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Carrington, Richard Christopher

Carrington, Richard Christopher

(b. London, England, 26 May 1826; d. Churt, Surrey, England, 27 November 1875),


Carrington had the good fortune to belong to a wealthy family and to receive his basic education at a private school, located at Hedley and run by a Mr. Faithful. His father, the proprietor of a large brewery at Brentford, was desirous that his son should be prepared for the respectable profession of the Church and therefore arranged that he spend some time in the house of a clergyman named Blogard before beginning his studies in theology at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1844. Even before this time, however, Carrington had come to realize that his natural aptitudes lay rather in the pursuit of the physical sciences, particularly in those aspects involving observation and mechanical ingenuity.

Between 1842 and the completion of his B. A. degree in 1848, Carrington submitted no fewer than six quite substantial contributions to collections of problems in various branches of mathematics, physics, and astronomy. The final impulse to his resolution to be a practical astronomer came when he attended the lectures of the Plumian professor, James Challis, on that subject; and when his father raised no objection to this choice of career, he accepted the post of observer at the University of Durham and began work there in October 1849 under the direction of the Rev. Temple Chevalier. Carrington’s early contributions to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and to the Astronomische Nachrichten, containing the preliminary results of observations of minor planets and comets, ensured his prompt admittance to membership in the Royal Astronomical Society when his application was considered on 14 March 1851.

By this time Carrington was becoming discontent with his duties in Durham and saw little prospect of better instruments being purchased to enable him to extend the scope of his activities. He wished in particular to complete the work of Bessel and Argelander by systematically surveying the spherical zone of the heavens within 9° of the north celestial pole and preparing a catalog of circumpolar stars brighter than the eleventh magnitude—a deficiency of which his observations of minor planets had made him well aware. He therefore resolved to use his substantial means to set up his own observatory and buy his own instruments, and thus he resigned his appointment in Durham in March 1852.

The site that Carrington selected for his private observatory was Redhill, near Reigate, Surrey. The building was completed and his instruments, a 5. 5-foot–focus transit circle and a 4. 3-foot–focus equatorial (both made by William Simms), were installed and adjusted by July 1853, although what Carrington terms “the real work of observing” did not start until the beginning of the following year. The transit circle, a scale model of the large meridian instrument then at Greenwich, was for finding the absolute positions of the brightest stars; the equatorial enabled comparisons to be made of the positions of the fainter stars relative to those of the brighter ones. Assisted by George Harvey Simmonds, who had been with him for some months at Durham, Carrington worked steadily with “talent and zeal, untiring devotion and industry, and an unsparing but prudent application of private resources” during the course of the next three years to produce his Catalogue of 3735 Circumpolar Stars (1857), which was printed at public expense by the Lords of the Admiralty and received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1859. Its excellence of design and execution and the unquestioned reliability of the results were largely responsible for its author’s election as a fellow of the Royal Society on 7 June 1860.

Carrington is better remembered by posterity however, for his pioneering investigations of the motions of sunspots. While his observatory at Redhill was in the course of construction, he spent some of his time examining drawings and records of sunspots possessed by the Royal Astronomical Society and was struck by the scarcity of systematic solar observations. Since he was well aware that no public observatory was then occupied with work of this nature, he resolved to remedy the observational deficiency by “close and methodical research” during the daylight hours whenever the time required to reduce his stellar observations should permit. The method that he devised and employed throughout the seven-and-one-half-year period to which his sunspot observations refer was one that required no micrometer and no clockwork. He projected a solar image about twelve inches in diameter and the perpendicular cross hairs of a micrometer inclined at an angle of 45° to the direction of the daily motion onto a sheet of paper, fixing the telescope so that the image passed across the field of view. By noting the times of contact of the wires with the limbs of the sun and the boundaries of each spot, the heliocentric positions of the spots were generally obtained with an accuracy of a few minutes of arc.

His father’s death in July 1858 made it necessary for Carrington to take over the management of the brewery and prevented his further personal participation in this program; the continual pressure of the business subsequently caused him to abandon the project altogether. His Observations of the Spots on the Sun From Novr9, 1853, to March 24, 1861, Made at Redhill a ponderous quarto volume, was published in 1863 with the aid of Royal Society funds. In this book he determined the position of the sun’s axis with unprecedented accuracy and established the important empirical laws of sunspot distribution and the variation in solar rotation as functions of the heliocentric latitude, which served to revolutionize ideas on solar physics just as effectively as the results of spectrum analysis.

Despite his devotion to the above–mentioned tasks, Carrington took time to travel, although his motives for doing so were inevitably linked to his astronomical interests. As a young man of twenty-five he went from Durham to the small town of Lilla Edet in Sweden to observe a total solar eclipse; he described this experience in an Admiralty pamphlet printed and circulated in May 1858 to those who might be in South America to witness a similar eclipse later that year. After a second visit to the Continent in 1856, he drew up a valuable report on the condition of a number of German observatories (Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 17 ). He made a number of other contributions to the Monthly Notices, including three articles on the motions and distribution of sunspots and another on the distribution of cometary orbits with regard to the direction of solar motion. He also described a solar flare that he had observed for a few minutes on 1 September 1859, a phenomenon which at that time was quite unknown.

In a letter to the vice-chancellor of Cambridge, dated 13 April 1861, Carrington claims to have visited and carefully inspected, and considered the construction and adaptation of, many of the leading Continental observatories; all of those in England, Scotland, and Ireland; and very many private establishments at home and abroad. Moreover, he knew nearly all the opticians and their works and nearly all the observers, and was unusually familiar with materials and construction of both buildings and instruments. He also remarks: “1 have devoted nearly the whole of thirteen years since I left the University to establishing… a reputation for success in the labours of practical. Astronomy, specially with the object of obtaining such a position as is about to become vacant at Cambridge….” The failure of his bid for the directorship of the Cambridge Observatory on the occasion of Challis’ resignation, to which he is here referring, came as a great blow to him; indeed, judging from a comment in a letter to John Herschel written five weeks earlier, it would appear to have been directly responsible for his decision to sell the Redhill observatory about this time.

Nevertheless, Carrington was unable to suppress his love for astronomy and was soon contemplating the prospect of going to Chile to observe the stars in the neighborhood of the south celestial pole; however, a severe illness in 1865 left his health permanently impaired and this plan never materialized. Instead, he disposed of his brewery and retired from business to Churt, Surrey, where he established a new observatory on top of an isolated conical hill in a lonely and picturesque spot known as the Middle Devil’s Jump. No records exist of observations made with the large altazimuth instrument that he installed there, and his ambition to erect a “double altazimuth”—the subject of the last of his many contributions to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society—was never fulfilled. He died at his home on 27 November 1875, apparently as the result of a brain hemorrhage, only ten days after his wife Rosa had been found dead in bed after taking an overdose of chloral hydrate. In his will Carrington left £2,000 to the Royal Astronomical Society, with which he had been actively associated for nearly half his lifetime and which he had served so conscientiously as secretary from 1857 to 1862. The society also possesses his manuscript books of sunspot observations and reductions, with a folio volume of drawings.


A fairly comprehensive list of Carrington’s contributions to astronomy is in Poggendorff, III, 240. Lists of his papers also appear in the Royal Society’s Catalogue of Scientific Papers, I and VII. Carrington’s major works are his Catalogue of 3735 Circumpolar Stars (London, 1857) and Observations of the Spots on the Sun from Novr 9, 1853, to March 24, 1861, Made at Redhill (London, 1863). An account of his observatory at Redhill is given by C. André and G. Rayet in L’astronomie pratique et les obseruatoires en Europe et en Amérique depuis le milieu du XVII e sièle jusqu’à nos jours (Paris, 1874), pp. 108–114. Further biographical information is contained in the Dictionary of National Biography and in an obituary notice in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 36 (Feb.1876), 137–142. This last periodical is the one to which Carrington most frequently contributed: it contains no fewer than twenty articles or notes by him between the years 1850 and 1874 inclusive.

In addition to these printed sources mentioned, there are twenty letters from Carrington to John Herschel (11 Dec.1856–17 Dec. 1866) and two of Herschel’s replies, plus three letters from Carrington to Edward Sabine, preserved in the archives of the Royal Society of London. Nine letters from Carrington to George Airy and seven of Airy’s replies are contained in the latter’s miscellaneous correspondence at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, Herstmonceux Castle, Sussex.

Eric G. Forbes

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