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"If we ask to what end magnificent establishments are maintained by states and sovereigns, furnished with masterpieces of art, and placed under the direction of men of first-rate talent and high- minded enthusiasm, sought out for those qualities among the foremost in the ranks of science, if we demand QUI BONO? for what good a Bradley has toiled, or a Maskelyne or a Piazzi has worn out his venerable age in watching, the answer is--not to settle mere speculative points in the doctrine of the universe; not to cater for the pride of man by refined inquiries into the remoter mysteries of nature; not to trace the path of our system through space, or its history through past and future eternities. These, indeed, are noble ends and which I am far from any thought of depreciating; the mind swells in their contemplation, and attains in their pursuit an expansion and a hardihood which fit it for the boldest enterprise. But the direct practical utility of such labours is fully worthy of their speculative grandeur. The stars are the landmarks of the universe; and, amidst the endless and complicated fluctuations of our system, seem placed by its Creator as guides and records, not merely to elevate our minds by the contemplation of what is vast, but to teach us to direct our actions by reference to what is immutable in His works. It is, indeed, hardly possible to over-appreciate their value in this point of view. Every well-determined star, from the moment its place is registered, becomes to the astronomer, the geographer, the navigator, the surveyor, a point of departure which can never deceive or fail him, the same for ever and in all places, of a delicacy so extreme as to be a test for every instrument yet invented by man, yet equally adapted for the most ordinary purposes; as available for regulating a town clock as for conducting a navy to the Indies; as effective for mapping down the intricacies of a petty barony as for adjusting the boundaries of Transatlantic empires. When once its place has been thoroughly ascertained and carefully recorded, the brazen circle with which that useful work was done may moulder, the marble pillar may totter on its base, and the astronomer himself survive only in the gratitude of posterity; but the record remains, and transfuses all its own exactness into every determination which takes it for a groundwork, giving to inferior instruments--nay, even to temporary contrivances, and to the observations of a few weeks or days--all the precision attained originally at the cost of so much time, labour, and expense."
Sir John Herschel wrote many other works besides those we have mentioned. His "Treatise on Meteorology" is, indeed, a standard work on this subject, and numerous articles from the same pen on miscellaneous subjects, which have been collected and reprinted, seemed as a relaxation from his severe scientific studies. Like certain other great mathematicians Herschel was also a poet, and he published a translation of the Iliad into blank verse.
In his later years Sir John Herschel lived a retired life. For a brief period he had, indeed, been induced to accept the office of Master of the Mint. It was, however, evident that the routine of such an occupation was not in accordance with his tastes, and he gladly resigned it, to return to the seclusion of his study in his beautiful home at Collingwood, in Kent.
His health having gradually failed, he died on the 11th May, 1871, in the seventy-ninth year of his age.
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.
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