De Morgan and the Royal Astronomical Society

The article [H H Turner, The decade 1820-1830, in J L E Dreyer and H H Turner (eds.), History of the Royal Astronomical Society (London, 1923), 1-49] relates the founding of the Royal Astronomical Society. In the article Turner quotes the following letter written by Augustus De Morgan to the President of the Society:-


On looking over old papers, I find copies - whence obtained, I forget - of two letters connected with the foundation of the Society, in the handwriting of Mr B Smith, who was Dr Lee's secretary. With them I found a letter from Dr Lee (19 September 1857) in answer to my inquiries. It appears that the originals had then been, for many years, in possession of Captain Smyth, who entertained, from 1830 to 1834, or thereabouts, the intention of writing on the foundation of the Society. The copies are addressed to Mr Sheepshanks in the handwriting of Captain Smyth, with the postmark 'Bedford, 24 May 1834.' My impression is that Mr Sheepshanks handed them to Mr Baily, among whose papers I should have been sure to have found them. in this I am somewhat confirmed by observing that Mr Sheepshanks, in his obituary notice of Dr Pearson (Annual Report, 1848), shows only a general recollection of the first letter, and none at all of the second. As Admiral Smyth and Dr Lee are now gone, and probably no one but myself knows of these letters, I think it right to put their content on record.

The first is from Dr Patrick Kelly (the author of the Cambist) to Dr Pearson, 12 December 1812. He says: "It [a meeting of the schoolmasters] may be also a very auspicious time for us to lay some foundation for your suggestion respecting an Astronomical Society. I have mentioned it to two or three scientific gentlemen, who all approved very much of the idea; and one in particular, Dr Peter Nicholson, thinks that under good management it might become of great importance to science." In a postscript Dr Kelly adds: "If the Astronomical Society should ever become great, you must not forget that you are the Father of it. There are several eminent societies in town possessing inferior objects". It thus appears that Dr Pearson had formed the plan by 1812 and was endeavouring to promote the formation.

Mr Sheepshanks mentions, as a rumour, that the meeting of 12 January 1820, at which the Society came into existence, was resolved upon at a dinner given by Dr Pearson. The second letter fixes this rumour as a fact. It is from Mr (Sir James) South to Dr Pearson, 13 December 1819, giving permission to add the writer's name to a list then in collection, and accepting an invitation to dinner; the date of the symposium is not given. It thus appears that Dr Pearson kept the plan in his head, where it lived through his transformation from thriving London schoolmaster into a country rector and magistrate, that he got together a number of astronomers to join him, and lubricated the business, to use Sam Johnson's phrase, by a dinner. I may be permitted so much reference to our age and country as will appear in a slight alteration of Molière's text:

Le véritable fondateur
Est le fondateur où l'on dine.

Francis Baily (1819) gave in print a recommendation that such a Society should be formed. Sir J Herschel, when he wrote his life of Baily, was not aware that Dr Pearson had been agitating the plan for seven years. Dr Pearson, who finally left London in 1821, could not have been, what Baily was from the very first, the guide and stay of the Society, an institution which many might have founded, but few could have nursed. If the word be plural both were founders; but so far it can be used in the singular it applies only to Dr Pearson.

It must be remembered that in 1820, Dr Pearson stood in a position which the Society gradually altered by raising others to his level. He had that knowledge, which his work of 1824 so amply shows, coupled with great industry and zeal, and a remarkable collection of instruments. His standing in society was good, and his character high. To us Baily is what he made himself in making the Society: but in 1820, though Baily was well above the horizon, Pearson was on the meridian.

It is to be remembered that we are not to assume that we know of all Dr Pearson's exertions in this matter. Action in 1812 and action in 1819, proved by record, may lead to more than surmise of something like continuous effort through all the intervening period. My floating recollections of what people said in 1830 tend to strengthen the conclusion that Dr Pearson never lost sight of his favourite project.


JOC/EFR March 2006

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