Lubbock, John William

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Lubbock, John William

(b. London, England, 26 March 1803; d. High Elms, near Farnborough, England, 20 June 1865)


By profession a banker, Lubbock spent his leisure hours in scientific pursuits. He was among the first to check theory against extensive observations so as to get better predictions of the tides; and for most of his life he worked on the problem of simplifying and extending Laplacey’s methods for calculating perturbations of lunar and planetary orbits.

Lubbock was named for his father, from whom he inherited (1840) both his mercantile bank (Lubbock & Co,) and his baronetcy. His mother’s maiden name was Mary Entwisle. He attended Eton before enrolling in 1821 at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he received a B.A. in 1825 and an M.A. in 1833. In the latter year he married Harriet Hotham; the eldest of their eleven children was the fourth Sir John Lubbock and first Baron Avebury, who wrote many books on natural history.

Lubbock was introduced to Laplace’s powerful mathematical techniques during a visit to Paris in 1822, three years before the final volume of the Mécanique céleste. had appeared. In 1828 Lubbock wrote an article on annuities, applying Laplace’s probability theory. By 1831 he was making progress both with predicting the exact position of the moon in the sky and also—thanks to business connections with the chairman of the London Dock Company— with the assembling of many years of water level readings, from which to determine the average time high tide lagged behind the moon (an interval commonly known as the establishment of the port).

For his work on the tides Lubbock received from the Royal Society one of the two medals awarded in 1833; the other went to the geologist Charles Lyell.

Lubbock joined the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1829, and served twice as its treasurer and vicepresident (1830–1835, 1838–1847). Rather late in life (1848) he was elected fellow of the Geological Society and contributed to its Quarterly Journal in 1849 a suggestion as to how a change in the axis of the earth might have accounted for the redistribution of water and land areas.


I. Original Works. Lubbock’s first published work, written in 1828, was “On the Calculation of Annuities, and on Some Questions in the Theory of Chances,” in Transactions of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, 3 (1830), 141–155. His papers on the tides began with “On the Tides on the Coast of Great Britain,” in Philosophical Magazine,9 (1831), 333–335; “On the Tides in the Port of London,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society,121 (1831), 379–416; and “Report on the Tides,” in Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1831–1832), 189–195. His approach to the problem of the tides is summarized in his Bakerian lecture, “On the Tides at the Port of London,” inPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society,126 (1836), 217–266; with an extension, “On the Tides,” ibid.,127 (1837), 97–140.

“On Change of Climate Resulting From a Change in the Earth’s Axis of Rotation” appeared in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London,5 (1849), 4–7. Lubbocks’s last published paper, “On the Lunar Theory,” in Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society,30 (1862), 1–53, provides a summary of his work on the motions of the moon, with comparison to the results of other workers.

The Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, IV, 105–106, lists seventy-four articles by Lubbock, one of which was published jointly with William Whewell. He also wrote, with John Drinkwater Bethune, A Treatise on Probability (London, 1835) and at least nine other books or pamphlets; see his entry in Dictionary of National Biography, XXXIV, 227–228.

II. Secondary Literature. Three obituaries appeared: two unsigned, in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society,26 (1866), 118–120; and in Proceedings of the Royal Society,15 (1866–1867), xxxii–xxxvii; and one by William John Hamilton, in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London,22 (1866), xxxi–xxxii.

Sally H. Dieke