Sabine, Edward

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(b. Dublin, Ireland, 14 October 1788; d. Richmond, Surrey, England, 26 June 1883)


An artillery officer, Sabine was a graduate of the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. While retaining his commission—Sabine eventually reached the rank of general—the started scientific work at the close of the Napoleonic Wars. On the recommendation of the Royal Society, he accompanied John Ross on an expedition to seek the Northwest Passage in 1818 and was with William Edward Parry on his 1819–1820 Arctic expedition. From the latter voyage. he said, came the idea of a great ship-borne expedition of “physical discovery” to the southern hemisphere.

The Royal Society next sent Sabine on a pendulum expedition in 1821–1822 around the Atlantic to determine the true figure of the earth, a project that brought him the Copley Medal. A pattern was developing in his work, clearly of a Humboldtian nature—the gathering and analysis of geophysical data on a large, ever global, scale. While the range of Sabine’s interests was wide, terrestrial magnetism attracted most of his attention. In 1826 he and Babbage worked jointly on the subject in the British Isles, an ironic collaboration in view of subsequent events. In the 1830’s Sabine, Humphrey Lloyd, James Clark Ross, and others completed the magnetic survey of the British Isles; Sabine repeated the survey in 1858–1861.

Sabine was distinguished from his many contemporaries who collected similar data by his successful promotion and administration of a world-wide effort to gather terrestrial magnetism observations, designated the “magnetic fever” or the “magnetic crusade” by observers. Basic to an understanding of his accomplishments are the scientific viewpoints he embodied and the strategic position he came to occupy in the politics of British science for nearly four decades.

As a follower of Christopher Hansteen, in contradiction to Gauss’s later theories on terrestrial magnetism, Sabine believed in the existence of two magnetic poles in each hemisphere and that terrestrial magnetism was essentially the same as, or closely related to, atmospheric phenomena; the latter view was widely held in the first third of the nineteenth century. Humboldt and Arago, for example, assumed a connection between the earth’s central heat, volcanic eruptions, and atmospheric electricity. Seebeck’s work on thermoelectricity reinforced the belief in the relationship to meteorological phenomena. Sir John Herschel and Charles Babbage assumed that the atmospheric electricity arose from a thermoelectric interaction of sky and earth that, in turn, produced terrestrial magnetism by a kind of induction. Gauss (1839) flatly limited the origins of terrestrial magnetism to the surface or interior of the planet, much to Sabine’s dismay. Yet when Faraday published a theory similar to Herschel’s (1851), Sabine informed him that the data gathered in the “crusade” disclosed none of the predicted correlations. Sabine ruefully admitted to Faraday that he had consulted William Thomson, who verified Gauss’s mathematics. Yet Gauss’s views did not dampen Sabine’s interest in atmospheric phenomena or stop his search for extraterrestrial effects.

Sabine was infuriated by the confusion of his scientific aims with what he considered the lesser goal of geographic discovery. His was the widely shared tradition of viewing the earth as a heavenly body. the physical processes of which required study with the spirit and precision devoted to other astronomical phenomena. In tacit opposition were other views challenging both Sabine’s methods and his order of priorities. In the early years of the British Association, for example, the study of “magnetism’ was included in the stated scopes of two separate committees, one on the chemical sciences and the other dominated by astronomy and meteorology.

The distinction was, thus, between experimental and observational sciences. When the Royal Society launched the “magnetic crusade” it had two committees (physics and meteorology) combined under the direction of Sir John Herschel. Faraday accidentally came to one subcommittee meeting on instrumentation for the magnetic observations but thereafter was conspicuously absent from its deliberations. Herschel dealt with the distinction between observational and experimental fields in the Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy. giving preference to the former because they lacked the opportunity of simply recreating an artificial situation. Herschel further elevated geophysical problems above astronomical problems because the former were not simply cyclical but undergoing complex secular changes. A missed observation might be literally unrepeatable. Sabine was in complete agreement.

In 1839 the British dispatched an expedition to the southern hemisphere and established a network of magnetic and meteorological observatories. Sabine had a key role in both the origins and the consequences of these events. The “magnetic crusade” did not originate, as is sometimes stated, in an 1836 suggestion of Humboldt’s or in a desire to test Gauss’ Allgemeine Theorie des Erdmagnetismus. As early as 1805, on his return from the Americas. Humboldt disclosed the important fact that the intensity of terrestrial magnetism varied at different points on the earth, thereby stimulating further interest in what many regarded as the great remaining physical mystery since Newton’s work on gravitation. In 1828 Humboldt suggested a worldwide system of observations, and by 1830 a rather rickety one existed, stretching from Germany to Peking. Although Gauss’s interest in the subject went back many years, the 1833 announcement of the first method of obtaining an absolute measurement of magnetic intensity brought him into prominence among British magneticians. By 1835, at least, Gauss and Weber were in contact with G. B. Airy, Humphrey Lloyd, and Sabine. The last two were aware as early as 1837 that Gauss was working on a general theory: it appeared early in 1839, in volume III of the Resultate aus den Beobachtungen des Magnetischen Vereins, in time to add testing of the theory to the goals of the worldwide effort. Of greater impact were the new method and the fact that by 1836–1838 Gauss and Weber’s Magnetische Verein had a sixteen-station net of observatories stretching from Dublin to St. Petersburg from east to west and from Uppsala to Catania in the north-south axis.

Both intellectual curiosity and nationalistic zeal motivated Sabine and his associates. They looked back to Halley’s work for precedent and spoke frankly about a great scientific prize slipping into foreign hands. In 1834 Arago, clearly Humboldtian in his views, wrote to the British Association, suggesting a British global effort, apparently unaware of Gauss’s work. Having learned soon afterward of Gauss’s method and the work of the Magnetische Verein, Sabine and others hesitated about siding with Gauss. His precise, large equipment was unsuitable for magnetic mapping of the oceans or the uses of scientific travelers. Sabine was also critical of the lack of observations of dip and inclination in the Gauss system. Unlike Herschel and Gauss, he was as interested in these aspects as in the intensity. Unlike Gauss and Herschel, Sabine believed that the routine periodic variations were as important as the readings for magnetic storms.

Originally an outsider to the British Association, Sabine was now very active there; and at the Dublin meeting of 1835 a resolution was passed calling on the government to send an expedition to the southern hemisphere and to open magnetic and meteorological observatories in the colonies. When this proved to no avail, Sabine convinced Humboldt in 1836 to write a letter to the duke of Sussex, the president of the Royal Society, calling for British action. For two years little happened outwardly, the Royal Society apparently being as unsuccessful as the British Association. From the surviving correspondence of participants, this was a period of intense politicking. Sabine was particularly anxious to avoid all pressures limiting the venture either to a voyage of discovery or to a series of fixed observatories. James Clark Ross was to head the former, and Humphrey Lloyd was to have charge of the theoretical work. Fellow artillery officers would staff the fixed observatories. From a scientific standpoint Sabine’s most notable move was the publication of known intensity observations in the world (1837), which enabled Gauss to do the requisite calculations for the All-gemeine Theorie.

Yet the venture remained dormant in the Royal Society until John Herschel’s return from South Africa in 1838. Although he once admitted to never having taken a magnetic reading, Herschel was generally interested in terrestrial magnetism. More important, he and Sabine were in complete agreement on the desirability of seizing this occasion to advance meteorology. Temperature and pressure readings were necessary, because they were sometimes responsible for greater effects on the compass needle than the earth’s magnetism. Herschel also had great popular esteem and much influence with members of the government. At the British Association meeting at Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1838, he deftly swayed the crowd. Lloyd and Sabine went that year to Göttingen and Berlin to co-ordinate their coming venture with Gauss and Humboldt. On cue from Sabine and Herschel, Humboldt wrote a final letter to British officials, assuring the “crusade’s” launching.

Originally the magnetic crusade was for three years, but Sabine very adroitly manipulated British and foreign opinion to get two successive three year renewals. But disenchantment soon spread among former supporters. As early as 1839 Sabine aroused Lloyd’s ire by taking over processing of the data, causing the latter to withdraw. Although the Royal Society at first refused to recognize Sabine’s role, from 1841 to 1861 he maintained a staff at Woolwich for data reduction. Sabine’s ambitions next clashed with Herschel’s beliefs. The King’s Observatory at Kew had been unused since Rigaud’s death in 1839. Sabine wanted the facility to be the basic geophysical observatory for the empire, providing standard data and equipment for the colonial observatories. Neither Airy’s Greenwich nor Lloyd’s Dublin observatory would do. For three years the issue remained before the Royal Society while Sabine unsuccessfully tempted Herschel, who had long favored the founding of a facility combining geophysical observations, determination of standards, and physical experimentation. By 1842 the Royal Society had declined the offer of Kew because Herschel saw it as a limited observatory too narrowly tied to a particular venture. Sabine took the proposal to the British Association, which acquired the site in 1842 and managed the observatory until its 1871 transfer to the Royal Society. Sabine was very active in the management of Kew, which became a leading center for work in geophysics. From 1849 he was on the Kew Observatory Committee of the British Association, being particularly close to John Gassiot in its work.

Herschel early took exception to Sabine’s seemingly endless compilation of data. The production of charts showing “lines of iso-x” aroused Herschel’s ire; chartism, he called it. Not all facts were equally important, he insisted: and the data were not the ends, but merely the preliminaries to theory. Sabine, however, relished facts and was dubious of theoreticians’ speculations1. In his view, the magnetic work was following the precedent of astronomy, a Baconian science in which accumulations of facts yielded sound theory. When the data from around the globe did not wholly validate Gauss, Sabine undoubtedly was pleased. Even more impressive was his discovery in 1851 of the relation between Schwabe’s sunspot cycle and the periodicity of magnetic storms, even though it was marred by a priority squabble with Johann von Lamont. It was a vindication of a long-held belief. In the same year Sabine announced his important finding that the daily magnetic variation consists of two superimposed variations, one deriving from within and the other from outside the earth.

Much of science in Victorian Britain, not merely geomagnetism and related topics, is explicable in terms of Sabine’s career. He was the artful dodger of the British scientific establishment. Bright, energetic, shrewd, he could have been the very model of Gilbert and Sullivan’s modern major general. Although his publications are properly specialized, Sabine’s range of interests was quite broad, as is evident from his association with Gassiot and the work at Kew of Francis Ronalds, John Welsh, and Balfour Stewart. He even published pieces on Arctic ornithology and Eskimos. As a proper Humboldtian or even a Herschelian, Sabine considered geomagnetism an aspect of an interconnected nature. Such a man commanded respect, loyalty, and even affection. Yet his enthusiasm, verging on the fanatic, and his intellectual limitations became increasingly tyrannical as the climate of ideas changed and aging took its toll.

Quite early, Sabine disclosed a talent for influencing the influentials and slipping into strategic positions. This talent produced the greatest embarrassment of his career. A member of the Royal Society Council in 1828, he was named an adviser to the Admiralty, an appointment that aroused Babbage’s ire. Two years later Babbage, in Reflections on the Decline of Science in England. accused Sabine of falsifying data. If we are to believe his anonymous necrologist, Sabine was at least guilty of great nävet́ in handling numbers, hardly an auspicious start for a career involving vast quantities of worldwide data. Babbage’s attack also placed Sabine in the awkward position of being seemingly outside the wave of the future in the politics of British science—in the camp of the old guard.

Ever resilient, Sabine became active in Babbage’s creation, the British Association, when furthering terrestrial magnetism called for that move: and soon he was an officer. The pattern was fixed and quite simple. Sabine became entrenched in both the Royal Society and the British Association, shifting programs adroitly from one to another to gain objectives, as in the cases of the magnetic crusade and the Kew observatory. Obstacles were evaded or removed. One suspects that more than coincidence was involved in Sabine’s election as one of the general secretaries of the British Association at Newcastle in 1838 and the simultaneous resignation of Babbage as a trustee. Sabine remained a general secretary until 1859 with the exception of 1852, when he was president of the British Association. At various times in that period (1841 – 1861), in addition to Council membership, Sabine was foreign secretary, vice-president, and treasurer of the Royal Society. From 1861 until 1871 he was its president.

His unpublished correspondence discloses that Sabine, distressed by the disputes over reforming the Royal Society, viewed the magnetic crusade as a happy opportunity for the scientific community to present a united front. Abhorring divisions in the ranks of science, he and Grove tried to have the scientific societies unite when Burlington House became available. In the late 1840’s Sabine, again with Grove, played a leading role in carrying out the reforms of the Royal Society that largely answered the earlier complaints of Davy and Babbage about the election of fellows.

Relying upon the support of the like-minded, Sabine quietly ensured that his intellectual interests received the lion’s share of British Association funds. This is evident from its annual reports through the time of his resignation from the presidency of the Royal Society. Kew Observatory was the largest single recipient, but the number of grants to geophysical and related areas is notable. A suspicion arises that Sabine backed the move for the £1,000 parliamentary grant partly to quiet criticism from relatively neglected disciplines. Even allowing for his sincerity and for the general quality of the research, this allocation of resources was dubious, especially in the face of developments in Germany.

In time, Sabine’s became a dead hand at the tiller, frozen on an old course. When Faraday reported his experimental demonstration of the relationship of light and magnetism in 1845. Sabine argued against giving him the Rumford Medal. James Clark Ross in 1834, Sabine asserted, had already described the effect as naturally observed on an Arctic voyage. Sabine was overruled.2 When Grove was proposed for the Copley Medal in 1871, Sabine trotted out procedural quibbles to deny the honor.3 It was Sabine who in 1863 answered the clamor of the younger naturalists for awarding the Copley Medal to Darwin by seeing that Adam Sedgwick was chosen.4 (Note how well Sabine’s later actions accorded with Babbage’s earlier complaints about the Royal Society’s distribution of awards.) Accused by Tyndall of neglecting natural history, the octogenarian oligarch resigned the Royal Society presidency in 1871 when he realized the days of artful dodging were over.5


1. Sabine to Tyndall, 24 Apr. [1855], vol. IV. 1307 of Tyndall Papers, Royal Institution: “I notice that he [Secchi] gives me credit for abstaining from all such attempts at combining facts and hypothetical connections or views. I have adhered to this quite as a duty — but have made my writings far less interesting than they might have been otherwise, thereby. For to many men speculations are far more attractive than facts.”

2. Royal Society, Minutes of Council. printed ser., I, 512–513, 530–531, In Royal Society Library.

3. Gassiot, recommendation of Copley Medal for Grove, 18 Oct. 1871 (copy), with undated note by Grove on the events in the Royal Society Council: “My chance never recurred.” Grove Papers, Royal Institution.

4. Sabine to John Phillips, 12 Nov. 1863. Miscellaneous MSS Collection, Library of the American Philosophical Society.

5. J. P. Gassiot, Remarks on the Resignation of Sir Edward Sabine, K.C.B., of the Presidency of the Royal Society (London, 1871).


I. Primary Sources. This account is largely derived from unpublished sources. The best collection of Sabine documents is in the archives of the Meteorological Office, Bracknell, Berkshire, as part of the records of the Kew Observatory. A smaller but valuable body of Sabine letters is in the library of the Royal Society, which also contains the papers of John Herschel, an essential source. The papers of Humphrey Lloyd. Sabine’s colleague. are divided between the Royal Society and the archives of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Unfortunately, few records of James Clark Ross survive: some are included in the two bodies of Sabine papers, and there is a smaller batch on sunspots at the Royal Greenwich Observatory. The Airy Papers at Greenwich are useful in presenting the views of an opponent of Sabine. Particularly valuable are the correspondence and minutes of the Royal Society’s Committee on Physics (Including Meteorology) and its predecessors, in the archives of the Society. The Grove and Tyndall collections at the Royal Institution are very pertinent. Of the non-British collections, the Hansteen MSS at the University of Oslo are a rich, still largely unexplored source. The few items in the Gauss Nachlass at Göttingen are useful: the Quetelet Papers in the Académie Royale de Belgique are an extensive, rich source. Sabine materials at the American Philosophical Society and in the corre-spondence of Sabine’s American friends A.D.Bache and Henry are also valuable.

Sabine’s numerous articles (more than 100) are well covered in the Royal Society Catalogue of ScientificPapers, V. 351–354; VIII, 805–806; XI, 251. In addition, see the following: Remarks on the Account of the Late Voyage of Discovery to Baffin’s Bay, Published by Captain J[ohn] Ross (London, 1819) and the rejoinder by Ross, An Explanation of Captain Sabine’s Remarks on the Late Voyage of Discovery to Baffin Bay (London, 1819); North Georgia Gazette and Winter Chronicle (1821); An Account of Experiments to Determine the Figure of the Earth...(London, 1825); the article on magnetism in the three eds. of the Admiralty’s A Manual of Scientific Enquiry...; Sabine edited the 3rd ed. (London, 1859); Observations on the Days of Unusual Magnetic Disturbances Made at the British Colonial Magnetic Observatories. 2 vols. (London, 1843–1851); and 10 vols. of observations at the observatories. Sabine helped prepare the translations of Gauss and Weber’s “Results of the Observations Made by the Magnetic Association in the Year 1836,” in Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs. 2 (1841), 20–25. Under his “superintendence,” his wife, Elizabeth Julian Sabine, translated works by Humboldt and Arago.

II. Secondary Sources. See the following. arranged chronologically: John Ross, A Voyage of Discovery in H. M. Ships Isabella and Alexander (London, 1819): William Edward Parry, Journal of a Voyage for the Discovery of a North-West Passage (London, 1821); C. Babbage, Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (London, 1830); “Memoir of General Sir Edward Sabine, F.R.S., K.C.B.,” in Proceedings of the Royal Artillery, 12 (1883), 381–396, unsigned, but obviously written by a military associate in the magnetic work; S. Chapman and J. Bartels, Geomagnetism, 2 vols. (Oxford. 1940); Johannes Georgi, “Edward Sabine, ein grosser Geophysiker des 19 Jahrhunderts,” in Deutsche hydrographische Zeitschrift, 11 (1959), 225–239; and Nathan Reingold, “Babbage and Moll on the State of Science in Great Britain....” in British Journal for the History of Science, 4 (1968), 58–64.

Nathan Reingold