Thomas Brisbane: the star-gazing governor

Congratulations to our new Nobel Prize winner, Brian Schmidt from the Australian National University – and, of course, to our Ignobel prize winners as well.  We don’t do enough to publicise science in Australia.  Very few scientists enter politics, for instance.  We might have a more sensible debate on issues such as climate change if they did.

Yet in the past, science and scientists were better recognised here.  The cities of Darwin and Brisbane are both named after scientists who never visited the places.  We all know Darwin – but how many people these days would know of Sir Thomas Brisbane if it wasn’t for the city that bears his name?  He probably pronounced that name differently, too – BrisBANE, rather than BRISbane.

Brisbane was Governor of New South Wales for 4 years, 1821 to 1825, covering the period when the Brisbane River was discovered and named after him, and a settlement began here that eventually became Brisbane.  These 4 years, though, meant much less to Thomas Brisbane than they do to Australian historians.  For him, his main achievements were as a soldier – and an astronomer.

Governor Brisbane

Sir Thomas Brisbane, from Wikimedia Commons

Brisbane was born in 1773 into a wealthy Scottish family, and joined the army, as so many Scots did.  In 1798, he was sailing home with his regiment from Jamaica when the ship was almost wrecked when the captain made a navigational miscalculation – not an unusual event in these days.  This triggered his interest in celestial navigation.  He bought books and instruments, and took to carrying a pocket sextant and chronometer with him wherever he went.

In 1808, Brisbane built an observatory in the garden of his estate, Brisbane House, at Largs, Ayrshire.  He ordered the newest chronometers and the first ‘mural circle’, built by the most respected instrument maker of his day, Edward Troughton.  ‘Mural’ in this instance means ‘wall’, and a mural circle consists of a circular frame mounted on a wall aligned north-south.  The circle is marked from 0 to 360 degrees, and a telescope is clamped to the circle, so that both telescope and circle can be pivoted in different planes.  In this way, you can observe and measure the angular height of a star.  Brisbane’s mural circle was two feet wide; in 1810 Troughton built another for the Greenwich Observatory, based on the Largs design, which was six feet in diameter.

Brisbane spent his spare time developing this private observatory in Ayrshire, but his day job was as a soldier.  Britain was in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, and he served in Spain and southern France, as the British army gradually fought its way north.  Wellington’s army needed all the mathematical and engineering skills it could get, and Brisbane’s hobby was a valuable asset.  Throughout the Peninsular War, Brisbane kept daily observations with his pocket sextant, and according to the Duke of Wellington, it was Thomas Brisbane who ‘kept the time of the army’.

In occupied France after the defeat of Napoleon, Wellington asked Brisbane to work out a table so that soldiers could tell the time easily from observations of the stars and planets.  He also drew up a table comparing English weights and measures with those of France, to help the British commissaries when they were buying supplies in French measurements.  This means he was one of the first Britons to get his head around metric weights and measures.

In 1816 Brisbane was unanimously elected a corresponding member of France’s premier scientific institution, the Institut de France, not because of his scientific reputation, but because he stopped allied soldiers from sacking the premises – what a pity he never got to Baghdad!

In 1821, Brisbane replaced Lachlan Macquarie as Governor of New South Wales, on Wellington’s recommendation.  It seems that he took the job largely because it would give him a chance to observe the stars in the southern hemisphere.  He brought out with him many of the instruments he had set up at Brisbane House, including the mural circle and a transit telescope, also built by Edward Troughton, which is now in the Powerhouse Museum.  He also brought out at his own expense two assistant astronomers, James Dunlop and Christian Rümker.

Brisbane set up an observatory at Government House, Parramatta.  At the time, the most important study of the southern sky was the work of the Abbé Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, who in 1763 had published a catalogue of nearly 10,000 stars called the Coelum Australe Stelliferum, based on his observations at the French island of Reunion.  Brisbane and his assistants reviewed Lacaille’s work, a matter of checking the location of many thousands of stars.  They also recorded the return of Encke’s comet on 2 June 1822.  After Halley’s comet, which returned as predicted in 1759, this was the first time a comet’s predicted return could be verified, so Brisbane’s work in Australia was really very important.  He also observed the transit of Mercury on 3 November 1822.  Despite the claims of his many critics that the Governor spent too much time on ‘star-gazing’, in fact Brisbane was far too busy with administration to do much astronomical work himself, though he personally observed the winter solstice of 1822.

In 1825, Sir Thomas Brisbane was recalled to Britain after just four years as Governor.  He left behind his astronomical instruments and 349 volumes of his scientific library as a gift to the colony, saying that he wanted his name to be associated with ‘the furtherance of Science’; the government took over his Observatory at Parramatta, and appointed his assistant Christian Rümker as the first Government Astronomer.  After Rümker left, Dunlop became Government Astronomer in 1831.

Meanwhile Brisbane returned home to Scotland.  In 1826 he built another observatory, this time at Makerstoun, near Kelso.  He was a member of the Royal Society of London from 1810, a member of the Astronomical Society, an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy, and presided over the 1834 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Edinburgh.  In 1832 he was elected president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.  He died in 1860.

Governor Brisbane was undoubtedly the father of astronomy in Australia.  Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium in Brisbane was named after him, and several of his instruments, including a portable telescope, are held there, on loan from the Museum of Brisbane.  The remnants of the mural circle he brought to New South Wales are in the Powerhouse Museum.  Otherwise few would now remember Sir Thomas’s important scientific work, though there’s information about him on the Sydney Observatory’s website.

Except that in 2006 the curator of the planetarium, Mark Rigby, asked the Scottish-Australian astronomer, Robert H. McNaught, if he would name a newly discovered asteroid after Sir Thomas Brisbane.  McNaught was delighted to do so, particularly as he was born just 20 km from Sir Thomas Brisbane’s place of birth and death in Largs, Ayrshire, Scotland, on the 96th anniversary of Sir Thomas’s death.  So Brisbane – the man and the city – have just been recognized with the naming of a mountain sized lump of rock, ‘a new namesake that is literally out of this world’.

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2 responses to “Thomas Brisbane: the star-gazing governor

  1. Marcus Harmes

    What a fascinating story!

  2. Pingback: Political Partners | Historians are Past Caring

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