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  • 1895
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of Provosts, Proctors, Bursars, and other College dignitaries:–In 1793 the Board ordered two of the clocks at the observatory to be sent to Mr. Crosthwaite for repairs. Seven years later, in 1800, Mr. Crosthwaite was asked if the clocks were ready. This impatience was clearly unreasonable, for even in four more years, 1804, we find the two clocks were still in hand. Two years later, in 1806, the Board determined to take vigorous action by asking the Bursar to call upon Crosthwaite. This evidently produced some effect, for in the following year, 1807, the Professor had no doubt that the clocks would be speedily returned. After eight years more, in 1815, one of the clocks was still being repaired, and so it was in 1816, which is the last record we have of these interesting timepieces. Astronomers are, however, accustomed to deal with such stupendous periods in their calculations, that even the time taken to repair a clock seems but small in comparison.

The long tenure of the chair of Astronomy by Brinkley is divided into two nearly equal periods by the year in which the great circle was erected. Brinkley was eighteen years waiting for his telescope, and he had eighteen years more in which to use it. During the first of these periods Brinkley devoted himself to mathematical research; during the latter he became a celebrated astronomer. Brinkley’s mathematical labours procured for their author some reputation as a mathematician. They appear to be works of considerable mathematical elegance, but not indicating any great power of original thought. Perhaps it has been prejudicial to Brinkley’s fame in this direction, that he was immediately followed in his chair by so mighty a genius as William Rowan Hamilton.

After the great circle had been at last erected, Brinkley was able to begin his astronomical work in earnest. Nor was there much time to lose. He was already forty-five years old, a year older than was Herschel when he commenced his immortal career at Slough. Stimulated by the consciousness of having the command of an instrument of unique perfection, Brinkley loftily attempted the very highest class of astronomical research. He resolved to measure anew with his own eye and with his own hand the constants of aberration and of nutation. He also strove to solve that great problem of the universe, the discovery of the distance of a fixed star.

These were noble problems, and they were nobly attacked. But to appraise with justice this work of Brinkley, done seventy years ago, we must not apply to it the same criterion as we would think right to apply to similar work were it done now. We do not any longer use Brinkley’s constant of aberration, nor do we now think that Brinkley’s determinations of the star distances were reliable. But, nevertheless, his investigations exercised a marked influence on the progress of science; they stimulated the study of the principles on which exact measurements were to be conducted.

Brinkley had another profession in addition to that of an astronomer. He was a divine. When a man endeavours to pursue two distinct occupations concurrently, it will be equally easy to explain why his career should be successful, or why it should be the reverse. If he succeeds, he will, of course, exemplify the wisdom of having two strings to his bow. Should he fail, it is, of course, because he has attempted to sit on two stools at once. In Brinkley’s case, his two professions must be likened to the two strings rather than to the two stools. It is true that his practical experience of his clerical life was very slender. He had made no attempt to combine the routine of a parish with his labours in the observatory. Nor do we associate a special eminence in any department of religious work with his name. If, however, we are to measure Brinkley’s merits as a divine by the ecclesiastical preferment which he received, his services to theology must have rivalled his services to astronomy. Having been raised step by step in the Church, he was at last appointed to the See of Cloyne, in 1826, as the successor of Bishop Berkeley.

Now, though it was permissible for the Archdeacon to be also the Andrews Professor, yet when the Archdeacon became a Bishop, it was understood that he should transfer his residence from the observatory to the palace. The chair of Astronomy accordingly became vacant. Brinkley’s subsequent career seems to have been devoted entirely to ecclesiastical matters, and for the last ten years of his life he did not contribute a paper to any scientific society. Arago, after a characteristic lament that Brinkley should have forsaken the pursuit of science for the temporal and spiritual attractions of a bishopric, pays a tribute to the conscientiousness of the quondam astronomer, who would not even allow a telescope to be brought into the palace lest his mind should be distracted from his sacred duties.

The good bishop died on the 13th September, 1835. He was buried in the chapel of Trinity College, and a fine monument to his memory is a familiar object at the foot of the noble old staircase of the library. The best memorial of Brinkley is his admirable book on the “Elements of Plane Astronomy.” It passed through many editions in his lifetime, and even at the present day the same work, revised first by Dr. Luby, and more recently by the Rev. Dr. Stubbs and Dr. Brunnow, has a large and well-merited circulation.


This illustrious son of an illustrious father was born at Slough, near Windsor, on the 7th March, 1792. He was the only child of Sir William Herschel, who had married somewhat late in life, as we have already mentioned.

[PLATE: ASTRONOMETER MADE BY SIR J. HERSCHEL to compare the light of certain stars by the intervention of the moon.]

The surroundings among which the young astronomer was reared afforded him an excellent training for that career on which he was to enter, and in which he was destined to attain a fame only less brilliant than that of his father. The circumstances of his youth permitted him to enjoy one great advantage which was denied to the elder Herschel. He was able, from his childhood, to devote himself almost exclusively to intellectual pursuits. William Herschel, in the early part of his career, had only been able to snatch occasional hours for study from his busy life as a professional musician. But the son, having been born with a taste for the student’s life, was fortunate enough to have been endowed with the leisure and the means to enjoy it from the commencement. His early years have been so well described by the late Professor Pritchard in the “Report of the Council of the Royal Astronomical Society for 1872,” that I venture to make an extract here:–

“A few traits of John Herschel’s boyhood, mentioned by himself in his maturer life, have been treasured up by those who were dear to him, and the record of some of them may satisfy a curiosity as pardonable as inevitable, which craves to learn through what early steps great men or great nations become illustrious. His home was singular, and singularly calculated to nurture into greatness any child born as John Herschel was with natural gifts, capable of wide development. At the head of the house there was the aged, observant, reticent philosopher, and rarely far away his devoted sister, Caroline Herschel, whose labours and whose fame are still cognisable as a beneficent satellite to the brighter light of her illustrious brother. It was in the companionship of these remarkable persons, and under the shadow of his father’s wonderful telescope, that John Herschel passed his boyish years. He saw them, in silent but ceaseless industry, busied about things which had no apparent concern with the world outside the walls of that well-known house, but which, at a later period of his life, he, with an unrivalled eloquence, taught his countrymen to appreciate as foremost among those living influences which but satisfy and elevate the noblest instincts of our nature. What sort of intercourse passed between the father and the boy may be gathered from an incident or two which he narrated as having impressed themselves permanently on the memory of his youth. He once asked his father what he thought was the oldest of all things. The father replied, after the Socratic method, by putting another question: ‘And what do you yourself suppose is the oldest of all things?’ The boy was not successful in his answers, thereon the old astronomer took up a small stone from the garden walk: ‘There, my child, there is the oldest of all the things that I certainly know.’ On another occasion his father is said to have asked the boy, ‘What sort of things, do you think, are most alike?’ The delicate, blue-eyed boy, after a short pause, replied, ‘The leaves of the same tree are most like each other.’ ‘Gather, then, a handful of leaves of that tree,’ rejoined the philosopher, ‘and choose two that are alike.’ The boy failed; but he hid the lesson in his heart, and his thoughts were revealed after many days. These incidents may be trifles; nor should we record them here had not John Herschel himself, though singularly reticent about his personal emotions, recorded them as having made a strong impression on his mind. Beyond all doubt we can trace therein, first, that grasp and grouping of many things in one, implied in the stone as the oldest of things; and, secondly, that fine and subtle discrimination of each thing out of many like things as forming the main features which characterized the habit of our venerated friend’s philosophy.”

John Herschel entered St. John’s College, Cambridge, when he was seventeen years of age. His university career abundantly fulfilled his father’s eager desire, that his only son should develop a capacity for the pursuit of science. After obtaining many lesser distinctions, he finally came out as Senior Wrangler in 1813. It was, indeed, a notable year in the mathematical annals of the University. Second on that list, in which Herschel’s name was first, appeared that of the illustrious Peacock, afterwards Dean of Ely, who remained throughout life one of Herschel’s most intimate friends.

Almost immediately after taking his degree, Herschel gave evidence of possessing a special aptitude for original scientific investigation. He sent to the Royal Society a mathematical paper which was published in the PHILOSOPHICAL TRANSACTIONS. Doubtless the splendour that attached to the name he bore assisted him in procuring early recognition of his own great powers. Certain it is that he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society at the unprecedentedly early age of twenty-one. Even after this remarkable encouragement to adopt a scientific career as the business of his life, it does not seem that John Herschel at first contemplated devoting himself exclusively to science. He commenced to prepare for the profession of the Law by entering as a student at the Middle Temple, and reading with a practising barrister.

But a lawyer John Herschel was not destined to become. Circumstances brought him into association with some leading scientific men. He presently discovered that his inclinations tended more and more in the direction of purely scientific pursuits. Thus it came to pass that the original intention as to the calling which he should follow was gradually abandoned. Fortunately for science Herschel found its pursuit so attractive that he was led, as his father had been before him, to give up his whole life to the advancement of knowledge. Nor was it unnatural that a Senior Wrangler, who had once tasted the delights of mathematical research, should have been tempted to devote much time to this fascinating pursuit. By the time John Herschel was twenty-nine he had published so much mathematical work, and his researches were considered to possess so much merit, that the Royal Society awarded him the Copley Medal, which was the highest distinction it was capable of conferring.

At the death of his father in 1822, John Herschel, with his tastes already formed for a scientific career, found himself in the possession of ample means. To him also passed all his father’s great telescopes and apparatus. These material aids, together with a dutiful sense of filial obligation, decided him to make practical astronomy the main work of his life. He decided to continue to its completion that great survey of the heavens which had already been inaugurated, and, indeed, to a large extent accomplished, by his father.

The first systematic piece of practical astronomical work which John Herschel undertook was connected with the measurement of what are known as “Double Stars.” It should be observed, that there are in the heavens a number of instances in which two stars are seen in very close association. In the case of those objects to which the expression “Double Stars” is generally applied, the two luminous points are so close together that even though they might each be quite bright enough to be visible to the unaided eye, yet their proximity is such that they cannot be distinguished as two separate objects without optical aid. The two stars seem fused together into one. In the telescope, however, the bodies may be discerned separately, though they are frequently so close together that it taxes the utmost power of the instrument to indicate the division between them.

The appearance presented by a double star might arise from the circumstance that the two stars, though really separated from each other by prodigious distances, happened to lie nearly in the same line of vision, as seen from our point of view. No doubt, many of the so-called double stars could be accounted for on this supposition. Indeed, in the early days when but few double stars were known, and when telescopes were not powerful enough to exhibit the numerous close doubles which have since been brought to light, there seems to have been a tendency to regard all double stars as merely such perspective effects. It was not at first suggested that there could be any physical connection between the components of each pair. The appearance presented was regarded as merely due to the circumstance that the line joining the two bodies happened to pass near the earth.


In the early part of his career, Sir William Herschel seems to have entertained the view then generally held by other astronomers with regard to the nature of these stellar pairs. The great observer thought that the double stars could therefore be made to afford a means of solving that problem in which so many of the observers of the skies had been engaged, namely, the determination of the distances of the stars from the earth. Herschel saw that the displacement of the earth in its annual movement round the sun would produce an apparent shift in the place of the nearer of the two stars relatively to the other, supposed to be much more remote. If this shift could be measured, then the distance of the nearer of the stars could be estimated with some degree of precision.

As has not unfrequently happened in the history of science, an effect was perceived of a very different nature from that which had been anticipated. If the relative places of the two stars had been apparently deranged merely in consequence of the motion of the earth, then the phenomenon would be an annual one. After the lapse of a year the two stars would have regained their original relative positions. This was the effect for which William Herschel was looking. In certain of the so called double stars, he, no doubt, did find a movement. He detected the remarkable fact that both the apparent distance and the relative positions of the two bodies were changing. But what was his surprise to observe that these alterations were not of an annually periodic character. It became evident then that in some cases one of the component stars was actually revolving around the other, in an orbit which required many years for its completion. Here was indeed a remarkable discovery. It was clearly impossible to suppose that movements of this kind could be mere apparent displacements, arising from the annual shift in our point of view, in consequence of the revolution of the earth. Herschel’s discovery established the interesting fact that, in certain of these double stars, or binary stars, as these particular objects are more expressively designated, there is an actual orbital revolution of a character similar to that which the earth performs around the sun. Thus it was demonstrated that in these particular double stars the nearness of the two components was not merely apparent. The objects must actually lie close together at a distance which is small in comparison with the distance at which either of them is separated from the earth. The fact that the heavens contain pairs of twin suns in mutual revolution was thus brought to light.

In consequence of this beautiful discovery, the attention of astronomers was directed to the subject of double stars with a degree of interest which these objects had never before excited. It was therefore not unnatural that John Herschel should have been attracted to this branch of astronomical work. Admiration for his father’s discovery alone might have suggested that the son should strive to develop this territory newly opened up to research. But it also happened that the mathematical talents of the younger Herschel inclined his inquiries in the same direction. He saw clearly that, when sufficient observations of any particular binary star had been accumulated, it would then be within the power of the mathematician to elicit from those observations the shape and the position in space of the path which each of the revolving stars described around the other. Indeed, in some cases he would be able to perform the astonishing feat of determining from his calculations the weight of these distant suns, and thus be enabled to compare them with the mass of our own sun.


But this work must follow the observations, it could not precede them. The first step was therefore to observe and to measure with the utmost care the positions and distances of those particular double stars which appear to offer the greatest promise in this particular research. In 1821, Herschel and a friend of his, Mr. James South, agreed to work together with this object. South was a medical man with an ardent devotion to science, and possessed of considerable wealth. He procured the best astronomical instruments that money could obtain, and became a most enthusiastic astronomer and a practical observer of tremendous energy.

South and John Herschel worked together for two years in the observation and measurement of the double stars discovered by Sir William Herschel. In the course of this time their assiduity was rewarded by the accumulation of so great a mass of careful measurements that when published, they formed quite a volume in the “Philosophical Transactions.” The value and accuracy of the work, when estimated by standards which form proper criteria for that period, is universally recognised. It greatly promoted the progress of sidereal astronomy, and the authors were in consequence awarded medals from the Royal Society, and the Royal Astronomical Society, as well as similar testimonials from various foreign institutions.

This work must, however, be regarded as merely introductory to the main labours of John Herschel’s life. His father devoted the greater part of his years as an observer to what he called his “sweeps” of the heavens. The great reflecting telescope, twenty feet long, was moved slowly up and down through an arc of about two degrees towards and from the pole, while the celestial panorama passed slowly in the course of the diurnal motion before the keenly watching eye of the astronomer. Whenever a double star traversed the field Herschel described it to his sister Caroline, who, as we have already mentioned, was his invariable assistant in his midnight watches. When a nebula appeared, then he estimated its size and its brightness, he noticed whether it had a nucleus, or whether it had stars disposed in any significant manner with regard to it. He also dictated any other circumstance which he deemed worthy of record. These observations were duly committed to writing by the same faithful and indefatigable scribe, whose business it also was to take a memorandum of the exact position of the object as indicated by a dial placed in front of her desk, and connected with the telescope.

John Herschel undertook the important task of re-observing the various double stars and nebulae which had been discovered during these memorable vigils. The son, however, lacked one inestimable advantage which had been possessed by the father. John Herschel had no assistant to discharge all those duties which Caroline had so efficiently accomplished. He had, therefore, to modify the system of sweeping previously adopted in order to enable all the work both of observing and of recording to be done by himself. This, in many ways, was a great drawback to the work of the younger astronomer. The division of labour between the observer and the scribe enables a greatly increased quantity of work to be got through. It is also distinctly disadvantageous to an observer to have to use his eye at the telescope directly after he has been employing it for reading the graduations on a circle, by the light of a lamp, or for entering memoranda in a note book. Nebulae, especially, are often so excessively faint that they can only be properly observed by an eye which is in that highly sensitive condition which is obtained by long continuance in darkness. The frequent withdrawal of the eye from the dark field of the telescope, and the application of it to reading by artificial light, is very prejudicial to its use for the more delicate purpose. John Herschel, no doubt, availed himself of every precaution to mitigate the ill effects of this inconvenience as much as possible, but it must have told upon his labours as compared with those of his father.

But nevertheless John Herschel did great work during his “sweeps.” He was specially particular to note all the double stars which presented themselves to his observation. Of course some little discretion must be allowed in deciding as to what degree of proximity in adjacent stars does actually bring them within the category of “double stars.” Sir John set down all such objects as seemed to him likely to be of interest, and the results of his discoveries in this branch of astronomy amount to some thousands. Six or seven great memoirs in the TRANSACTIONS of the Royal Astronomical Society have been devoted to giving an account of his labours in this department of astronomy.

[PLATE: THE CLUSTER IN THE CENTAUR, drawn by Sir John Herschel.]

One of the achievements by which Sir John Herschel is best known is his invention of a method by which the orbits of binary stars could be determined. It will be observed that when one star revolves around another in consequence of the law of gravitation, the orbit described must be an ellipse. This ellipse, however, generally speaking, appears to us more or less foreshortened, for it is easily seen that only under highly exceptional circumstances would the plane in which the stars move happen to be directly square to the line of view. It therefore follows that what we observe is not exactly the track of one star around the other; it is rather the projection of that track as seen on the surface of the sky. Now it is remarkable that this apparent path is still an ellipse. Herschel contrived a very ingenious and simple method by which he could discover from the observations the size and position of the ellipse in which the revolution actually takes place. He showed how, from the study of the apparent orbit of the star, and from certain measurements which could easily be effected upon it, the determination of the true ellipse in which the movement is performed could be arrived at. In other words, Herschel solved in a beautiful manner the problem of finding the true orbits of double stars. The importance of this work may be inferred from the fact that it has served as the basis on which scores of other investigators have studied the fascinating subject of the movement of binary stars.

The labours, both in the discovery and measurement of the double stars, and in the discussion of the observations with the object of finding the orbits of such stars as are in actual revolution, received due recognition in yet another gold medal awarded by the Royal Society. An address was delivered on the occasion by the Duke of Sussex (30th November, 1833), in the course of which, after stating that the medal had been conferred on Sir John Herschel, he remarks:–

“It has been said that distance of place confers the same privilege as distance of time, and I should gladly avail myself of the privilege which is thus afforded me by Sir John Herschel’s separation from his country and friends, to express my admiration of his character in stronger terms than I should otherwise venture to use; for the language of panegyric, however sincerely it may flow from the heart, might be mistaken for that of flattery, if it could not thus claim somewhat of an historical character; but his great attainments in almost every department of human knowledge, his fine powers as a philosophical writer, his great services and his distinguished devotion to science, the high principles which have regulated his conduct in every relation of life, and, above all, his engaging modesty, which is the crown of all his other virtues, presenting such a model of an accomplished philosopher as can rarely be found beyond the regions of fiction, demand abler pens than mine to describe them in adequate terms, however much inclined I might feel to undertake the task.”

The first few lines of the eulogium just quoted allude to Herschel’s absence from England. This was not merely an episode of interest in the career of Herschel, it was the occasion of one of the greatest scientific expeditions in the whole history of astronomy.

Herschel had, as we have seen, undertaken a revision of his father’s “sweeps” for new objects, in those skies which are visible from our latitudes in the northern hemisphere. He had well-nigh completed this task. Zone by zone the whole of the heavens which could be observed from Windsor had passed under his review. He had added hundreds to the list of nebulae discovered by his father. He had announced thousands of double stars. At last, however, the great survey was accomplished. The contents of the northern hemisphere, so far at least as they could be disclosed by his telescope of twenty feet focal length, had been revealed.


But Herschel felt that this mighty task had to be supplemented by another of almost equal proportions, before it could be said that the twenty-foot telescope had done its work. It was only the northern half of the celestial sphere which had been fully explored. The southern half was almost virgin territory, for no other astronomer was possessed of a telescope of such power as those which the Herschels had used. It is true, of course, that as a certain margin of the southern hemisphere was visible from these latitudes, it had been more or less scrutinized by observers in northern skies. And the glimpses which had thus been obtained of the celestial objects in the southern sky, were such as to make an eager astronomer long for a closer acquaintance with the celestial wonders of the south. The most glorious object in the sidereal heavens, the Great Nebula in Orion, lies indeed in that southern hemisphere to which the younger Herschel’s attention now became directed. It fortunately happens, however, for votaries of astronomy all the world over, that Nature has kindly placed her most astounding object, the great Nebula in Orion, in such a favoured position, near the equator, that from a considerable range of latitudes, both north and south, the wonders of the Nebula can be explored. There are grounds for thinking that the southern heavens contain noteworthy objects which, on the whole, are nearer to the solar system than are the noteworthy objects in the northern skies. The nearest star whose distance is known, Alpha Centauri, lies in the southern hemisphere, and so also does the most splendid cluster of stars.

Influenced by the desire to examine these objects, Sir John Herschel determined to take his great telescope to a station in the southern hemisphere, and thus complete his survey of the sidereal heavens. The latitude of the Cape of Good Hope is such that a suitable site could be there found for his purpose. The purity of the skies in South Africa promised to provide for the astronomer those clear nights which his delicate task of surveying the nebulae would require.

On November 13, 1833, Sir John Herschel, who had by this time received the honour of knighthood from William IV., sailed from Portsmouth for the Cape of Good Hope, taking with him his gigantic instruments. After a voyage of two months, which was considered to be a fair passage in those days, he landed in Table Bay, and having duly reconnoitred various localities, he decided to place his observatory at a place called Feldhausen, about six miles from Cape Town, near the base of the Table Mountain. A commodious residence was there available, and in it he settled with his family. A temporary building was erected to contain the equatorial, but the great twenty-foot telescope was accommodated with no more shelter than is provided by the open canopy of heaven.

As in his earlier researches at home, the attention of the great astronomer at the Cape of Good Hope was chiefly directed to the measurement of the relative positions and distances apart of the double stars, and to the close examination of the nebulae. In the delineation of the form of these latter objects Herschel found ample employment for his skilful pencil. Many of the drawings he has made of the celestial wonders in the southern sky are admirable examples of celestial portraiture.

The number of the nebulae and of those kindred objects, the star clusters, which Herschel studied in the southern heavens, during four years of delightful labour, amount in all to one thousand seven hundred and seven. His notes on their appearance, and the determinations of their positions, as well as his measurements of double stars, and much other valuable astronomical research, were published in a splendid volume, brought out at the cost of the Duke of Northumberland. This is, indeed, a monumental work, full of interesting and instructive reading for any one who has a taste for astronomy.

Herschel had the good fortune to be at the Cape on the occasion of the periodical return of Halley’s great comet in 1833. To the study of this body he gave assiduous attention, and the records of his observations form one of the most interesting chapters in that remarkable volume to which we have just referred.

[PLATE: COLUMN AT FELDHAUSEN, CAPE TOWN, to commemorate Sir John Herschel’s survey of the Southern Heavens.]

Early in 1838 Sir John Herschel returned to England. He had made many friends at the Cape, who deeply sympathised with his self- imposed labours while he was resident among them. They desired to preserve the recollection of this visit, which would always, they considered, be a source of gratification in the colony. Accordingly, a number of scientific friends in that part of the world raised a monument with a suitable inscription, on the spot which had been occupied by the great twenty-foot reflector at Feldhausen.

His return to England after five years of absence was naturally an occasion for much rejoicing among the lovers of astronomy. He was entertained at a memorable banquet, and the Queen, at her coronation, made him a baronet. His famous aunt Caroline, at that time aged eighty, was still in the enjoyment of her faculties, and was able to estimate at its true value the further lustre which was added to the name she bore. But there is reason to believe that her satisfaction was not quite unmixed with other feelings. With whatever favour she might regard her nephew, he was still not the brother to whom her life had been devoted. So jealous was this vigorous old lady of the fame of the great brother William, that she could hardly hear with patience of the achievements of any other astronomer, and this failing existed in some degree even when that other astronomer happened to be her illustrious nephew.

With Sir John Herschel’s survey of the Southern Hemisphere it may be said that his career as an observing astronomer came to a close. He did not again engage in any systematic telescopic research. But it must not be inferred from this statement that he desisted from active astronomical work. It has been well observed that Sir John Herschel was perhaps the only astronomer who has studied with success, and advanced by original research, every department of the great science with which his name is associated. It was to some other branches of astronomy besides those concerned with looking through telescopes, that the rest of the astronomer’s life was to be devoted.

To the general student Sir John Herschel is best known by the volume which he published under the title of “Outlines of Astronomy.” This is, indeed, a masterly work, in which the characteristic difficulties of the subject are resolutely faced and expounded with as much simplicity as their nature will admit. As a literary effort this work is admirable, both on account of its picturesque language and the ennobling conceptions of the universe which it unfolds. The student who desires to become acquainted with those recondite departments of astronomy, in which the effects of the disturbing action of one planet upon the motions of another planet are considered, will turn to the chapters in Herschel’s famous work on the subject. There he will find this complex matter elucidated, without resort to difficult mathematics. Edition after edition of this valuable work has appeared, and though the advances of modern astronomy have left it somewhat out of date in certain departments, yet the expositions it contains of the fundamental parts of the science still remain unrivalled.

Another great work which Sir John undertook after his return from the Cape, was a natural climax to those labours on which his father and he had been occupied for so many years. We have already explained how the work of both these observers had been mainly devoted to the study of the nebulae and the star clusters. The results of their discoveries had been announced to the world in numerous isolated memoirs. The disjointed nature of these publications made their use very inconvenient. But still it was necessary for those who desired to study the marvellous objects discovered by the Herschels, to have frequent recourse to the original works. To incorporate all the several observations of nebular into one great systematic catalogue, seemed, therefore, to be an indispensable condition of progress in this branch of knowledge. No one could have been so fitted for this task as Sir John Herschel. He, therefore, attacked and carried through the great undertaking. Thus at last a grand catalogue of nebulae and clusters was produced. Never before was there so majestic an inventory. If we remember that each of the nebulae is an object so vast, that the whole of the solar system would form an inconsiderable speck by comparison, what are we to think of a collection in which these objects are enumerated in thousands? In this great catalogue we find arranged in systematic order all the nebulae and all the clusters which had been revealed by the diligence of the Herschels, father and son, in the Northern Hemisphere, and of the son alone in the Southern Hemisphere. Nor should we omit to mention that the labours of other astronomers were likewise incorporated. It was unavoidable that the descriptions given to each of the objects should be very slight. Abbreviations are used, which indicate that a nebula is bright, or very bright, or extremely bright, or faint, or very faint, or extremely faint. Such phrases have certainly but a relative and technical meaning in such a catalogue. The nebulae entered as extremely bright by the experienced astronomer are only so described by way of contrast to the great majority of these delicate telescopic objects. Most of the nebulae, indeed, are so difficult to see, that they admit of but very slight description. It should be observed that Herschel’s catalogue augmented the number of known nebulous objects to more than ten times that collected into any catalogue which had ever been compiled before the days of William Herschel’s observing began. But the study of these objects still advances, and the great telescopes now in use could probably show at least twice as many of these objects as are contained in the list of Herschel, of which a new and enlarged edition has since been brought out by Dr. Dreyer.

One of the best illustrations of Sir John Herschel’s literary powers is to be found in the address which he delivered at the Royal Astronomical Society, on the occasion of presenting a medal to Mr. Francis Baily, in recognition of his catalogue of stars. The passage I shall here cite places in its proper aspect the true merit of the laborious duty involved in such a task as that which Mr. Baily had carried through with such success:–

“If we ask to what end magnificent establishments are maintained by states and sovereigns, furnished with masterpieces of art, and placed under the direction of men of first-rate talent and high-minded enthusiasm, sought out for those qualities among the foremost in the ranks of science, if we demand QUI BONO? for what good a Bradley has toiled, or a Maskelyne or a Piazzi has worn out his venerable age in watching, the answer is–not to settle mere speculative points in the doctrine of the universe; not to cater for the pride of man by refined inquiries into the remoter mysteries of nature; not to trace the path of our system through space, or its history through past and future eternities. These, indeed, are noble ends and which I am far from any thought of depreciating; the mind swells in their contemplation, and attains in their pursuit an expansion and a hardihood which fit it for the boldest enterprise. But the direct practical utility of such labours is fully worthy of their speculative grandeur. The stars are the landmarks of the universe; and, amidst the endless and complicated fluctuations of our system, seem placed by its Creator as guides and records, not merely to elevate our minds by the contemplation of what is vast, but to teach us to direct our actions by reference to what is immutable in His works. It is, indeed, hardly possible to over-appreciate their value in this point of view. Every well-determined star, from the moment its place is registered, becomes to the astronomer, the geographer, the navigator, the surveyor, a point of departure which can never deceive or fail him, the same for ever and in all places, of a delicacy so extreme as to be a test for every instrument yet invented by man, yet equally adapted for the most ordinary purposes; as available for regulating a town clock as for conducting a navy to the Indies; as effective for mapping down the intricacies of a petty barony as for adjusting the boundaries of Transatlantic empires. When once its place has been thoroughly ascertained and carefully recorded, the brazen circle with which that useful work was done may moulder, the marble pillar may totter on its base, and the astronomer himself survive only in the gratitude of posterity; but the record remains, and transfuses all its own exactness into every determination which takes it for a groundwork, giving to inferior instruments–nay, even to temporary contrivances, and to the observations of a few weeks or days–all the precision attained originally at the cost of so much time, labour, and expense.”

Sir John Herschel wrote many other works besides those we have mentioned. His “Treatise on Meteorology” is, indeed, a standard work on this subject, and numerous articles from the same pen on miscellaneous subjects, which have been collected and reprinted, seemed as a relaxation from his severe scientific studies. Like certain other great mathematicians Herschel was also a poet, and he published a translation of the Iliad into blank verse.

In his later years Sir John Herschel lived a retired life. For a brief period he had, indeed, been induced to accept the office of Master of the Mint. It was, however, evident that the routine of such an occupation was not in accordance with his tastes, and he gladly resigned it, to return to the seclusion of his study in his beautiful home at Collingwood, in Kent.

His health having gradually failed, he died on the 11th May, 1871, in the seventy-ninth year of his age.


The subject of our present sketch occupies quite a distinct position in scientific history. Unlike many others who have risen by their scientific discoveries from obscurity to fame, the great Earl of Rosse was himself born in the purple. His father, who, under the title of Sir Lawrence Parsons, had occupied a distinguished position in the Irish Parliament, succeeded on the death of his father to the Earldom which had been recently created. The subject of our present memoir was, therefore, the third of the Earls of Rosse, and he was born in York on June 17, 1800. Prior to his father’s death in 1841, he was known as Lord Oxmantown.

The University education of the illustrious astronomer was begun in Dublin and completed at Oxford. We do not hear in his case of any very remarkable University career. Lord Rosse was, however, a diligent student, and obtained a first-class in mathematics. He always took a great deal of interest in social questions, and was a profound student of political economy. He had a seat in the House of Commons, as member for King’s County, from 1821 to 1834, his ancestral estate being situated in this part of Ireland.


Lord Rosse was endowed by nature with a special taste for mechanical pursuits. Not only had he the qualifications of a scientific engineer, but he had the manual dexterity which qualified him personally to carry out many practical arts. Lord Rosse was, in fact, a skilful mechanic, an experienced founder, and an ingenious optician. His acquaintances were largely among those who were interested in mechanical pursuits, and it was his delight to visit the works or engineering establishments where refined processes in the arts were being carried on. It has often been stated–and as I have been told by members of his family, truly stated–that on one occasion, after he had been shown over some large works in the north of England, the proprietor bluntly said that he was greatly in want of a foreman, and would indeed be pleased if his visitor, who had evinced such extraordinary capacity for mechanical operations, would accept the post. Lord Rosse produced his card, and gently explained that he was not exactly the right man, but he appreciated the compliment, and this led to a pleasant dinner, and was the basis of a long friendship.

I remember on one occasion hearing Lord Rosse explain how it was that he came to devote his attention to astronomy. It appears that when he found himself in the possession of leisure and of means, he deliberately cast around to think how that means and that leisure could be most usefully employed. Nor was it surprising that he should search for a direction which would offer special scope for his mechanical tastes. He came to the conclusion that the building of great telescopes was an art which had received no substantial advance since the great days of William Herschel. He saw that to construct mighty instruments for studying the heavens required at once the command of time and the command of wealth, while he also felt that this was a subject the inherent difficulties of which would tax to the uttermost whatever mechanical skill he might possess. Thus it was he decided that the construction of great telescopes should become the business of his life.



In the centre of Ireland, seventy miles from Dublin, on the border between King’s County and Tipperary, is a little town whereof we must be cautious before writing the name. The inhabitants of that town frequently insist that its name is Birr, * while the official designation is Parsonstown, and to this day for every six people who apply one name to the town, there will be half a dozen who use the other. But whichever it may be, Birr or Parsonstown–and I shall generally call it by the latter name–it is a favourable specimen of an Irish county town. The widest street is called the Oxmantown Mall. It is bordered by the dwelling-houses of the chief residents, and adorned with rows of stately trees. At one end of this distinctly good feature in the town is the Parish Church, while at the opposite end are the gates leading into Birr Castle, the ancestral home of the house of Parsons. Passing through the gates the visitor enters a spacious demesne, possessing much beauty of wood and water, one of the most pleasing features being the junction of the two rivers, which unite at a spot ornamented by beautiful timber. At various points illustrations of the engineering skill of the great Earl will be observed. The beauty of the park has been greatly enhanced by the construction of an ample lake, designed with the consummate art by which art is concealed. Even in mid-summer it is enlivened by troops of wild ducks preening themselves in that confidence which they enjoy in those happy localities where the sound of a gun is seldom heard. The water is led into the lake by a tube which passes under one of the two rivers just mentioned, while the overflow from the lake turns a water-wheel, which works a pair of elevators ingeniously constructed for draining the low-lying parts of the estate.

* Considering the fame acquired by Parsonstown from Lord Rosse’s mirrors, it may be interesting to note the following extract from “The Natural History of Ireland,” by Dr. Gerard Boate, Thomas Molyneux M.D., F.R.S., and others, which shows that 150 years ago Parsonstown was famous for its glass:–

“We shall conclude this chapter with the glass, there having been several glasshouses set up by the English in Ireland, none in Dublin or other cities, but all of them in the country; amongst which the principal was that of Birre, a market town, otherwise called Parsonstown, after one Sir Lawrence Parsons, who, having purchased that lordship, built a goodly house upon it; his son William Parsons having succeeded him in the possession of it; which town is situate in Queen’s County, about fifty miles (Irish) to the southwest of Dublin, upon the borders of the two provinces of Leinster and Munster; from this place Dublin was furnished with all sorts of window and drinking glasses, and such other as commonly are in use. One part of the materials, viz., the sand, they had out of England; the other, to wit the ashes, they made in the place of ash-tree, and used no other. The chiefest difficulty was to get the clay for the pots to melt the materials in; this they had out of the north.”–Chap. XXI., Sect. VIII. “Of the Glass made in Ireland.”

Birr Castle itself is a noble mansion with reminiscences from the time of Cromwell. It is surrounded by a moat and a drawbridge of modern construction, and from its windows beautiful views can be had over the varied features of the park. But while the visitors to Parsonstown will look with great interest on this residence of an Irish landlord, whose delight it was to dwell in his own country, and among his own people, yet the feature which they have specially come to observe is not to be found in the castle itself. On an extensive lawn, sweeping down from the moat towards the lake, stand two noble masonry walls. They are turreted and clad with ivy, and considerably loftier than any ordinary house. As the visitor approaches, he will see between those walls what may at first sight appear to him to be the funnel of a steamer lying down horizontally. On closer approach he will find that it is an immense wooden tube, sixty feet long, and upwards of six feet in diameter. It is in fact large enough to admit of a tall man entering into it and walking erect right through from one end to the other. This is indeed the most gigantic instrument which has ever been constructed for the purpose of exploring the heavens. Closely adjoining the walls between which the great tube swings, is a little building called “The Observatory.” In this the smaller instruments are contained, and there are kept the books which are necessary for reference. The observatory also offers shelter to the observers, and provides the bright fire and the cup of warm tea, which are so acceptable in the occasional intervals of a night’s observation passed on the top of the walls with no canopy but the winter sky.

Almost the first point which would strike the visitor to Lord Rosse’s telescope is that the instrument at which he is looking is not only enormously greater than anything of the kind that he has ever seen before, but also that it is something of a totally different nature. In an ordinary telescope he is accustomed to find a tube with lenses of glass at either end, while the large telescopes that we see in our observatories are also in general constructed on the same principle. At one end there is the object-glass, and at the other end the eye-piece, and of course it is obvious that with an instrument of this construction it is to the lower end of the tube that the eye of the observer must be placed when the telescope is pointed to the skies. But in Lord Rosse’s telescope you would look in vain for these glasses, and it is not at the lower end of the instrument that you are to take your station when you are going to make your observations. The astronomer at Parsonstown has rather to avail himself of the ingenious system of staircases and galleries, by which he is enabled to obtain access to the mouth of the great tube. The colossal telescope which swings between the great walls, like Herschel’s great telescope already mentioned, is a reflector, the original invention of which is due of course to Newton. The optical work which is accomplished by the lenses in the ordinary telescope is effected in the type of instrument constructed by Lord Rosse by a reflecting mirror which is placed at the lower end of the vast tube. The mirror in this instrument is made of a metal consisting of two parts of copper to one of tin. As we have already seen, this mixture forms an alloy of a very peculiar nature. The copper and the tin both surrender their distinctive qualities, and unite to form a material of a very different physical character. The copper is tough and brown, the tin is no doubt silvery in hue, but soft and almost fibrous in texture. When the two metals are mixed together in the proportions I have stated, the alloy obtained is intensely hard and quite brittle being in both these respects utterly unlike either of the two ingredients of which it is composed. It does, however, resemble the tin in its whiteness, but it acquires a lustre far brighter than tin; in fact, this alloy hardly falls short of silver itself in its brilliance when polished.

[PLATE: LORD ROSSE’S TELESCOPE. From a photograph by W. Lawrence, Upper Sackville Street, Dublin.]

The first duty that Lord Rosse had to undertake was the construction of this tremendous mirror, six feet across, and about four or five inches thick. The dimensions were far in excess of those which had been contemplated in any previous attempt of the same kind. Herschel had no doubt fashioned one mirror of four feet in diameter, and many others of smaller dimensions, but the processes which he employed had never been fully published, and it was obvious that, with a large increase in dimensions, great additional difficulties had to be encountered. Difficulties began at the very commencement of the process, and were experienced in one form or another at every subsequent stage. In the first place, the mere casting of a great disc of this mixture of tin and copper, weighing something like three or four tons, involved very troublesome problems. No doubt a casting of this size, if the material had been, for example, iron, would have offered no difficulties beyond those with which every practical founder is well acquainted, and which he has to encounter daily in the course of his ordinary work. But speculum metal is a material of a very intractable description. There is, of course, no practical difficulty in melting the copper, nor in adding the proper proportion of tin when the copper has been melted. There may be no great difficulty in arranging an organization by which several crucibles, filled with the molten material, shall be poured simultaneously so as to obtain the requisite mass of metal, but from this point the difficulties begin. For speculum metal when cold is excessively brittle, and were the casting permitted to cool like an ordinary copper or iron casting, the mirror would inevitably fly into pieces. Lord Rosse, therefore, found it necessary to anneal the casting with extreme care by allowing it to cool very slowly. This was accomplished by drawing the disc of metal as soon as it had entered into the solid state, though still glowing red, into an annealing oven. There the temperature was allowed to subside so gradually, that six weeks elapsed before the mirror had reached the temperature of the external air. The necessity for extreme precaution in the operation of annealing will be manifest if we reflect on one of the accidents which happened. On a certain occasion, after the cooling of a great casting had been completed, it was found, on withdrawing the speculum, that it was cracked into two pieces. This mishap was eventually traced to the fact that one of the walls of the oven had only a single brick in its thickness, and that therefore the heat had escaped more easily through that side than through the other sides which were built of double thickness. The speculum had, consequently, not cooled uniformly, and hence the fracture had resulted. Undeterred, however, by this failure, as well as by not a few other difficulties, into a description of which we cannot now enter, Lord Rosse steadily adhered to his self-imposed task, and at last succeeded in casting two perfect discs on which to commence the tedious processes of grinding and polishing. The magnitude of the operations involved may perhaps be appreciated if I mention that the value of the mere copper and tin entering into the composition of each of the mirrors was about 500 pounds.

In no part of his undertaking was Lord Rosse’s mechanical ingenuity more taxed than in the devising of the mechanism for carrying out the delicate operations of grinding and polishing the mirrors, whose casting we have just mentioned. In the ordinary operations of the telescope-maker, such processes had hitherto been generally effected by hand, but, of course, such methods became impossible when dealing with mirrors which were as large as a good-sized dinner table, and whose weight was measured by tons. The rough grinding was effected by means of a tool of cast iron about the same size as the mirror, which was moved by suitable machinery both backwards and forwards, and round and round, plenty of sand and water being supplied between the mirror and the tool to produce the necessary attrition. As the process proceeded and as the surface became smooth, emery was used instead of sand; and when this stage was complete, the grinding tool was removed and the polishing tool was substituted. The essential part of this was a surface of pitch, which, having been temporarily softened by heat, was then placed on the mirror, and accepted from the mirror the proper form. Rouge was then introduced as the polishing powder, and the operation was continued about nine hours, by which time the great mirror had acquired the appearance of highly polished silver. When completed, the disc of speculum metal was about six feet across and four inches thick. The depression in the centre was about half an inch. Mounted on a little truck, the great speculum was then conveyed to the instrument, to be placed in its receptacle at the bottom of the tube, the length of which was sixty feet, this being the focal distance of the mirror. Another small reflector was inserted in the great tube sideways, so as to direct the gaze of the observer down upon the great reflector. Thus was completed the most colossal instrument for the exploration of the heavens which the art of man has ever constructed.


It was once my privilege to be one of those to whom the illustrious builder of the great telescope entrusted its use. For two seasons in 1865 and 1866 I had the honour of being Lord Rosse’s astronomer. During that time I passed many a fine night in the observer’s gallery, examining different objects in the heavens with the aid of this remarkable instrument. At the time I was there, the objects principally studied were the nebulae, those faint stains of light which lie on the background of the sky. Lord Rosse’s telescope was specially suited for the scrutiny of these objects, inasmuch as their delicacy required all the light-grasping power which could be provided.

One of the greatest discoveries made by Lord Rosse, when his huge instrument was first turned towards the heavens, consisted in the detection of the spiral character of some of the nebulous forms. When the extraordinary structure of these objects was first announced, the discovery was received with some degree of incredulity. Other astronomers looked at the same objects, and when they failed to discern–and they frequently did fail to discern–the spiral structure which Lord Rosse had indicated, they drew the conclusion that this spiral structure did not exist. They thought it must be due possibly to some instrumental defect or to the imagination of the observer. It was, however, hardly possible for any one who was both willing and competent to examine into the evidence, to doubt the reality of Lord Rosse’s discoveries. It happens, however, that they have been recently placed beyond all doubt by testimony which it is impossible to gainsay. A witness never influenced by imagination has now come forward, and the infallible photographic plate has justified Lord Rosse. Among the remarkable discoveries which Dr. Isaac Roberts has recently made in the application of his photographic apparatus to the heavens, there is none more striking than that which declares, not only that the nebulae which Lord Rosse described as spirals, actually do possess the character so indicated, but that there are many others of the same description. He has even brought to light the astonishingly interesting fact that there are invisible objects of this class which have never been seen by human eye, but whose spiral character is visible to the peculiar delicacy of the photographic telescope.

In his earlier years, Lord Rosse himself used to be a diligent observer of the heavenly bodies with the great telescope which was completed in the year 1845. But I think that those who knew Lord Rosse well, will agree that it was more the mechanical processes incidental to the making of the telescope which engaged his interest than the actual observations with the telescope when it was completed. Indeed one who was well acquainted with him believed Lord Rosse’s special interest in the great telescope ceased when the last nail had been driven into it. But the telescope was never allowed to lie idle, for Lord Rosse always had associated with him some ardent young astronomer, whose delight it was to employ to the uttermost the advantages of his position in exploring the wonders of the sky. Among those who were in this capacity in the early days of the great telescope, I may mention my esteemed friend Dr. Johnston Stoney.

Such was the renown of Lord Rosse himself, brought about by his consummate mechanical genius and his astronomical discoveries, and such the interest which gathered around the marvellous workshops at Birr castle, wherein his monumental exhibitions of optical skill were constructed, that visitors thronged to see him from all parts of the world. His home at Parsonstown became one of the most remarkable scientific centres in Great Britain; thither assembled from time to time all the leading men of science in the country, as well as many illustrious foreigners. For many years Lord Rosse filled with marked distinction the exalted position of President of the Royal Society, and his advice and experience in practical mechanical matters were always at the disposal of those who sought his assistance. Personally and socially Lord Rosse endeared himself to all with whom he came in contact. I remember one of the attendants telling me that on one occasion he had the misfortune to let fall and break one of the small mirrors on which Lord Rosse had himself expended many hours of hard personal labour. The only remark of his lordship was that “accidents will happen.”

The latter years of his life Lord Rosse passed in comparative seclusion; he occasionally went to London for a brief sojourn during the season, and he occasionally went for a cruise in his yacht; but the greater part of the year he spent at Birr Castle, devoting himself largely to the study of political and social questions, and rarely going outside the walls of his demesne, except to church on Sunday mornings. He died on October 31, 1867.

He was succeeded by his eldest son, the present Earl of Rosse, who has inherited his father’s scientific abilities, and done much notable work with the great telescope.


In our sketch of the life of Flamsteed, we have referred to the circumstances under which the famous Observatory that crowns Greenwich Hill was founded. We have also had occasion to mention that among the illustrious successors of Flamsteed both Halley and Bradley are to be included. But a remarkable development of Greenwich Observatory from the modest establishment of early days took place under the direction of the distinguished astronomer whose name is at the head of this chapter. By his labours this temple of science was organised to such a degree of perfection that it has served in many respects as a model for other astronomical establishments in various parts of the world. An excellent account of Airy’s career has been given by Professor H. H. Turner, in the obituary notice published by the Royal Astronomical Society. To this I am indebted for many of the particulars here to be set down concerning the life of the illustrious Astronomer Royal.

The family from which Airy took his origin came from Kentmere, in Westmoreland. His father, William Airy, belonged to a Lincolnshire branch of the same stock. His mother’s maiden name was Ann Biddell, and her family resided at Playford, near Ipswich. William Airy held some small government post which necessitated an occasional change of residence to different parts of the country, and thus it was that his son, George Biddell, came to be born at Alnwick, on 27th July, 1801. The boy’s education, so far as his school life was concerned was partly conducted at Hereford and partly at Colchester. He does not, however, seem to have derived much benefit from the hours which he passed in the schoolroom. But it was delightful to him to spend his holidays on the farm at Playford, where his uncle, Arthur Biddell, showed him much kindness. The scenes of his early youth remained dear to Airy throughout his life, and in subsequent years he himself owned a house at Playford, to which it was his special delight to resort for relaxation during the course of his arduous career. In spite of the defects of his school training he seems to have manifested such remarkable abilities that his uncle decided to enter him in Cambridge University. He accordingly joined Trinity College as a sizar in 1819, and after a brilliant career in mathematical and physical science he graduated as Senior Wrangler in 1823. It may be noted as an exceptional circumstance that, notwithstanding the demands on his time in studying for his tripos, he was able, after his second term of residence, to support himself entirely by taking private pupils. In the year after he had taken his degree he was elected to a Fellowship at Trinity College.

Having thus gained an independent position, Airy immediately entered upon that career of scientific work which he prosecuted without intermission almost to the very close of his life. One of his most interesting researches in these early days is on the subject of Astigmatism, which defect he had discovered in his own eyes. His investigations led him to suggest a means of correcting this defect by using a pair of spectacles with lenses so shaped as to counteract the derangement which the astigmatic eye impressed upon the rays of light. His researches on this subject were of a very complete character, and the principles he laid down are to the present day practically employed by oculists in the treatment of this malformation.

On the 7th of December, 1826, Airy was elected to the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics in the University of Cambridge, the chair which Newton’s occupancy had rendered so illustrious. His tenure of this office only lasted for two years, when he exchanged it for the Plumian Professorship. The attraction which led him to desire this change is doubtless to be found in the circumstance that the Plumian Professorship of Astronomy carried with it at that time the appointment of director of the new astronomical observatory, the origin of which must now be described.

Those most interested in the scientific side of University life decided in 1820 that it would be proper to found an astronomical observatory at Cambridge. Donations were accordingly sought for this purpose, and upwards of 6,000 pounds were contributed by members of the University and the public. To this sum 5,000 pounds were added by a grant from the University chest, and in 1824 further sums amounting altogether to 7,115 pounds were given by the University for the same object. The regulations as to the administration of the new observatory placed it under the management of the Plumian Professor, who was to be provided with two assistants. Their duties were to consist in making meridian observations of the sun, moon, and the stars, and the observations made each year were to be printed and published. The observatory was also to be used in the educational work of the University, for it was arranged that smaller instruments were to be provided by which students could be instructed in the practical art of making astronomical observations.

The building of the Cambridge Astronomical Observatory was completed in 1824, but in 1828, when Airy entered on the discharge of his duties as Director, the establishment was still far from completion, in so far as its organisation was concerned. Airy commenced his work so energetically that in the next year after his appointment he was able to publish the first volume of “Cambridge Astronomical Observations,” notwithstanding that every part of the work, from the making of observations to the revising of the proof-sheets, had to be done by himself.

It may here be remarked that these early volumes of the publications of the Cambridge Observatory contained the first exposition of those systematic methods of astronomical work which Airy afterwards developed to such a great extent at Greenwich, and which have been subsequently adopted in many other places. No more profitable instruction for the astronomical beginner can be found than that which can be had by the study of these volumes, in which the Plumian Professor has laid down with admirable clearness the true principles on which meridian work should be conducted.

From a Photograph by Mr. E.P. Adams, Greenwich.]

Airy gradually added to the instruments with which the observatory was originally equipped. A mural circle was mounted in 1832, and in the same year a small equatorial was erected by Jones. This was made use of by Airy in a well-known series of observations of Jupiter’s fourth satellite for the determination of the mass of the great planet. His memoir on this subject fully ex pounds the method of finding the weight of a planet from observations of the movements of a satellite by which the planet is attended. This is, indeed, a valuable investigation which no student of astronomy can afford to neglect. The ardour with which Airy devoted himself to astronomical studies may be gathered from a remarkable report on the progress of astronomy during the present century, which he communicated to the British Association at its second meeting in 1832. In the early years of his life at Cambridge his most famous achievement was connected with a research in theoretical astronomy for which consummate mathematical power was required. We can only give a brief account of the Subject, for to enter into any full detail with regard to it would be quite out of the question.

Venus is a planet of about the same size and the same weight as the earth, revolving in an orbit which lies within that described by our globe. Venus, consequently, takes less time than the earth to accomplish one revolution round the sun, and it happens that the relative movements of Venus and the earth are so proportioned that in the time in which our earth accomplishes eight of her revolutions the other planet will have accomplished almost exactly thirteen. It, therefore, follows that if the earth and Venus are in line with the sun at one date, then in eight years later both planets will again be found at the same points in their orbits. In those eight years the earth has gone round eight times, and has, therefore, regained its original position, while in the same period Venus has accomplished thirteen complete revolutions, and, therefore, this planet also has reached the same spot where it was at first. Venus and the earth, of course, attract each other, and in consequence of these mutual attractions the earth is swayed from the elliptic track which it would otherwise pursue. In like manner Venus is also forced by the attraction of the earth to revolve in a track which deviates from that which it would otherwise follow. Owing to the fact that the sun is of such preponderating magnitude (being, in fact, upwards of 300,000 times as heavy as either Venus or the earth), the disturbances induced in the motion of either planet, in consequence of the attraction of the other, are relatively insignificant to the main controlling agency by which each of the movements is governed. It is, however, possible under certain circumstances that the disturbing effects produced upon one planet by the other can become so multiplied as to produce peculiar effects which attain measurable dimensions. Suppose that the periodic times in which the earth and Venus revolved had no simple relation to each other, then the points of their tracks in which the two planets came into line with the sun would be found at different parts of the orbits, and consequently the disturbances would to a great extent neutralise each other, and produce but little appreciable effect. As, however, Venus and the earth come back every eight years to nearly the same positions at the same points of their track, an accumulative effect is produced. For the disturbance of one planet upon the other will, of course, be greatest when those two planets are nearest, that is, when they lie in line with the sun and on the same side of it. Every eight years a certain part of the orbit of the earth is, therefore, disturbed by the attraction of Venus with peculiar vigour. The consequence is that, owing to the numerical relation between the movements of the planets to which I have referred, disturbing effects become appreciable which would otherwise be too small to permit of recognition. Airy proposed to himself to compute the effects which Venus would have on the movement of the earth in consequence of the circumstance that eight revolutions of the one planet required almost the same time as thirteen revolutions of the other. This is a mathematical inquiry of the most arduous description, but the Plumian Professor succeeded in working it out, and he had, accordingly, the gratification of announcing to the Royal Society that he had detected the influence which Venus was thus able to assert on the movement of our earth around the sun. This remarkable investigation gained for its author the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in the year 1832.

In consequence Of his numerous discoveries, Airy’s scientific fame had become so well recognised that the Government awarded him a special pension, and in 1835, when Pond, who was then Astronomer Royal, resigned, Airy was offered the post at Greenwich. There was in truth, no scientific inducement to the Plumian Professor to leave the comparatively easy post he held at Cambridge, in which he had ample leisure to devote himself to those researches which specially interested him, and accept that of the much more arduous observatory at Greenwich. There were not even pecuniary inducements to make the change; however, he felt it to be his duty to accede to the request which the Government had made that he would take up the position which Pond had vacated, and accordingly Airy went to Greenwich as Astronomer Royal on October 1st, 1835.

He immediately began with his usual energy to organise the systematic conduct of the business of the National Observatory. To realise one of the main characteristics of Airy’s great work at Greenwich, it is necessary to explain a point that might not perhaps be understood without a little explanation by those who have no practical experience in an observatory. In the work of an establishment such as Greenwich, an observation almost always consists of a measurement of some kind. The observer may, for instance, be making a measurement of the time at which a star passes across a spider line stretched through the field of view; on another occasion his object may be the measurement of an angle which is read off by examining through a microscope the lines of division on a graduated circle when the telescope is so pointed that the star is placed on a certain mark in the field of view. In either case the immediate result of the astronomical observation is a purely numerical one, but it rarely happens, indeed we may say it never happens, that the immediate numerical result which the observation gives expresses directly the quantity which we are really seeking for. No doubt the observation has been so designed that the quantity we want to find can be obtained from the figures which the measurement gives, but the object sought is not those figures, for there are always a multitude of other influences by which those figures are affected. For example, if an observation were to be perfect, then the telescope with which the observation is made should be perfectly placed in the exact position which it ought to occupy; this is, however, never the case, for no mechanic can ever construct or adjust a telescope so perfectly as the wants of the astronomer demand. The clock also by which we determine the time of the observation should be correct, but this is rarely if ever the case. We have to correct our observations for such errors, that is to say, we have to determine the errors in the positions of our telescopes and the errors in the going of our clocks, and then we have to determine what the observations would have been had our telescopes been absolutely perfect, and had our clocks been absolutely correct. There are also many other matters which have to be attended to in order to reduce our observations so as to obtain from the figures as yielded to the observer at the telescope the actual quantities which it is his object to determine.

The work of effecting these reductions is generally a very intricate and laborious matter, so that it has not unfrequently happened that while observations have accumulated in an observatory, yet the tedious duty of reducing these observations has been allowed to fall into arrear. When Airy entered on his duties at Greenwich he found there an enormous mass of observations which, though implicitly containing materials of the greatest value to astronomers, were, in their unreduced form, entirely unavailable for any useful purpose. He, therefore, devoted himself to coping with the reduction of the observations of his predecessors. He framed systematic methods by which the reductions were to be effected, and he so arranged the work that little more than careful attention to numerical accuracy would be required for the conduct of the operations. Encouraged by the Admiralty, for it is under this department that Greenwich Observatory is placed, the Astronomer Royal employed a large force of computers to deal with the work. BY his energy and admirable organisation he managed to reduce an extremely valuable series of planetary observations, and to publish the results, which have been of the greatest importance to astronomical investigation.

The Astronomer Royal was a capable, practical engineer as well as an optician, and he presently occupied himself by designing astronomical instruments of improved pattern, which should replace the antiquated instruments he found in the observatory. In the course of years the entire equipment underwent a total transformation. He ordered a great meridian circle, every part of which may be said to have been formed from his own designs. He also designed the mounting for a fine equatorial telescope worked by a driving clock, which he had himself invented. Gradually the establishment at Greenwich waxed great under his incessant care. It was the custom for the observatory to be inspected every year by a board of visitors, whose chairman was the President of the Royal Society. At each annual visitation, held on the first Saturday in June, the visitors received a report from the Astronomer Royal, in which he set forth the business which had been accomplished during the past year. It was on these occasions that applications were made to the Admiralty, either for new instruments or for developing the work of the observatory in some other way. After the more official business of the inspection was over, the observatory was thrown open to visitors, and hundreds of people enjoyed on that day the privilege of seeing the national observatory. These annual gatherings are happily still continued, and the first Saturday in June is known to be the occasion of one of the most interesting reunions of scientific men which takes place in the course of the year.

Airy’s scientific work was, however, by no means confined to the observatory. He interested himself largely in expeditions for the observation of eclipses and in projects for the measurement of arcs on the earth. He devoted much attention to the collection of magnetic observations from various parts of the world. Especially will it be remembered that the circumstances of the transits of Venus, which occurred in 1874 and in 1882, were investigated by him, and under his guidance expeditions were sent forth to observe the transits from those localities in remote parts of the earth where observations most suitable for the determination of the sun’s distance from the earth could be obtained. The Astronomer Royal also studied tidal phenomena, and he rendered great service to the country in the restoration of the standards of length and weight which had been destroyed in the great fire at the House of Parliament in October, 1834. In the most practical scientific matters his advice was often sought, and was as cheerfully rendered. Now we find him engaged in an investigation of the irregularities of the compass in iron ships, with a view to remedying its defects; now we find him reporting on the best gauge for railways. Among the most generally useful developments of the observatory must be mentioned the telegraphic method for the distribution of exact time. By arrangement with the Post Office, the astronomers at Greenwich despatch each morning a signal from the observatory to London at ten o’clock precisely. By special apparatus, this signal is thence distributed automatically over the country, so as to enable the time to be known everywhere accurately to a single second. It was part of the same system that a time ball should be dropped daily at one o’clock at Deal, as well as at other places, for the purpose of enabling ship’s chronometers to be regulated.

Airy’s writings were most voluminous, and no fewer than forty-eight memoirs by him are mentioned in the “Catalogue of Scientific Memoirs,” published by the Royal Society up to the year 1873, and this only included ten years out of an entire life of most extraordinary activity. Many other subjects besides those of a purely scientific character from time to time engaged his attention. He wrote, for instance, a very interesting treatise on the Roman invasion of Britain, especially with a view of determining the port from which Caesar set forth from Gaul, and the point at which he landed on the British coast. Airy was doubtless led to this investigation by his study of the tidal phenomena in the Straits of Dover. Perhaps the Astronomer Royal is best known to the general reading public by his excellent lectures on astronomy, delivered at the Ipswich Museum in 1848. This book has passed through many editions, and it gives a most admirable account of the manner in which the fundamental problems in astronomy have to be attacked.

As years rolled by almost every honour and distinction that could be conferred upon a scientific man was awarded to Sir George Airy. He was, indeed, the recipient of other honours not often awarded for scientific distinction. Among these we may mention that in 1875 he received the freedom of the City of London, “as a recognition of his indefatigable labours in astronomy, and of his eminent services in the advancement of practical science, whereby he has so materially benefited the cause of commerce and civilisation.”

Until his eightieth year Airy continued to discharge his labours at Greenwich with unflagging energy. At last, on August 15th, 1881, he resigned the office which he had held so long with such distinction to himself and such benefit to his country. He had married in 1830 the daughter of the Rev. Richard Smith, of Edensor. Lady Airy died in 1875, and three sons and three daughters survived him. One daughter is the wife of Dr. Routh, of Cambridge, and his other daughters were the constant companions of their father during the declining years of his life. Up to the age of ninety he enjoyed perfect physical health, but an accidental fall which then occurred was attended with serious results. He died on Saturday, January 2nd, 1892, and was buried in the churchyard at Playford.


William Rowan Hamilton was born at midnight between the 3rd and 4th of August, 1805, at Dublin, in the house which was then 29, but subsequently 36, Dominick Street. His father, Archibald Hamilton, was a solicitor, and William was the fourth of a family of nine. With reference to his descent, it may be sufficient to notice that his ancestors appear to have been chiefly of gentle Irish families, but that his maternal grandmother was of Scottish birth. When he was about a year old, his father and mother decided to hand over the education of the child to his uncle, James Hamilton, a clergyman of Trim, in County Meath. James Hamilton’s sister, Sydney, resided with him, and it was in their home that the days of William’s childhood were passed.

In Mr. Graves’ “Life of Sir William Rowan Hamilton” a series of letters will be found, in which Aunt Sydney details the progress of the boy to his mother in Dublin. Probably there is no record of an infant prodigy more extraordinary than that which these letters contain. At three years old his aunt assured the mother that William is “a hopeful blade,” but at that time it was his physical vigour to which she apparently referred; for the proofs of his capacity, which she adduces, related to his prowess in making boys older than himself fly before him. In the second letter, a month later, we hear that William is brought in to read the Bible for the purpose of putting to shame other boys double his age who could not read nearly so well. Uncle James appears to have taken much pains with William’s schooling, but his aunt said that “how he picks up everything is astonishing, for he never stops playing and jumping about.” When he was four years and three months old, we hear that he went out to dine at the vicar’s, and amused the company by reading for them equally well whether the book was turned upside down or held in any other fashion. His aunt assures the mother that “Willie is a most sensible little creature, but at the same time has a great deal of roguery.” At four years and five months old he came up to pay his mother a visit in town, and she writes to her sister a description of the boy;–

“His reciting is astonishing, and his clear and accurate knowledge of geography is beyond belief; he even draws the countries with a pencil on paper, and will cut them out, though not perfectly accurate, yet so well that a anybody knowing the countries could not mistake them; but, you will think this nothing when I tell you that he reads Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.”

Aunt Sydney recorded that the moment Willie got back to Trim he was desirous of at once resuming his former pursuits. He would not eat his breakfast till his uncle had heard him his Hebrew, and he comments on the importance of proper pronunciation. At five he was taken to see a friend, to whom he repeated long passages from Dryden. A gentleman present, who was not unnaturally sceptical about Willie’s attainments, desired to test him in Greek, and took down a copy of Homer which happened to have the contracted type, and to his amazement Willie went on with the greatest ease. At six years and nine months he was translating Homer and Virgil; a year later his uncle tells us that William finds so little difficulty in learning French and Italian, that he wishes to read Homer in French. He is enraptured with the Iliad, and carries it about with him, repeating from it whatever particularly pleases him. At eight years and one month the boy was one of a party who visited the Scalp in the Dublin mountains, and he was so delighted with the scenery that he forthwith delivered an oration in Latin. At nine years and six months he is not satisfied until he learns Sanscrit; three months later his thirst for the Oriental languages is unabated, and at ten years and four months he is studying Arabic and Persian. When nearly twelve he prepared a manuscript ready for publication. It was a “Syriac Grammar,” in Syriac letters and characters compiled from that of Buxtorf, by William Hamilton, Esq., of Dublin and Trim. When he was fourteen, the Persian ambassador, Mirza Abul Hassan Khan, paid a visit to Dublin, and, as a practical exercise in his Oriental languages, the young scholar addressed to his Excellency a letter in Persian; a translation of which production is given by Mr. Graves. When William was fourteen he had the misfortune to lose his father; and he had lost his mother two years previously. The boy and his three sisters were kindly provided for by different members of the family on both sides.

It was when William was about fifteen that his attention began to be turned towards scientific subjects. These were at first regarded rather as a relaxation from the linguistic studies with which he had been so largely occupied. On November 22nd, 1820, he notes in his journal that he had begun Newton’s “Principia”: he commenced also the study of astronomy by observing eclipses, occultations, and similar phenomena. When he was sixteen we learn that he had read conic sections, and that he was engaged in the study of pendulums. After an attack of illness, he was moved for change to Dublin, and in May, 1822, we find him reading the differential calculus and Laplace’s “Mecanique Celeste.” He criticises an important part of Laplace’s work relative to the demonstration of the parallelogram of forces. In this same year appeared the first gushes of those poems which afterwards flowed in torrents.

His somewhat discursive studies had, however, now to give place to a more definite course of reading in preparation for entrance to the University of Dublin. The tutor under whom he entered, Charles Boyton, was himself a distinguished man, but he frankly told the young William that he could be of little use to him as a tutor, for his pupil was quite as fit to be his tutor. Eliza Hamilton, by whom this is recorded, adds, “But there is one thing which Boyton would promise to be to him, and that was a FRIEND; and that one proof he would give of this should be that, if ever he saw William beginning to be UPSET by the sensation he would excite, and the notice he would attract, he would tell him of it.” At the beginning of his college career he distanced all his competitors in every intellectual pursuit. At his first term examination in the University he was first in Classics and first in Mathematics, while he received the Chancellor’s prize for a poem on the Ionian Islands, and another for his poem on Eustace de St. Pierre.

There is abundant testimony that Hamilton had “a heart for friendship formed.” Among the warmest of the friends whom he made in these early days was the gifted Maria Edgeworth, who writes to her sister about “young Mr. Hamilton, an admirable Crichton of eighteen, a real prodigy of talents, who Dr. Brinkley says may be a second Newton, quiet, gentle, and simple.” His sister Eliza, to whom he was affectionately attached, writes to him in 1824:–

“I had been drawing pictures of you in my mind in your study at Cumberland Street with ‘Xenophon,’ &c., on the table, and you, with your most awfully sublime face of thought, now sitting down, and now walking about, at times rubbing your hands with an air of satisfaction, and at times bursting forth into some very heroical strain of poetry in an unknown language, and in your own internal solemn ventriloquist-like voice, when you address yourself to the silence and solitude of your own room, and indeed, at times, even when your mysterious poetical addresses are not quite unheard.”

This letter is quoted because it refers to a circumstance which all who ever met with Hamilton, even in his latest years, will remember. He was endowed with two distinct voices, one a high treble, the other a deep bass, and he alternately employed these voices not only in ordinary conversation, but when he was delivering an address on the profundities of Quaternions to the Royal Irish Academy, or on similar occasions. His friends had long grown so familiar with this peculiarity that they were sometimes rather surprised to find how ludicrous it appeared to strangers.

Hamilton was fortunate in finding, while still at a very early age, a career open before him which was worthy of his talents. He had not ceased to be an undergraduate before he was called to fill an illustrious chair in his university. The circumstances are briefly as follows.

We have already mentioned that, in 1826, Brinkley was appointed Bishop of Cloyne, and the professorship of astronomy thereupon became vacant. Such was Hamilton’s conspicuous eminence that, notwithstanding he was still an undergraduate, and had only just completed his twenty-first year, he was immediately thought of as a suitable successor to the chair. Indeed, so remarkable were his talents in almost every direction that had the vacancy been in the professorship of classics or of mathematics, of English literature or of metaphysics, of modern or of Oriental languages, it seems difficult to suppose that he would not have occurred to every one as a possible successor. The chief ground, however, on which the friends of Hamilton urged his appointment was the earnest of original power which he had already shown in a research on the theory of Systems of Rays. This profound work created a new branch of optics, and led a few years later to a superb discovery, by which the fame of its author became world-wide.

At first Hamilton thought it would be presumption for him to apply for so exalted a position; he accordingly retired to the country, and resumed his studies for his degree. Other eminent candidates came forward, among them some from Cambridge, and a few of the Fellows from Trinity College, Dublin, also sent in their claims. It was not until Hamilton received an urgent letter from his tutor Boyton, in which he was assured of the favourable disposition of the Board towards his candidature, that he consented to come forward, and on June 16th, 1827, he was unanimously chosen to succeed the Bishop of Cloyne as Professor of Astronomy in the University. The appointment met with almost universal approval. It should, however, be noted that Brinkley, whom Hamilton succeeded, did not concur in the general sentiment. No one could have formed a higher opinion than he had done of Hamilton’s transcendent powers; indeed, it was on that very ground that he seemed to view the appointment with disapprobation. He considered that it would have been wiser for Hamilton to have obtained a Fellowship, in which capacity he would have been able to exercise a greater freedom in his choice of intellectual pursuits. The bishop seems to have thought, and not without reason, that Hamilton’s genius would rather recoil from much of the routine work of an astronomical establishment. Now that Hamilton’s whole life is before us, it is easy to see that the bishop was entirely wrong. It is quite true that Hamilton never became a skilled astronomical observer; but the seclusion of the observatory was eminently favourable to those gigantic labours to which his life was devoted, and which have shed so much lustre, not only on Hamilton himself, but also on his University and his country.

In his early years at Dunsink, Hamilton did make some attempts at a practical use of the telescopes, but he possessed no natural aptitude for such work, while exposure which it involved seems to have acted injuriously on his health. He, therefore, gradually allowed his attention to be devoted to those mathematical researches in which he had already given such promise of distinction. Although it was in pure mathematics that he ultimately won his greatest fame, yet he always maintained and maintained with justice, that he had ample claims to the title of an astronomer. In his later years he set forth this position himself in a rather striking manner. De Morgan had written commending to Hamilton’s notice Grant’s “History of Physical Astronomy.” After becoming acquainted with the book, Hamilton writes to his friend as follows:–

“The book is very valuable, and very creditable to its composer. But your humble servant may be pardoned if he finds himself somewhat amused at the title, `History of Physical Astronomy from the Earliest Ages to the Middle of the Nineteenth Century,’ when he fails to observe any notice of the discoveries of Sir W. R. Hamilton in the theory of the ‘Dynamics of the Heavens.'”

The intimacy between the two correspondents will account for the tone of this letter; and, indeed, Hamilton supplies in the lines which follow ample grounds for his complaint. He tells how Jacobi spoke of him in Manchester in 1842 as “le Lagrange de votre pays,” and how Donkin had said that, “The Analytical Theory of Dynamics as it exists at present is due mainly to the labours of La Grange Poisson, Sir W. R. Hamilton, and Jacobi, whose researches on this subject present a series of discoveries hardly paralleled for their elegance and importance in any other branch of mathematics.” In the same letter Hamilton also alludes to the success which had attended the applications of his methods in other hands than his own to the elucidation of the difficult subject of Planetary Perturbations. Even had his contributions to science amounted to no more than these discoveries, his tenure of the chair would have been an illustrious one. It happens, however, that in the gigantic mass of his intellectual work these researches, though intrinsically of such importance, assume what might almost be described as a relative insignificance.

The most famous achievement of Hamilton’s earlier years at the observatory was the discovery of conical refraction. This was one of those rare events in the history of science, in which a sagacious calculation has predicted a result of an almost startling character, subsequently confirmed by observation. At once this conferred on the young professor a world-wide renown. Indeed, though he was still only twenty-seven, he had already lived through an amount of intellectual activity which would have been remarkable for a man of threescore and ten.

Simultaneously with his growth in fame came the growth of his several friendships. There were, in the first place, his scientific friendships with Herschel, Robinson, and many others with whom he had copious correspondence. In the excellent biography to which I have referred, Hamilton’s correspondence with Coleridge may be read, as can also the letters to his lady correspondents, among them being Maria Edgeworth, Lady Dunraven, and Lady Campbell. Many of these sheets relate to literary matters, but they are largely intermingled With genial pleasantry, and serve at all events to show the affection and esteem with which he was regarded by all who had the privilege of knowing him. There are also the letters to the sisters whom he adored, letters brimming over with such exalted sentiment, that most ordinary sisters would be tempted to receive them with a smile in the excessively improbable event of their still more ordinary brothers attempting to pen such effusions. There are also indications of letters to and from other young ladies who from time to time were the objects of Hamilton’s tender admiration. We use the plural advisedly, for, as Mr. Graves has set forth, Hamilton’s love affairs pursued a rather troubled course. The attention which he lavished on one or two fair ones was not reciprocated, and even the intense charms of mathematical discovery could not assuage the pangs which the disappointed lover experienced. At last he reached the haven of matrimony in 1833, when he was married to Miss Bayly. Of his married life Hamilton said, many years later to De Morgan, that it was as happy as he expected, and happier than he deserved. He had two sons, William and Archibald, and one daughter, Helen, who became the wife of Archdeacon O’Regan.


The most remarkable of Hamilton’s friendships in his early years was unquestionably that with Wordsworth. It commenced with Hamilton’s visit to Keswick; and on the first evening, when the poet met the young mathematician, an incident occurred which showed the mutual interest that was aroused. Hamilton thus describes it in a letter to his sister Eliza:–

“He (Wordsworth) walked back with our party as far as their lodge, and then, on our bidding Mrs. Harrison good-night, I offered to walk back with him while my party proceeded to the hotel. This offer he accepted, and our conversation had become so interesting that when we had arrived at his home, a distance of about a mile, he proposed to walk back with me on my way to Ambleside, a proposal which you may be sure I did not reject; so far from it that when he came to turn once more towards his home I also turned once more along with him. It was very late when I reached the hotel after all this walking.”

Hamilton also submitted to Wordsworth an original poem, entitled “It Haunts me Yet.” The reply of Wordsworth is worth repeating:–

“With a safe conscience I can assure you that, in my judgment, your verses are animated with the poetic spirit, as they are evidently the product of strong feeling. The sixth and seventh stanzas affected me much, even to the dimming of my eyes and faltering of my voice while I was reading them aloud. Having said this, I have said enough. Now for the per contra. You will not, I am sure, be hurt when I tell you that the workmanship (what else could be expected from so young a writer?) is not what it ought to be. . .

“My household desire to be remembered to you in no formal way. Seldom have I parted–never, I was going to say–with one whom after so short an acquaintance I lost sight of with more regret. I trust we shall meet again.”

The further affectionate intercourse between Hamilton and Wordsworth is fully set forth, and to Hamilton’s latest years a recollection of his “Rydal hours” was carefully treasured and frequently referred to. Wordsworth visited Hamilton at the observatory, where a beautiful shady path in the garden is to the present day spoken of as “Wordsworth’s Walk.”

It was the practice of Hamilton to produce a sonnet on almost every occasion which admitted of poetical treatment, and it was his delight to communicate his verses to his friends all round. When Whewell was producing his “Bridgewater Treatises,” he writes to Hamilton in 1833:–

“Your sonnet which you showed me expressed much better than I could express it the feeling with which I tried to write this book, and I once intended to ask your permission to prefix the sonnet to my book, but my friends persuaded me that I ought to tell my story in my own prose, however much better your verse might be.”

The first epoch-marking contribution to Theoretical Dynamics after the time of Newton was undoubtedly made by Lagrange, in his discovery of the general equations of Motion. The next great step in the same direction was that taken by Hamilton in his discovery of a still more comprehensive method. Of this contribution Hamilton writes to Whewell, March 31st, 1834:–

“As to my late paper, a day or two ago sent off to London, it is merely mathematical and deductive. I ventured, indeed, to call it the ‘Mecanique Analytique’ of Lagrange, ‘a scientific poem’; and spoke of Dynamics, or the Science of Force, as treating of ‘Power acting by Law in Space and Time.’ In other respects it is as unpoetical and unmetaphysical as my gravest friends could desire.”

It may well be doubted whether there is a more beautiful chapter in the whole of mathematical philosophy than that which contains Hamilton’s dynamical theory. It is disfigured by no tedious complexity of symbols; it condescends not to any particular problems; it is an all embracing theory, which gives an intellectual grasp of the most appropriate method for discovering the result of the application of force to matter. It is the very generality of this doctrine which has somewhat impeded the applications of which it is susceptible. The exigencies of examinations are partly responsible for the fact that the method has not become more familiar to students of the higher mathematics. An eminent professor has complained that Hamilton’s essay on dynamics was of such an extremely abstract character, that he found himself unable to extract from it problems suitable for his examination papers.

The following extract is from a letter of Professor Sylvester to Hamilton, dated 20th of September, 1841. It will show how his works were appreciated by so consummate a mathematician as the writer:–

“Believe me, sir, it is not the least of my regrets in quitting this empire to feel that I forego the casual occasion of meeting those masters of my art, yourself chief amongst the number, whose acquaintance, whose conversation, or even notice, have in themselves the power to inspire, and almost to impart fresh vigour to the understanding, and the courage and faith without which the efforts of invention are in vain. The golden moments I enjoyed under your hospitable roof at Dunsink, or moments such as they were, may probably never again fall to my lot.

“At a vast distance, and in an humble eminence, I still promise myself the calm satisfaction of observing your blazing course in the elevated regions of discovery. Such national honour as you are able to confer on your country is, perhaps, the only species of that luxury for the rich (I mean what is termed one’s glory) which is not bought at the expense of the comforts of the million.”

The study of metaphysics was always a favourite recreation when Hamilton sought for a change from the pursuit of mathematics. In the year 1834 we find him a diligent student of Kant; and, to show the views of the author of Quaternions and of Algebra as the Science of Pure Time on the “Critique of the Pure Reason,” we quote the following letter, dated 18th of July, 1834, from Hamilton to Viscount Adare:–

“I have read a large part of the ‘Critique of the Pure Reason,’ and find it wonderfully clear, and generally quite convincing. Notwithstanding some previous preparation from Berkeley, and from my own thoughts, I seem to have learned much from Kant’s own statement of his views of ‘Space and Time.’ Yet, on the whole, a large part of my pleasure consists in recognising through Kant’s works, opinions, or rather views, which have been long familiar to myself, although far more clearly and systematically expressed and combined by him. . . . Kant is, I think, much more indebted than he owns, or, perhaps knows, to Berkeley, whom he calls by a sneer, `GUTEM Berkeley’. . . as it were, `good soul, well meaning man,’ who was able for all that to shake to its centre the world of human thought, and to effect a revolution among the early consequences of which was the growth of Kant himself.”

At several meetings of the British Association Hamilton was a very conspicuous figure. Especially was this the case in 1835, when the Association met in Dublin, and when Hamilton, though then but thirty years old, had attained such celebrity that even among a very brilliant gathering his name was perhaps the most renowned. A banquet was given at Trinity College in honour of the meeting. The distinguished visitors assembled in the Library of the University. The Earl of Mulgrave, then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, made this the opportunity of conferring on Hamilton the honour of knighthood, gracefully adding, as he did so: “I but set the royal, and therefore the national mark, on a distinction already acquired by your genius and labours.”

The banquet followed, writes Mr. Graves. “It was no little addition to the honour Hamilton had already received that, when Professor Whewell returned thanks for the toast of the University of Cambridge, he thought it appropriate to add the words, ‘There was one point which strongly pressed upon him at that moment: it was now one hundred and thirty years since a great man in another Trinity College knelt down before his sovereign, and rose up Sir Isaac Newton.’ The compliment was welcomed by immense applause.”

A more substantial recognition of the labours of Hamilton took place subsequently. He thus describes it in a letter to Mr. Graves of 14th of November, 1843:–

“The Queen has been pleased–and you will not doubt that it was entirely unsolicited, and even unexpected, on my part–‘to express her entire approbation of the grant of a pension of two hundred pounds per annum from the Civil List’ to me for scientific services. The letters from Sir Robert Peel and from the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in which this grant has been communicated or referred to have been really more gratifying to my feelings than the addition to my income, however useful, and almost necessary, that may have been.”

The circumstances we have mentioned might lead to the supposition that Hamilton was then at the zenith of his fame but this was not so. It might more truly be said, that his achievements up to this point were rather the preliminary exercises which fitted him for the gigantic task of his life. The name of Hamilton is now chiefly associated with his memorable invention of the calculus of Quaternions. It was to the creation of this branch of mathematics that the maturer powers of his life were devoted; in fact he gives us himself an illustration of how completely habituated he became to the new modes of thought which Quaternions originated. In one of his later years he happened to take up a copy of his famous paper on Dynamics, a paper which at the time created such a sensation among mathematicians, and which is at this moment regarded as one of the classics of dynamical literature. He read, he tells us, his paper with considerable interest, and expressed his feelings of gratification that he found himself still able to follow its reasoning without undue effort. But it seemed to him all the time as a work belonging to an age of analysis now entirely superseded.

In order to realise the magnitude of the revolution which Hamilton has wrought in the application of symbols to mathematical investigation, it is necessary to think of what Hamilton did beside the mighty advance made by Descartes. To describe the character of the quaternion calculus would be unsuited to the pages of this work, but we may quote an interesting letter, written by Hamilton from his deathbed, twenty-two years later, to his son Archibald, in which he has recorded the circumstances of the discovery:–

“Indeed, I happen to be able to put the finger of memory upon the year and month–October, 1843–when having recently returned from visits to Cork and Parsonstown, connected with a meeting of the British Association, the desire to discover the laws of multiplication referred to, regained with me a certain strength and earnestness which had for years been dormant, but was then on the point of being gratified, and was occasionally talked of with you. Every morning in the early part of the above-cited month, on my coming down to breakfast, your (then) little brother William Edwin, and yourself, used to ask me, ‘Well papa, can you multiply triplets?’ Whereto I was always obliged to reply, with a sad shake of the head: ‘No, I can only ADD and subtract them,’

“But on the 16th day of the same month–which happened to be Monday, and a Council day of the Royal Irish Academy–I was walking in to attend and preside, and your mother was walking with me along the Royal Canal, to which she had perhaps driven; and although she talked with me now and then, yet an UNDERCURRENT of thought was going on in my mind which gave at last a RESULT, whereof it is not too much to say that I felt AT ONCE the importance. An ELECTRIC circuit seemed to CLOSE; and a spark flashed forth the herald (as I FORESAW IMMEDIATELY) of many long years to come of definitely directed thought and work by MYSELF, if spared, and, at all events, on the part of OTHERS if I should even be allowed to live long enough distinctly to communicate the discovery. Nor could I resist the impulse–unphilosophical as it may have been–to cut with a knife on a stone of Brougham Bridge as we passed it, the fundamental formula which contains the SOLUTION of the PROBLEM, but, of course, the inscription has long since mouldered away. A more durable notice remains, however, on the Council Books of the Academy for that day (October 16, 1843), which records the fact that I then asked for and obtained leave to read a Paper on ‘Quaternions,’ at the First General Meeting of the Session; which reading took place accordingly, on Monday, the 13th of November following.”

Writing to Professor Tait, Hamilton gives further particulars of the same event. And again in a letter to the Rev. J. W. Stubbs:–

“To-morrow will be the fifteenth birthday of the Quaternions. They started into life full-grown on the 16th October, 1843, as I was walking with Lady Hamilton to Dublin, and came up to Brougham Bridge–which my boys have since called Quaternion Bridge. I pulled out a pocketbook which still exists, and made entry, on which at the very moment I felt that it might be worth my while to expend the labour of at least ten or fifteen years to come. But then it is fair to say that this was because I felt a problem to have been at that moment solved, an intellectual want relieved which had haunted me for at least fifteen years before.

“But did the thought of establishing such a system, in which geometrically opposite facts–namely, two lines (or areas) which are opposite IN SPACE give ALWAYS a positive product–ever come into anybody’s head till I was led to it in October, 1843, by trying to extend my old theory of algebraic couples, and of algebra as the science of pure time? As to my regarding geometrical addition of lines as equivalent to composition of motions (and as performed by the same rules), that is indeed essential in my theory but not peculiar to it; on the contrary, I am only one of many who have been led to this view of addition.”

Pilgrims in future ages will doubtless visit the spot commemorated by the invention of Quaternions. Perhaps as they look at that by no means graceful structure Quaternion Bridge, they will regret that the hand of some Old Mortality had not been occasionally employed in cutting the memorable inscription afresh. It is now irrecoverably lost.

It was ten years after the discovery that the great volume appeared under the title of “Lectures on Quaternions,” Dublin, 1853. The reception of this work by the scientific world was such as might have been expected from the extraordinary reputation of its author, and the novelty and importance of the new calculus. His valued friend, Sir John Herschel, writes to him in that style of which he was a master:–

“Now, most heartily let me congratulate you on getting out your book–on having found utterance, ore rotundo, for all that labouring and seething mass of thought which has been from time to time sending out sparks, and gleams, and smokes, and shaking the soil about you; but now breaks into a good honest eruption, with a lava stream and a shower of fertilizing ashes.

“Metaphor and simile apart, there is work for a twelve-month to any man to read such a book, and for half a lifetime to digest it, and I am glad to see it brought to a conclusion.”

We may also record Hamilton’s own opinion expressed to Humphrey Lloyd:–

“In general, although in one sense I hope that I am actually growing modest about the quaternions, from my seeing so many peeps and vistas into future expansions of their principles, I still must assert that this discovery appears to me to be as important for the middle of the nineteenth century as the discovery of fluxions was for the close of the seventeenth.”

Bartholomew Lloyd died in 1837. He had been the Provost of Trinity College, and the President of the Royal Irish Academy. Three candidates were put forward by their respective friends for the vacant Presidency. One was Humphrey Lloyd, the son of the late Provost, and the two others were Hamilton and Archbishop Whately. Lloyd from the first urged strongly the claims of Hamilton, and deprecated the putting forward of his own name. Hamilton in like manner desired to withdraw in favour of Lloyd. The wish was strongly felt by many of the Fellows of the College that Lloyd should be elected, in consequence of his having a more intimate association with collegiate life than Hamilton; while his scientific eminence was world-wide. The election ultimately gave Hamilton a considerable majority over Lloyd, behind whom the Archbishop followed at a considerable distance. All concluded happily, for both Lloyd and the Archbishop expressed, and no doubt felt, the pre-eminent claims of Hamilton, and both of them cordially accepted the office of a Vice-President, to which, according to the constitution of the Academy, it is the privilege of the incoming President to nominate.

In another chapter I have mentioned as a memorable episode in astronomical history, that Sir J. Herschel went for a prolonged sojourn to the Cape of Good Hope, for the purpose of submitting the southern skies to the same scrutiny with the great telescope that his father had given to the northern skies. The occasion of Herschel’s return after the brilliant success of his enterprise, was celebrated by a banquet. On June 15th, 1838, Hamilton was assigned the high honour of proposing the health of Herschel. This banquet is otherwise memorable in Hamilton’s career as being one of the two occasions in which he was in the company of his intimate friend De Morgan.

In the year 1838 a scheme was adopted by the Royal Irish Academy for the award of medals to the authors of papers which appeared to possess exceptionally high merit. At the institution of the medal two papers were named in competition for the prize. One was Hamilton’s “Memoir on Algebra, as the Science of Pure Time.” The