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Ross, James Clark


(b. London, England, 15 April 1800; d. Aylesbury, England, 3 April 1862)

polar navigation, geomagnetism.

Ross, the third son of George Ross, entered the Royal Navy as a midshipman in April 1812 and served under his uncle, John Ross, in the Baltic and North seas and the Downs. He subsequently accompanied him on surveys of the North Sea and the coast of the White Sea, in the course of which the longitude of Archangel was determined by observations of Jupiter’s satellites.

After service from 1815 to 1817 in Scottish waters, in 1818 Ross accompanied his uncle on the latter’s attempt, with William Edward Parry, to discover the Northwest Passage via Davis Strait.

In 1819–1820 Ross sailed with Parry when a further attempt was made to force the passage via Baffin Bay, Lancaster Sound, and Bering Strait. The partial success of this voyage in reaching Melville Island brought the expedition a reward of £5,000 from the Board of Longitude and encouraged the next expedition (1821–1823).

Promoted to lieutenant on 26 December 1822, Ross sailed with Parry on the latter’s third voyage on H.M.S. Fury, which was wrecked in Prince Regent Inlet on 30 July 1825. The Fury was abandoned, and all her crew were taken aboard H.M.S. Hecla. In 1827 Ross again sailed with Parry, this time to Spitsbergen in an effort to reach the North Pole over the ice. On the return of this venture, Ross was promoted to commander on 8 November 1827.

From 1829 to 1833 Ross accompanied his uncle, Sir John Ross, on the private expedition promoted by Felix Booth (1775–1850), a wealthy distiller who contributed £17,000 toward the cost. Sailing in a small vessel, James Ross carried out the sledging operations on the coasts of the Boothia Peninsula (named after the sponsor) and King William Island. On 1 June 1831 he discovered the north magnetic pole at latitude 70°05′17″ north and longitude 96°45′48″ west. Promoted to post captain on 28 October 1834, Ross commanded H.M.S. Cove on a voyage to Baffin Bay in 1836 for the relief of iced-in whalers.

Ross’s accumulated expertise in magnetic observations led to his employment by the Admiralty in 1838 on a magnetic survey (declination and dip) of the United Kingdom. The success of these operations was followed by his appointment in 1839 to command an expedition, sponsored by the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Society, for magnetic and geographical discovery in the Antarctic.

In September 1839 Ross sailed on what was to be a four-year voyage. On 1 January 1841 he crossed the Antarctic Circle, discovering Victoria Land, the 12,000-foot volcano at latitude 77°35′ south that he named Mount Erebus, and “the marvellous range of ice cliffs barring the approach to the Pole.”

Ross returned to England in 1843 with a large accumulation of observations on magnetism and other branches of natural sciences, including geology and marine life at great depths. He had carried out in his survey the greatest work of its kind yet performed— and, remarkably, with the loss of only one man through illness. This was due in no small measure to the great attention given to the selection of supplies for a mixed diet.

In 1847 Ross published a comprehensive two-volume account of his voyage. The following year he was placed in command of H.M.S. Enterprise on the first search expedition to relieve the expedition headed by Sir John Franklin. The main purpose was not achieved, but no opportunity was lost in accumulating observations.

Although Ross saw no further naval service after 1849, he was thereafter regarded as the leading authority on all aspects of Arctic navigation. His magnetic observations were reduced and published over a period of more than twenty years by the geomagnetician Sir Edward Sabine, in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Ross was elected to the Linnean Society in 1824 and to the Royal Society on 11 December 1828, and was awarded the gold medals of the geographical societies of London and Paris in 1842 for his Antarctic exploration. In 1844 he was knighted, received the degree of Doctor of Civil Laws, and was named to the French Legion of Honor. He was a corresponding member of the Paris Academy of Sciences and other foreign scientific societies for many years.


I. Original Works. Ross published the account of his voyage to the southern hemisphere as A Voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic Regions During the Years 1839 to 1843, 2 vols. (London, 1847), which includes observations on geology, marine life, and social conditions. His papers include “Observations to Determine the Amount of Atmospheric Refraction at Port Bowen, in the Years 1824–1825,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 116 (1826), pt. 4, 206–230; “On the Position of the North Magnetic Pole,” ibid., 124 (1834), 47–52, written with H. Foster and W. E. Parry; “Observations on the Direction and Intensity of the Terrestrial Magnetic Force in Ireland,” in Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1835), 116–162, written with E. Sabine and H. Lloyd; and “On the Effect of the Pressure of the Atmosphere on the Mean Level of the Ocean,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 144 (1854), 285–296.

II. Secondary Literature. Most of Ross’s magnetic observations were discussed and published by E. Sabine as “Contributions to Terrestrial Magnetism,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 132 (1842), 9–41; 133 (1843), 145–232; 134 (1844), 87–224; 136 (1846), 429–432; and 156 (1866), 453–543. See also Dictionary of National Biography; an obituary notice in Proceedings of the Royal Society, 12 (1862–1863), Ixi–Ixiii; and Royal Greenwich Observatory, Board of Longitude papers.

P. S. Laurie

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Sir James Clark Ross

Sir James Clark Ross

The English admiral and polar explorer Sir James Clark Ross (1800-1862) is known for his discovery of the North magnetic pole and his magnetic surveys of the Antarctic.

James Clark Ross was born in London on April 15, 1800, the son of George Ross and a nephew of Rear Adm. John Ross. He entered the Royal Navy in 1812, serving with his uncle in four ships and accompanying him on his first Arctic voyage, in 1818. He was in William Edward Parry's four Arctic expeditions. The first was in 1819-1820 aboard the Hecla; the second was between 1821 and 1823 in H.M.S. Fury. Ross received a promotion on Dec. 26, 1822, and sailed as lieutenant of the Fury on Parry's 1824-1825 Arctic expedition. He was also with Parry in 1827-1828 during the latter's unsuccessful attempt to reach the North Pole by sledge from West Spitsbergen.

Ross was promoted to commander on Nov. 8, 1827. From 1829 to 1833 he again served on one of his uncle's Arctic expeditions. On this trip James Clark Ross led a party across Boothia Isthmus, reaching the North magnetic pole on May 31, 1831. After his return home in 1833, Ross was promoted to captain and undertook the relief of whalers in Baffin Bay in 1836 and conducted a magnetic survey of Great Britain from 1835 until 1838.

In September 1838, with Ross as commander, H.M.S. Erebus and Terror sailed to the Antarctic to discover the South magnetic pole, examine Antarctica, and conduct numerous scientific tests according to directions of the Royal Society. They penetrated the ice belt as far south as latitude 78°9'30" in January 1841, reaching open water and discovering the Ross Sea. They continued to sail south and discovered Victoria Land (now part of New Zealand's Ross Dependency). The Ross Shelf Ice barred their way further south, and they were forced to turn back. In November 1841 they sailed again, from New Zealand, to solve the "Great Barrier Mystery" and failed owing to bad weather conditions. This time they wintered in the Falkland Islands, but they were no more successful on their third attempt. Finally they sailed for home and reached England in September 1843.

This voyage gave Ross "a distinguished place amongst the most successful votaries of Science, and the brightest ornaments of the British Navy." He received gold medals from geographical societies in London and Paris; in 1844 he was knighted; and in 1848 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. He led the first naval expedition in 1848-1849 to search for Sir John Franklin, missing with H.M.S. Enterprise and Investigator, but this was unsuccessful. Until his death, Ross was frequently consulted as "the first authority on all matters relating to Arctic navigation." He died at Aylesbury, England, on April 3, 1862.

Further Reading

Ross's account of his expedition is A Voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic Regions, 1839-43 (2 vols., 1847). Laurence P. Kirwan, A History of Polar Exploration (1960), devotes a chapter to the expedition, largely based on Ross's own account. Ross's discovery of the North magnetic pole is told in Sir John Ross, Narrative of a Second Voyage in Search of a North-West Passage … (1835).

Additional Sources

Ross, M. J. (Maurice James), Polar pioneers: John Ross and James Clark Ross, Montreal; Buffalo: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994. □

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