seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Nicholas Joseph Callan, Priest & Scientist

Father Nicholas Joseph Callan, Irish priest and scientist, is born on December 22, 1799, in Darver, County Louth. He is Professor of Natural Philosophy in Maynooth College in Maynooth, County Kildare from 1834, and is best known for his work on the induction coil.

Callan attends school at an academy in Dundalk. His local parish priest, Father Andrew Levins, then takes him in hand as an altar boy and Mass server, and sees him start the priesthood at Navan seminary. He enters Maynooth College in 1816. In his third year at Maynooth, he studies natural and experimental philosophy under Dr. Cornelius Denvir. He introduces the experimental method into his teaching, and has an interest in electricity and magnetism.

Callan is ordained a priest in 1823 and goes to Rome to study at Sapienza University, obtaining a doctorate in divinity in 1826. While in Rome he becomes acquainted with the work of the pioneers in electricity such as Luigi Galvani (1737–1798), who is a pioneer in bioelectricity, and Alessandro Volta (1745–1827), who is known especially for the development of the electric battery. In 1826, he returns to Maynooth as the new Professor of Natural Philosophy (now called physics), where he also begins working with electricity in his basement laboratory at the college.

Influenced by William Sturgeon and Michael Faraday, Callan begins work on the idea of the induction coil in 1834. He invents the first induction coil in 1836. An induction coil produces an intermittent high voltage alternating current from a low voltage direct current supply. It has a primary coil consisting of a few turns of thick wire wound around an iron core and subjected to a low voltage (usually from a battery). Wound on top of this is a secondary coil made up of many turns of thin wire. An iron armature and make-and-break mechanism repeatedly interrupts the current to the primary coil, producing a high voltage, rapidly alternating current in the secondary circuit.

Callan invents the induction coil because he needs to generate a higher level of electricity than currently available. He takes a bar of soft iron, about 2 feet long, and wraps it around with two lengths of copper wire, each about 200 feet long. He connects the beginning of the first coil to the beginning of the second. Finally, he connects a battery, much smaller than the enormous contrivance just described, to the beginning and end of winding one. He finds that when the battery contact is broken, a shock can be felt between the first terminal of the first coil and the second terminal of the second coil.

Further experimentation shows how the coil device can bring the shock from a small battery up the strength level of a big battery. So Callan tries making a bigger coil. With a battery of only 14 seven-inch plates, the device produces power enough for an electric shock “so strong that a person who took it felt the effects of it for several days.” He thinks of his creation as a kind of electromagnet, but what he actually makes is a primitive induction transformer.

Callan’s induction coil also uses an interrupter that consists of a rocking wire that repeatedly dips into a small cup of mercury (similar to the interrupters used by Charles Grafton Page). Because of the action of the interrupter, which can make and break the current going into the coil, he calls his device the “repeater.” Actually, this device is the world’s first transformer. He induces a high voltage in the second wire, starting with a low voltage in the adjacent first wire. The faster he interrupts the current, the bigger the spark. In 1837 he produces his giant induction machine using a mechanism from a clock to interrupt the current 20 times a second. It generates 15-inch sparks, an estimated 60,000 volts and the largest artificial bolt of electricity then seen.

Callan experiments with designing batteries after he finds the models available to him at the time to be insufficient for research in electromagnetism. Some previous batteries had used rare metals such as platinum or unresponsive materials like carbon and zinc. He finds that he can use inexpensive cast iron instead of platinum or carbon. For his Maynooth battery he uses iron casting for the outer casing and places a zinc plate in a porous pot (a pot that had an inside and outside chamber for holding two different types of acid) in the centre. Using a single fluid cell he disposes of the porous pot and two different fluids. He is able to build a battery with just a single solution.

While experimenting with batteries, Callan also builds the world’s largest battery at that time. To construct this battery, he joins together 577 individual batteries (“cells“), which use over 30 gallons of acid. Since instruments for measuring current or voltages have not yet been invented, he measures the strength of a battery by measuring how much weight his electromagnet can lift when powered by the battery. Using his giant battery, his electromagnet lifts 2 tons. The Maynooth battery goes into commercial production in London. He also discovers an early form of galvanisation to protect iron from rusting when he is experimenting on battery design, and he patents the idea.

Callan dies at the age of 64 in Maynooth, County Kildare, on January 10, 1864. He is buried in the cemetery in St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth.

The Callan Building on the north campus of NUI Maynooth, a university which is part of St. Patrick’s College until 1997, is named in his honour. In addition, Callan Hall in the south campus, is used through the 1990s for first year science lectures including experimental & mathematical physics, chemistry and biology. The Nicholas Callan Memorial Prize is an annual prize awarded to the best final year student in Experimental Physics.


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Birth of Thomas Romney Robinson, Astronomer & Physicist

Reverend John Thomas Romney Robinson, 19th-century astronomer and physicist usually referred to as Thomas Romney Robinson, was born at St. Anne’s in Dublin on April 23, 1792. He is the longtime director of the Armagh Observatory, one of the chief astronomical observatories in the United Kingdom at the time. He is remembered as the inventor in 1846 of the Robinson 4-cup anemometer, a device for measuring the speed of the wind.

Robinson is the son of the English portrait painter Thomas Robinson (d.1810) and his wife, Ruth Buck (d.1826). He is educated at Belfast Academy then studies Divinity at Trinity College Dublin, where he is elected a Scholar in 1808, graduating BA in 1810 and obtaining a fellowship in 1814, at the age of 22. He is for some years a deputy professor of natural philosophy (physics) at Trinity.

In 1823, at the age of 30, Robinson gains the appointment of astronomer at the Armagh Observatory. From this point on he always resides at the Armagh Observatory, engaged in researches connected with astronomy and physics, until his death in 1882. Having also been ordained as an Anglican priest while at Trinity, he obtains the church livings of the Anglican Church at Enniskillen and at Carrickmacross in 1824.

During the 1840s and 1850s Robinson is a frequent visitor to the world’s most powerful telescope of that era, the so-called Leviathan of Parsonstown telescope, which had been built by Robinson’s friend and colleague William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse. He is active with Parsons in interpreting the higher-resolution views of the night sky produced by Parsons’ telescope, particularly with regard to the galaxies and nebulae and he publishes leading-edge research reports on the question.

Back at his own observatory in Armagh, Robinson compiles a large catalogue of stars and writes many related reports. In 1862 he is awarded a Royal Medal “for the Armagh catalogue of 5345 stars, deduced from observations made at the Armagh Observatory, from the years 1820 up to 1854; for his papers on the construction of astronomical instruments in the memoirs of the Astronomical Society, and his paper on electromagnets in the Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy.”

Robinson is president of the Royal Irish Academy from 1851 to 1856, and is a long-time active organiser in the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He is a friend of Charles Babbage, who says was “indebted” for having reminded him about the first time he came up with the idea of the calculating machine.

Robinson marries twice, first to Eliza Isabelle Rambaut (d.1839) and secondly to Lucy Jane Edgeworth (1806–1897), the lifelong disabled daughter of Richard Lovell Edgeworth. His daughter marries the physicist George Gabriel Stokes. Stokes frequently visits Robinson in Armagh in Robinson’s later years.

Robinson dies in Armagh, County Armagh at the age of 89 on February 28, 1882.

The crater Robinson on the Moon is named in his honour.