Brisbane, Thomas

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Brisbane, Thomas

(b. Brisbane House, Ayrshire, Scotland, 23 July 1773; d. Brisbane House, 27 January 1860)


Although himself an able practical astronomer, Brisbane is better remembered as a munificent patron of science through his founding and equipping of Paramatta (astronomical) and Makerstoun (magnetic) observatories, the personal remuneration of their observers, and the provision of support for the publication of their findings.

Brisbane was descended from the distinguished Brisbane family of Bishopton. His early education was under tutors at home; he then studied at Edinburgh University and at Kensington Academy, where he attended lectures on astronomy and mathematics. Brisbane was gazetted an ensign in 1789 and progressively advanced to the rank of general (1841). He saw active service in Europe, the West Indies, and Canada. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1810, corresponding member of the Paris Institute in 1816 (for protecting its premises from military attack earlier that year), vice-president of the Astronomical Society in 1827, president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1833, and honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1836. He received honorary degrees from Edinburgh (1824), Oxford (1832), and Cambridge (1833); was created baronet in 1836; and was made G.C.B. in 1837.

Brisbane’s decision to master practical astronomy came on his first voyage to the West Indies (1795), when an error of the ship’s commander in taking the longitude resulted in their being almost wrecked. Retired on half pay for health reasons from 1805 to 1810, he built an observatory at Brisbane House in 1808 and became skilled in the use of astronomical instruments. This was the second of two observatories then in Scotland and the foremost in equipment, having a four-and-a-half-foot transit and an altitude and azimuth instrument (both by Troughton), a mural circle, and an equatorial. During the Peninsular campaigns (1812–1813) Brisbane took regular observations with a pocket sextant and, while serving in France (1815–1818), computed a set of tables for determining apparent time with a sextant from the altitudes of the sun and stars. These tables, commissioned by the Duke of Wellington and published privately by the army in 1818, also formed the subject of his first scientific contribution to the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Appointed governor of New South Wales in 1821, Brisbane decided to establish, at his own expense, an observatory at Paramatta, in order to promote knowledge of the then little-known stars of the Southern Hemisphere. The observatory, equipped with a five-and-a-half-foot transit and a two-foot mural circle by Troughton and other instruments, opened on 2 May 1822 under his personal direction, with Charles Rümker and James Dunlop as observers. The importance of this station was underlined a month later by Dunlop’s rediscovery, in its predicted place (invisible from Europe), of Encke’s comet, thus establishing the existence of comets of short period and providing information on their spatial motions. Besides standard astronomical observations, the greatest effort at Paramatta was the cataloging of 7,385 stars between 1822 and 1826 (“Brisbane Catalogue,” 1835). Unfortunately, the inherent unsteadiness of the transit instrument used in this program has since caused the catalog to prove largely useless. Brisbane’s provision of an observatory in the Southern Hemisphere was honored by the award of the gold medal of the Astronomical Society in 1828.

When he returned to Scotland, Brisbane built and equipped another observatory at Makerstoun in 1826, making astronomical observations there until about 1847. It is noteworthy, since he later supported a worldwide effort—instigated by Humboldt in 1837 and undertaken by the British and other national governments, the East India Company, and private enterprise in 1839—to elucidate the problems of terrestrial magnetism, that a personal letter from him to the Royal Society of Edinburgh dated as early as 15 March 1830 regrets that the taking of magnetic measurements should be neglected in Britain. His support of the international cooperation took the form of personally founding and equipping a magnetic observatory at Makerstoun in 1841, thus filling the need, in view of its extreme northwesterly position in Europe, of taking magnetic measurements in Scotland. The results obtained at this station under the director John Allan Broun now constitute the most valuable fruits of Brisbane’s patronage of science. His philanthropy in its establishment and maintenance, and in the dissemination of its results, was honored by the award of the Keith Medal of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1848.

Other benefactions included the founding of two medals for reward of scientific merit—one to be awarded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the other by the Scottish Society of Arts—and the endowment of Brisbane Academy, Ayrshire.


I. Original Works. Brisbane’s writings include Tables for Determining the Apparent Time From the Altitudes of the Sun and Stars (France, 1818); “A Method for Determining the Time…,” in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 8 , pt. 2 (1818), 497–506; and papers on the repeating reflecting circle and on a method of determining the latitude by a sextant or circle, ibid., 9 (1823), 97–102 and 227–234, respectively. Memoirs of General Sir T. M. Brisbane (Edinburgh, 1860) contains personally compiled accounts of his military campaigns.

A great variety of observations made at Paramatta between 1822 and 1826 by Brisbane and/or his assistants were forwarded by Brisbane for publication in the journals of the Royal Society of London and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and in Schumacher’s Astronomical Notices (see Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, I, 632–633). A large collection of assorted Paramatta observations, compiled by Charles Rümker, appeared in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 119 , pt. 3 (1829), 1–152. The bulk of Brisbane’s personal observations are contained in A Catalogue of 7385 Stars Chiefly in the Southern Hemisphere… (“The Brisbane Catalogue”), compiled by William Richardson (London, 1835).

A variety of observations, mainly planetary, made at Makerstoun astronomical observatory by Brisbane and/or his assistants, appeared in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, vols. 1, 2, 4, 7, 8 and in Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society, vols. 4, 5, 9, 10 .

A personal letter from Brisbane to the Royal Society of Edinburgh concerning the taking of magnetic measurements in Britain is published in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 12 (1834), 1–2. Significant results obtained at Makerstoun magnetic observatory by John A. Broun and his staff, published at the joint expense of Brisbane and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, appear in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 17 (1845)–19 (1850) and in a supplement to 22 (1861) published after Brisbane’s death.

II. Secondary Literature. Writings on Brisbane include A. Bryson, “Memoir of General Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane, GCB…,” in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 22 (1861), 589–605, which contains many anecdotes of his military campaigns and a complete quotation of Herschel’s presentation address (see below); Fraser, Genealogical Table of Sir T. M. Brisbane (Edinburgh, 1840); and the original address by Sir John Herschel upon the presentation of the gold medal of the Astronomical Society to Brisbane, in Memoirs of the Astronomical Society, 3 (1829), 399–407.

A general account of his life and work appear in the Dictionary of National Biography, VI (1886), Obituaries are in Gentlemen’s Magazine, pt. 1 (1860), 298–302; Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 21 (1861), 98–100; and Proceedings of the Royal Society, 11 (1862), iii–vii.

Susan M. P. McKenna