Robert GRANT
1814 - 1892
pictures supplied by the Science Photo Library

Self Biography written by (Astronomer) Robert GRANT (1814-1892),
for his nephew.

40, Hemingford Terrace,


5th January, 1854

My dear Sir,

In compliance with your request I have great pleasure in furnishing you with the following sketch of the progress of my studies from my boy-hood until now, so far as consists with my re-collection.

I commenced the study of Latin at the school of Grantown in the year 1824, being then ten years of age. As I was always fond of my lessons I continued to make very fair progress in the different branches of education. Towards the close of the year 1827 I was reading Virgil and Livy, and Mr Wink, my worthy teacher (who was subsequently Minister of Knockando and who died a few years ago) was beginning to talk about my being prepared for going to college in the ensuing Session of 1828 -9.

In the beginning of 1828, however, I unfortunately met with an accident from a fall, which bought on a long and serious illness and which completely interrupted my studies for several years. It was only in the Autumn of 1833 that I began to entertain some faint hopes of once more enjoying a moderate degree of health, although my constitution was irretrievably shattered. During the interval of almost six years which had elapsed from the commencement of my illness till this time, my life had been a complete blank. When I looked around me I found that several of my companions who used to be a good way behind me at school, had now well nigh completed their course of study at one or other of the Universities. Stimulated by this circumstance and finding that/

p2. that I was decidedly recovering a little, I began to feel a strong desire to peep into my former studies, but my constitution was so enfeebled and the state of my health was still so imperfect that at first I could read only a little at a time, and even then only for amusement.

On one occasion I happened to be in company with two of my old school friends - one of them a student at King's College, Aberdeen (my attached friend James Fraser, now Minister of Colvend Dumfriesshire) and the other a student of St. Andrews - when the conversation turned upon the course of study pursued at their respective colleges. I recollect well them talking about Conic Sections and I was very much puzzled to make out what the expression meant. I now felt a strong desire to obtain some acquaintance with Mathematics, more especially as in some book which I had read ( I think it is Watts on the Improvement of the Mind) the author earnestly recommends the study of Euclid as affording an excellent groundwork for mental discipline.

From one of my former school-fellows who was now studying Medicine I obtained a loan of a copy of Euclid. This was in October 1833. I was afraid to say to him that I knew nothing of the subject in case he might ridicule my presumption. But indeed, although a good sort of fellow, he had little expectation of profiting by his instruction even if I had explained my case to him. I have to this day a vivid recollection of the feeling of delight with which I carried home the so much coveted treasure.

p3 To my great gratification the first proposition offered no difficulty, but I was somewhat staggered by the apparently round about process employed in the second and third and although I found the demonstration of the fourth to be quite intelligible, yet from not sufficiently apprehending the true character of hypothetical reasoning, it left a very unsatisfactory impression on my mind. I therefore threw the book aside in the meantime.

In the winter of 1833-4 I used occasionally to assist Mr Wink in his school when my health would permit. At his suggestion I was induced to commence the study of Algebra, having obtained from him for that purpose the loan of Bonnycastle's small Treatise on the subject. I do not recollect whether on giving me the book he pointed out to me how I was to proceed, but at any rate on applying to him about a fortnight afterwards with the view of obtaining some assistance, I found he was unable to help me out of my difficulty, which related to the Binomial Theorem. being thus thrown back entirely upon my own resources, I succeeded by dint of a little perseverance in overcoming the obstacle which thus opposed my progress. Henceforward the subject offered no serious difficulty and I soon advanced as far as quadratic equations. Having read somewhere that the utility of Algebra consisted mainly in its application to geometry, I was lead again to consider the desirableness of studying Euclid. I therefore took up that work again with the intention of giving it another trial, and after some reflection on the subject, I effectually got rid of/

p4 of the misgivings which I formally experienced. This was in the beginning of December 1833. It was impossible to express in adequate terms the delight in which I now felt in studying the immortal production of the Greek Geometer. My progress was henceforth also uninterrupted and rapid. I recollect well having been occupied on Old Christmas-day in studying the fifth book, which afforded me peculiar gratification.

In the summer of 1834, my brother Alexander brought me down from London a copy of Ramsay's Edition of Hutton's Mathematics which had just been published. This work introduced me to several new branches of Mathematics which I studied one after the other without encountering any insuperable impediment. I also shortly afterwards obtained possession of Bland's Algebraical, and also his Geometrical Problems. These two works formed a subject of mental exercise which I constantly availed myself of in my outdoor peregrinations, for the state of my health which was still far from being re-established forbade any continued sedentary occupation. I may take this opportunity of stating that nine-tenths of the small progress I made in Mathematics and Astronomy before leaving the North, resulted from my reflections while walking through the beautiful woods and quiet sequestered glens in the immediate vicinity of my native village. In/

p5 In 1835 I obtained possession of the Treatise on Mechanics in Lardness Cyclopeadia, a little work which first gave me a taste for Physics - Mathematical enquiries. Soon afterwards I read the treatises on Mechanics and Hydrostatics in the Library of Useful Knowledge. I also studied attentively the short treatise on these subjects in Ramsays Hutton.

In the course of my studies I was mortified by the continual recurrence of scientific terms of Greek origin the etymology of which I was unable to comprehend. I therefore resolved to learn a little of the Greek language and procured for this purpose the Grammer of the Edinburgh Academy. Mr Wink read over the alphabet to me, but I obtained nothing further in the way of instruction from him. Indeed I had by this time become so thoroughly convinced by the results of my Mathematical pursuits that the progress of a student depends mainly on himself, and not on the tution he may receive, that I did not feel at all discouraged by commencing the study of the Greek language without the assistance of a teacher. By the summer of 1836 I had mastered the Collectanea Minora and in the following winter I read with attention the first six books of Homer and also a small portion of the Collectanes Majora. This was all that I desired.

The approaching apparition of Halleys Comet in 1835 awakened in me a strong desire to know something of Astronomy. I recollect the intense gratification I derived on looking/

p6 looking out towards the North one night about the middle of October and seeing the Comet for the first time. In order to assure myself beyond doubt that it was in reality the Comet, I directed the attention of my worthy father to the object, who, doubtless recollecting the great Comet of 1811, at once informed me its nature. I henceforward used to observe with great interest the more remarkable of celestial phenomena that are visible to the naked eye, such as solar and lunar eclipses, the direct and retrograde motions of the superior planets, especially Mars, and the alternative appearance of Venus as a morning and evening star. In the autumn of 1836 when the last mentioned planet was near its greatest elongation, I derived intense gratification from seeing the planet with the naked eye in the day time. So expert had my eye become in the performing of this feat that for several weeks about the time of the planets greatest brilliancy I could readily pick it out, when the sky was clear at any hour of the day except when it had descended low in the western horizon.

In the spring of 1836 I first became acquainted with Astronomy as a Science by means of the admirable little treatise of Sir John Herschel on the subject contained in the Cabinet Cyclopeadia. About this time also I read Hall's Differential Calculus and Simpson's Fluxions. In the Summer of this year I had for the first time in my hands a copy of Newton's Principia. I recollect well/

p7 well the feeling of awe with which I first looked into the pages of that immortal work. I obtained a loan of it from an old school fellow James McKenzie who received it in that year as the first prize of the Natural Philosophy Class at King's College, Aberdeen. McKenzie was a young man of sterling moral worth, and excellent abilities. He took the Huttonian in the following year, unfortunately he died a few years afterwards. I studied with great attention on the first three sections of the first book of the Principia, and considerable portions of the remaining sections, but I did not venture to attack the second or third book. Wright's Commentary was of great service to me, for having already obtained some acquaintance with Mechanics and the Differential and Integral Calculus I experienced very little difficulty in reading that work which introduced me for the first time to the immense subject of Analytical Mechanics. I soon afterwards obtained also Mosley’s Hydrostatics from the study of which I derived great advantage. Henceforward the application of Mathematics to the doctrine of force was my favourite study, more especially those parts of the subject which bore upon Physical Astronomy.

Among the Mathematical books which I perused with great advantage I omitted to mention Wand's Treatise on Analytical Geometry and the Elementary Illustrations of the Differential and Integral Calculus contained in the Library of Useful Knowledge. I also obtained possession of a copy of Bland's Collection of Philosophical Problems which supplied me with an admirable field for mental exercise. In 1837 I commenced the study of/

p8 of the French Language in company with my friend McKenzie, having obtained for that purpose a set of French books from my brothers (Side notation... my father & uncle, signature = cfg.. must be written for Robert's nephew C. F. Grant?) in London.. We got on very well in making ourselves acquainted with the principles of the language and could soon translate a French book without any difficulty. In order to guard against a habit of bad pronounciation we used to spell the words in repeating our exercises to one another. In the following year we acquired a sufficient knowledge of Italian to be able to read a book in that language with sufficient ease.

Hitherto my studies were prosecuted merely for the purpose of affording a source of healthy pastime to the mind and not with any definite object in view, for the state of my health did not permit me to indulge in any more than a faint hope of ever acquiring sufficient strength to enable me to apply myself regularly to some fixed occupation. Since the beginning of 1836 I was in the habit of going everyday to an Infant school which my sister kept and assisting her for a few hours in her task. I continued to do so for about three years, when I repaired to London by the kind invitation of my brother Alexander ... (side father. signature = cfg)..who had commenced business in the City a few years previously. Occasional lectures on different branches of Science which I heard from time to time in London only served to increase a desire I had long felt of Acquiring some/

p9 some knowledge of experimental philosophy. I was also desirous of consolidating as it were my acquaintance with Greek and Latin in hopes of being able on some future occasion to turn my little knowledge of these languages to some practical account. On the other hand although I had now nearly recovered from my illness, yet as my weekly constitution seemed to be incapable of enduring the fatigues of a professional pursuit, a regular course of study at an University did not appear to be desirable. I therefore determined to attend for one session to King's College, Aberdeen, my brother Alexander kindly offering to pay all expenses. My objects were best attained by entering the third class, attending at the same time the Chemistry Class and the senior classes of Greek and Latin. I accordingly proceeded to Aberdeen and entered these classes at King's College in the Session of 1839-40. Considering that I was physically unfitted for much prolonged study I managed to get on tolerably well. The studies of the principles of heat, electricity and galvanism, and the experimental illustrations on those subjects, being all new to me, proved eminently instructive. Dr Fleming's Lectures were chiefly valuable for initiating me in habits of composition which I had hitherto entirely neglected. The attending of the Greek and Latin Classes was useful in renewing and extending my acquaintance with classical literature. At the close of the session I got the first prize in the Chemistry Class. and/

p10 and the last prize in the Natural Philosophy class. I was also in the order of merit in the Greek and Latin classes. If I remember rightly i stood rather high in the Greek List. I could not have attended the Mathematical class without sacrificing objects of greater importance. My cousin Patrick however who was then schoolmaster of Banchory ( now minister of Auchterderran in Fifeshire) gave me a letter if introduction to Professor Tulloch who kindly authorized me, after examining some of my manuscripts to make use of his name if necessary, for reference with respect to my Mathematical attainments. In the summer of 1840 I returned to London and after spending six months in a Boarding Establishment at Reading where I was occupied in teaching Mathematics, I entered my brother's Counting-house in which I remained for several years. When I was at Reading I received a visit form my much valued friend McKenzie who had come to London to see a brother off to Australia. This was the last occasion on which I saw him. He died in the following summer at Aberdeen while on his way to Edinburgh to obtain medical advice on account of an illness under which he was labouring.

From 1837 till 1842 I did very little to extend my acquaintance with mathematics or any of the Kindred Sciences. Whewells Dynamic's was the only new work which I recollect of reading during that period. In the summer of 1842, however, when/

p11 when walking along Fleet Street one evening after the hours of business, I happened to see at a book-stall a Copy of Airy's Tracts on the Lunar Theory and other subjects of Perturbation. Struck with the small compases into which the solutions of the different problems were condensed I was tempted to buy the book in hopes of being able to master its contents. To my great delight I succeeded in a very short time in accomplishing my object. I now definitively resumed my Mathematical and physical studies, devoting all my leasure time to such pursuits. About this time I read the seventeenth chapter of Prof. De Morgans Treatise on the Differential and Integral Calculus. I was gratified to find that henceforward no subject of Mechanic's or Physical Astronomy offered any serious obstacle to my progress, I now read Woodhouse's Physical Astronomy, Pratt's Mechanical Philosophy, O'Brien's Tracts, Poisson's Mechanics (the new Edition) Pontecoulants Theorie Analytigue du System du Monde, &c. &c. I also had no difficulty now in reading the second volume of Wright's Commentary on the Principia, which is in point of fact a literal translation of portions of the Mecanigue Celeste. (The first volume which related exclusively to the Principia I had read long previously while I was in Scotland) I now began to acquire a decided taste for researches into the history of the different branches of mathematics and Physical Science, which I mainly attribute to the reading of Whewells History of the Inductive Sciences. A study of this kind however could only be prosecuted/

p12 prosecuted successfully by having access to some large library. Being anxious to continue these pursuits, more especially as a mercantile life was not congenial to my habits, I proceeded to Paris in the beginning of 1846 where I obtained every facility for study and research. During my residence in that City I used to attend the Scientific lectures in the Sorbonne and the Astronomical lectures of M. Arago at the Royal Observatory. I now found my Knowledge of the Ancient and Modern languages -small as it was - of immense service to me in making researches into the history of Astronomy at the various public libraries which Paris is so amply supplied with. In the course of these pursuits I collected together an immense quantity of Notes which I was enabled to turn to a useful account on my return to London. During my residence in Paris which extended to rather more than a year I supported myself mainly by teaching English, my brothers supplying the deficiency.

Soon after my return to London I learned that Mr Baldwin the Publisher was bringing out some scientific works as a continuation of the Library of Useful Knowledge, and upon applying to him, I entered into an arrangement with him for writing a history of Physical Astronomy to serve as a Supplement to the history of Astronomy already published in which very little mention is made of the theory of Gravitation. The first number appeared in September 1848. In the month of/

p13 of June 1849 having the pleasure of making the acquaintance of Captain Manners one of the Secretaries of the Royal Astronomical Society, I sent him a copy of the first five numbers of the work, being all those that had been hitherto published. I was gratified to find that he seemed to entertain a favourable opinion of their contents. My publisher also very kindly shewed me a private letter relative to the author of the work, written by a distinguished Mathematician which was strongly calculated to encourage me in my labours. having obtained an invitation to the meetings of the Royal Astronomical Society from my kind friend Captain Manners, I soon became acquainted with many of the most influential Fellows of the Society. In 1850 I was elected a Fellow of the Society. In 1852 my History of Physical Astronomy, having been finally brought to a close, was published. In February 1853 I was appointed Editor of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. One of the most important of my duties in connection with this office is to write abstracts of the Astronomical Memoirs and other Publications relating to Astronomy which the Society is constantly receiving as donations from the various Scientific bodies of Europe, and America. The office was proposed to me - not on the grounds of the remuneration attached to it, which is trifling - but because it would serve to give me a status among Astronomers and to forward my views as an author. On both these grounds I have no reason to regret my acceptance of the office. I may mention/

p14 mention that I have uniformly received the greatest kindness from all the Astronomers and men of Science here with whom I have had the pleasure of becoming acquainted, including among the others the Astronomer Royal, Mr Adams of Cambridge, Prof., Powell of Oxford, Mr Johnson Director of the Radcliffe Observatory Oxford, &c &c.

There are however, besides my staunch friend Captain Manners, three other gentlemen who have earned especial claims to my gratitude. These are – the Revd. Mr Sheepshanks, my predecessor in the Editorship of the Montly Notices of the Ast. Society – Prof. De Morgan of University College – and Admiral .H. Smyth, a distinguished observer and the author of a well known work on Astronomy.

The examination of the various Astronomical publications which are sent to the society supplies me with a mass of intelligence which I have already the prospect of employing advantageously as regards my own interest.

I have thus given you a sketch of my somewhat chequered journey through life. I have reason to cherish a feeling of profound gratitude to the Almighty who has bought me out of such a long course of severe illness, and by whose blessing I now enjoy a moderate degree of good health. I have also cause to be thankful to him for his goodness in enabling me to attain a position wherein I can earn a modest independence in a way/

p15 way congenial to my disposition of mind and that in addition to the assistance of kind relatives – which I never wanted I have the satisfaction of enjoying the friendship of many eminent men whose names were familiar to me as “household words” long before I had the pleasure of forming their acquaintance.

Among the privileges which I owe to my kind friends in London I must not omit to mention the absolute command of an Observatory within fifteen minutes walk of my residence.

I shall now conclude with wishing yourself and your family a happy new Year, and much future prosperity and believe me, My dear Sir,

Yours very Truly,


Reference: Glasgow University Archives 36065

"Dictionary of National Biography: Index and Epitome" 1903
page 524

GRANT Robert (1814-1892), astronomer; studied
at King's College, Aberdeen; published 'History of Physi-
cal Astronomy,' 1852, and received Royal Astronomical
Society's gold medal, 1856: F.R.A.S.,1850, edited
'Monthly Notices,' 1852-60; M.A., 1855: and LL.D.,1865
Aberdeen; joined Royal Society, 1865; professor of astro-
nomy and director of observatory, Glasgow University,
1859; published scientific writings. [Suppl. ii.344]

From the University of Glasgow Records
acknowledging the death of
Dr Robert GRANT

click picture to see larger file

From the University of Glasgow Records
sample of handwriting for
Dr Robert GRANT

click picture to see larger file

Further Information please read
Feb. 1893- Report of the Coucil to the Seventy-third Annual General Meetinq.

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