Proctor, Richard Anthony

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(b.. Chelsea, London, England, 23 March 1837; d. New York, N.Y., 12 September 1888)


Proctor acquired an immense popular reputation by virtue of his lucid presentation, both in books and in lectures. He was familiar not only with what was visible through the telescopes of the time but also with astronomy in a literary context. As an astronomer he was prone to speculation, and frequently he was wildly mistaken.

Proctor was the youngest son of William Proctor, a well-to-do solicitor. His father’s death in 1850, followed by a protracted lawsuit, left the family in difficult circumstances. Proctor was a bank clerk (1854) until he was able to attend London University (1855) and then St. John’s College, Cambridge (1856), where he studied theology and mathematics. He married before his degree examination in 1860, in which his results were disappointing (twenty-third wrangler); he then began to study for the bar, but the death in 1863 of the first of his many children turned him toward astronomy and mathematics as distractions. His first article was on colors in double stars (Cornhill Magazine for 1865); and his first book, privately published, was Saturn and His System (1865).

With the failure in 1866 of a New Zealand bank in which his money was invested, Proctor turned to a precarious and badly paid literary career. His popular articles were frequently rejected, and his early books barely met their printing costs. His best-selling Half-Hours With the Telescope (London, 1868), written for a fee of £25, reached twenty editions by the time of his death. One of his most widely read works was Myths and Marvels of Astronomy (1877), an entertaining collection of astronomical lore.

Proctor taught mathematics for some time at a private military school in Woolwich. After 1873 he went on several lecture tours of America and Australasia. His first wife died in 1879, and in 1881 he married an American widow, Mrs. Robert J. Crawley, and settled at St. Joseph, Missouri, her hometown. He moved to Orange Lake, Florida, in 1887 but died the following year in New York City, perhaps of yellow fever, on his way to England on business.

Proctor long served as an officer of the Royal Astronomical Society, contributing many articles to its Monthly Notices. He founded (1881) the London scientific weekly Knowledge and Illustrated Scientific News, to which he contributed articles under a number of pseudonyms. In all he published nearly sixty books, none of them of much astronomical moment but many of them acknowledged by later astronomers as having introduced them to the subject.

Proctor’s most original scientific work related to Venus and Mars, of which he drew the best maps then available, and to the Galaxy. As a means of determining the size of the astronomical unit, the transit of Venus of 8 December 1874 was to be used. The astronomer royal, Sir George Airy, had announced approximate data in 1857; and Proctor, after calculating more precise circumstances of the transit and urging the use of a method originated by Halley, found himself severely—and for the most part wrongly—criticized by Airy.

Proctor wrote a series of articles on the rotation of Mars and deduced an extremely accurate period of rotation (24(h)37(m)22.735(s)), utilizing a drawing of the planet made by Robert Hooke in 1666. This is 0.1 second higher than the estimate subsequently made by F. Kaiser from observations made during seventeen nights of the opposition of 1862, and from their comparison with the observations of many earlier astronomers.

In 1870 Proctor charted the directions and proper motions of about 1,600 stars, as determined by E. J. Stone and Rev. R. Main, and found the phenomenon that he called “star drift,’ whereby large groups of stars share a proper motion vector in space. The Taurus stream, between Aldebaran and the Pleiades, was the most important group. Had Proctor continued these researches, he might well have reached important conclusions concerning the structure of the Galaxy and associated clusters. (The next significant study of the problem was made by L. Boss.) Proctor was helped by his abilities as a draftsman, and his charts of the distribution of nebulae indicated clearly to him the tendency of all but the gaseous nebulae to avoid the plane of the Milky Way. He wrongly concluded that since it is unlikely that such an arrangement is accidental, all must be part of a single system (1869). A paper by Cleveland Abbe published two years earlier used the same evidence as grounds for the opposite conclusion, but not for sixty years did something akin to Abbe’s ideas prevail.


I. Original Works. Proctor’s principal memoirs on the rotation of Mars appeared in Monthly Notice of the Royal Astronomical Society, 28 (1868), 37–39; 29 (1869), 229–232; and 33 (1873), 552–558. See “On the Distribution of the Nebulae in Space,” ibid., 29 (1869), 337–344; and “On Certain Drifting Motions of the Stars,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society, 18(1870), 169–171; and in Philosophical Magazine, 4th ser., 39 (1870), 381–383.

The titles of more than half of Proctor’s books are listed in the Dictionary of National Biography article by E. [sic] M. Clerke. An unfinished book, New and Old Astronomy (London, 1892), was completed by A. C. Ranyard. Most of Proctor’s articles are listed in the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, VIII , 666–668. He contributed 83 papers to Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and was a regular contributor to Intellectual Observer, Chambers’s Journal, Popular Science Review, and of course Knowledge, for which he wrote not only on astronomy but also on chess and whist.

II. Secondary Literature. There are obituaries of Proctor in The Times (London) (14 Sept. 1888), 5; Knowledge (Oct. 1888), 265–266; Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 49 (1889), 164–168; and Observatory, 11 (1889), 366–368. For the somewhat futile work done by all concerned on the 1874 transit of Venus, see Agnes M. Clerke, History of Astronomy in the Nineteenth Century, 3rd ed. (London, 1893), 287–292. For early work of note on the dynamics of moving clusters, see A. S. Eddington, Stellar Movements and the Structure of the Universe (London, 1914), esp. ch. 4. See also Cleveland Abbe, “On the Distribution of the Nebulae in Space,” in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 27 (1867), 257–264.

J. D. North