seamus dubhghaill

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


Leave a comment

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.


Leave a comment

Death of Lawrence Parsons, 4th Earl of Rosse

Lawrence Parsons, 4th Earl of Rosse, KP, FRS, a member of the Irish peerage and an amateur astronomer, dies on August 29, 1908. His name is often given as Laurence Parsons.

Parsons is born at Birr Castle, Parsonstown, King’s County (now County Offaly), the son and heir of the astronomer William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, who built the “Leviathan of Parsonstownreflecting telescope, largest of its day, and his wife, the Countess of Rosse (née Mary Field), an amateur astronomer and pioneering photographer. He succeeds his father in 1867 and is educated first at home by tutors, like John Purser, and after at Trinity College, Dublin and the University of Oxford. He is the brother of Charles Algernon Parsons, inventor of the steam turbine.

Parsons serves as the eighteenth Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin between 1885 and 1908. His father serves as the sixteenth Chancellor. He is Lord Lieutenant of King’s County and Custos Rotulorum of King’s County from 1892 until his death. He is also a Justice of the Peace for the county and is appointed High Sheriff of King’s County for 1867–68. He is knighted KP in 1890.

Parsons also performs some preliminary work in association with the practices of the electrodeposition of copper sulfate upon silver films circa 1865 while in search of the design for a truly flat mirror to use in a telescope. However, he finds it impossible to properly electroplate copper upon these silver films, as the copper contracts and detaches from the underlying glass substrate. His note has been cited as one of the earliest confirmations in literature that thin films on glass substrates experience residual stresses. He revives discussion in his work Nature’s August 1908 edition after witnessing similar techniques used to present newly-devised searchlights before the Royal Society.

Although overshadowed by his father (when astronomers speak of “Lord Rosse”, it is almost always the father that they refer to), Parsons nonetheless pursues some astronomical observations of his own, particularly of the Moon. Most notably, he discovers NGC 2, a spiral galaxy in the constellation Pegasus.

Parsons is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in December 1867 and delivers the Bakerian lecture there in 1873. He is vice-president of the society in 1881 and 1887. From 1896 he is President of the Royal Irish Academy. In May 1902 he is at Caernarfon to receive the honorary degree LL.D. (Legum Doctor) from the University of Wales during the ceremony to install the Prince of Wales (later King George V) as Chancellor of that university.


Leave a comment

Birth of John Purser, Mathematician & Professor

John Purser, Irish mathematician and professor at Queen’s College, Belfast, is born in Dublin on August 24, 1835.

Purser is the son of John Tertius Purser (1809–1893), the general manager of the well known A Guinness, Son & Co. brewery, and Anna Benigna Fridlezius (1803-1881). He is educated in a wealthy family, which includes artists, as his cousin Sarah Purser, or engineers, as his brother-in-law John Purser Griffith. He is the brother of mathematician Frederick Purser. He receives his early education at the private boarding school run by his uncle, Dr. Richard W. Biggs, at Devizes, Wiltshire. He completes his schooling at Devizes and begins his university studies at Trinity College, Dublin, graduating BA in mathematics in 1856. He is the best mathematician of his year at the University and in 1855 he gains the Lloyd Exhibition.

Purser becomes a tutor to the four sons of William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse (1800-1867) in 1857. Lord Rosse’s 72-inch reflecting telescope, built in 1845 and colloquially known of as the “Leviathan of Parsonstown,” is the world’s largest telescope when it is built and continues to hold this distinction until the early 20th century. As well as acting as tutor to the children, Purser does become involved in Lord Rosse’s interest in astronomy but never does any observing.

In 1863, Purser is appointed professor of mathematics at Queen’s College, Belfast, a position he maintains until his retirement in 1901.

Purser is much better known as a teacher than as a researcher, and he has a good number of notable students, including Sir Joseph Larmor, theoretical physicist who serves as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge; Charles Parsons, the inventor of the steam turbine; Sir John Henry MacFarland, who becomes Chancellor of the University of Melbourne; and William McFadden Orr.

Purser never marries. When his father dies on April 5, 1893, Rathmines Castle passes to him. He dies at Rathmines Castle on October 18, 1903, a very wealthy man. In his will he leaves £100,000 to his brother Frederick Purser, £40,000 to his sister Anna Griffith and £5,000 to each of her children. In addition to the money, he owns property in Blessington Street, Essex Street and Eustace Street which he leaves to his brother-in-law John Purser Griffith. Other properties and interests that he owns he divides between his brother Frederick and his sister Anna. After his death, his sister Anna and her husband John Purser Griffith move into Rathmines Castle although, at this time, its ownership has gone to Frederick Purser. After Frederick dies in August 1910, the Castle and his considerable wealth passes to Anna.

(Pictured: Portrait of John Purser painted by the artist Sarah Purser, daughter of Tertius Purser’s brother Benjamin Purser. The portrait hangs in Queen’s College, Belfast.)


Leave a comment

Birth of Astronomer William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse

William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, Anglo-Irish astronomer, naturalist, and engineer, is born in York, England on June 17, 1800. He is President of the Royal Society (UK), the most important association of naturalists in the world in the nineteenth century. He builds several giant telescopes. His 72-inch telescope, built in 1845 and colloquially known as the “Leviathan of Parsonstown,” is the world’s largest telescope, in terms of aperture size, until the early 20th century. From April 1807 until February 1841, he is styled as Baron Oxmantown.

Parsons is the son of Lawrence Parsons, 2nd Earl of Rosse, and Alice Lloyd. He is educated at Trinity College, Dublin and Magdalen College, Oxford, graduating with first-class honours in mathematics in 1822. He inherits an earldom and a large estate in King’s County (now County Offaly) in Ireland when his father dies in February 1841.

Parsons marries Mary Field, daughter of John Wilmer Field, on April 14, 1836. They have thirteen children, of which four sons survive to adulthood: Lawrence, 4th Earl of Rosse, Rev. Randal Parsons, the Hon. Richard Clere Parsons, and the Hon. Sir Charles Algernon Parsons.

In addition to his astronomical interests, Parsons serves as a Member of Parliament (MP) for King’s County from 1821 to 1834, president of the British Science Association in 1843–1844, an Irish representative peer after 1845, president of the Royal Society (1848–1854), and chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin (1862–1867).

During the 1840s, Parsons has the Leviathan of Parsonstown built, a 72-inch telescope at Birr Castle, Parsonstown, County Offaly. He has to invent many of the techniques he uses for constructing the Leviathan, both because its size is without precedent and because earlier telescope builders had guarded their secrets or had not published their methods. Details of the metal, casting, grinding and polishing of the 3-ton ‘speculum’ are presented in 1844 at the Belfast Natural History Society. His telescope is considered a marvelous technical and architectural achievement, and images of it are circulated widely within the British commonwealth. Building of the Leviathan begins in 1842 and it is first used in 1845, with regular use waiting another two years due to the Great Famine. Using this telescope he sees and catalogues a large number of nebulae, including a number that would later be recognised as galaxies.

Parsons performs astronomical studies and discovers the spiral nature of some nebulas, today known to be spiral galaxies. His telescope Leviathan is the first to reveal the spiral structure of M51, a galaxy nicknamed later as the “Whirlpool Galaxy,” and his drawings of it closely resemble modern photographs.

Parsons dies at the age of 67 on October 31, 1867 at Monkstown, County Dublin.

Parsons’s son publishes his father’s findings, including the discovery of 226 New General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars (NGC) objects in the publication Observations of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars Made With the Six-foot and Three-foot Reflectors at Birr Castle From the Year 1848 up to the Year 1878, Scientific Transactions of the Royal Dublin Society Vol. II, 1878.


Leave a comment

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.


Leave a comment

The Octennial Act Receives Royal Assent

parliament-of-irelandThe Octennial Act, an act of the Parliament of Ireland which sets a maximum duration of eight years for the Irish House of Commons, receives royal assent on February 16, 1768. Before this, a dissolution of parliament is not required except on the demise of the Crown, and the previous three general elections were held in 1715, 1727, and 1761, on the respective deaths of Anne, George I, and George II. After the act, general elections are held in 1769, 1776, 1783, 1790, and 1798.

Limiting the duration of parliament is a prime objective of the Irish Patriot Party. Heads of bills are brought, by Charles Lucas in 1761 and 1763 and by Henry Flood in 1765, to limit parliament to seven years as the Septennial Act 1716 does for the Parliament of Great Britain. The heads are rejected by the Privy Council of Great Britain, which, under Poynings’ Law, has to pre-approve any bill before it is formally introduced in the Irish parliament.

Since the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, the British government has wished to increase the size of Irish regiments, the part of the British Army charged on the Irish exchequer rather than the British. In 1767, the Chatham Ministry appoints George Townshend, 4th Viscount Townshend, as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and instructs him to secure the support of the Irish parliament for an Augmentation Bill to effect this increase. The British consider several possible concessions to win over the Irish Patriot Party, and at his speech from the throne, Townshend promises judicial tenure quamdiu se bene gesserint and hints at a Septennial Act.

Lucas again introduces heads of a Septennial Bill on October 20, 1767. Barry Maxwell introduces heads of a judicial tenure bill the same day. In November, the appointment of James Hewitt, 1st Baron Lifford, as Lord Chancellor of Ireland alienates the Undertakers who had hoped for the post. In addition, the British Privy Council adds a wrecking amendment to the judicial tenure bill, which causes the Irish parliament to reject the bill once returned to Dublin. The council also makes three amendments to Lucas’ bill – to the preamble, to extend the limit from seven to eight years, thus an Octennial Bill, and to bring forward the date of the next general election from 1774 to 1768. According to Francis Plowden, the Privy Council insists on the modification to eight years as a wrecking amendment, expecting that the Irish parliament will reject the bill on principle once any amendment has been made to it, and is disappointed when its amended bill is passed. William Edward Hartpole Lecky calls this “without foundation,” stating the actual reasons for eight years are that the Irish Parliament only meets every second year, and to reduce the chance of Irish and British general elections coinciding.

The Octennial Act reinvigorates the Commons, both with newly elected reformers and with MPs made more active by the prospect of imminent re-election. Changes include more assertiveness over supply bills and Poynings’ Law, easing the penal laws, and securing the Constitution of 1782. There are unsuccessful attempts to shorten the maximum duration, in 1773 by Sir William Parsons and in 1777 by Sir Edward Newenham.

The act is rendered moot when the Parliament of Ireland is abolished by the Acts of Union 1800. It is formally repealed by the Statute Law Revision (Ireland) Act 1879.


Leave a comment

Death of Mary Ward, First Motor Vehicle Fatality

mary-wardMary Ward, Anglo-Irish amateur scientist, is killed on August 31, 1869, when she falls under the wheels of an experimental steam car built by her cousins. As the event occurs in 1869, she is the world’s first person known to be killed by a motor vehicle.

During the 19th century, when most women have little encouragement for a science education, Mary is unusual. She is born Mary King in present-day Ferbane, County Offaly on April 27, 1827, the youngest child of Henry and Harriett King. 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.

Universities and most societies do not accept women, but Mary obtains information any way she can. She writes frequently to scientists, asking them about papers they have published. During 1848, her cousin William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, is made President of the Royal Society, enabling her to meet many scientists during visits to his home.

Parsons’ sons build a steam-powered car. It is thought at the time that steam transport will be developed greatly during the near future. This becomes true for trains, but does not become true for cars due to the development of internal combustion engine. Steam cars are heavy and they do too much damage to the already uneven roads. In 1865, the Red Flag Acts imposes a speed limit of four miles per hour for the countryside and two miles per hour in towns. This effectively ends the popularity of motorcars, but some enthusiasts still have one, often homemade, like the Parsons’ vehicle.

On August 31, 1869, Mary and her husband, Henry, are travelling in it with the Parsons boys, Richard Clare 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, 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.