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 Edward Pakenham, 6th Earl of Longford

Francis Pakenham, 7th Earl of LongfordEdward Arthur Henry Pakenham, 6th Earl of Longford and an Irish peer, politician, and littérateur, is born on December 29, 1902. Also known as Eamon de Longphort, he is a member of the fifth Seanad Éireann, the upper house of the Oireachtas, in the 1940s.

Pakenham is the elder son of Thomas Pakenham, 5th Earl of Longford and Mary, Countess of Longford, née Child-Villiers. He is the only one of the Pakenham children on whom his mother dotes, apparently because he is to succeed to the earldom on his father’s death and because he is always in delicate health.

As a pupil at Eton College, where he twice received the Wilder Divinity Prize, Pakenham succeeds to the earldom when his father is killed in action at the Battle of Gallipoli on August 21, 1915. He is an Irish Nationalist since his days at Eton, taking inspiration from the Easter Rising in 1916 and the Russian Revolution of 1917. He learned Irish and adopted the name Eamon de Longphort.

Pakenham becomes an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford and meets his future wife, Christine Patti Trew, an Oxford “undergraduette.” They are married on July 18, 1925. His political views make him unpopular at both Eton and Christ Church, where he is famously put in “Mercury,” the pond containing a statue of Mercury in Tom Quad.

Pakenham becomes Chairman of the Gate Theatre in Dublin in 1930 and continues to work for the theatre until 1936, when he founds the Longford Players. His plays include Ascendancy, The Melians, The Vineyard, and Yahoo. An excellent linguist and Classical scholar, he translates Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, Le Malade Imaginaire, L’école des femmes, Tartuffe, Le Barbier de Séville, Agamemnon and Oedipus Rex and adapts the novella Carmilla for the stage.

Pakenham also has several volumes of poetry published, some at the expense of his mother when he is still at Eton, but he is not considered to have been a very good poet.

Pakenham is an Anglo-Catholic who never leaves the Church of Ireland. On November 13, 1946 he is nominated by the Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, as a member of 5th Seanad Éireann, filling a vacancy caused by the death of Professor William Magennis. He is not re-appointed to the 6th Seanad.

Pakenham often collaborates with his wife with whom he is also responsible for redecorating Pakenham Hall, now Tullynally Castle, in Chinese style. Pakenham Hall is often the scene of gatherings of Oxford-educated intellectuals such as John Betjeman, Evelyn Waugh, and Maurice Bowra.

Edward Pakenham dies without issue on February 4, 1961, and is succeeded by his younger brother Frank. He is buried at Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin.