Johann von Lamont

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Lamont, Johann von

(b. Braemar, Scotland, 13 December 1805, d. Begenhausen, near Munich, Germany, 6 August 1879)

astronomy, physics.

Lamont was the son of Robert Lamont, custodian of an earl’s estate in Scotland. One of three sons of a second marriage, he displayed superior talents as early as primary school; but his education was placed in question when he was twelve by the death of his father. In 1817, however, he was accepted as a pupil at the St. Jacob Scottish Foundation in Regensburg. He never saw his family again.

In Regensburg, Lamont studied primarily German, Latin, and Greek, but was particularly fond of mathematics. He studied the works of Euler and other classics in the original language. In a mechanics workshop he acquired practical knowledge of great importance for his later work in constructing scientific measuring instruments. In 1827 he was sent to the astronomical observatory at Bogenhausen, near Munich, in order to develop his knowledge and abilities. His intelligence and dexterity won the full approval of the observatory’s director, Soldner, and Lamont was consequently appointed an assistant at the observatory only one year later.

Follwing Soldern’s death in 1833, Lamont provisionally took over the directorship of the observatory. In this capacity he displayed initiative and extraordinary scientific industry. In 1835, on the proposal of Schelling, who was then president of the Royal Bavarian Academy of Sciences, Lamont was named permanent director of the Bogehausen observatory. He also became a full member of the Academy. Lamont’s extremely varied scientific activity was directed toward astronomical, geodetic, meteorological, physical, and geophysical problems; and when it was necessary, he did not shrink from organizational endeavors.

To continue a promising astronomical investigation, Lamong began by equipping the observatory with better measuring apparatus and obtained funds for the publication of work that had already been completed. Hence he succeeded in publishing the observations that Soldner had made with the transit meridian during 1822–1827, after he himself had carried out the necessary reductions. The most valuable new is trument was a Fraunhofer refractor with a lens aperture of 10.5 Paris inches (approximately 11.25 inches) and a focal length of fifteen feet. With this telescope, which possessed the highest light-gathering power available at the time, Lamont observed the satellites of Saturn and Uranus and provided more exact data on their orbits. Moreover, he utilized the observations of the moons of Uranus to determine that planet's mass, which previously had been derived only from perturbations in the motion of Saturn. The new instrument also enabled Lamont to observe low-luminosity hazy objects, the study of which had been started by William Herschel around 1784. Lamont’s exact measurement of the star cluster in Scutum constituted an important foundation for the later study of relative motions in star clusters.

Lamont energetically continued the work Soldner had begun with the meridian circle, and starting in 1838 he was assisted in this task by an observer. In 1840 he was assisted in this task by an observer. In 1840 he began to shift the emphasis of his activities to the observation of a broad zone of stars of the seven the to tenth magnitudes. Of the 80,000 observations in Lamont’s zone catalog about 12,000 were of previously uncataloged stars. On two occasions he recorded the still undiscovered planet Neptune, without recognizing its planetary nature. Lamont’s zone catalog ranks with those of Lalande, Bessel, Argelander, and Santini as among the most important undertaking of its kind in the nineteen the century.

Around 1850 Lamont introduced to Europe the method developed in American observatories of chronographically recording the transit times of stars across the meridian, and thereby contributed to the objectification of observational procedure. In 1867 an international project for measuring the earth’s surface in Europe got under way, inspired by a suggestion of J. J. Baeyer. Lamont took charge of the geographical and astronomical work that was to be done in Bavaria. Beginning in 1878 Lamont turned his effortschiefly to a thorought sorting out of his observations and to the publication of a general catalog of all the Muich observations, reduced to the year 1880. This work, however, was never completed.

Around 1840 Lamont had become interested in meteorological problems. Because of the great importance of atmospheric conditions for astronomical observation, astronomers had frequently considered problems related to this field; but the observational data, which were mostly sporadic, were still lacking in theoretical penetration. Lamont called for a network of meteorological stations in order to establish a systematic body of data. This project presupposed organized observational activity, however, something which Lamont hoped to being about through the founding of a meteorologica association (1842). The same need was evident for observations in the field of terrestrial magnetism. Lamont created an outlet for both disciplines in the Analen für Meteorologie und Erdmagnetismus (1842–1844). Yet as a result of deficient financial support his progressive ideas regarding scientific organization did not have a chance to develop. Nevertheless, his ideas were influential; in particular, the recording and measuring apparatus that he devised proved their usefulness for decades. For more that forty years at Bogenhausen, Lamont carried out hourly meteorological recordings which were made from seven o’clock in teh morning until six o’clock in the evening. The work was the foundation of meteorological science in Bavaria. In connection with his meteorological studies Lamont also invetigated the phenomena of atmospheric electricity, in which widespread interest had been created by Franklin.

Lamont’s mos tenduring achievements resulted form his research in terrestrial magnetism, whic attracted the attemtion of John Herschel, Gauss, and Arage. Gauss, whose interest insuch questions dated from the beginning of th nineteenth century, had created, with Wilhelm Weber, the Magnetische Verein, thus uniting many perviously scattered efforts and furnishin the subject with a far-ranging and coherent methodology. Humboldt used his influence with foreign governments and learned societies to secure the establishment of a worldwide network of geomagnetic stations. Lamont received an official commission from the Bavarian government to take charge of these measurements, and the magnetic observatory erected expressly for this purpose received a special temporary subsidy from the private funds of crown Prince Maximilian.

Lamont at first considered current methods of measurement and discovered a number of defects which he was able to avoid by employing his own instruments. For example, based on the most recent findings,. he developed a magnetic theodolite for determining magnetic declination and horizontal intensity. He likewise devised a portable theodolite capable of meeting the demands made during scientific expeditions. The forty-five devices produced in the observatory’s workshop found interested recipients throughout the world. The experience that Lamont gained in constructing these instruments was expressed in papers on the theory of magnetic measuring instruments, in which he demonstrated the influence of temperature on permanent magnets. he also created special temperature-compensated deflection magnets for his instruments.

The continuity of Lamont’s activities is reflected in a series of observations of magnetic variations that were made with several assistants throughout the period 1841–1845 at oneor two-hour intervals, as well as at night. Later he also employed automatic recording apparatus of his own invention. From 1849 to 1855 Lamont established a magnetic survey of Bevaria by registering data at a total of 420 locations. in 1856 and 1857 he traveled with his measuring devices to France, Spain, and Portugal; and in 1858 he undertook an expedition to Belgium, Holland, and Denmark.

In this theory of terrestrial magnetism Lamont advocated the position that the earth possesses a solid magnetic core; but he always stressed that several possible conceptions were possible. A major result of his investigation of the earth’s magnetism was the doiscovery that magnetic variations occur in periods of approximately ten years, which is the same time span that Schwabe found 1843 for the appearance and frequenecy of sunspots. Lamont’s discovery encouraged the study of the reciprocal effects of cosmic and terretrial events. he set forth his experience and views in the field of magnetism in several comprehensive monographs.

Lamont did not undertake regular teaching duties at the University of Munich until 1852, when he assumed the chair o astronomy left vacant by the death of F. Gruithuisen who had drawn much criticism for being a scientific visionary. In the framework of his university activity Lamont gave popular scientific lectures which attracted a large audience. He also published a popularized account of his work as Astronomie und Erdmagnetismus. He established,. out of his own money, a foundation for gifted students of astronomy, physics, and mathematics and bequeathed to it the entire remainder of his considerable fortune.

Lamont was a member of many learned societies. His way of life was simple, and his efforts were dedicated exclusively to science. In an obituary notice in the Astronomische Nachrichten in is stated that his accomplishments “assume his name a lasting place in the history of the exact sciences” (95 [1879], col.253).


I. Original Works. Lamont’s writings are über die Nebeklflecke (Munich, 1837); Handbuch des Erdmagnetismus (Berlin, 1849); Astronomie und Erdmagnetismus (Stuttgart, 1851); Der Erdstrom und der Zusammenhang desselben mit dem Erdmagnetismus (Leipzig, 1862). the majority of his scietific findings are contained in the series of publications of the Bogenhausen observatory, especially Observationes astronomicae in specula regia Monachensi instiutae and ous publications can be found in the tecnhical journals and in the publications of the Barvarian Academy of Sciences, See also Poggendorff, I (1863), col. 361 and III (1898, pp. 786–769.

II. Secondary Literature. See S. Günther, in Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, XVII (Leipzig, 1883), 570–572; C. von Orff, in Viertelijhrsschrift der Astroomischen Gesellschaft, 15 (1880), 60-82 ; and the biography by Schäfhautl, in Historisch politische Blädtter fur das katholische Deutschland, 85 (1880), 54–82. A short description of the Bogenhausen observatory and its instruments is given by G. A Jahn in his Geschichte der Astonomie vom Anfange des 19. Jahrhuderts bis zum Ende des Jahres 1842 (Leipzing, 1844), pp. 256–257.

Dieter B. Herrmann