathematics to somewhat abstruse problems.

Up to the time of Kepler, philosophers had assumed almost as an axiom that the heavenly bodies must revolve in circles and that the motion of the planet around the orbit which it described must be uniform. We have already seen how that great philosopher, after very persevering labour, succeeded in proving that the orbits of the planets were not circles, but that they were ellipses of small eccentricity. Kepler was, however, unable to shake himself free from the prevailing notion that the angular motion of the planet ought to be of a uniform character around some point. He had indeed proved that the motion round the focus of the ellipse in which the sun lies is not of this description. One of his most important discoveries even related to the fact that at some parts of its orbit a planet swings around the sun with greater angular velocity than at others. But it so happens that in elliptic tracks which differ but little from circles, as is the case with all the more important planetary orbits, the motion round the empty focus of the ellipse is very nearly uniform. It seemed natural to assume, that this was exactly the case, in which event each of the two foci of the ellipse would have had a special significance in relation to the movement of the planet. The youthful Halley, however, demonstrated that so far as the empty focus was concerned, the movement of the planet around it, though so nearly uniform, was still not exactly so, and at the age of nineteen, he published a treatise on the subject which at once placed him in the foremost rank amongst theoretical astronomers.

But Halley had no intention of being merely an astronomer with his pen. He longed to engage in the practical work of observing. He saw that the progress of exact astronomy must depend largely on the determination of the positions of the stars with all attainable accuracy. He accordingly determined to take up this branch of work, which had been so successfully initiated by Tycho Brahe.

At the present day, astronomers of the great national observatories are assiduously engaged in the determination of the places of the stars. A knowledge of the exact positions of these bodies is indeed of the most fundamental importance, not alone for the purposes of scientific astronomy, but also for navigation and for extensive operations of surveying in which accuracy is desired. The fact that Halley determined to concentrate himself on this work shows clearly the scientific acumen of the young astronomer.

Halley, however, found that Hevelius, at Dantzig, and Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal at Greenwich, were both engaged on work of this character. He accordingly determined to direct his energies in a way that he thought would be more useful to science. He resigned to the two astronomers whom I have named the investigation of the stars in the northern hemisphere, and he sought for himself a field hitherto almost entirely unworked. He determined to go to the southern hemisphere, there to measure and survey those stars which were invisible in Europe, so that his work should supplement the labours of the northern astronomers, and that the joint result of his labours and of theirs might be a complete survey of the most important stars on the surface of the heavens.

In these days, after so many ardent students everywhere have devoted themselves to the study of Nature, it seems difficult for a beginner to find a virgin territory in which to commence his explorations. Halley may, however, be said to have enjoyed the privilege of commencing to work in a magnificent region, the contents of which were previously almost entirely unknown. Indeed none of the stars which were so situated as to have been invisible from Tycho Brahe’s observatory at Uraniborg, in Denmark, could be said to have been properly observed. There was, no doubt, a rumour that a Dutchman had observed southern stars from the island of Sumatra, and certain stars were indicated in the southern heavens on a celestial globe. On examination, however, Halley found that no reliance could be placed on the results which had been obtained, so that practically the field before him may be said to have been unworked.

At the age of twenty, without having even waited to take that degree at the university which the authorities would have been glad to confer on so promising an undergraduate, this ardent student of Nature sought his father’s permission to go to the southern hemisphere for the purpose of studying the stars which lie around the southern pole. His father possessed the necessary means, and he had likewise the sagacity to encourage the young astronomer. He was indeed most anxious to make every thing as easy as possible for so hopeful a son. He provided him with an allowance of 300 pounds a year, which was regarded as a very munificent provision in those days. Halley was also furnished with letters of recommendation from King Charles II., as well as from the directors of the East India Company. He accordingly set sail with his instruments in the year 1676, in one of the East India Company’s ships, for the island of St. Helena, which he had selected as the scene of his labours.


After an uneventful voyage of three months, the astronomer landed on St. Helena, with his sextant of five and a half feet radius, and a telescope 24 feet long, and forthwith plunged with ardour into his investigation of the southern skies. He met, however, with one very considerable disappointment. The climate of this island had been represented to him as most favourable for astronomical observation; but instead of the pure blue skies he had been led to expect, he found that they were almost always more or less clouded, and that rain was frequent, so that his observations were very much interrupted. On this account he only remained at St. Helena for a single year, having, during that time, and in spite of many difficulties, accomplished a piece of work which earned for him the title of “our southern Tycho.” Thus did Halley establish his fame as an astronomer on the same lonely rock in mid-Atlantic, which nearly a century and a-half later became the scene of Napoleon’s imprisonment, when his star, in which he believed so firmly, had irretrievably set.

On his return to England, Halley prepared a map which showed the result of his labours, and he presented it to the king, in 1677. Like his great predecessor Tycho, Halley did not altogether disdain the arts of the courtier, for he endeavoured to squeeze a new constellation into the group around the southern pole which he styled “The Royal Oak,” adding a description to the effect that the incidents of which “The Royal Oak” was a symbol were of sufficient importance to be inscribed on the surface of the heavens.

There is reason to think that Charles II. duly appreciated the scientific renown which one of his subjects had achieved, and it was probably through the influence of the king that Halley was made a Master of Arts at Oxford on November 18th, 1678. Special reference was made on the occasion to his observations at St. Helena, as evidence of unusual attainments in mathematics and astronomy. This degree was no small honour to such a young man, who, as we have seen, quitted his university before he had the opportunity of graduating in the ordinary manner.

On November 30th, in the same year, the astronomer received a further distinction in being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. From this time forward he took a most active part in the affairs of the Society, and the numerous papers which he read before it form a very valuable part of that notable series of volumes known as the “Philosophical Transactions.” He was subsequently elected to the important office of secretary to the Royal Society, and he discharged the duties of his post until his appointment to Greenwich necessitated his resignation.

Within a year of Halley’s election as a Fellow of the Royal Society, he was chosen by the Society to represent them in a discussion which had arisen with Hevelius. The nature of this discussion, or rather the fact that any discussion should have been necessary, may seem strange to modern astronomers, for the point is one on which it would now seem impossible for there to be any difference of opinion. We must, however, remember that the days of Halley were, comparatively speaking, the days of infancy as regards the art of astronomical observation, and issues that now seem obvious were often, in those early times, the occasions of grave and anxious consideration. The particular question on which Halley had to represent the Royal Society may be simply stated. When Tycho Brahe made his memorable investigations into the places of the stars, he had no telescopes to help him. The famous instruments at Uraniborg were merely provided with sights, by which the telescope was pointed to a star on the same principle as a rifle is sighted for a target. Shortly after Tycho’s time, Galileo invented the telescope. Of course every one admitted at once the extraordinary advantages which the telescope had to offer, so far as the mere question of the visibility of objects was concerned. But the bearing of Galileo’s invention upon what we may describe as the measuring part of astronomy was not so immediately obvious. If a star be visible to the unaided eye, we can determine its place by such instruments as those which Tycho used, in which no telescope is employed. We can, however, also avail ourselves of an instrument in which we view the star not directly but through the intervention of the telescope. Can the place of the star be determined more accurately by the latter method than it can when the telescope is dispensed with? With our present knowledge, of course, there is no doubt about the answer; every one conversant with instruments knows that we can determine the place of a star far more accurately with the telescope than is possible by any mere sighting apparatus. In fact an observer would be as likely to make an error of a minute with the sighting apparatus in Tycho’s instrument, as he would be to make an error of a second with the modern telescope, or, to express the matter somewhat differently, we may say, speaking quite generally, that the telescopic method of determining the places of the stars does not lead to errors more than one-sixtieth part as great as which are unavoidable when we make use of Tycho’s method.

But though this is so apparent to the modern astronomer, it was not at all apparent in the days of Halley, and accordingly he was sent off to discuss the question with the Continental astronomers. Hevelius, as the representative of the older method, which Tycho had employed with such success, maintained that an instrument could be pointed more accurately at a star by the use of sights than by the use of a telescope, and vigorously disputed the claims put forward by those who believed that the latter method was the more suitable. On May 14th, 1679, Halley started for Dantzig, and the energetic character of the man may be judged from the fact that on the very night of his arrival he commenced to make the necessary observations. In those days astronomical telescopes had only obtained a fractional part of the perfection possessed by the instruments in our modern observatories, and therefore it may not be surprising that the results of the trial were not immediately conclusive. Halley appears to have devoted much time to the investigation; indeed, he remained at Dantzig for more than a twelvemonth. On his return to England, he spoke highly of the skill which Hevelius exhibited in the use of his antiquated methods, but Halley was nevertheless too sagacious an observer to be shaken in his preference for the telescopic method of observation.

The next year we find our young astronomer starting for a Continental tour, and we, who complain if the Channel passage lasts more than an hour or two, may note Halley’s remark in writing to Hooke on June 15th, 1680: “Having fallen in with bad weather we took forty hours in the journey from Dover to Calais.” The scientific distinction which he had already attained was such that he was received in Paris with marked attention. A great deal of his time seems to have been passed in the Paris observatory, where Cassini, the presiding genius, himself an astronomer of well-deserved repute, had extended a hearty welcome to his English visitor. They made observations together of the place of the splendid comet which was then attracting universal attention, and Halley found the work thus done of much use when he subsequently came to investigate the path pursued by this body. Halley was wise enough to spare no pains to derive all possible advantages from his intercourse with the distinguished savants of the French capital. In the further progress of his tour he visited the principal cities of the Continent, leaving behind him everywhere the memory of an amiable disposition and of a rare intelligence.

After Halley’s return to England, in 1682, he married a young lady named Mary Tooke, with whom he lived happily, till her death fifty-five years later. On his marriage, he took up his abode in Islington, where he erected his instruments and recommenced his observations.

It has often been the good fortune of astronomers to render practical services to humanity by their investigations, and Halley’s achievements in this respect deserve to be noted. A few years after he had settled in England, he published an important paper on the variation of the magnetic compass, for so the departure of the needle from the true north is termed. This subject had indeed early engaged his attention, and he continued to feel much interest in it up to the end of his life. With respect to his labours in this direction, Sir John Herschel says: “To Halley we owe the first appreciation of the real complexity of the subject of magnetism. It is wonderful indeed, and a striking proof of the penetration and sagacity of this extraordinary man, that with his means of information he should have been able to draw such conclusions, and to take so large and comprehensive a view of the subject as he appears to have done.” In 1692, Halley explained his theory of terrestrial magnetism, and begged captains of ships to take observations of the variations of the compass in all parts of the world, and to communicate them to the Royal Society, “in order that all the facts may be readily available to those who are hereafter to complete this difficult and complicated subject.”

The extent to which Halley was in advance of his contemporaries, in the study of terrestrial magnetism, may be judged from the fact that the subject was scarcely touched after his time till the year 1811. The interest which he felt in it was not of a merely theoretical kind, nor was it one which could be cultivated in an easy-chair. Like all true investigators, he longed to submit his theory to the test of experiment, and for that purpose Halley determined to observe the magnetic variation for himself. He procured from King William III. the command of a vessel called the “Paramour Pink,” with which he started for the South Seas in 1694. This particular enterprise was not, however, successful; for, on crossing the line, some of his men fell sick and one of his lieutenants mutinied, so that he was obliged to return the following year with his mission unaccomplished. The government cashiered the lieutenant, and Halley having procured a second smaller vessel to accompany the “Paramour Pink,” started once more in September, 1699. He traversed the Atlantic to the 52nd degree of southern latitude, beyond which his further advance was stopped. “In these latitudes,” he writes to say, “we fell in with great islands of ice of so incredible height and magnitude, that I scarce dare write my thoughts of it.”

On his return in 1700, Halley published a general chart, showing the variation of the compass at the different places which he had visited. On these charts he set down lines connecting those localities at which the magnetic variation was identical. He thus set an example of the graphic representation of large masses of complex facts, in such a manner as to appeal at once to the eye, a method of which we make many applications in the present day.

But probably the greatest service which Halley ever rendered to human knowledge was the share in which he took in bringing Newton’s “Principia” before the world. In fact, as Dr. Glaisher, writing in 1888, has truly remarked, “but for Halley the ‘Principia’ would not have existed.”

It was a visit from Halley in the year 1684 which seems to have first suggested to Newton the idea of publishing the results of his investigations on gravitation. Halley, and other scientific contemporaries, had no doubt some faint glimmering of the great truth which only Newton’s genius was able fully to reveal. Halley had indeed shown how, on the assumptions that the planets move in circular orbits round the sun, and that the squares of their periodic times are proportional to the cubes of their mean distances, it may be proved that the force acting on each planet must vary inversely as the square of its distance from the sun. Since, however, each of the planets actually moves in an ellipse, and therefore, at continually varying distances from the sun, it becomes a much more difficult matter to account mathematically for the body’s motions on the supposition that the attractive force varies inversely as the square of the distance. This was the question with which Halley found himself confronted, but which his mathematical abilities were not adequate to solve. It would seem that both Hooke and Sir Christopher Wren were interested in the same problem; in fact, the former claimed to have arrived at a solution, but declined to make known his results, giving as an excuse his desire that others having tried and failed might learn to value his achievements all the more. Halley, however, confessed that his attempts at the solution were unsuccessful, and Wren, in order to encourage the other two philosophers to pursue the inquiry, offered to present a book of forty shillings value to either of them who should in the space of two months bring him a convincing proof of it. Such was the value which Sir Christopher set on the Law of Gravitation, upon which the whole fabric of modern astronomy may be said to stand.

Finding himself unequal to the task, Halley went down to Cambridge to see Newton on the subject, and was delighted to learn that the great mathematician had already completed the investigation. He showed Halley that the motions of all the planets could be completely accounted for on the hypothesis of a force of attraction directed towards the sun, which varies inversely as the square of the distance from that body.

Halley had the genius to perceive the tremendous importance of Newton’s researches, and he ceased not to urge upon the recluse man of science the necessity for giving his new discoveries publication. He paid another visit to Cambridge with the object of learning more with regard to the mathematical methods which had already conducted Newton to such sublime truths, and he again encouraged the latter both to pursue his investigations, and to give some account of them to the world. In December of the same year Halley had the gratification of announcing to the Royal Society that Newton had promised to send that body a paper containing his researches on Gravitation.

It seems that at this epoch the finances of the Royal Society were at a very low ebb. This impecuniosity was due to the fact that a book by Willoughby, entitled “De Historia Piscium,” had been recently printed by the society at great expense. In fact, the coffers were so low that they had some difficulty in paying the salaries of their permanent officials. It appears that the public did not care about the history of fishes, or at all events the volume did not meet with the ready demand which was expected for it. Indeed, it has been recorded that when Halley had undertaken to measure the length of a degree of the earth’s surface, at the request of the Royal Society, it was ordered that his expenses be defrayed either in 50 pounds sterling, or in fifty books of fishes. Thus it happened that On June 2nd, the Council, after due consideration of ways and means in connection with the issue of the Principia, “ordered that Halley should undertake the business of looking after the book and printing it at his own charge,” which he engaged to do.

It was, as we have elsewhere mentioned, characteristic of Newton that he detested controversies, and he was, in fact, inclined to suppress the third book of the “Principia” altogether rather than have any conflict with Hooke with respect to the discoveries there enunciated. He also thought of changing the name of the work to De Motu Corporum Libri Duo, but upon second thoughts, he retained the original title, remarking, as he wrote to Halley, “It will help the sale of the book, which I ought not to diminish, now it is yours,” a sentence which shows conclusively, if further proof were necessary, that Halley had assumed the responsibility of its publication.

Halley spared no pains in pushing forward the publication of his illustrious friend’s great work, so that in the same year he was in a position to present a complete copy to King James II., with a proper discourse of his own. Halley also wrote a set of Latin hexameters in praise of Newton’s genius, which he printed at the beginning of the work. The last line of this specimen of Halley’s poetic muse may be thus rendered: “Nor mortals nearer may approach the gods.”

The intimate friendship between the two greatest astronomers of the time continued without interruption till the death of Newton. It has, indeed, been alleged that some serious cause of estrangement arose between them. There is, however, no satisfactory ground for this statement; indeed, it may be regarded as effectually disposed of by the fact that, in the year 1727, Halley took up the defence of his friend, and wrote two learned papers in support of Newton’s “System of Chronology,” which had been seriously attacked by a certain ecclesiastic. It is quite evident to any one who has studied these papers that Halley’s friendship for Newton was as ardent as ever.

The generous zeal with which Halley adopted and defended the doctrines of Newton with regard to the movements of the celestial bodies was presently rewarded by a brilliant discovery, which has more than any of his other researches rendered his name a familiar one to astronomers. Newton, having explained the movement of the planets, was naturally led to turn his attention to comets. He perceived that their journeyings could be completely accounted for as consequences of the attraction of the sun, and he laid down the principles by which the orbit of a comet could be determined, provided that observations of its positions were obtained at three different dates. The importance of these principles was by no one more quickly recognised than by Halley, who saw at once that it provided the means of detecting something like order in the movements of these strange wanderers. The doctrine of Gravitation seemed to show that just as the planets revolved around the sun in ellipses, so also must the comets. The orbit, however, in the case of the comet, is so extremely elongated that the very small part of the elliptic path within which the comet is both near enough and bright enough to be seen from the earth, is indistinguishable from a parabola. Applying these principles, Halley thought it would be instructive to study the movements of certain bright comets, concerning which reliable observations could be obtained. At the expense of much labour, he laid down the paths pursued by twenty-four of these bodies, which had appeared between the years 1337 and 1698. Amongst them he noticed three, which followed tracks so closely resembling each other, that he was led to conclude the so called three comets could only have been three different appearances of the same body. The first of these occurred in 1531, the second was seen by Kepler in 1607, and the third by Halley himself in 1682. These dates suggested that the observed phenomena might be due to the successive returns of one and the same comet after intervals of seventy-five or seventy-six years. On the further examination of ancient records, Halley found that a comet had been seen in the year 1456, a date, it will be observed, seventy-five years before 1531. Another had been observed seventy-six years earlier than 1456, viz., in 1380, and another seventy-five years before that, in 1305.

As Halley thus found that a comet had been recorded on several occasions at intervals of seventy-five or seventy-six years, he was led to the conclusion that these several apparitions related to one and the same object, which was an obedient vassal of the sun, performing an eccentric journey round that luminary in a period of seventy-five or seventy-six years. To realise the importance of this discovery, it should be remembered that before Halley’s time a comet, if not regarded merely as a sign of divine displeasure, or as an omen of intending disaster, had at least been regarded as a chance visitor to the solar system, arriving no one knew whence, and going no one knew whither.

A supreme test remained to be applied to Halley’s theory. The question arose as to the date at which this comet would be seen again. We must observe that the question was complicated by the fact that the body, in the course of its voyage around the sun, was exposed to the incessant disturbing action produced by the attraction of the several planets. The comet therefore, does not describe a simple ellipse as it would do if the attraction of the sun were the only force by which its movement were controlled. Each of the planets solicits the comet to depart from its track, and though the amount of these attractions may be insignificant in comparison with the supreme controlling force of the sun, yet the departure from the ellipse is quite sufficient to produce appreciable irregularities in the comet’s movement. At the time when Halley lived, no means existed of calculating with precision the effect of the disturbance a comet might experience from the action of the different planets. Halley exhibited his usual astronomical sagacity in deciding that Jupiter would retard the return of the comet to some extent. Had it not been for this disturbance the comet would apparently have been due in 1757 or early in 1758. But the attraction of the great planet would cause delay, so that Halley assigned, for the date of its re-appearance, either the end of 1758 or the beginning of 1759. Halley knew that he could not himself live to witness the fulfilment of his prediction, but he says: “If it should return, according to our predictions, about the year 1758, impartial posterity will not refuse to acknowledge that this was first discovered by an Englishman.” This was, indeed, a remarkable prediction of an event to occur fifty-three years after it had been uttered. The way in which it was fulfilled forms one of the most striking episodes in the history of astronomy. The comet was first seen on Christmas Day, 1758, and passed through its nearest point to the sun on March 13th, 1759. Halley had then been lying in his grave for seventeen years, yet the verification of his prophecy reflects a glory on his name which will cause it to live for ever in the annals of astronomy. The comet paid a subsequent visit in 1835, and its next appearance is due about 1910.

Halley next entered upon a labour which, if less striking to the imagination than his discoveries with regard to comets, is still of inestimable value in astronomy. He undertook a series of investigations with the object of improving our knowledge of the movements of the planets. This task was practically finished in 1719, though the results of it were not published until after his death in 1749. In the course of it he was led to investigate closely the motion of Venus, and thus he came to recognise for the first time the peculiar importance which attaches to the phenomenon of the transit of this planet across the sun. Halley saw that the transit, which was to take place in the year 1761, would afford a favourable opportunity for determining the distance of the sun, and thus learning the scale of the solar system. He predicted the circumstances of the phenomenon with an astonishing degree of accuracy, considering his means of information, and it is unquestionably to the exertions of Halley in urging the importance of the matter upon astronomers that we owe the unexampled degree of interest taken in the event, and the energy which scientific men exhibited in observing it. The illustrious astronomer had no hope of being himself a witness of the event, for it could not happen till many years after his death. This did not, however, diminish his anxiety to impress upon those who would then be alive, the importance of the occurrence, nor did it lead him to neglect anything which might contribute to the success of the observations. As we now know, Halley rather over-estimated the value of the transit of Venus, as a means of determining the solar distance. The fact is that the circumstances are such that the observation of the time of contact between the edge of the planet and the edge of the sun cannot be made with the accuracy which he had expected.

In 1691, Halley became a candidate for the Savilian Professorship of Astronomy at Oxford. He was not, however, successful, for his candidature was opposed by Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal of the time, and another was appointed. He received some consolation for this particular disappointment by the fact that, in 1696, owing to Newton’s friendly influence, he was appointed deputy Controller of the Mint at Chester, an office which he did not retain for long, as it was abolished two years later. At last, in 1703, he received what he had before vainly sought, and he was appointed to the Savilian chair.

His observations of the eclipse of the sun, which occurred in 1715, added greatly to Halley’s reputation. This phenomenon excited special attention, inasmuch as it was the first total eclipse of the sun which had been visible in London since the year 1140. Halley undertook the necessary calculations, and predicted the various circumstances with a far higher degree of precision than the official announcement. He himself observed the phenomenon from the Royal Society’s rooms, and he minutely describes the outer atmosphere of the sun, now known as the corona; without, however, offering an opinion as to whether it was a solar or a lunar appendage.

At last Halley was called to the dignified office which he of all men was most competent to fill. On February 9th, 1720, he was appointed Astronomer Royal in succession to Flamsteed. He found things at the Royal Observatory in a most unsatisfactory state. Indeed, there were no instruments, nor anything else that was movable; for such things, being the property of Flamsteed, had been removed by his widow, and though Halley attempted to purchase from that lady some of the instruments which his predecessor had employed, the unhappy personal differences which had existed between him and Flamsteed, and which, as we have already seen, prevented his election as Savilian Professor of Astronomy, proved a bar to the negotiation. Greenwich Observatory wore a very different appearance in those days, from that which the modern visitor, who is fortunate enough to gain admission, may now behold. Not only did Halley find it bereft of instruments, we learn besides that he had no assistants, and was obliged to transact the whole business of the establishment single-handed.

In 1721, however, he obtained a grant of 500 pounds from the Board of Ordnance, and accordingly a transit instrument was erected in the same year. Some time afterwards he procured an eight-foot quadrant, and with these instruments, at the age of sixty-four, he commenced a series of observations on the moon. He intended, if his life was spared, to continue his observations for a period of eighteen years, this being, as astronomers know, a very important cycle in connection with lunar movements. The special object of this vast undertaking was to improve the theory of the moon’s motion, so that it might serve more accurately to determine longitudes at sea. This self-imposed task Halley lived to carry to a successful termination, and the tables deduced from his observations, and published after his death, were adopted almost universally by astronomers, those of the French nation being the only exception.

Throughout his life Halley had been singularly free from illness of every kind, but in 1737 he had a stroke of paralysis. Notwithstanding this, however, he worked diligently at his telescope till 1739, after which his health began rapidly to give way. He died on January 14th, 1742, in the eighty-sixth year of his age, retaining his mental faculties to the end. He was buried in the cemetery of the church of Lee in Kent, in the same grave as his wife, who had died five years previously. We are informed by Admiral Smyth that Pond, a later Astronomer Royal, was afterwards laid in the same tomb.

Halley’s disposition seems to have been generous and candid, and wholly free from anything like jealousy or rancour. In person he was rather above the middle height, and slight in build; his complexion was fair, and he is said to have always spoken, as well as acted, with uncommon sprightliness. In the eloge pronounced upon him at the Paris Academie Des Sciences, of which Halley had been made a member in 1719 it was said, “he possessed all the qualifications which were necessary to please princes who were desirous of instruction, with a great extent of knowledge and a constant presence of mind; his answers were ready, and at the same time pertinent, judicious, polite and sincere.”


Thus we find that Peter the Great was one of his most ardent admirers. He consulted the astronomer on matters connected with shipbuilding, and invited him to his own table. But Halley possessed nobler qualifications than the capacity of pleasing Princes. He was able to excite and to retain the love and admiration of his equals. This was due to the warmth of his attachments, the unselfishness of his devotion to his friends, and to a vein of gaiety and good-humour which pervaded all his conversation.


James Bradley was descended from an ancient family in the county of Durham. He was born in 1692 or 1693, at Sherbourne, in Gloucestershire, and was educated in the Grammar School at Northleach. From thence he proceeded in due course to Oxford, where he was admitted a commoner at Balliol College, on March 15th, 1711. Much of his time, while an undergraduate, was passed in Essex with his maternal uncle, the Rev. James Pound, who was a well-known man of science and a diligent observer of the stars. It was doubtless by intercourse with his uncle that young Bradley became so expert in the use of astronomical instruments, but the immortal discoveries he subsequently made show him to have been a born astronomer.

The first exhibition of Bradley’s practical skill seems to be contained in two observations which he made in 1717 and 1718. They have been published by Halley, whose acuteness had led him to perceive the extraordinary scientific talents of the young astronomer. Another illustration of the sagacity which Bradley manifested, even at the very commencement of his astronomical career, is contained in a remark of Halley’s, who says: “Dr. Pound and his nephew, Mr. Bradley, did, myself being present, in the last opposition of the sun and Mars this way demonstrate the extreme minuteness of the sun’s parallax, and that it was not more than twelve seconds nor less than nine seconds.” To make the significance of this plain, it should be observed that the determination of the sun’s parallax is equivalent to the determination of the distance from the earth to the sun. At the time of which we are now writing, this very important unit of celestial measurement was only very imperfectly known, and the observations of Pound and Bradley may be interpreted to mean that, from their observations, they had come to the conclusion that the distance from the earth to the sun must be more than 94 millions of miles, and less than 125 millions. We now, of course, know that they were not exactly right, for the true distance of the sun is about 93 millions of miles. We cannot, however, but think that it was a very remarkable approach for the veteran astronomer and his brilliant nephew to make towards the determination of a magnitude which did not become accurately known till fifty years later.

Among the earliest parts of astronomical work to which Bradley’s attention was directed, were the eclipses of Jupiter’s satellites. These phenomena are specially attractive inasmuch as they can be so readily observed, and Bradley found it extremely interesting to calculate the times at which the eclipses should take place, and then to compare his observations with the predicted times. From the success that he met with in this work, and from his other labours, Bradley’s reputation as an astronomer increased so greatly that on November the 6th, 1718, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Up to this time the astronomical investigations of Bradley had been more those of an amateur than of a professional astronomer, and as it did not at first seem likely that scientific work would lead to any permanent provision, it became necessary for the youthful astronomer to choose a profession. It had been all along intended that he should enter the Church, though for some reason which is not told us, he did not take orders as soon as his age would have entitled him to do so. In 1719, however, the Bishop of Hereford offered Bradley the Vicarage of Bridstow, near Ross, in Monmouthshire, and on July 25th, 1720, he having then taken priest’s orders, was duly instituted in his vicarage. In the beginning of the next year, Bradley had some addition to his income from the proceeds of a Welsh living, which, being a sinecure, he was able to hold with his appointment at Bridstow. It appears, however, that his clerical occupations were not very exacting in their demands upon his time, for he was still able to pay long and often-repeated visits to his uncle at Wandsworth, who, being himself a clergyman, seems to have received occasional assistance in his ministerial duties from his astronomical nephew.

The time, however, soon arrived when Bradley was able to make a choice between continuing to exercise his profession as a divine, or devoting himself to a scientific career. The Savilian Professorship of Astronomy in the University of Oxford became vacant by the death of Dr. John Keill. The statutes forbade that the Savilian Professor should also hold a clerical appointment, and Mr. Pound would certainly have been elected to the professorship had he consented to surrender his preferments in the Church. But Pound was unwilling to sacrifice his clerical position, and though two or three other candidates appeared in the field, yet the talents of Bradley were so conspicuous that he was duly elected, his willingness to resign the clerical profession having been first ascertained.

There can be no doubt that, with such influential friends as Bradley possessed, he would have made great advances had he adhered to his profession as a divine. Bishop Hoadly, indeed, with other marks of favour, had already made the astronomer his chaplain. The engrossing nature of Bradley’s interest in astronomy decided him, however, to sacrifice all other prospects in comparison with the opening afforded by the Savilian Professorship. It was not that Bradley found himself devoid of interest in clerical matters, but he felt that the true scope for such abilities as he possessed would be better found in the discharge of the scientific duties of the Oxford chair than in the spiritual charge of a parish. On April the 26th, 1722, Bradley read his inaugural lecture in that new position on which he was destined to confer such lustre.

It must, of course, be remembered that in those early days the art of constructing the astronomical telescope was very imperfectly understood. The only known method for getting over the peculiar difficulties presented in the construction of the refracting telescope, was to have it of the most portentous length. In fact, Bradley made several of his observations with an instrument of two hundred and twelve feet focus. In such a case, no tube could be used, and the object glass was merely fixed at the top of a high pole. Notwithstanding the inconvenience and awkwardness of such an instrument, Bradley by its means succeeded in making many careful measurements. He observed, for example, the transit of Mercury over the sun’s disc, on October 9th, 1723; he also observed the dimensions of the planet Venus, while a comet which Halley discovered on October the 9th, 1723, was assiduously observed at Wanstead up to the middle of the ensuing month. The first of Bradley’s remarkable contributions to the “Philosophical Transactions” relates to this comet, and the extraordinary amount of work that he went through in connection therewith may be seen from an examination of his book of Calculations which is still extant.

The time was now approaching when Bradley was to make the first of those two great discoveries by which his name has acquired a lustre that has placed him in the very foremost rank of astronomical discoverers. As has been often the case in the history of science, the first of these great successes was attained while he was pursuing a research intended for a wholly different purpose. It had long been recognised that as the earth describes a vast orbit, nearly two hundred million miles in diameter, in its annual journey round the sun, the apparent places of the stars should alter, to some extent, in correspondence with the changes in the earth’s position. The nearer the star the greater the shift in its apparent place on the heavens, which must arise from the fact that it was seen from different positions in the earth’s orbit. It had been pointed out that these apparent changes in the places of the stars, due to the movement of the earth, would provide the means of measuring the distances of the stars. As, however, these distances are enormously great in comparison with the orbit which the earth describes around the sun, the attempt to determine the distances of the stars by the shift in their positions had hitherto proved ineffectual. Bradley determined to enter on this research once again; he thought that by using instruments of greater power, and by making measurements of increased delicacy, he would be able to perceive and to measure displacements which had proved so small as to elude the skill of the other astronomers who had previously made efforts in the same direction. In order to simplify the investigation as much as possible, Bradley devoted his attention to one particular star, Beta Draconis, which happened to pass near his zenith. The object of choosing a star in this position was to avoid the difficulties which would be introduced by refraction had the star occupied any other place in the heavens than that directly overhead.

We are still able to identify the very spot on which the telescope stood which was used in this memorable research. It was erected at the house then occupied by Molyneux, on the western extremity of Kew Green. The focal length was 24 feet 3 inches, and the eye-glass was 3 and a half feet above the ground floor. The instrument was first set up on November 26th, 1725. If there had be any appreciable disturbance in the place of Beta Draconis in consequence of the movement of the earth around the sun, the star must appear to have the smallest latitude when in conjunction with the sun, and the greatest when in opposition. The star passed the meridian at noon in December, and its position was particularly noticed by Molyneux on the third of that month. Any perceptible displacement by parallax–for so the apparent change in position, due to the earth’s motion, is called–would would have made the star shift towards the north. Bradley, however, when observing it on the 17th, was surprised to find that the apparent place of the star, so far from shifting towards the north, as they had perhaps hoped it would, was found to lie a little more to the south than when it was observed before. He took extreme care to be sure that there was no mistake in his observation, and, true astronomer as he was, he scrutinized with the utmost minuteness all the circumstances of the adjustment of his instruments. Still the star went to the south, and it continued so advancing in the same direction until the following March, by which time it had moved no less than twenty seconds south from the place which it occupied when the first observation was made. After a brief pause, in which no apparent movement was perceptible, the star by the middle of April appeared to be returning to the north. Early in June it reached the same distance from the zenith which it had in December. By September the star was as much as thirty-nine seconds more to the north than it had been in March, then it returned towards the south, regaining in December the same situation which it had occupied twelve months before.

This movement of the star being directly opposite to the movements which would have been the consequence of parallax, seemed to show that even if the star had any parallax its effects upon the apparent place were entirely masked by a much larger motion of a totally different description. Various attempts were made to account for the phenomenon, but they were not successful. Bradley accordingly determined to investigate the whole subject in a more thorough manner. One of his objects was to try whether the same movements which he had observed in one star were in any similar degree possessed by other stars. For this purpose he set up a new instrument at Wanstead, and there he commenced a most diligent scrutiny of the apparent places of several stars which passed at different distances from the zenith. He found in the course of this research that other stars exhibited movements of a similar description to those which had already proved so perplexing. For a long time the cause of these apparent movements seemed a mystery. At last, however, the explanation of these remarkable phenomena dawned upon him, and his great discovery was made.

One day when Bradley was out sailing he happened to remark that every time the boat was laid on a different tack the vane at the top of the boat’s mast shifted a little, as if there had been a slight change in the direction of the wind. After he had noticed this three or four times he made a remark to the sailors to the effect that it was very strange the wind should always happen to change just at the moment when the boat was going about. The sailors, however, said there had been no change in the wind, but that the alteration in the vane was due to the fact that the boat’s course had been altered. In fact, the position of the vane was determined both by the course of the boat and the direction of the wind, and if either of these were altered there would be a corresponding change in the direction of the vane. This meant, of course, that the observer in the boat which was moving along would feel the wind coming from a point different from that in which the wind appeared to be blowing when the boat was at rest, or when it was sailing in some different direction. Bradley’s sagacity saw in this observation the clue to the Difficulty which had so long troubled him.

It had been discovered before the time of Bradley that the passage of light through space is not an instantaneous phenomenon. Light requires time for its journey. Galileo surmised that the sun may have reached the horizon before we see it there, and it was indeed sufficiently obvious that a physical action, like the transmission of light, could hardly take place without requiring some lapse of time. The speed with which light actually travelled was, however, so rapid that its determination eluded all the means of experimenting which were available in those days. The penetration of Roemer had previously detected irregularities in the observed times of the eclipses of Jupiter’s satellites, which were undoubtedly due to the interval which light required for stretching across the interplanetary spaces. Bradley argued that as light can only travel with a certain speed, it may in a measure be regarded like the wind, which he noticed in the boat. If the observer were at rest, that is to say, if the earth were a stationary object, the direction in which the light actually does come would be different from that in which it appears to come when the earth is in motion. It is true that the earth travels but eighteen miles a second, while the velocity with which light is borne along attains to as much as 180,000 miles a second. The velocity of light is thus ten thousand times greater than the speed of the earth. But even though the wind blew ten thousand times faster than the speed with which the boat was sailing there would still be some change, though no doubt a very small change, in the position of the vane when the boat was in progress from the position it would have if the boat were at rest. It therefore occurred to this most acute of astronomers that when the telescope was pointed towards a star so as to place it apparently in the centre of the field of view, yet it was not generally the true position of the star. It was not, in fact, the position in which the star would have been observed had the earth been at rest. Provided with this suggestion, he explained the apparent movements of the stars by the principle known as the “aberration of light.” Every circumstance was accounted for as a consequence of the relative movements of the earth and of the light from the star. This beautiful discovery not only established in the most forcible manner the nature of the movement of light; not only did it illustrate the truth of the Copernican theory which asserted that the earth revolved around the sun, but it was also of the utmost importance in the improvement of practical astronomy. Every observer now knows that, generally speaking, the position which the star appears to have is not exactly the position in which the star does actually lie. The observer is, however, able, by the application of the principles which Bradley so clearly laid down, to apply to an observation the correction which is necessary to obtain from it the true place in which the object is actually situated. This memorable achievement at once conferred on Bradley the highest astronomical fame. He tested his discovery in every way, but only to confirm its truth in the most complete manner.

Halley, the Astronomer Royal, died on the 14th, January, 1742, and Bradley was immediately pointed out as his successor. He was accordingly appointed Astronomer Royal in February, 1742. On first taking up his abode at Greenwich he was unable to conduct his observations owing to the wretched condition in which he found the instruments. He devoted himself, however, assiduously to their repair, and his first transit observation is recorded on the 25th July, 1742. He worked with such energy that on one day it appears that 255 transit observations were taken by himself alone, and in September, 1747, he had completed the series of observations which established his second great discovery, the nutation of the earth’s axis. The way in which he was led to the detection of the nutation is strikingly illustrative of the extreme care with which Bradley conducted his observations. He found that in the course of a twelvemonth, when the star had completed the movement which was due to aberration, it did not return exactly to the same position which it had previously occupied. At first he thought this must be due to some instrumental error, but after closer examination and repeated study of the effect as manifested by many different stars, he came to the conclusion that its origin must be sought in some quite different source. The fact is that a certain change takes place in the apparent position of the stars which is not due to the movement of the star itself, but is rather to be attributed to changes in the points from which the star’s positions are measured.

We may explain the matter in this way. As the earth is not a sphere, but has protuberant parts at the equator, the attraction of the moon exercises on those protuberant parts a pulling effect which continually changes the direction of the earth’s axis, and consequently the position of the pole must be in a state of incessant fluctuation. The pole to which the earth’s axis points on the sky is, therefore, slowly changing. At present it happens to lie near the Pole Star, but it will not always remain there. It describes a circle around the pole of the Ecliptic, requiring about 25,000 years for a complete circuit. In the course of its progress the pole will gradually pass now near one star and now near another, so that many stars will in the lapse of ages discharge the various functions which the present Pole Star does for us. In about 12,000 years, for instance, the pole will have come near the bright star, Vega. This movement of the pole had been known for ages. But what Bradley discovered was that the pole, instead of describing an uniform movement as had been previously supposed, followed a sinuous course now on one side and now on the other of its mean place. This he traced to the fluctuations of the moon’s orbit, which undergoes a continuous change in a period of nineteen years. Thus the efficiency with which the moon acts on the protuberant mass of the earth varies, and thus the pole is caused to oscillate.

This subtle discovery, if perhaps in some ways less impressive than Bradley’s earlier achievements of the detection of the aberration of light, is regarded by astronomers as testifying even in a higher degree to his astonishing care and skill as an observer, and justly entitles him to a unique place among the astronomers whose discoveries have been effected by consummate practical skill in the use of astronomical instruments.

Of Bradley’s private or domestic life there is but little to tell. In 1744, soon after he became Astronomer Royal, he married a daughter of Samuel Peach, of Chalford, in Gloucestershire. There was but one child, a daughter, who became the wife of her cousin, Rev. Samuel Peach, rector of Compton, Beauchamp, in Berkshire.

Bradley’s last two years of life were clouded by a melancholy depression of spirits, due to an apprehension that he should survive his rational faculties. It seems, however, that the ill he dreaded never came upon him, for he retained his mental powers to the close. He died on 13th July, 1762, aged seventy, and was buried at Michinghamton.


William Herschel, one of the greatest astronomers that has ever lived, was born at Hanover, on the 15th November, 1738. His father, Isaac Herschel, was a man evidently of considerable ability, whose life was devoted to the study and practice of music, by which he earned a somewhat precarious maintenance. He had but few worldly goods to leave to his children, but he more than compensated for this by bequeathing to them a splendid inheritance of genius. Touches of genius were, indeed, liberally scattered among the members of Isaac’s large family, and in the case of his forth child, William, and of a sister several years younger, it was united with that determined perseverance and rigid adherence to principle which enabled genius to fulfil its perfect work.

A faithful chronicler has given us an interesting account of the way in which Isaac Herschel educated his sons; the narrative is taken from the recollections of one who, at the time we are speaking of, was an unnoticed little girl five or six years old. She writes:–

“My brothers were often introduced as solo performers and assistants in the orchestra at the Court, and I remember that I was frequently prevented from going to sleep by the lively criticisms on music on coming from a concert. Often I would keep myself awake that I might listen to their animating remarks, for it made me so happy to see them so happy. But generally their conversation would branch out on philosophical subjects, when my brother William and my father often argued with such warmth that my mother’s interference became necessary, when the names–Euler, Leibnitz, and Newton–sounded rather too loud for the repose of her little ones, who had to be at school by seven in the morning.” The child whose reminiscences are here given became afterwards the famous Caroline Herschel. The narrative of her life, by Mrs. John Herschel, is a most interesting book, not only for the account it contains of the remarkable woman herself, but also because it provides the best picture we have of the great astronomer to whom Caroline devoted her life.

This modest family circle was, in a measure, dispersed at the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War in 1756. The French proceeded to invade Hanover, which, it will be remembered, belonged at this time to the British dominions. Young William Herschel had already obtained the position of a regular performer in the regimental band of the Hanoverian Guards, and it was his fortune to obtain some experience of actual warfare in the disastrous battle of Hastenbeck. He was not wounded, but he had to spend the night after the battle in a ditch, and his meditations on the occasion convinced him that soldiering was not the profession exactly adapted to his tastes. We need not attempt to conceal the fact that he left his regiment by the very simple but somewhat risky process of desertion. He had, it would seem, to adopt disguises to effect his escape. At all events, by some means he succeeded in eluding detection and reached England in safety. It is interesting to have learned on good authority that many years after this offence was committed it was solemnly forgiven. When Herschel had become the famous astronomer, and as such visited King George at Windsor, the King at their first meeting handed to him his pardon for deserting from the army, written out in due form by his Majesty himself.

It seems that the young musician must have had some difficulty in providing for his maintenance during the first few years of his abode in England. It was not until he had reached the age of twenty-two that he succeeded in obtaining any regular appointment. He was then made Instructor of Music to the Durham Militia. Shortly afterwards, his talents being more widely recognised, he was appointed as organist at the parish church at Halifax, and his prospects in life now being fairly favourable, and the Seven Years’ War being over, he ventured to pay a visit to Hanover to see his father. We can imagine the delight with which old Isaac Herschel welcomed his promising son, as well as his parental pride when a concert was given at which some of William’s compositions were performed. If the father was so intensely gratified on this occasion, what would his feelings have been could he have lived to witness his son’s future career? But this pleasure was not to be his, for he died many years before William became an astronomer.

In 1766, about a couple of years after his return to England from This visit to his old home, we find that Herschel had received a further promotion to be organist in the Octagon Chapel, at Bath. Bath was then, as now, a highly fashionable resort, and many notable personages patronised the rising musician. Herschel had other points in his favour besides his professional skill; his appearance was good, his address was prepossessing, and even his nationality was a distinct advantage, inasmuch as he was a Hanoverian in the reign of King George the Third. On Sundays he played the organ, to the great delight of the congregation, and on week-days he was occupied by giving lessons to private pupils, and in preparation for public performances. He thus came to be busily employed, and seems to have been in the enjoyment of comfortable means.


From his earliest youth Herschel had been endowed with that invaluable characteristic, an eager curiosity for knowledge. He was naturally desirous of perfecting himself in the theory of music, and thus he was led to study mathematics. When he had once tasted the charms of mathematics, he saw vast regions of knowledge unfolded before him, and in this way he was induced to direct his attention to astronomy. More and more this pursuit seems to have engrossed his attention, until at last it had become an absorbing passion. Herschel was, however, still obliged, by the exigency of procuring a livelihood, to give up the best part of his time to his profession as a musician; but his heart was eagerly fixed on another science, and every spare moment was steadily devoted to astronomy. For many years, however, he continued to labour at his original calling, nor was it until he had attained middle age and become the most celebrated astronomer of the time, that he was enabled to concentrate his attention exclusively on his favourite pursuit.

It was with quite a small telescope which had been lent him by a friend that Herschel commenced his career as an observer. However, he speedily discovered that to see all he wanted to see, a telescope of far greater power would be necessary, and he determined to obtain this more powerful instrument by actually making it with his own hands. At first it may seem scarcely likely that one whose occupation had previously been the study and practice of music should meet with success in so technical an operation as the construction of a telescope. It may, however, be mentioned that the kind of instrument which Herschel designed to construct was formed on a very different principle from the refracting telescopes with which we are ordinarily familiar. His telescope was to be what is termed a reflector. In this type of instrument the optical power is obtained by the use of a mirror at the bottom of the tube, and the astronomer looks down through the tube TOWARDS HIS MIRROR and views the reflection of the stars with its aid. Its efficiency as a telescope depends entirely on the accuracy with which the requisite form has been imparted to the mirror. The surface has to be hollowed out a little, and this has to be done so truly that the slightest deviation from good workmanship in this essential particular would be fatal to efficient performance of the telescope.


The mirror that Herschel employed was composed of a mixture of two parts of copper to one of tin; the alloy thus obtained is an intensely hard material, very difficult to cast into the proper shape, and very difficult to work afterwards. It possesses, however, when polished, a lustre hardly inferior to that of silver itself. Herschel has recorded hardly any particulars as to the actual process by which he cast and figured his reflectors. We are however, told that in later years, after his telescopes had become famous, he made a considerable sum of money by the manufacture and sale of great instruments. Perhaps this may be the reason why he never found it expedient to publish any very explicit details as to the means by which his remarkable successes were obtained.


Since Herschel’s time many other astronomers, notably the late Earl of Rosse, have experimented in the same direction, and succeeded in making telescopes certainly far greater, and probably more perfect, than any which Herschel appears to have constructed. The details of these later methods are now well known, and have been extensively practised. Many amateurs have thus been able to make telescopes by following the instructions so clearly laid down by Lord Rosse and the other authorities. Indeed, it would seem that any one who has a little mechanical skill and a good deal of patience ought now to experience no great difficulty in constructing a telescope quite as powerful as that which first brought Herschel into fame. I should, however, mention that in these modern days the material generally used for the mirror is of a more tractable description than the metallic substance which was employed by Herschel and by Lord Rosse. A reflecting telescope of the present day would not be fitted with a mirror composed of that alloy known as speculum metal, whose composition I have already mentioned. It has been found more advantageous to employ a glass mirror carefully figured and polished, just as a metallic mirror would have been, and then to impart to the polished glass surface a fine coating of silver laid down by a chemical process. The silver-on-glass mirrors are so much lighter and so much easier to construct that the more old-fashioned metallic mirrors may be said to have fallen into almost total disuse. In one respect however, the metallic mirror may still claim the advantage that, with reasonable care, its surface will last bright and untarnished for a much longer period than can the silver film on the glass. However, the operation of re-silvering a glass has now become such a simple one that the advantage this indicates is not relatively so great as might at first be supposed.


Some years elapsed after Herschel’s attention had been first directed to astronomy, before he reaped the reward of his exertions in the possession of a telescope which would adequately reveal some of the glories of the heavens. It was in 1774, when the astronomer was thirty-six years old, that he obtained his first glimpse of the stars with an instrument of his own construction. Night after night, as soon as his musical labours were ended, his telescopes were brought out, sometimes into the small back garden of his house at Bath, and sometimes into the street in front of his hall-door. It was characteristic of him that he was always endeavouring to improve his apparatus. He was incessantly making fresh mirrors, or trying new lenses, or combinations of lenses to act as eye-pieces, or projecting alterations in the mounting by which the telescope was supported. Such was his enthusiasm that his house, we are told, was incessantly littered with the usual indications of the workman’s presence, greatly to the distress of his sister, who, at this time, had come to take up her abode with him and look after his housekeeping. Indeed, she complained that in his astronomical ardour he sometimes omitted to take off, before going into his workshop, the beautiful lace ruffles which he wore while conducting a concert, and that consequently they became soiled with the pitch employed in the polishing of his mirrors.

This sister, who occupies such a distinct place in scientific history is the same little girl to whom we have already referred. From her earliest days she seems to have cherished a passionate admiration for her brilliant brother William. It was the proudest delight of her childhood as well as of her mature years to render him whatever service she could; no man of science was ever provided with a more capable or energetic helper than William Herschel found in this remarkable woman. Whatever work had to be done she was willing to bear her share in it, or even to toil at it unassisted if she could be allowed to do so. She not only managed all his domestic affairs, but in the grinding of the lenses and in the polishing of the mirrors she rendered every assistance that was possible. At one stage of the very delicate operation of fashioning a reflector, it is necessary for the workman to remain with his hand on the mirror for many hours in succession. When such labours were in progress, Caroline used to sit by her brother, and enliven the time by reading stories aloud, sometimes pausing to feed him with a spoon while his hands were engaged on the task from which he could not desist for a moment.

When mathematical work had to be done Caroline was ready for it; she had taught herself sufficient to enable her to perform the kind of calculations, not, perhaps, very difficult ones, that Herschel’s work required; indeed, it is not too much to say that the mighty life-work which this man was enabled to perform could never have been accomplished had it not been for the self-sacrifice of this ever-loving and faithful sister. When Herschel was at the telescope at night, Caroline sat by him at her desk, pen in hand, ready to write down the notes of the observations as they fell from her brother’s lips. This was no insignificant toil. The telescope was, of course, in the open air, and as Herschel not unfrequently continued his observations throughout the whole of a long winter’s night, there were but few women who could have accomplished the task which Caroline so cheerfully executed. From dusk till dawn, when the sky was clear, were Herschel’s observing hours, and what this sometimes implied we can realise from the fact that Caroline assures us she had sometimes to desist because the ink had actually frozen in her pen. The night’s work over, a brief rest was taken, and while William had his labours for the day to attend to, Caroline carefully transcribed the observations made during the night before, reduced all the figures and prepared everything in readiness for the observations that were to follow on the ensuing evening.

But we have here been anticipating a little of the future which lay before the great astronomer; we must now revert to the history of his early work, at Bath, in 1774, when Herschel’s scrutiny of the skies first commenced with an instrument of his own manufacture. For some few years he did not attain any result of importance; no doubt he made a few interesting observations, but the value of the work during those years is to be found, not in any actual discoveries which were accomplished, but in the practice which Herschel obtained in the use of his instruments. It was not until 1782 that the great achievement took place by which he at once sprang into fame.


It is sometimes said that discoveries are made by accident, and, no doubt, to a certain extent, but only, I fancy to a very small extent, this statement may be true. It is, at all events, certain that such lucky accidents do not often fall to the lot of people unless those people have done much to deserve them. This was certainly the case with Herschel. He appears to have formed a project for making a close examination of all the stars above a certain magnitude. Perhaps he intended to confine this research to a limited region of the sky, but, at all events, he seems to have undertaken the work energetically and systematically. Star after star was brought to the centre of the field of view of his telescope, and after being carefully examined was then displaced, while another star was brought forward to be submitted to the same process. In the great majority of cases such observations yield really nothing of importance; no doubt even the smallest star in the heavens would, if we could find out all about it, reveal far more than all the astronomers that were ever on the earth have even conjectured. What we actually learn about the great majority of stars is only information of the most meagre description. We see that the star is a little point of light, and we see nothing more.

In the great review which Herschel undertook he doubtless examined hundreds, or perhaps thousands of stars, allowing them to pass away without note or comment. But on an ever-memorable night in March, 1782, it happened that he was pursuing his task among the stars in the Constellation of Gemini. Doubtless, on that night, as on so many other nights, one star after another was looked at only to be dismissed, as not requiring further attention. On the evening in question, however, one star was noticed which, to Herschel’s acute vision seemed different from the stars which in so many thousands are strewn over the sky. A star properly so called appears merely as a little point of light, which no increase of magnifying power will ever exhibit with a true disc. But there was something in the star-like object which Herschel saw that immediately arrested his attention and made him apply to it a higher magnifying power. This at once disclosed the fact that the object possessed a disc, that is, a definite, measurable size, and that it was thus totally different from any one of the hundreds and thousands of stars which exist elsewhere in space. Indeed, we may say at once that this little object was not a star at all; it was a planet. That such was its true nature was confirmed, after a little further observation, by perceiving that the body was shifting its place on the heavens relatively to the stars. The organist at the Octagon Chapel at Bath had, therefore, discovered a new planet with his home-made telescope.

I can imagine some one will say, “Oh, there was nothing so wonderful in that; are not planets always being discovered? Has not M. Palisa, for instance, discovered about eighty of such objects, and are there not hundreds of them known nowadays?” This is, to a certain extent, quite true. I have not the least desire to detract from the credit of those industrious and sharp-sighted astronomers who have in modern days brought so many of these little objects within our cognisance. I think, however, it must be admitted that such discoveries have a totally different importance in the history of science from that which belongs to the peerless achievement of Herschel. In the first place, it must be observed that the minor planets now brought to light are so minute that if a score of them were rolled to together into one lump it would not be one-thousandth part of the size of the grand planet discovered by Herschel. This is, nevertheless, not the most important point. What marks Herschel’s achievement as one of the great epochs in the history of astronomy is the fact that the detection of Uranus was the very first recorded occasion of the discovery of any planet whatever.

For uncounted ages those who watched the skies had been aware of the existence of the five old planets–Jupiter, Mercury, Saturn, Venus, and Mars. It never seems to have occurred to any of the ancient philosophers that there could be other similar objects as yet undetected over and above the well-known five. Great then was the astonishment of the scientific world when the Bath organist announced his discovery that the five planets which had been known from all antiquity must now admit the company of a sixth. And this sixth planet was, indeed, worthy on every ground to be received into the ranks of the five glorious bodies of antiquity. It was, no doubt, not so large as Saturn, it was certainly very much less than Jupiter; on the other hand, the new body was very much larger than Mercury, than Venus, or than Mars, and the earth itself seemed quite an insignificant object in comparison with this newly added member of the Solar System. In one respect, too, Herschel’s new planet was a much more imposing object than any one of the older bodies; it swept around the sun in a majestic orbit, far outside that of Saturn, which had previously been regarded as the boundary of the Solar System, and its stately progress required a period of not less than eighty-one years.

King George the Third, hearing of the achievements of the Hanoverian musician, felt much interest in his discovery, and accordingly Herschel was bidden to come to Windsor, and to bring with him the famous telescope, in order to exhibit the new planet to the King, and to tell his Majesty all about it. The result of the interview was to give Herschel the opportunity for which he had so long wished, of being able to devote himself exclusively to science for the rest of his life.


The King took so great a fancy to the astronomer that he first, as I have already mentioned, duly pardoned his desertion from the army, some twenty-five years previously. As a further mark of his favour the King proposed to confer on Herschel the title of his Majesty’s own astronomer, to assign to him a residence near Windsor, to provide him with a salary, and to furnish such funds as might be required for the erection of great telescopes, and for the conduct of that mighty scheme of celestial observation on which Herschel was so eager to enter. Herschel’s capacity for work would have been much impaired if he had been deprived of the aid of his admirable sister, and to her, therefore, the King also assigned a salary, and she was installed as Herschel’s assistant in his new post.

With his usually impulsive determination, Herschel immediately cut himself free from all his musical avocations at Bath, and at once entered on the task of making and erecting the great telescopes at Windsor. There, for more than thirty years, he and his faithful sister prosecuted with unremitting ardour their nightly scrutiny of the sky. Paper after paper was sent to the Royal Society, describing the hundreds, indeed the thousands, of objects such as double stars; nebulae and clusters, which were first revealed to human gaze during those midnight vigils. To the end of his life he still continued at every possible opportunity to devote himself to that beloved pursuit in which he had such unparalleled success. No single discovery of Herschel’s later years was, however, of the same momentous description as that which first brought him to fame.


Herschel married when considerably advanced in life and he lived to enjoy the indescribable pleasure of finding that his only son, afterwards Sir John Herschel, was treading worthily in his footsteps, and attaining renown as an astronomical observer, second only to that of his father. The elder Herschel died in 1822, and his illustrious sister Caroline then returned to Hanover, where she lived for many years to receive the respect and attention which were so justly hers. She died at a very advanced age in 1848.


The author of the “Mecanique Celeste” was born at Beaumont-en-Auge, near Honfleur, in 1749, just thirteen years later than his renowned friend Lagrange. His father was a farmer, but appears to have been in a position to provide a good education for a son who seemed promising. Considering the unorthodoxy in religious matters which is generally said to have characterized Laplace in later years, it is interesting to note that when he was a boy the subject which first claimed his attention was theology. He was, however, soon introduced to the study of mathematics, in which he presently became so proficient, that while he was still no more than eighteen years old, he obtained employment as a mathematical teacher in his native town.

Desiring wider opportunities for study and for the acquisition of fame than could be obtained in the narrow associations of provincial life, young Laplace started for Paris, being provided with letters of introduction to D’Alembert, who then occupied the most prominent position as a mathematician in France, if not in the whole of Europe. D’Alembert’s fame was indeed so brilliant that Catherine the Great wrote to ask him to undertake the education of her Son, and promised the splendid income of a hundred thousand francs. He preferred, however, a quiet life of research in Paris, although there was but a modest salary attached to his office. The philosopher accordingly declined the alluring offer to go to Russia, even though Catherine wrote again to say: “I know that your refusal arises from your desire to cultivate your studies and your friendships in quiet. But this is of no consequence: bring all your friends with you, and I promise you that both you and they shall have every accommodation in my power.” With equal firmness the illustrious mathematician resisted the manifold attractions with which Frederick the Great sought to induce him, to take up his residence at Berlin. In reading of these invitations we cannot but be struck at the extraordinary respect which was then paid to scientific distinction. It must be remembered that the discoveries of such a man as D’Alembert were utterly incapable of being appreciated except by those who possessed a high degree of mathematical culture. We nevertheless find the potentates of Russia and Prussia entreating and, as it happens, vainly entreating, the most distinguished mathematician in France to accept the positions that they were proud to offer him.

It was to D’Alembert, the profound mathematician, that young Laplace, the son of the country farmer, presented his letters of introduction. But those letters seem to have elicited no reply, whereupon Laplace wrote to D’Alembert submitting a discussion on some point in Dynamics. This letter instantly produced the desired effect. D’Alembert thought that such mathematical talent as the young man displayed was in itself the best of introductions to his favour. It could not be overlooked, and accordingly he invited Laplace to come and see him. Laplace, of course, presented himself, and ere long D’Alembert obtained for the rising philosopher a professorship of mathematics in the Military School in Paris. This gave the brilliant young mathematician the opening for which he sought, and he quickly availed himself of it.

Laplace was twenty-three years old when his first memoir on a profound mathematical subject appeared in the Memoirs of the Academy at Turin. From this time onwards we find him publishing one memoir after another in which he attacks, and in many cases successfully vanquishes, profound difficulties in the application of the Newtonian theory of gravitation to the explanation of the solar system. Like his great contemporary Lagrange, he loftily attempted problems which demanded consummate analytical skill for their solution. The attention of the scientific world thus became riveted on the splendid discoveries which emanated from these two men, each gifted with extraordinary genius.

Laplace’s most famous work is, of course, the “Mecanique Celeste,” in which he essayed a comprehensive attempt to carry out the principles which Newton had laid down, into much greater detail than Newton had found practicable. The fact was that Newton had not only to construct the theory of gravitation, but he had to invent the mathematical tools, so to speak, by which his theory could be applied to the explanation of the movements of the heavenly bodies. In the course of the century which had elapsed between the time of Newton and the time of Laplace, mathematics had been extensively developed. In particular, that potent instrument called the infinitesimal calculus, which Newton had invented for the investigation of nature, had become so far perfected that Laplace, when he attempted to unravel the movements of the heavenly bodies, found himself provided with a calculus far more efficient than that which had been available to Newton. The purely geometrical methods which Newton employed, though they are admirably adapted for demonstrating in a general way the tendencies of forces and for explaining the more obvious phenomena by which the movements of the heavenly bodies are disturbed, are yet quite inadequate for dealing with the more subtle effects of the Law of Gravitation. The disturbances which one planet exercises upon the rest can only be fully ascertained by the aid of long calculation, and for these calculations analytical methods are required.

With an armament of mathematical methods which had been perfected since the days of Newton by the labours of two or three generations of consummate mathematical inventors, Laplace essayed in the “Mecanique Celeste” to unravel the mysteries of the heavens. It will hardly be disputed that the book which he has produced is one of the most difficult books to understand that has ever been written. In great part, of course, this difficulty arises from the very nature of the subject, and is so far unavoidable. No one need attempt to read the “Mecanique Celeste” who has not been naturally endowed with considerable mathematical aptitude which he has cultivated by years of assiduous study. The critic will also note that there are grave defects in Laplace’s method of treatment. The style is often extremely obscure, and the author frequently leaves great gaps in his argument, to the sad discomfiture of his reader. Nor does it mend matters to say, as Laplace often does say, that it is “easy to see” how one step follows from another. Such inferences often present great difficulties even to excellent mathematicians. Tradition indeed tells us that when Laplace had occasion to refer to his own book, it sometimes happened that an argument which he had dismissed with his usual formula, “Il est facile a voir,” cost the illustrious author himself an hour or two of hard thinking before he could recover the train of reasoning which had been omitted. But there are certain parts of this great work which have always received the enthusiastic admiration of mathematicians. Laplace has, in fact, created whole tracts of science, some of which have been subsequently developed with much advantage in the prosecution of the study of Nature.

Judged by a modern code the gravest defect of Laplace’s great work is rather of a moral than of a mathematical nature. Lagrange and he advanced together in their study of the mechanics of the heavens, at one time perhaps along parallel lines, while at other times they pursued the same problem by almost identical methods. Sometimes the important result was first reached by Lagrange, sometimes it was Laplace who had the good fortune to make the discovery. It would doubtless be a difficult matter to draw the line which should exactly separate the contributions to astronomy made by one of these illustrious mathematicians, and the contributions made by the other. But in his great work Laplace in the loftiest manner disdained to accord more than the very barest recognition to Lagrange, or to any of the other mathematicians, Newton alone excepted, who had advanced our knowledge of the mechanism of the heavens. It would be quite impossible for a student who confined his reading to the “Mecanique Celeste” to gather from any indications that it contains whether the discoveries about which he was reading had been really made by Laplace himself or whether they had not been made by Lagrange, or by Euler, or by Clairaut. With our present standard of morality in such matters, any scientific man who now brought forth a work in which he presumed to ignore in this wholesale fashion the contributions of others to the subject on which he was writing, would be justly censured and bitter controversies would undoubtedly arise. Perhaps we ought not to judge Laplace by the standard of our own time, and in any case I do not doubt that Laplace might have made a plausible defence. It is well known that when two investigators are working at the same subjects, and constantly publishing their results, it sometimes becomes difficult for each investigator himself to distinguish exactly between what he has accomplished and that which must be credited to his rival. Laplace may probably have said to himself that he was going to devote his energies to a great work on the interpretation of Nature, that it would take all his time and all his faculties, and all the resources of knowledge that he could command, to deal justly with the mighty problems before him. He would not allow himself to be distracted by any side issue. He could not tolerate that pages should be wasted in merely discussing to whom we owe each formula, and to whom each deduction from such formula is due. He would rather endeavour to produce as complete a picture as he possibly could of the celestial mechanics, and whether it were by means of his mathematics alone, or whether the discoveries of others may have contributed in any degree to the result, is a matter so infinitesimally insignificant in comparison with the grandeur of his subject that he would altogether neglect it. “If Lagrange should think,” Laplace might say, “that his discoveries had been unduly appropriated, the proper course would be for him to do exactly what I have done. Let him also write a “Mecanique Celeste,” let him employ those consummate talents which he possesses in developing his noble subject to the utmost. Let him utilise every result that I or any other mathematician have arrived at, but not trouble himself unduly with unimportant historical details as to who discovered this, and who discovered that; let him produce such a work as he could write, and I shall heartily welcome it as a splendid contribution to our science.” Certain it is that Laplace and Lagrange continued the best of friends, and on the death of the latter it was Laplace who was summoned to deliver the funeral oration at the grave of his great rival.

The investigations of Laplace are, generally speaking, of too technical a character to make it possible to set forth any account of them in such a work as the present. He did publish, however, one treatise, called the “Systeme du Monde,” in which, without introducing mathematical symbols, he was able to give a general account of the theories of the celestial movements, and of the discoveries to which he and others had been led. In this work the great French astronomer sketched for the first time that remarkable doctrine by which his name is probably most generally known to those readers of astronomical books who are not specially mathematicians. It is in the “Systeme du Monde” that Laplace laid down the principles of the Nebular Theory which, in modern days, has been generally accepted by those philosophers who are competent to judge, as substantially a correct expression of a great historical fact.


The Nebular Theory gives a physical account of the origin of the solar system, consisting of the sun in the centre, with the planets and their attendant satellites. Laplace perceived the significance of the fact that all the planets revolved in the same direction around the sun; he noticed also that the movements of rotation of the planets on their axes were performed in the same direction as that in which a planet revolves around the sun; he saw that the orbits of the satellites, so far at least as he knew them, revolved around their primaries also in the same direction. Nor did it escape his attention that the sun itself rotated on its axis in the same sense. His philosophical mind was led to reflect that such a remarkable unanimity in the direction of the movements in the solar system demanded some special explanation. It would have been in the highest degree improbable that there should have been this unanimity unless there had been some physical reason to account for it. To appreciate the argument let us first concentrate our attention on three particular bodies, namely the earth, the sun, and the moon. First the earth revolves around the sun in a certain direction, and the earth also rotates on its axis. The direction in which the earth turns in accordance with this latter movement might have been that in which it revolves around the sun, or it might of course have been opposite thereto. As a matter of fact the two agree. The moon in its monthly revolution around the earth follows also the same direction, and our satellite rotates on its axis in the same period as its monthly revolution, but in doing so is again observing this same law. We have therefore in the earth and moon four movements, all taking place in the same direction, and this is also identical with that in which the sun rotates once every twenty-five days. Such a coincidence would be very unlikely unless there were some physical reason for it. Just as unlikely would it be that in tossing a coin five heads or five tails should follow each other consecutively. If we toss a coin five times the chances that it will turn up all heads or all tails is but a small one. The probability of such an event is only one-sixteenth.

There are, however, in the solar system many other bodies besides the three just mentioned which are animated by this common movement. Among them are, of course, the great planets, Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Venus, and Mercury, and the satellites which attend on these planets. All these planets rotate on their axes in the same direction as they revolve around the sun, and all their satellites revolve also in the same way. Confining our attention merely to the earth, the sun, and the five great planets with which Laplace was acquainted, we have no fewer than six motions of revolution and seven motions of rotation, for in the latter we include the rotation of the sun. We have also sixteen satellites of the planets mentioned whose revolutions round their primaries are in the same direction. The rotation of the moon on its axis may also be reckoned, but as to the rotations of the satellites of the other planets we cannot speak with any confidence, as they are too far off to be observed with the necessary accuracy. We have thus thirty circular movements in the solar system connected with the sun and moon and those great planets than which no others were known in the days of Laplace. The significant fact is that all these thirty movements take place in the same direction. That this should be the case without some physical reason would be just as unlikely as that in tossing a coin thirty times it should turn up all heads or all tails every time without exception.

We can express the argument numerically. Calculation proves that such an event would not generally happen oftener than once out of five hundred millions of trials. To a philosopher of Laplace’s penetration, who had made a special study of the theory of probabilities, it seemed well-nigh inconceivable that there should have been such unanimity in the celestial movements, unless there had been some adequate reason to account for it. We might, indeed, add that if we were to include all the objects which are now known to belong to the solar system, the argument from probability might be enormously increased in strength. To Laplace the argument appeared so conclusive that he sought for some physical cause of the remarkable phenomenon which the solar system presented. Thus it was that the famous Nebular Hypothesis took its rise. Laplace devised a scheme for the origin of the sun and the planetary system, in which it would be a necessary consequence that all the movements should take place in the same direction as they are actually observed to do.

Let us suppose that in the beginning there was a gigantic mass of nebulous material, so highly heated that the iron and other substances which now enter into the composition of the earth and planets were then suspended in a state of vapour. There is nothing unreasonable in such a supposition indeed, we know as a matter of fact that there are thousands of such nebulae to be discerned at present through our telescopes. It would be extremely unlikely that any object could exist without possessing some motion of rotation; we may in fact assert that for rotation to be entirety absent from the great primeval nebula would be almost infinitely improbable. As ages rolled on, the nebula gradually dispersed away by radiation its original stores of heat, and, in accordance with well-known physical principles, the materials of which it was formed would tend to coalesce. The greater part of those materials would become concentrated in a mighty mass surrounded by outlying uncondensed vapours. There would, however, also be regions throughout the extent of the nebula, in which subsidiary centres of condensation would be found. In its long course of cooling, the nebula would, therefore, tend ultimately to form a mighty central body with a number of smaller bodies disposed around it. As the nebula was initially endowed with a movement of rotation, the central mass into which it had chiefly condensed would also revolve, and the subsidiary bodies would be animated by movements of revolution around the central body. These movements would be all pursued in one common direction, and it follows, from well-known mechanical principles, that each of the subsidiary masses, besides participating in the general revolution around the central body, would also possess a rotation around its axis, which must likewise be performed in the same direction. Around the subsidiary bodies other objects still smaller would be formed, just as they themselves were formed relatively to the great central mass.

As the ages sped by, and the heat of these bodies became gradually dissipated, the various objects would coalesce, first into molten liquid masses, and thence, at a further stage of cooling, they would assume the appearance of solid masses, thus producing the planetary bodies such as we now know them. The great central mass, on account of its preponderating dimensions, would still retain, for further uncounted ages, a large quantity of its primeval heat, and would thus display the splendours of a glowing sun. In this way Laplace was able to account for the remarkable phenomena presented in the movements of the bodies of the solar system. There are many other points also in which the nebular theory is known to tally with the facts of observation. In fact, each advance in science only seems to make it more certain that the Nebular Hypothesis substantially represents the way in which our solar system has grown to its present form.

Not satisfied with a career which should be merely scientific, Laplace sought to connect himself with public affairs. Napoleon appreciated his genius, and desired to enlist him in the service of the State. Accordingly he appointed Laplace to be Minister of the Interior. The experiment was not successful, for he was not by nature a statesman. Napoleon was much disappointed at the ineptitude which the great mathematician showed for official life, and, in despair of Laplace’s capacity as an administrator, declared that he carried the spirit of his infinitesimal calculus into the management of business. Indeed, Laplace’s political conduct hardly admits of much defence. While he accepted the honours which Napoleon showered on him in the time of his prosperity, he seems to have forgotten all this when Napoleon could no longer render him service. Laplace was made a Marquis by Louis XVIII., a rank which he transmitted to his son, who was born in 1789. During the latter part of his life the philosopher lived in a retired country place at Arcueile. Here he pursued his studies, and by strict abstemiousness, preserved himself from many of the infirmities of old age. He died on March the 5th, 1827, in his seventy-eighth year, his last words being, “What we know is but little, what we do not know is immense.”


Provost Baldwin held absolute sway in the University of Dublin for forty-one years. His memory is well preserved there. The Bursar still dispenses the satisfactory revenues which Baldwin left to the College. None of us ever can forget the marble angels round the figure of the dying Provost on which we used to gaze during the pangs of the Examination Hall.

Baldwin died in 1785, and was succeeded by Francis Andrews, a Fellow of seventeen years’ standing. As to the scholastic acquirements of Andrews, all I can find is a statement that he was complimented by the polite Professors of Padua on the elegance and purity with which he discoursed to them in Latin. Andrews was also reputed to be a skilful lawyer. He was certainly a Privy Councillor and a prominent member of the Irish House of Commons, and his social qualities were excellent. Perhaps it was Baldwin’s example that stimulated a desire in Andrews to become a benefactor to his college. He accordingly bequeathed a sum of 3,000 pounds and an annual income of 250 pounds wherewith to build and endow an astronomical Observatory in the University. The figures just stated ought to be qualified by the words of cautious Ussher (afterwards the first Professor of Astronomy), that “this money was to arise from an accumulation of a part of his property, to commence upon a particular contingency happening to his family.” The astronomical endowment was soon in jeopardy by litigation. Andrews thought he had provided for his relations by leaving to them certain leasehold interests connected with the Provost’s estate. The law courts, however, held that these interests were not at the disposal of the testator, and handed them over to Hely Hutchinson, the next Provost. The disappointed relations then petitioned the Irish Parliament to redress this grievance by transferring to them the moneys designed by Andrews for the Observatory. It would not be right, they contended, that the kindly intentions of the late Provost towards his kindred should be frustrated for the sake of maintaining what they described as “a purely ornamental institution.” The authorities of the College protested against this claim. Counsel were heard, and a Committee of the House made a report declaring the situation of the relations to be a hard one. Accordingly, a compromise was made, and the dispute terminated.

The selection of a site for the new astronomical Observatory was made by the Board of Trinity College. The beautiful neighbourhood of Dublin offered a choice of excellent localities. On the north side of the Liffey an Observatory could have been admirably placed, either on the remarkable promontory of Howth or on the elevation of which Dunsink is the summit. On the south side of Dublin there are several eminences that would have been suitable: the breezy heaths at Foxrock combine all necessary conditions; the obelisk hill at Killiney would have given one of the most picturesque sites for an Observatory in the world; while near Delgany two or three other good situations could be mentioned. But the Board of those pre-railway days was naturally guided by the question of proximity. Dunsink was accordingly chosen as the most suitable site within the distance of a reasonable walk from Trinity College.

The northern boundary of the Phoenix Park approaches the little river Tolka, which winds through a succession of delightful bits of sylvan scenery, such as may be found in the wide demesne of Abbotstown and the classic shades of Glasnevin. From the banks of the Tolka, on the opposite side of the park, the pastures ascend in a gentle slope to culminate at Dunsink, where at a distance of half a mile from the stream, of four miles from Dublin, and at a height of 300 feet above the sea, now stands the Observatory. From the commanding position of Dunsink a magnificent view is obtained. To the east the sea is visible, while the southern prospect over the valley of the Liffey is bounded by a range of hills and mountains extending from Killiney to Bray Head, thence to the little Sugar Loaf, the Two Rock and the Three Rock Mountains, over the flank of which the summit of the Great Sugar Loaf is just perceptible. Directly in front opens the fine valley of Glenasmole, with Kippure Mountain, while the range can be followed to its western extremity at Lyons. The climate of Dunsink is well suited for astronomical observation. No doubt here, as elsewhere in Ireland, clouds are abundant, but mists or haze are comparatively unusual, and fogs are almost unknown.

The legal formalities to be observed in assuming occupation exacted a delay of many months; accordingly, it was not until the 10th December, 1782, that a contract could be made with Mr. Graham Moyers for the erection of a meridian-room and a dome for an equatorial, in conjunction with a becoming residence for the astronomer. Before the work was commenced at Dunsink, the Board thought it expedient to appoint the first Professor of Astronomy. They met for this purpose on the 22nd January, 1783, and chose the Rev. Henry Ussher, a Senior Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin. The wisdom of the appointment was immediately shown by the assiduity with which Ussher engaged in founding the observatory. In three years he had erected the buildings and equipped them with instruments, several of which were of his own invention. On the 19th of February, 1785, a special grant of 200 pounds was made by the Board to Dr. Ussher as some recompense for his labours. It happened that the observatory was not the only scientific institution which came into being in Ireland at this period; the newly-kindled ardour for the pursuit of knowledge led, at the same time, to the foundation of the Royal Irish Academy. By a fitting coincidence, the first memoir published in the “Transactions Of The Royal Irish Academy,” was by the first Andrews, Professor of Astronomy. It was read on the 13th of June, 1785, and bore the title, “Account of the Observatory belonging to Trinity College,” by the Rev. H. Ussher, D.D., M.R.I.A., F.R.S. This communication shows the extensive design that had been originally intended for Dunsink, only a part of which was, however, carried out. For instance, two long corridors, running north and south from the central edifice, which are figured in the paper, never developed into bricks and mortar. We are not told why the original scheme had to be contracted; but perhaps the reason may be not unconnected with a remark of Ussher’s, that the College had already advanced from its own funds a sum considerably exceeding the original bequest. The picture of the building shows also the dome for the South equatorial, which was erected many years later.

Ussher died in 1790. During his brief career at the observatory, he observed eclipses, and is stated to have done other scientific work. The minutes of the Board declare that the infant institution had already obtained celebrity by his labours, and they urge the claims of his widow to a pension, on the ground that the disease from which he died had been contracted by his nightly vigils. The Board also promised a grant of fifty guineas as a help to bring out Dr. Ussher’s sermons. They advanced twenty guineas to his widow towards the publication of his astronomical papers. They ordered his bust to be executed for the observatory, and offered “The Death of Ussher” as the subject of a prize essay; but, so far as I can find, neither the sermons nor the papers, neither the bust nor the prize essay, ever came into being.

There was keen competition for the chair of Astronomy which the death of Ussher vacated. The two candidates were Rev. John Brinkley, of Caius College, Cambridge, a Senior Wrangler (born at Woodbridge, Suffolk, in 1763), and Mr. Stack, Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, and author of a book on Optics. A majority of the Board at first supported Stack, while Provost Hely Hutchinson and one or two others supported Brinkley. In those days the Provost had a veto at elections, so that ultimately Stack was withdrawn and Brinkley was elected. This took place on the 11th December, 1790. The national press of the day commented on the preference shown to the young Englishman, Brinkley, over his Irish rival. An animated controversy ensued. The Provost himself condescended to enter the lists and to vindicate his policy by a long letter in the “Public Register” or “Freeman’s Journal,” of 21st December, 1790. This letter was anonymous, but its authorship is obvious. It gives the correspondence with Maskelyne and other eminent astronomers, whose advice and guidance had been sought by the Provost. It also contends that “the transactions of the Board ought not to be canvassed in the newspapers.” For this reference, as well as for much other information, I am indebted to my friend, the Rev. John Stubbs, D.D.

[PLATE: THE OBSERVATORY, DUNSINK. From a Photograph by W. Lawrence, Upper Sackville Street, Dublin.]

The next event in the history of the Observatory was the issue of Letters Patent (32 Geo. III., A.D. 1792), in which it is recited that “We grant and ordain that there shall be forever hereafter a Professor of Astronomy, on the foundation of Dr. Andrews, to be called and known by the name of the Royal Astronomer of Ireland.” The letters prescribe the various duties of the astronomer and the mode of his election. They lay down regulations as to the conduct of the astronomical work, and as to the choice of an assistant. They direct that the Provost and the Senior Fellows shall make a thorough inspection of the observatory once every year in June or July; and this duty was first undertaken on the 5th of July, 1792. It may be noted that the date on which the celebration of the tercentenary of the University was held happens to coincide with the centenary of the first visitation of the observatory. The visitors on the first occasion were A. Murray, Matthew Young, George Hall, and John Barrett. They record that they find the buildings, books and instruments in good condition; but the chief feature in this report, as well as in many which followed it, related to a circumstance to which we have not yet referred.

In the original equipment of the observatory, Ussher, with the natural ambition of a founder, desired to place in it a telescope of more magnificent proportions than could be found anywhere else. The Board gave a spirited support to this enterprise, and negotiations were entered into with the most eminent instrument-maker of those days. This was Jesse Ramsden (1735-1800), famous as the improver of the sextant, as the constructor of the great theodolite used by General Roy in the English Survey, and as the inventor of the dividing engine for graduating astronomical instruments. Ramsden had built for Sir George Schuckburgh the largest and most perfect equatorial ever attempted. He had constructed mural quadrants for Padua and Verona, which elicited the wonder of astronomers when Dr. Maskelyne declared he could detect no error in their graduation so large as two seconds and a half. But Ramsden maintained that even better results would be obtained by superseding the entire quadrant by the circle. He obtained the means of testing this prediction when he completed a superb circle for Palermo of five feet diameter. Finding his anticipations were realised, he desired to apply the same principles on a still grander scale. Ramsden was in this mood when he met with Dr. Ussher. The enthusiasm of the astronomer and the instrument-maker communicated itself to the Board, and a tremendous circle, to be ten feet in diameter, was forthwith projected.

Projected, but never carried out. After Ramsden had to some extent completed a 10-foot circle, he found such difficulties that he tried a 9-foot, and this again he discarded for an 8-foot, which was ultimately accomplished, though not entirely by himself. Notwithstanding the contraction from the vast proportions originally designed, the completed instrument must still be regarded as a colossal piece of astronomical workmanship. Even at this day I do not know that any other observatory can show a circle eight feet in diameter graduated all round.

I think it is Professor Piazzi Smith who tells us how grateful he was to find a large telescope he had ordered finished by the opticians on the very day they had promised it. The day was perfectly correct; it was only the year that was wrong. A somewhat remarkable experience in this direction is chronicled by the early reports of the visitors to Dunsink Observatory. I cannot find the date on which the great circle was ordered from Ramsden, but it is fixed with sufficient precision by an allusion in Ussher’s paper to the Royal Irish Academy, which shows that by the 13th June, 1785, the order had been given, but that the abandonment of the 10-foot scale had not then been contemplated. It was reasonable that the board should allow Ramsden ample time for the completion of a work at once so elaborate and so novel. It could not have been finished in a year, nor would there have been much reason for complaint if the maker had found he required two or even three years more.

Seven years gone, and still no telescope, was the condition in which the Board found matters at their first visitation in 1792. They had, however, assurances from Ramsden that the instrument would be completed within the year; but, alas for such promises, another seven years rolled on, and in 1799 the place for the great circle was still vacant at Dunsink. Ramsden had fallen into bad health, and the Board considerately directed that “inquiries should be made.” Next year there was still no progress, so the Board were roused to threaten Ramsden with a suit at law; but the menace was never executed, for the malady of the great optician grew worse, and he died that year.

Affairs had now assumed a critical aspect, for the college had advanced much money to Ramsden during these fifteen years, and the instrument was still unfinished. An appeal was made by the Provost to Dr. Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal of England, for his advice and kindly offices in this emergency. Maskelyne responds–in terms calculated to allay the anxiety of the Bursar–“Mr. Ramsden has left property behind him, and the College can be in no danger of losing both their money and the instrument.” The business of Ramsden was then undertaken by Berge, who proceeded to finish the circle quite as deliberately as his predecessor. After four years Berge promised the instrument in the following August, but it did not come. Two years later (1806) the professor complains that he can get no answer from Berge. In 1807, it is stated that Berge will send the telescope in a month. He did not; but in the next year (1808), about twenty-three years after the great circle was ordered, it was erected at Dunsink, where it is still to be seen.

The following circumstances have been authenticated by the signatures