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Pre-Famine Ireland: Social Structure Copyright © 2000 by Desmond Keenan Hard copy of book available from and

Chapter Twenty Eight

                  Science and Invention

Summary of chapter. Ireland was in the forefront of scientific research, and in this period was probably in advance of most countries in the world. It was very strong in mathematics, physics, and astronomy. For many years the largest telescope in the world was in Ireland. The study of the Irish language and antiquities was placed on a scientific basis in this period.

(i) Science in General

(ii) Irish Language and Antiquities

(iii) Scientific and Learned Societies

(iv) Improving or Practical Societies


(i) Science in General 

            The related fields of mathematics and astronomy were the strong points of Irish science. To these must be added the skills necessary to devise and construct scientific apparatus. 

            The serious study of astronomy in Ireland may be dated from the appointment of Henry Ussher as Regius professor of astronomy in Trinity College, Dublin in 1783. In those days a professorship meant little more than a salary of a few hundred pounds a year, an obligation to give a specified number of lectures, and a room in which to lecture. Cash was not necessarily provided for equipment. Ussher (a descendant of the archbishop famous for his biblical chronology) began by selecting a site for an observatory at Dunsink just outside Dublin, and ordering equipment from the best makers of optical instruments in London. The instruments were not supplied, presumably because they were not paid for, until the time of his successor, the Rev. John Brinckley. 

            The chief task the astronomers at the time set themselves was to determine the precise apparent location of every star so that the heavens could be mapped and catalogued. The chief instrument used for this purpose was called a transit circle. This was a large telescope carrying a large graduated circle by means of which the right ascension and declination of a star could be determined as it passed the meridian. When Brinckley took office in 1792 there was only a single small telescope in place. In 1808 an altitude and azimuth circle eight feet in diameter was installed along with other instruments. Among the latter was a small achromatic (glass) telescope with a clockwork movement perfectly accurate for twelve hours. This meant that the telescope could be accurately trained on a celestial object for that length of time. Brinckley was chiefly famous for his studies of the parallax of the stars. This was an attempt to determine the distances of stars by comparing their positions at intervals of six months, thus using a base of 180 million miles for triangulation. His experiments were not considered successful, but he at least determined that enormous distances were involved. 

            The Lord Primate Richard Robinson established another observatory in Armagh in 1794. It was later well equipped by a later archbishop, John George Beresford. The first astronomer of note in Armagh was Thomas Romney Robinson who also had other scientific interests. Robinson's chief contribution to astronomy lay in the assistance he gave to the Earl of Rosse. 

            William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, began his study of astronomy in 1826. At that time there were two good achromatic  (literally 'without colour') telescopes in the British Isles, that of Mr Cooper in Ireland having a 13½-inch lens. Glass lenses had to be made by combining several lenses of different shapes to even out the distortions cause by the glass. The distortions caused coloured light to appear, so the absence of colour indicated a good lens. Several attempts had been made to make much larger telescopes on the reflecting principle, notably by Herschell, but the rapid tarnishing of the alloys used gave them only a short life. The Earl of Rosse tackled the problem of a reflecting telescope, and found he had two problems to solve. The first was to discover a non-tarnishing alloy, and the other was to devise mechanical equipment to evenly polish parabolic surfaces. These problems being solved, he constructed at Birr Castle, county Offaly, two giant telescopes. The diameter of the first was 36 inches, and of the second 72 inches. This latter diameter was not surpassed in the nineteenth century. The telescopes were used for studying spiral nebulae. 

            The fourth Irish observatory was that of Edward Joshua Cooper of Markree, county Sligo, who had been taught astronomy by his mother. He purchased an excellent 13½-inch achromatic lens, and with the aid of Thomas Grubb the instrument maker of Dublin constructed a telescope tube for it. His great work was the compilation of a star catalogue to improve the Berlin star catalogue. He listed the positions of 60,066 stars, many of them never previously listed. His star maps were presented to Cambridge University but were never printed. 

            Among other branches of science Dr Humphrey Lloyd of Trinity College pioneered the variations of earth magnetism. He devised and constructed the most accurate instruments for recording the diurnal and annual variations. He trained two army officers Sir Edward Sabine and John Henry Lefroy to carry out a magnetic survey of Ireland in 1834, one of the first surveys ever done. 

            Seismic studies, not merely the study of earthquakes but also the study of underlying rock formations, were pioneered in Ireland by Robert Mallet who bored holes in rocks and placed charges of gunpowder in them. His paper on 'The Dynamics of Earthquakes' was published in 1846, and was the first attempt to place the study of earthquakes on a firm scientific basis. 

            Though Irish savants took a leading part in discussions in the emerging science of geology they did not distinguish themselves. They were leading opponents of the theories of the Scottish doctor James Hutton which were later adopted and popularised by Lyell in his Principles of Geology. (An attempt by Archbishop Whately to include the theories of Lyell in his books for the National Schools enraged Archbishop MacHale.) One of the starting points for geological theories was the basaltic formations of the Giant's Causeway, which were described in scientific journals from around the year 1700. The Rev. William Hamilton, a pioneer in geological studies, correctly connected basalts with volcanic action. Dr Richardson (chiefly noted for his studies on fiorin grass) was a leading opponent of Hutton. Richard Kirwan, the leading Irish chemist, also denounced Hutton's theories. His bitter attacks had the reverse effect for they stimulated Hutton to polish and publish his theories 

            With regard to the publication of geological maps Ireland was among the leaders. Richard Griffith was asked to use the knowledge he had accumulated during his various surveys for minerals to produce a geological map of Ireland in conjunction with the Ordnance Survey. (As mentioned earlier more detailed studies had to be abandoned because of costs.) However it was published by the Government in 1839 on a scale of four miles to an inch and was the most detailed and accurate geological map that had ever been produced.  The work of the Geological Survey of the British Isles was not completely abandoned and was continued at a later date. 

             Meteorological studies may be said to have begun in Ireland with the systematic collection of records of the weather in Dublin by John Rutty (1698-1755). Systematic records were kept from about 1740. The Board of Ordnance was keeping some records at its headquarters in the Phoenix Park in Dublin at least from the beginning of the century. Dr Humphrey Lloyd began the systematic collection of records of rainfall, temperature, barometric pressure, and the direction and force of winds in Dublin from 1840 onwards. But by mid-century observations had not been extended to cover the whole of Ireland. 

            The measuring of the force of the winds caused a problem and two Irishmen contributed in different ways to solving it. The first, the Beaufort scale, was rough and ready, but had the advantage that it could be easily used world-wide. Captain Francis Beaufort, a son of the rector of Collon devised it, when working for the Board of Admiralty. The logbook of every naval ship had to be sent to the Admiralty at the completion of a voyage. It was difficult to interpret the meteorological data contained in ship's logs as terms used by captains could easily vary from one to another. Now as Navy ships were rigged in a standard fashion, and each captain progressively reduced sail as wind-speed rose until the ship was almost under bare poles, a simple practical scale could be devised. When say the topgallants or royals were struck every sailor in the world knew approximately the force of the wind. The scale had to be modified later in the century for use on steamships, but by then the graduations were well established. 

            By a curious coincidence the Irish inventor and experimenter Richard Lovell Edgeworth married a daughter of the rector of Collon. Among his inventions was a simple vertical windmill to which he added a counter to count the rotations. Dr Thomas Romney Robinson was intrigued by this windmill and concluded that if the speed of turning could be related to the speed of the wind an accurate instrument for measuring wind-speed from any direction could be devised. He first established that the speed of turning was equal to one-third the speed of the passing wind. He then improved the shape of the vertical-axis windmill, providing four cups at the ends of horizontal arms. This instrument was the famous Robinson cup-anemometer.

            Astronomy was intimately connected with mathematics. The serious study of mathematics began in Ireland when the Rev. William Hamilton Hales published in 1782 a treatise on the motions of the planets and in 1784 an analysis of mathematical equations. The Rev. George Miller, headmaster of Armagh Royal School published works on probability and magnetism. John Thomas Graves investigated imaginary logarithms and laid the basis for Rowan Hamilton's discovery. Sir William Rowan Hamilton was a professor of astronomy at Dunsink but his real interest was in mathematics. He was intrigued by the problem of devising practical uses for imaginary numbers. The seventeenth century French mathematician Descartes had devised the system of horizontal and vertical scales known as the Cartesian co-ordinates to all who use graphs. These could be used to give a mathematical expression to geometrical lines or curves. Rowan Hamilton extended this into the third dimension, thickness. He noted that in the Cartesian system that if a mathematical expression of a line is multiplied by (-1) the line is turned through 180 degrees. If it is multiplied by the square root of (-1) the line is turned through 90 degrees. From this starting point he arrived at a formula by which a line in any direction in space could be described by means of a simple formula w + xi + yj + zk where i, j, and k are mutually perpendicular vectors whose squares are (-1). (This form is clearer than the famous original formula which he wrote down on the parapet of a bridge lest he forget it, I2 = G2 = K2 = IGK = (-1). His formula proved difficult to use and was later simplified into vector analysis and in this form is used in space flight. The name quaternions refer to the four vectors. James M’Cullagh was regarded as second only to Robinson as a mathematician. He developed theories with regard to the refraction of light of great importance to astronomers, but committed suicide when still a young man. 

            Thomas Romney Robinson, a many-sided man, was interested in applying mathematics to the flow of liquids in pipes. His studies bore practical fruit in the fields of drainage and sewage works. He assisted the Earl of Rosse with his telescope, and later, the Earl's son, Charles Parsons, built on Robinson's work by examining the flow of steam in turbines. Parson's steam turbine is used extensively in the generation of electricity, and in the propulsion of ships. 

            Some other fields of research may be mentioned where work in Ireland equalled what was being done elsewhere. The Rev Edward Hincks, the rector of Killyleagh, co. Down (son of Thomas Dix Hincks the educationist) was interested in the decipherment of cuneiform scripts being discovered by archaeologists in the Middle East. No Irish clergyman however built on these discoveries or became famous as a biblical interpreter. Richard Chenevix Trench became Ireland's leading biblical scholar at a time when German theologians were asking searching questions, but his works were published after mid-century. Two Catholic priests in Maynooth College, though neither of them outstanding theologians produced useful works aimed at adapting the theological viewpoints of southern Europe to a Protestant environment. These were Dr Patrick Murray and Dr George Crolly. (John Henry Newman joined the Catholic Church after being assured by Dr Russell of Maynooth that it was not essential to follow every Italian fad or trend.) Dr Nicholas Callan, also of Maynooth, made a name for himself through his experiments with electricity. He developed a powerful battery, the Callan coil. (The Wheatstone telegraph was one of the few practical applications found for the 'electric fluid' though it had been studied scientifically for over a century.) 

            The study of botany had long been pursued by the Dublin Society and by Trinity College, Dublin. A lectureship in botany was established in 1711. A book on Irish plants was published in 1727. Linnaeus had devised his system of classification in the first half of the eighteenth century. The system was first used scientifically in Ireland by Dr Walter Wade, professor of botany to the Dublin Society in his study of the plants of county Dublin in 1794. The Rev Gilbert White's epoch-making Natural History of Selborne had been published in 1789 and formed a model for enthusiastic study by amateurs, especially ladies, for a long time to come. Lady Kane published her Irish Flora anonymously in 1833. 

            Ireland produced no outstanding chemist since Robert Boyle, described as 'the father of chemistry and brother to the Earl of Cork'. Richard Kirwan (died 1812) was the most noted chemist in Ireland at the period, and it was he who placed the study of chemistry at the university on a firm basis. The Dublin Society brought over Edmund Davy, the son of Sir Humphrey, to lecture on chemistry especially in connection with chemical analysis agricultural fertilisers like bone manure. 

            Irish doctors were in the forefront of advances in the study of medicine, especially the treatment of fever. Sir Philip Crampton was particularly interested in zoology and was prominent among the founders of the Royal Zoological Society of Ireland. Robert James Graves specialised in the teaching of medicine, and published his Clinical Lectures in 1843.  Sir William Wilde pioneered the collection of medical statistics and wrote The Epidemics of Ireland. John Milner Barry introduced vaccination into Ireland and wrote several works on fevers.  Henry MacCormack considered the treatment of lunatics and also investigated tuberculosis. Joseph Clarke studied under William Hunter in London and introduced improvements in midwifery and peri-natal care. The leading Dublin surgeons adopted the use of anaesthetics within a few years of the discovery of the technique in America. Francis Rynd invented the hypodermic needle. 

            Irish scientific periodicals were among the best in the world, and were eagerly sought after abroad. Standards fell behind in the second half of the century (Herries Davies). Almost without exception these scientists were Protestants. [Top] 

(ii) Irish Language and Antiquities 

            The scientific study of the Irish language did not begin until the second half of the century and in fact was largely developed in Germany. Scholars with a good knowledge of modern Irish could interpret texts as far back as the Middle Ages. The inability to interpret ancient Irish in no way deterred some scholars and others from writing about ancient Ireland. The earliest writing on Irish antiquities in the English language in the seventeenth century was co-temporary with the work of the last of the Irish annalists.

            The study of antiquities, at least so far as the investigation of monuments was concerned, was begun in Ireland by Charles Vallencey of the Engineers who became Engineer-in-ordinary in Ireland in 1762. (In the middle of the eighteenth century Lord Charlemont and Robert Wood pioneered the study of monuments of antiquity in the eastern Mediterranean.) Scientific excavation does not antedate the 1890's. Before that date the antiquarians just dug holes around ancient monuments to see what they could turn up. Ireland is very rich in field monuments so there was plenty of scope for digging. There was a fanciful history of ancient Ireland constructed in the seventeenth century by Geoffrey Keating based on ancient myths and legends, and this was combined with archaeological finds to construct even more fanciful accounts of ancient Ireland. Authors according to their fancy connected the origins of the Irish with various ancient peoples like the Egyptians, the Etruscans, or the Babylonians. These were called 'Hiberno-Asiatic theories'. It was from works like these that the Young Irelanders derived their romantic views of ancient Ireland. The gentlemen who formed the Royal Irish Academy in 1784 began to collect Irish manuscripts. 

            The first scientific monograph on Irish archaeology was George Petrie's study in 1845 on the origins of Ireland's distinctive round towers, in which he proved that they did not antedate Christianity in Ireland, or even the Vikings. The ground was laid for Petrie's researches by the systematic recording of field monuments by the Ordnance Survey. Ring forts, cromlechs, round towers, high crosses, tumuli, cairns, gallery graves, ogham inscriptions, beehive huts, and so on were carefully recorded. 

            John O Donovan was also employed in the Survey, being charged with the task of establishing the proper forms of the 144,000 placenames recorded, especially those of townlands. He also standardised the spelling of Irish, and tried to strike a balance between traditional forms and contemporary pronunciation. His system was followed until about the time of the Second World War when a simplified system was introduced. He is chiefly famous for his edition of the Annals of the Four Masters of which it can be said that it was good for its time. Eugene O’Curry was also attached to the Survey, and was particularly concerned with Gaelic manuscripts. Neither he or O'Donovan were particularly learned but they were pioneers. The proper study of ancient Ireland had to await the development of philological studies in Berlin. 

            The systematic study of Irish written records began in Ireland in 1806 when Lord Redesdale, the English lawyer who was Lord Chancellor, complained that the public records were badly kept. Accordingly, Commissioners of Irish Records were appointed in 1810 to arrange and catalogue them. William Shaw Mason, the statistician, was appointed the first Secretary to the Board, but he was not much interested in the work. Sir William Betham, the Ulster King of Arms did much more work, in the Heralds' Office. 

            Edward Bunting began the study of Irish traditional music. Though he was born in Ireland his father was English. When some gentlemen in Belfast in 1792 held a harp festival to promote Irish music only ten traditional harpers could be found. (The fiddle was the instrument of most ordinary musicians, but gentlemen patronised harpers.) Bunting was commissioned to write down the music. Unfortunately he wrote it down in a form to suit the new keyboard harp, and so neglected to give indications regarding the traditional methods of fingering. Apart from appearing on the Irish royal coat of arms the harp had no particular connection with Ireland, nor had the harp music. The importance of Bunting's music was that it was one of the earliest attempts to record the music of ordinary people, what was to be later called folk-music. The tunes he and others recorded were successfully adapted to Moore's Irish Melodies, though in this rendering even more of the traditional form was lost. [Top] 

(iii) Scientific and Learned Societies 

            The Royal Irish Academy was established in 1782 as the Irish equivalent of the Royal Society. It was an academy of science not of art. An earlier attempt in the seventeenth century to form such a society had failed. The members of the Society read papers on scientific and other subjects at its meetings. Among the papers read was one by Dr Robinson on his cup-anemometer. It received a small annual grant from the Government that was expended largely on acquiring Gaelic manuscripts. Few of the members bothered to learn Irish and clung to Vallencey's theories until they were quite untenable. Petrie's cold dose of reality was not popular in many circles. The Academy also acquired, chiefly through gifts, collections of ‘antiquities’ that had been assembled by bodies like the Board of Works and the Ordnance Survey as well as by private individuals. By 1850 it had a large collection but had no building in which to display it. The present National Museum dates from about 1890. 

            Some societies of a rather antiquarian kind, none of them long-lived, were established in the first half of the century to study the Irish language. Only the clergy of the various denominations studied it, and that for the purely practical reason that they had often to preach in that language while it lasted. In the eighteenth century a Gaelic Society had been formed in Scotland to study the ancient language. On was founded in Ireland in 1806, and another in 1818, but neither lasted long. A Celtic Society was formed in 1845 by Petrie, O’Donovan, and O’Curry to promote the study of ancient records, not to encourage the use of the modern language. Among the Young Irelanders only Thomas Davis had any enthusiasm for the spoken language, and his efforts to revive it caused amusement among his friends. Serious efforts to revive spoken Irish date from about 1890. [Top] 

(iv) Improving or Practical Societies 

             Rather than conducting original research these were more concerned with diffusing modern science or methods among their members. As noted earlier there were various bodies that we would nowadays call professional bodies that regulated the affairs of the learned professions to some extent. These were the Society of the King's Inn (1530), the Royal College of Physicians (1654), the Dublin Society (1731) and its offshoot the School of Art and Design (1746), the Royal College of Surgeons (1784), and the Apothecaries Hall (1791). 

            A Farming Society, established about 1800 to diffuse knowledge of modern farming, failed around 1830. But the Royal Dublin Society then resumed its connection with agriculture that it had been inclined to leave to the Farming Society. A separate Royal Horticultural Society was established in 1830 to promote ornamental and kitchen gardening. In 1840 the Royal Irish Agricultural Society was formed and many local farming societies were linked to it. (The title 'Royal' was granted by royal patent to signify royal approval of the aims of the Society.) 

            Following disputes among Irish artists the Royal Hibernian Academy was founded in 1823 to enable Irish artists more easily to exhibit their paintings. Great efforts were made in the 1840's to promote and develop art in Ireland. An Irish Art Union was organised in 1840 to promote a wider appreciation of art, a Society of Irish Artists in 1842 to promote exhibitions, and a Society of Ancient Art in 1844 to acquire casts of ancient sculptures to help train Irish sculptors. In 1848 an Irish Academy of Music was started and the venerable School of Art and Design re-organised. It had taught design for over a century but teaching stone carving for the Irish Customs House was no help to designers in industry. 

            Other societies or professional bodies established between 1830 and 1850 were the Irish Geological Society in 1831, the Irish Institute of Engineers in 1835, and the Royal Irish Institute of Architects in 1839. The Royal Zoological Society (1830) opened zoological gardens to match the botanic gardens that had been opened since the 1790's. Both were increasingly used for the exhibition of exotic rather than useful species.



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.