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The Earl Of Rosse

The subject of our present sketch occupies quite a distinct position in scientific history. Unlike many others who have risen by their scientific discoveries from obscurity to fame, the great Earl of Rosse was himself born in the purple. His father, who, under the title of Sir Lawrence Parsons, had occupied a distinguished position in the Irish Parliament, succeeded on the death of his father to the Earldom which had been recently created. The subject of our present memoir was, therefore, the third of the Earls of Rosse, and he was born in York on June 17, 1800. Prior to his father's death in 1841, he was known as Lord Oxmantown.

The University education of the illustrious astronomer was begun in Dublin and completed at Oxford. We do not hear in his case of any very remarkable University career. Lord Rosse was, however, a diligent student, and obtained a first-class in mathematics. He always took a great deal of interest in social questions, and was a profound student of political economy. He had a seat in the House of Commons, as member for King's County, from 1821 to 1834, his ancestral estate being situated in this part of Ireland.

Lord Rosse was endowed by nature with a special taste for mechanical pursuits. Not only had he the qualifications of a scientific engineer, but he had the manual dexterity which qualified him personally to carry out many practical arts. Lord Rosse was, in fact, a skilful mechanic, an experienced founder, and an ingenious optician. His acquaintances were largely among those who were interested in mechanical pursuits, and it was his delight to visit the works or engineering establishments where refined processes in the arts were being carried on. It has often been stated--and as I have been told by members of his family, truly stated--that on one occasion, after he had been shown over some large works in the north of England, the proprietor bluntly said that he was greatly in want of a foreman, and would indeed be pleased if his visitor, who had evinced such extraordinary capacity for mechanical operations, would accept the post. Lord Rosse produced his card, and gently explained that he was not exactly the right man, but he appreciated the compliment, and this led to a pleasant dinner, and was the basis of a long friendship.

I remember on one occasion hearing Lord Rosse explain how it was that he came to devote his attention to astronomy. It appears that when he found himself in the possession of leisure and of means, he deliberately cast around to think how that means and that leisure could be most usefully employed. Nor was it surprising that he should search for a direction which would offer special scope for his mechanical tastes. He came to the conclusion that the building of great telescopes was an art which had received no substantial advance since the great days of William Herschel. He saw that to construct mighty instruments for studying the heavens required at once the command of time and the command of wealth, while he also felt that this was a subject the inherent difficulties of which would tax to the uttermost whatever mechanical skill he might possess. Thus it was he decided that the construction of great telescopes should become the business of his life.

In the centre of Ireland, seventy miles from Dublin, on the border between King's County and Tipperary, is a little town whereof we must be cautious before writing the name. The inhabitants of that town frequently insist that its name is Birr,* while the official designation is Parsonstown, and to this day for every six people who apply one name to the town, there will be half a dozen who use the other. But whichever it may be, Birr or Parsonstown--and I shall generally call it by the latter name--it is a favourable specimen of an Irish county town. The widest street is called the Oxmantown Mall. It is bordered by the dwelling-houses of the chief residents, and adorned with rows of stately trees. At one end of this distinctly good feature in the town is the Parish Church, while at the opposite end are the gates leading into Birr Castle, the ancestral home of the house of Parsons. Passing through the gates the visitor enters a spacious demesne, possessing much beauty of wood and water, one of the most pleasing features being the junction of the two rivers, which unite at a spot ornamented by beautiful timber. At various points illustrations of the engineering skill of the great Earl will be observed. The beauty of the park has been greatly enhanced by the construction of an ample lake, designed with the consummate art by which art is concealed. Even in mid-summer it is enlivened by troops of wild ducks preening themselves in that confidence which they enjoy in those happy localities where the sound of a gun is seldom heard. The water is led into the lake by a tube which passes under one of the two rivers just mentioned, while the overflow from the lake turns a water-wheel, which works a pair of elevators ingeniously constructed for draining the low-lying parts of the estate.

*Considering the fame acquired by Parsonstown from Lord Rosse's mirrors, it may be interesting to note the following extract from "The Natural History of Ireland," by Dr. Gerard Boate, Thomas Molyneux M.D., F.R.S., and others, which shows that 150 years ago Parsonstown was famous for its glass:--

"We shall conclude this chapter with the glass, there having been several glasshouses set up by the English in Ireland, none in Dublin or other cities, but all of them in the country; amongst which the principal was that of Birre, a market town, otherwise called Parsonstown, after one Sir Lawrence Parsons, who, having purchased that lordship, built a goodly house upon it; his son William Parsons having succeeded him in the possession of it; which town is situate in Queen's County, about fifty miles (Irish) to the southwest of Dublin, upon the borders of the two provinces of Leinster and Munster; from this place Dublin was furnished with all sorts of window and drinking glasses, and such other as commonly are in use. One part of the materials, viz., the sand, they had out of England; the other, to wit the ashes, they made in the place of ash-tree, and used no other. The chiefest difficulty was to get the clay for the pots to melt the materials in; this they had out of the north."--Chap. XXI., Sect. VIII. "Of the Glass made in Ireland."

Birr Castle itself is a noble mansion with reminiscences from the time of Cromwell. It is surrounded by a moat and a drawbridge of modern construction, and from its windows beautiful views can be had over the varied features of the park. But while the visitors to Parsonstown will look with great interest on this residence of an Irish landlord, whose delight it was to dwell in his own country, and among his own people, yet the feature which they have specially come to observe is not to be found in the castle itself. On an extensive lawn, sweeping down from the moat towards the lake, stand two noble masonry walls. They are turreted and clad with ivy, and considerably loftier than any ordinary house. As the visitor approaches, he will see between those walls what may at first sight appear to him to be the funnel of a steamer lying down horizontally. On closer approach he will find that it is an immense wooden tube, sixty feet long, and upwards of six feet in diameter. It is in fact large enough to admit of a tall man entering into it and walking erect right through from one end to the other. This is indeed the most gigantic instrument which has ever been constructed for the purpose of exploring the heavens. Closely adjoining the walls between which the great tube swings, is a little building called "The Observatory." In this the smaller instruments are contained, and there are kept the books which are necessary for reference. The observatory also offers shelter to the observers, and provides the bright fire and the cup of warm tea, which are so acceptable in the occasional intervals of a night's observation passed on the top of the walls with no canopy but the winter sky.

Almost the first point which would strike the visitor to Lord Rosse's telescope is that the instrument at which he is looking is not only enormously greater than anything of the kind that he has ever seen before, but also that it is something of a totally different nature. In an ordinary telescope he is accustomed to find a tube with lenses of glass at either end, while the large telescopes that we see in our observatories are also in general constructed on the same principle. At one end there is the object-glass, and at the other end the eye-piece, and of course it is obvious that with an instrument of this construction it is to the lower end of the tube that the eye of the observer must be placed when the telescope is pointed to the skies. But in Lord Rosse's telescope you would look in vain for these glasses, and it is not at the lower end of the instrument that you are to take your station when you are going to make your observations. The astronomer at Parsonstown has rather to avail himself of the ingenious system of staircases and galleries, by which he is enabled to obtain access to the mouth of the great tube. The colossal telescope which swings between the great walls, like Herschel's great telescope already mentioned, is a reflector, the original invention of which is due of course to Newton. The optical work which is accomplished by the lenses in the ordinary telescope is effected in the type of instrument constructed by Lord Rosse by a reflecting mirror which is placed at the lower end of the vast tube. The mirror in this instrument is made of a metal consisting of two parts of copper to one of tin. As we have already seen, this mixture forms an alloy of a very peculiar nature. The copper and the tin both surrender their distinctive qualities, and unite to form a material of a very different physical character. The copper is tough and brown, the tin is no doubt silvery in hue, but soft and almost fibrous in texture. When the two metals are mixed together in the proportions I have stated, the alloy obtained is intensely hard and quite brittle being in both these respects utterly unlike either of the two ingredients of which it is composed. It does, however, resemble the tin in its whiteness, but it acquires a lustre far brighter than tin; in fact, this alloy hardly falls short of silver itself in its brilliance when polished.

The first duty that Lord Rosse had to undertake was the construction of this tremendous mirror, six feet across, and about four or five inches thick. The dimensions were far in excess of those which had been contemplated in any previous attempt of the same kind. Herschel had no doubt fashioned one mirror of four feet in diameter, and many others of smaller dimensions, but the processes which he employed had never been fully published, and it was obvious that, with a large increase in dimensions, great additional difficulties had to be encountered. Difficulties began at the very commencement of the process, and were experienced in one form or another at every subsequent stage. In the first place, the mere casting of a great disc of this mixture of tin and copper, weighing something like three or four tons, involved very troublesome problems. No doubt a casting of this size, if the material had been, for example, iron, would have offered no difficulties beyond those with which every practical founder is well acquainted, and which he has to encounter daily in the course of his ordinary work. But speculum metal is a material of a very intractable description. There is, of course, no practical difficulty in melting the copper, nor in adding the proper proportion of tin when the copper has been melted. There may be no great difficulty in arranging an organization by which several crucibles, filled with the molten material, shall be poured simultaneously so as to obtain the requisite mass of metal, but from this point the difficulties begin. For speculum metal when cold is excessively brittle, and were the casting permitted to cool like an ordinary copper or iron casting, the mirror would inevitably fly into pieces. Lord Rosse, therefore, found it necessary to anneal the casting with extreme care by allowing it to cool very slowly. This was accomplished by drawing the disc of metal as soon as it had entered into the solid state, though still glowing red, into an annealing oven. There the temperature was allowed to subside so gradually, that six weeks elapsed before the mirror had reached the temperature of the external air. The necessity for extreme precaution in the operation of annealing will be manifest if we reflect on one of the accidents which happened. On a certain occasion, after the cooling of a great casting had been completed, it was found, on withdrawing the speculum, that it was cracked into two pieces. This mishap was eventually traced to the fact that one of the walls of the oven had only a single brick in its thickness, and that therefore the heat had escaped more easily through that side than through the other sides which were built of double thickness. The speculum had, consequently, not cooled uniformly, and hence the fracture had resulted. Undeterred, however, by this failure, as well as by not a few other difficulties, into a description of which we cannot now enter, Lord Rosse steadily adhered to his self-imposed task, and at last succeeded in casting two perfect discs on which to commence the tedious processes of grinding and polishing. The magnitude of the operations involved may perhaps be appreciated if I mention that the value of the mere copper and tin entering into the composition of each of the mirrors was about 500 pounds.

In no part of his undertaking was Lord Rosse's mechanical ingenuity more taxed than in the devising of the mechanism for carrying out the delicate operations of grinding and polishing the mirrors, whose casting we have just mentioned. In the ordinary operations of the telescope-maker, such processes had hitherto been generally effected by hand, but, of course, such methods became impossible when dealing with mirrors which were as large as a good-sized dinner table, and whose weight was measured by tons. The rough grinding was effected by means of a tool of cast iron about the same size as the mirror, which was moved by suitable machinery both backwards and forwards, and round and round, plenty of sand and water being supplied between the mirror and the tool to produce the necessary attrition. As the process proceeded and as the surface became smooth, emery was used instead of sand; and when this stage was complete, the grinding tool was removed and the polishing tool was substituted. The essential part of this was a surface of pitch, which, having been temporarily softened by heat, was then placed on the mirror, and accepted from the mirror the proper form. Rouge was then introduced as the polishing powder, and the operation was continued about nine hours, by which time the great mirror had acquired the appearance of highly polished silver. When completed, the disc of speculum metal was about six feet across and four inches thick. The depression in the centre was about half an inch. Mounted on a little truck, the great speculum was then conveyed to the instrument, to be placed in its receptacle at the bottom of the tube, the length of which was sixty feet, this being the focal distance of the mirror. Another small reflector was inserted in the great tube sideways, so as to direct the gaze of the observer down upon the great reflector. Thus was completed the most colossal instrument for the exploration of the heavens which the art of man has ever constructed.

It was once my privilege to be one of those to whom the illustrious builder of the great telescope entrusted its use. For two seasons in 1865 and 1866 I had the honour of being Lord Rosse's astronomer. During that time I passed many a fine night in the observer's gallery, examining different objects in the heavens with the aid of this remarkable instrument. At the time I was there, the objects principally studied were the nebulae, those faint stains of light which lie on the background of the sky. Lord Rosse's telescope was specially suited for the scrutiny of these objects, inasmuch as their delicacy required all the light-grasping power which could be provided.

One of the greatest discoveries made by Lord Rosse, when his huge instrument was first turned towards the heavens, consisted in the detection of the spiral character of some of the nebulous forms. When the extraordinary structure of these objects was first announced, the discovery was received with some degree of incredulity. Other astronomers looked at the same objects, and when they failed to discern--and they frequently did fail to discern--the spiral structure which Lord Rosse had indicated, they drew the conclusion that this spiral structure did not exist. They thought it must be due possibly to some instrumental defect or to the imagination of the observer. It was, however, hardly possible for any one who was both willing and competent to examine into the evidence, to doubt the reality of Lord Rosse's discoveries. It happens, however, that they have been recently placed beyond all doubt by testimony which it is impossible to gainsay. A witness never influenced by imagination has now come forward, and the infallible photographic plate has justified Lord Rosse. Among the remarkable discoveries which Dr. Isaac Roberts has recently made in the application of his photographic apparatus to the heavens, there is none more striking than that which declares, not only that the nebulae which Lord Rosse described as spirals, actually do possess the character so indicated, but that there are many others of the same description. He has even brought to light the astonishingly interesting fact that there are invisible objects of this class which have never been seen by human eye, but whose spiral character is visible to the peculiar delicacy of the photographic telescope.

In his earlier years, Lord Rosse himself used to be a diligent observer of the heavenly bodies with the great telescope which was completed in the year 1845. But I think that those who knew Lord Rosse well, will agree that it was more the mechanical processes incidental to the making of the telescope which engaged his interest than the actual observations with the telescope when it was completed. Indeed one who was well acquainted with him believed Lord Rosse's special interest in the great telescope ceased when the last nail had been driven into it. But the telescope was never allowed to lie idle, for Lord Rosse always had associated with him some ardent young astronomer, whose delight it was to employ to the uttermost the advantages of his position in exploring the wonders of the sky. Among those who were in this capacity in the early days of the great telescope, I may mention my esteemed friend Dr. Johnston Stoney.

Such was the renown of Lord Rosse himself, brought about by his consummate mechanical genius and his astronomical discoveries, and such the interest which gathered around the marvellous workshops at Birr castle, wherein his monumental exhibitions of optical skill were constructed, that visitors thronged to see him from all parts of the world. His home at Parsonstown became one of the most remarkable scientific centres in Great Britain; thither assembled from time to time all the leading men of science in the country, as well as many illustrious foreigners. For many years Lord Rosse filled with marked distinction the exalted position of President of the Royal Society, and his advice and experience in practical mechanical matters were always at the disposal of those who sought his assistance. Personally and socially Lord Rosse endeared himself to all with whom he came in contact. I remember one of the attendants telling me that on one occasion he had the misfortune to let fall and break one of the small mirrors on which Lord Rosse had himself expended many hours of hard personal labour. The only remark of his lordship was that "accidents will happen."

The latter years of his life Lord Rosse passed in comparative seclusion; he occasionally went to London for a brief sojourn during the season, and he occasionally went for a cruise in his yacht; but the greater part of the year he spent at Birr Castle, devoting himself largely to the study of political and social questions, and rarely going outside the walls of his demesne, except to church on Sunday mornings. He died on October 31, 1867.

He was succeeded by his eldest son, the present Earl of Rosse, who has inherited his father's scientific abilities, and done much notable work with the great telescope.

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