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"I had been drawing pictures of you in my mind in your study at Cumberland Street with 'Xenophon,' &c., on the table, and you, with your most awfully sublime face of thought, now sitting down, and now walking about, at times rubbing your hands with an air of satisfaction, and at times bursting forth into some very heroical strain of poetry in an unknown language, and in your own internal solemn ventriloquist-like voice, when you address yourself to the silence and solitude of your own room, and indeed, at times, even when your mysterious poetical addresses are not quite unheard."
This letter is quoted because it refers to a circumstance which all who ever met with Hamilton, even in his latest years, will remember. He was endowed with two distinct voices, one a high treble, the other a deep bass, and he alternately employed these voices not only in ordinary conversation, but when he was delivering an address on the profundities of Quaternions to the Royal Irish Academy, or on similar occasions. His friends had long grown so familiar with this peculiarity that they were sometimes rather surprised to find how ludicrous it appeared to strangers.
Hamilton was fortunate in finding, while still at a very early age, a career open before him which was worthy of his talents. He had not ceased to be an undergraduate before he was called to fill an illustrious chair in his university. The circumstances are briefly as follows.
We have already mentioned that, in 1826, Brinkley was appointed Bishop of Cloyne, and the professorship of astronomy thereupon became vacant. Such was Hamilton's conspicuous eminence that, notwithstanding he was still an undergraduate, and had only just completed his twenty-first year, he was immediately thought of as a suitable successor to the chair. Indeed, so remarkable were his talents in almost every direction that had the vacancy been in the professorship of classics or of mathematics, of English literature or of metaphysics, of modern or of Oriental languages, it seems difficult to suppose that he would not have occurred to every one as a possible successor. The chief ground, however, on which the friends of Hamilton urged his appointment was the earnest of original power which he had already shown in a research on the theory of Systems of Rays. This profound work created a new branch of optics, and led a few years later to a superb discovery, by which the fame of its author became world-wide.
At first Hamilton thought it would be presumption for him to apply for so exalted a position; he accordingly retired to the country, and resumed his studies for his degree. Other eminent candidates came forward, among them some from Cambridge, and a few of the Fellows from Trinity College, Dublin, also sent in their claims. It was not until Hamilton received an urgent letter from his tutor Boyton, in which he was assured of the favourable disposition of the Board towards his candidature, that he consented to come forward, and on June 16th, 1827, he was unanimously chosen to succeed the Bishop of Cloyne as Professor of Astronomy in the University. The appointment met with almost universal approval. It should, however, be noted that Brinkley, whom Hamilton succeeded, did not concur in the general sentiment. No one could have formed a higher opinion than he had done of Hamilton's transcendent powers; indeed, it was on that very ground that he seemed to view the appointment with disapprobation. He considered that it would have been wiser for Hamilton to have obtained a Fellowship, in which capacity he would have been able to exercise a greater freedom in his choice of intellectual pursuits. The bishop seems to have thought, and not without reason, that Hamilton's genius would rather recoil from much of the routine work of an astronomical establishment. Now that Hamilton's whole life is before us, it is easy to see that the bishop was entirely wrong. It is quite true that Hamilton never became a skilled astronomical observer; but the seclusion of the observatory was eminently favourable to those gigantic labours to which his life was devoted, and which have shed so much lustre, not only on Hamilton himself, but also on his University and his country.
In his early years at Dunsink, Hamilton did make some attempts at a practical use of the telescopes, but he possessed no natural aptitude for such work, while exposure which it involved seems to have acted injuriously on his health. He, therefore, gradually allowed his attention to be devoted to those mathematical researches in which he had already given such promise of distinction. Although it was in pure mathematics that he ultimately won his greatest fame, yet he always maintained and maintained with justice, that he had ample claims to the title of an astronomer. In his later years he set forth this position himself in a rather striking manner. De Morgan had written commending to Hamilton's notice Grant's "History of Physical Astronomy." After becoming acquainted with the book, Hamilton writes to his friend as follows:--
"The book is very valuable, and very creditable to its composer. But your humble servant may be pardoned if he finds himself somewhat amused at the title, `History of Physical Astronomy from the Earliest Ages to the Middle of the Nineteenth Century,' when he fails to observe any notice of the discoveries of Sir W. R. Hamilton in the theory of the 'Dynamics of the Heavens.'"
The intimacy between the two correspondents will account for the tone of this letter; and, indeed, Hamilton supplies in the lines which follow ample grounds for his complaint. He tells how Jacobi spoke of him in Manchester in 1842 as "le Lagrange de votre pays," and how Donkin had said that, "The Analytical Theory of Dynamics as it exists at present is due mainly to the labours of La Grange Poisson, Sir W. R. Hamilton, and Jacobi, whose researches on this subject present a series of discoveries hardly paralleled for their elegance and importance in any other branch of mathematics." In the same letter Hamilton also alludes to the success which had attended the applications of his methods in other hands than his own to the elucidation of the difficult subject of Planetary Perturbations. Even had his contributions to science amounted to no more than these discoveries, his tenure of the chair would have been an illustrious one. It happens, however, that in the gigantic mass of his intellectual work these researches, though intrinsically of such importance, assume what might almost be described as a relative insignificance.
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