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

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Birth of Mary Ward, Astronomer, Microscopist, Author & Artist

Mary Ward (née King), Irish naturalist, astronomer, microscopist, author, and artist, is born in Ballylin near present-day Ferbane, County Offaly, on April 27, 1827. She is killed in 1869 when she falls under the wheels of an experimental steam car built by her cousins, thereby becoming the first person known to be killed by a motor vehicle.

King is the youngest child of the Reverend Henry King and his wife Harriette. She and her sisters are educated at home, as are most girls at the time. However, her education is slightly different from the norm because she is of a renowned scientific family. She is interested in nature from an early age, and by the time she is three years old she is collecting insects.

King is a keen amateur astronomer, sharing this interest with her cousin, William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, who builds the Leviathan of Parsonstown, a reflecting telescope with a six-foot mirror which remains the world’s largest until 1917. She is a frequent visitor to Birr Castle, producing sketches of each stage of the process. Along with photographs made by Parson’s wife, Mary Rosse, her sketches are used to aid in the restoration of the telescope.

King also draws insects, and the astronomer James South observes her doing so one day. She is using a magnifying glass to see the tiny details, and her drawing so impresses him that he immediately persuades her father to buy her a microscope. A compound microscope made by Andrew Ross is purchased for £48 12s 8d. This is the beginning of a lifelong passion. She begins to read everything she can find about microscopy, and teaches herself until she has an expert knowledge. She makes her own slides from slivers of ivory, as glass is difficult to obtain, and prepares her own specimens. The physicist David Brewster asks her to make his microscope specimens, and uses her drawings in many of his books and articles.

Universities and most societies do not accept women at the time, but King obtains information any way she can. She writes frequently to scientists, asking them about papers they had published. During 1848, Parsons is made president of the Royal Society, and visits to his London home allows her to meet many scientists.

King is one of only three women on the mailing list for the Royal Astronomical Society. The others are Queen Victoria and Mary Somerville, a scientist for whom Somerville College at the University of Oxford is named.

On December 6, 1854, King marries Henry Ward of Castle Ward, County Down, who in 1881 succeeds to the title of Viscount Bangor. They have three sons and five daughters, including Maxwell Ward, 6th Viscount Bangor. Her best-known descendants are her grandson, Edward Ward, the foreign correspondent and seventh viscount, and his daughter, the Doctor Who actress Lalla Ward.

When Ward writes her first book, Sketches with the microscope (privately printed in 1857), she apparently believes that no one will print it because of her gender or lack of academic credentials. She publishes 250 copies of it privately, and several hundred handbills are distributed to advertise it. The printing sells during the next few weeks, which prompts a London publisher to take the risk and contract for future publication. The book is reprinted eight times between 1858 and 1880 as A World of Wonders Revealed by the Microscope. A new full-colour facsimile edition at €20 is published in September 2019 by the Offaly Historical and Archaeological Society, with accompanying essays.

Her books are A Windfall for the Microscope (1856), A World of Wonders, Revealed by the Microscope (1857), Entomology in Sport, and Entomology in Earnest (1857, with Lady Jane Mahon), Microscope Teachings (1864), Telescope Teachings (1859). She illustrates her books and articles herself, as well as many books and papers by other scientists.

Ward is the first known automobile fatality. William Parsons’ sons had built a steam-powered car and on August 31, 1869, she and her husband are traveling in it with the Parsons boys, Richard Clere Parsons and the future steam turbine pioneer Charles Algernon Parsons, and their tutor, Richard Biggs. She is thrown from the car on a bend in the road at Parsonstown (present-day Birr, County Offaly). She falls under its wheel and dies almost instantly. A doctor who lives near the scene arrives within moments, and finds her cut, bruised, and bleeding from the ears. The fatal injury is a broken neck. It is believed that the grieving family destroys the car after the crash.

Ward’s microscope, accessories, slides and books are on display in her husband’s home, Castle Ward, County Down. William Parsons’ home at Birr Castle, County Offaly, is also open to the public.

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Birth of Astronomer William Edward Wilson

William Edward Wilson, Irish astronomer, is born at Greenisland, County Antrim, on July 19, 1851. He is the only son of John and Frances Wilson of Daramona House, Streete, County Westmeath, and is privately educated.

Wilson becomes interested in astronomy and travels to Oran in 1870 to photograph the solar eclipse. In 1871 he acquires a reflecting telescope of 12 inches (30.5 cm) aperture and sets it up in a dome in the gardens of Daramona House. He uses it to experiment on the photography of the moon with wet plates and also begins to study solar radiation using thermopiles. In 1881, he replaces the original telescope with a Grubb reflector of 24 inches (61 cm) aperture and a new dome and mounting that has an electrically controlled clock drive. The new telescope is mounted in a two-story tower attached to the house with an attached physical laboratory, darkroom and machine shop.

Wilson’s main research effort, in partnership with P.L. Gray, is to determine the temperature of the sun using a “differential radio-micrometer” of the sort developed by C.V. Boys in 1889, which combines a bolometer and galvanometer into one instrument. The result of their measurements is an effective temperature of about 8000 °C for the sun which, after correction to deal with absorption in the earth’s atmosphere, give a value of 6590 °C, compared to the modern value of 6075 °C.

Some of Wilson’s other astronomical projects include observations on the transit of Venus, determination of stellar motion, observations of sunspots and a trip to Spain to photograph a solar eclipse. He takes a great many excellent photographs of celestial bodies such as nebulae. His astronomical findings are published in a series of memoirs such as Experimental Observations on the Effective Temperature of the Sun.

Wilson is elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1875 and a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1896. He receives an honorary doctorate (D.Sc.) from the University of Dublin in June 1901. He serves as High Sheriff of Westmeath for 1894.

Wilson dies on March 6, 1908 at Daramona at the relatively young age of 56, and is buried in the family plot in Steete churchyard. He had married Caroline Ada in 1886, the daughter of Capt. R.C. Granville, and they have a son and two daughters. His son donates his telescope to the University of London, where it is used for research and teaching, finally becoming a feature in Liverpool museum.

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Birth of William McCrea, Astronomer & Mathematician

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v80), quality = 100Sir William Hunter McCrea, English astronomer and mathematician, is born in Dublin on December 13, 1904.

McCrea’s family moves to Kent in 1906 and then to Derbyshire where he attends Chesterfield Grammar School. His father is a school master at Netherthorpe Grammar School in Staveley. He goes to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1923 where he studies mathematics, later gaining a PhD in 1929 under Ralph H. Fowler.

In 1928, McCrea studies Albrecht Unsöld‘s hypothesis and discovers that three quarters of the sun is made of hydrogen and about one quarter is helium with 1% being other elements. Previous to this many people thought the sun consisted mostly of iron. After this, people realise most stars consist of hydrogen.

From 1930 McCrea lectures in mathematics at the University of Edinburgh. In 1931, during his time in Edinburgh, he is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His proposers are Sir Edmund Taylor Whittaker, Sir Charles Galton Darwin, Edward Copson and Charles Glover Barkla. He wins the Society’s Keith Medal, jointly with Edward Copson, for the period 1939-1941.

In 1932 McCrea moves to Imperial College London as a Reader and marries Marian Core the following year. In 1936 he becomes Professor of Mathematics and head of the mathematics department at the Queen’s University Belfast.

During World War II McCrea is co-opted onto the Admiralty Operational Research Group. After the war, he joins the mathematics department at Royal Holloway College in 1944. He is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1952.

McCrea is president of the Royal Astronomical Society from 1961 to 1963 and president of Section A of the British Association for the Advancement of Science from 1965–1966.

In 1964 McCrea proposes mass transfer mechanism as an explanation of blue straggler stars. In 1965, he creates the astronomy centre of the physics department at the University of Sussex.

McCrea wins the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1976 and is knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1985.

William McCrea dies on April 25, 1999 at Lewes in Sussex. The McCrea Building on the Royal Holloway College campus is named after him.