Autobiography of Sir George Biddell Airy
by George Biddell Airy
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M.A., LL.D., D.C.L., F.R.S., F.R.A.S.,






The life of Airy was essentially that of a hard-working, business man, and differed from that of other hard-working people only in the quality and variety of his work. It was not an exciting life, but it was full of interest, and his work brought him into close relations with many scientific men, and with many men high in the State. His real business life commenced after he became Astronomer Royal, and from that time forward, during the 46 years that he remained in office, he was so entirely wrapped up in the duties of his post that the history of the Observatory is the history of his life. For writing his business life there is abundant material, for he preserved all his correspondence, and the chief sources of information are as follows:

(1) His Autobiography. (2) His Annual Reports to the Board of Visitors. (3) His printed Papers entitled "Papers by G.B. Airy." (4) His miscellaneous private correspondence. (5) His letters to his wife. (6) His business correspondence.

(1) His Autobiography, after the time that he became Astronomer Royal, is, as might be expected, mainly a record of the scientific work carried on at the Greenwich Observatory: but by no means exclusively so. About the time when he took charge of the Observatory there was an immense development of astronomical enterprise: observatories were springing up in all directions, and the Astronomer Royal was expected to advise upon all of the British and Colonial Observatories. It was necessary also for him to keep in touch with the Continental Observatories and their work, and this he did very diligently and successfully, both by correspondence and personal intercourse with the foreign astronomers. There was also much work on important subjects more or less connected with his official duties—such as geodetical survey work, the establishment of time-balls at different places, longitude determinations, observation of eclipses, and the determination of the density of the Earth. Lastly, there was a great deal of time and work given to questions not very immediately connected with his office, but on which the Government asked his assistance in the capacity of general scientific adviser: such were the Correction of the Compass in iron ships, the Railway Gauge Commission, the Commission for the Restoration of the Standards of Length and Weight, the Maine Boundary, Lighthouses, the Westminster Clock, the London University, and many other questions.

Besides those above-mentioned there were a great many subjects which he took up out of sheer interest in the investigations. For it may fairly be said that every subject of a distinctly practical nature, which could be advanced by mathematical knowledge, had an interest for him: and his incessant industry enabled him to find time for many of them. Amongst such subjects were Tides and Tidal Observations, Clockwork, and the Strains in Beams and Bridges. A certain portion of his time was also given to Lectures, generally on current astronomical questions, for he held it as his duty to popularize the science as far as lay in his power. And he attended the meetings of the Royal Astronomical Society with great regularity, and took a very active part in the discussions and business of the Society. He also did much work for the Royal Society, and (up to a certain date) for the British Association.

All of the foregoing matters are recorded pretty fully in his Autobiography up to the year 1861. After that date the Autobiography is given in a much more abbreviated form, and might rather be regarded as a collection of notes for his Biography. His private history is given very fully for the first part of his life, but is very lightly touched upon during his residence at Greenwich. A great part of the Autobiography is in a somewhat disjointed state, and appears to have been formed by extracts from a number of different sources, such as Official Journals, Official Correspondence, and Reports. In editing the Autobiography it has been thought advisable to omit a large number of short notes relating to the routine work of the Observatory, to technical and scientific correspondence, to Papers communicated to various Societies and official business connected with them, and to miscellaneous matters of minor importance. These in the aggregate occupied a great deal of time and attention. But, from their detached nature, they would have but little general interest. At various places will be found short Memoirs and other matter by the Editor.

(2) All of his Annual Reports to the Board of Visitors are attached to his Autobiography and were evidently intended to be read with it and to form part of it. These Reports are so carefully compiled and are so copious that they form a very complete history of the Greenwich Observatory and of the work carried on there during the time that he was Astronomer Royal. The first Report contained only four pages, but with the constantly increasing amount and range of work the Reports constantly increased in volume till the later Reports contained 21 pages. Extracts from these Reports relating to matters of novelty and importance, and illustrating the principles which guided him in his conduct of the Observatory, have been incorporated with the Autobiography.

(3) The printed "Papers by G.B. Airy" are bound in 14 large quarto volumes. There are 518 of these Papers, on a great variety of subjects: a list of them is appended to this history, as also is a list of the books that he wrote, and one or two of the Papers which were separately printed. They form a very important part of his life's work, and are frequently referred to in the present history. They are almost all to be found in the Transactions of Societies or in newspapers, and extend over a period of 63 years (1822 to 1885). The progress made in certain branches of science during this long period can very fairly be traced by these Papers.

(4) His private correspondence was large, and like his other papers it was carefully arranged. No business letters of any kind are included under this head. In this correspondence letters are occasionally found either dealing with matters of importance or in some way characteristic, and these have been inserted in this biography. As already stated the Autobiography left by Airy is confined almost entirely to science and business, and touches very lightly on private matters or correspondence.

(5) The letters to his wife are very numerous. They were written during his occasional absences from home on business or for relaxation. On these occasions he rarely let a day pass without writing to his wife, and sometimes he wrote twice on the same day. They are full of energy and interest and many extracts from them are inserted in this history. A great deal of the personal history is taken from them.

(6) All correspondence in any way connected with business during the time that he was Astronomer Royal is to be found at the Royal Observatory. It is all bound and arranged in the most perfect order, and any letter throughout this time can be found with the greatest ease. It is very bulky, and much of it is, in a historical sense, very interesting. It was no doubt mainly from this correspondence that the Autobiography, which so far as related to the Greenwich part of it was almost entirely a business history, was compiled.

The history of the early part of his life was written in great detail and contained a large quantity of family matter which was evidently not intended for publication. This part of the Autobiography has been compressed. The history of the latter part of his life was not written by himself at all, and has been compiled from his Journal and other sources. In both these cases, and occasionally in short paragraphs throughout the narrative, it has been found convenient to write the history in the third person.



The Syndics of the Cambridge University Press desire to express their thanks to Messrs Macmillan & Co. for their courteous permission to use in this work the steel engraving of Sir George Biddell Airy published in Nature on October 31, 1878.



Personal Sketch of George Biddell Airy


From his birth to his taking his B.A. Degree at Cambridge


At Trinity College, Cambridge, from his taking his B.A. Degree to his taking charge of the Cambridge Observatory as Plumian Professor


At Cambridge Observatory, from his taking charge of the Cambridge Observatory to his residence at Greenwich Observatory as Astronomer Royal


At Greenwich Observatory, 1836-1846


At Greenwich Observatory, 1846-1856


At Greenwich Observatory, 1856-1866


At Greenwich Observatory, 1866-1876


At Greenwich Observatory, from January 1st, 1876, to his resignation of office on August 15th, 1881


At the White House, Greenwich, from his resignation of office on August 15th, 1881, to his death on January 2nd, 1892


List of Printed Papers by G.B. Airy, and List of Books written by G.B. Airy




The history of Airy's life, and especially the history of his life's work, is given in the chapters that follow. But it is felt that the present Memoir would be incomplete without a reference to those personal characteristics upon which the work of his life hinged and which can only be very faintly gathered from his Autobiography.

He was of medium stature and not powerfully built: as he advanced in years he stooped a good deal. His hands were large-boned and well-formed. His constitution was remarkably sound. At no period in his life does he seem to have taken the least interest in athletic sports or competitions, but he was a very active pedestrian and could endure a great deal of fatigue. He was by no means wanting in physical courage, and on various occasions, especially in boating expeditions, he ran considerable risks. In debate and controversy he had great self-reliance, and was absolutely fearless. His eye-sight was peculiar, and required correction by spectacles the lenses of which were ground to peculiar curves according to formulae which he himself investigated: with these spectacles he saw extremely well, and he commonly carried three pairs, adapted to different distances: he took great interest in the changes that took place in his eye-sight, and wrote several Papers on the subject. In his later years he became somewhat deaf, but not to the extent of serious personal inconvenience.

The ruling feature of his character was undoubtedly Order. From the time that he went up to Cambridge to the end of his life his system of order was strictly maintained. He wrote his autobiography up to date soon after he had taken his degree, and made his first will as soon as he had any money to leave. His accounts were perfectly kept by double entry throughout his life, and he valued extremely the order of book-keeping: this facility of keeping accounts was very useful to him. He seems not to have destroyed a document of any kind whatever: counterfoils of old cheque-books, notes for tradesmen, circulars, bills, and correspondence of all sorts were carefully preserved in the most complete order from the time that he went to Cambridge; and a huge mass they formed. To a high appreciation of order he attributed in a great degree his command of mathematics, and sometimes spoke of mathematics as nothing more than a system of order carried to a considerable extent. In everything he was methodical and orderly, and he had the greatest dread of disorder creeping into the routine work of the Observatory, even in the smallest matters. As an example, he spent a whole afternoon in writing the word "Empty" on large cards, to be nailed upon a great number of empty packing boxes, because he noticed a little confusion arising from their getting mixed with other boxes containing different articles; and an assistant could not be spared for this work without withdrawing him from his appointed duties. His arrangement of the Observatory correspondence was excellent and elaborate: probably no papers are more easy of reference than those arranged on his system. His strict habits of order made him insist very much upon detail in his business with others, and the rigid discipline arising out of his system of order made his rule irksome to such of his subordinates as did not conform readily to it: but the efficiency of the Observatory unquestionably depended mainly upon it. As his powers failed with age the ruling passion for order assumed a greater prominence; and in his last days he seemed to be more anxious to put letters which he received into their proper place for reference than even to master their contents.

His nature was eminently practical, and any subject which had a distinctly practical object, and could be advanced by mathematical investigation, possessed interest for him. And his dislike of mere theoretical problems and investigations was proportionately great. He was continually at war with some of the resident Cambridge mathematicians on this subject. Year after year he criticised the Senate House Papers and the Smith's Prize Papers question by question very severely: and conducted an interesting and acrimonious private correspondence with Professor Cayley on the same subject. His great mathematical powers and his command of mathematics are sufficiently evidenced by the numerous mathematical treatises of the highest order which he published, a list of which is appended to this biography. But a very important feature of his investigations was the thoroughness of them. He was never satisfied with leaving a result as a barren mathematical expression. He would reduce it, if possible, to a practical and numerical form, at any cost of labour: and would use any approximations which would conduce to this result, rather than leave the result in an unfruitful condition. He never shirked arithmetical work: the longest and most laborious reductions had no terrors for him, and he was remarkably skilful with the various mathematical expedients for shortening and facilitating arithmetical work of a complex character. This power of handling arithmetic was of great value to him in the Observatory reductions and in the Observatory work generally. He regarded it as a duty to finish off his work, whatever it was, and the writer well remembers his comment on the mathematics of one of his old friends, to the effect that "he was too fond of leaving a result in the form of three complex equations with three unknown quantities." To one who had known, in some degree, of the enormous quantity of arithmetical work which he had turned out, and the unsparing manner in which he had devoted himself to it, there was something very pathetic in his discovery, towards the close of his long life, "that the figures would not add up."

His energy and business capacity were remarkable. He was made for work and could not long be happy without it. Whatever subject he was engaged upon, he kept his object clearly in view, and made straight for it, aiming far more at clearness and directness than at elegance of periods or symmetry of arrangement. He wrote his letters with great ease and rapidity: and having written them he very rarely had occasion to re-write them, though he often added insertions and interlineations, even in the most important official letters. Without this it would have been impossible for him to have turned out the enormous quantity of correspondence that he did. He never dictated letters, and only availed himself of clerical assistance in matters of the most ordinary routine. In his excursions, as in his work, he was always energetic, and could not endure inaction. Whatever there was of interest in the places that he visited he examined thoroughly and without delay, and then passed on. And he thus accomplished a great deal in a short vacation. His letters written to his wife, while he was on his excursions, are very numerous and characteristic, and afford ample proofs of his incessant energy and activity both of body and mind. They are not brilliantly written, for it was not in his nature to write for effect, and he would never give himself the trouble to study the composition of his letters, but they are straight-forward, clear, and concise, and he was never at a loss for suitable language to express his ideas. He had a wonderful capacity for enjoyment: the subjects that chiefly interested him were scenery, architecture, and antiquities, but everything novel or curious had an interest for him. He made several journeys to the Continent, but by far the greater number of his excursions were made in England and Scotland, and there were few parts of the country which he had not visited. He was very fond of the Lake District of Cumberland, and visited it very frequently, and each time that he went there the same set of views had an eternal freshness for him, and he wrote long descriptions of the scenery and effects with the same raptures as if he had seen it for the first time. Many of his letters were written from Playford, a village in a beautiful part of Suffolk, a few miles from Ipswich. Here he had a small property, and generally stayed there for a short time once or twice a year. He was extremely fond of this country, and was never tired of repeating his walks by the well-known lanes and footpaths. And, as in Cumberland, the Suffolk country had an eternal freshness and novelty for him. Wherever he went he was indefatigable in keeping up his acquaintance with his numerous friends and his letters abound in social reminiscences.

His memory was singularly retentive. It was much remarked at school in his early days, and in the course of his life he had stored up in his memory an incredible quantity of poetry, ballads, and miscellaneous facts and information of all sorts, which was all constantly ready and at his service. It is almost needless to add that his memory was equally accurate and extensive in matters connected with science or business.

His independence of character was no doubt due to and inseparable from his great powers. The value of his scientific work greatly depended upon his self-reliance and independence of thought. And in the heavy work of remodelling the Observatory it was a very valuable quality. This same self-reliance made him in his latter years apt to draw conclusions too confidently and hastily on subjects which he had taken up more as a pastime than as work. But whatever he touched he dealt with ably and in the most fearless truthseeking manner, and left original and vigorous opinions.

He had a remarkably well-balanced mind, and a simplicity of nature that appeared invulnerable. No amount of hero-worship seemed to have the least effect upon him. And from a very early time he was exposed to a great deal of it. His mind was incessantly engaged on investigations of Nature, and this seems to have been with him, as has been the case with others, a preserving influence. This simplicity of character he retained throughout his life. At the same time he was sensible and shrewd in his money matters and attentive to his personal interests. And his practical good sense in the general affairs of life, combined with his calm and steady consideration of points submitted to him, made his advice very valuable. This was especially recognized by his own and his wife's relations, who consulted him on many occasions and placed the fullest confidence in his absolute sense of justice as well as in his wise counsel. He was extremely liberal in proportion to his means, and gave away money to a large extent to all who had any claim upon him. But he was not in any sense reckless, and kept a most cautious eye on his expenses. He was not indifferent to the honours which he received in the scientific world, but he does not appear to have sought them in any way, and he certainly did not trouble himself about them.

His courtesy was unfailing: no amount of trouble could shake it. Whether it was the Secretary of the Admiralty, or a servant girl wanting her fortune told: whether a begging-letter for money, or miscellaneous invitations: all had their answer in the most clear and courteous language. But he would not grant personal interviews when he could avoid it: they took up too much of his time. His head was so clear that he never seemed to want for the clearest and most direct language in expressing his meaning, and his letters are models of terseness.

In all his views and opinions he was strongly liberal. At Cambridge at an early date he was one of the 83 members of the Senate who supported the application to permit the granting of medical degrees without requiring an expression of assent to the religious doctrines of the Church of England. And in 1868 he declined to sign a petition against the abolition of religious declarations required of persons admitted to Fellowships or proceeding to the degree of M.A. And he was opposed to every kind of narrowness and exclusiveness. When he was appointed to the post of Astronomer Royal, he stipulated that he should not be asked to vote in any political election. But all his views were in the liberal direction. He was a great reader of theology and church history, and as regarded forms of worship and the interpretation of the Scriptures, he treated them with great respect, but from the point of view of a freethinking layman. In the Preface to his "Notes on the Earlier Hebrew Scriptures" he says, "In regard to the general tone of these notes, I will first remark that I have nothing to say on the subject of verbal inspiration. With those who entertain that doctrine, I can have nothing in common. Nor do I recognize, in the professedly historical accounts, any other inspiration which can exempt them from the severest criticism that would be applicable to so-called profane accounts, written under the same general circumstances, and in the same countries." And his treatment of the subject in the "Notes" shews how entirely he took a rationalistic view of the whole question. He also strongly sided with Bishop Colenso in his fearless criticism of the Pentateuch, though he dissented from some of his conclusions. But he was deeply imbued with the spirit of religion and reflected much upon it. His whole correspondence conveys the impression of the most sterling integrity and high-mindedness, without a trace of affectation. In no letter does there appear a shadow of wavering on matters of principle, whether in public or private matters, and he was very clear and positive in his convictions.

The great secret of his long and successful official career was that he was a good servant and thoroughly understood his position. He never set himself in opposition to his masters, the Admiralty. He never hesitated to ask the Admiralty for what he thought right, whether in the way of money grants for various objects, or for occasional permission to give his services to scientific matters not immediately connected with the Observatory. Sometimes the Admiralty refused his requests, and he felt this very keenly, but he was far too busy and energetic to trouble himself about such little slights, and cheerfully accepted the situation. What was refused by one Administration was frequently granted by another; and in the meantime he was always ready to give his most zealous assistance in any matter that was officially brought before him. This cheerful readiness to help, combined with his great ability and punctuality in business matters, made him a very valuable servant, and speaking generally he had the confidence of the Admiralty in a remarkable degree. In many of his Reports to the Board of Visitors he speaks gratefully of the liberality of the Admiralty in forwarding scientific progress and research. In matters too which are perhaps of minor importance from the high stand-point of science, but which are invaluable in the conduct of an important business office, such for example as estimates and official correspondence, he was orderly and punctual in the highest degree. And, what is by no means unimportant, he possessed an excellent official style in correspondence, combined with great clearness of expression. His entire honesty of purpose, and the high respect in which he was held both at home and abroad, gave great weight to his recommendations.

With regard to his habits while he resided at the Observatory, his custom was to work in his official room from 9 to about 2.30, though in summer he was frequently at work before breakfast. He then took a brisk walk, and dined at about 3.30. This early hour had been prescribed and insisted upon by his physician, Dr Haviland of Cambridge, in whom he had great confidence. He ate heartily, though simply and moderately, and slept for about an hour after dinner. He then had tea, and from about 7 to 10 he worked in the same room with his family. He would never retire to a private room, and regarded the society of his family as highly beneficial in "taking the edge off his work." His powers of abstraction were remarkable: nothing seemed to disturb him; neither music, singing, nor miscellaneous conversation. He would then play a game or two at cards, read a few pages of a classical or historical book, and retire at 11. On Sundays he attended morning service at church, and in the evening read a few prayers very carefully and impressively to his whole household. He was very hospitable, and delighted to receive his friends in a simple and natural way at his house. In this he was most admirably aided by his wife, whose grace and skill made everything pleasant to their guests. But he avoided dinner-parties as much as possible—they interfered too much with his work—and with the exception of scientific and official dinners he seldom dined away from home. His tastes were entirely domestic, and he was very happy in his family. With his natural love of work, and with the incessant calls upon him, he would soon have broken down, had it not been for his system of regular relaxation. Two or three times a year he took a holiday: generally a short run of a week or ten days in the spring, a trip of a month or thereabouts in the early autumn, and about three weeks at Playford in the winter. These trips were always conducted in the most active manner, either in constant motion from place to place, or in daily active excursions. This system he maintained with great regularity, and from the exceeding interest and enjoyment that he took in these trips his mind was so much refreshed and steadied that he always kept himself equal to his work.

Airy seems to have had a strong bent in the direction of astronomy from his youth, and it is curious to note how well furnished he was, by the time that he became Astronomer Royal, both with astronomy in all its branches, and with the kindred sciences so necessary for the practical working and improvement of it. At the time that he went to Cambridge Physical Astronomy was greatly studied there and formed a most important part of the University course. He eagerly availed himself of this, and mastered the Physical Astronomy in the most thorough manner, as was evidenced by his Papers collected in his "Mathematical Tracts," his investigation of the Long Inequality of the Earth and Venus, and many other works. As Plumian Professor he had charge of the small Observatory at Cambridge, where he did a great deal of the observing and reduction work himself, and became thoroughly versed in the practical working of an Observatory. The result of this was immediately seen in the improved methods which he introduced at Greenwich, and which were speedily imitated at other Observatories. Optics and the Undulatory Theory of Light had been very favourite subjects with him, and he had written and lectured frequently upon them. In the construction of the new and powerful telescopes and other optical instruments required from time to time this knowledge was very essential, for in its instrumental equipment the Greenwich Observatory was entirely remodelled during his tenure of office. And in many of the matters referred to him, as for instance that of the Lighthouses, a thorough knowledge of Optics was most valuable. He had made a great study of the theory and construction of clocks, and this knowledge was invaluable to him at Greenwich in the establishment of new and more accurate astronomical clocks, and especially in the improvement of chronometers. He had carefully studied the theory of pendulums, and had learned how to use them in his experiments in the Cornish mines. This knowledge he afterwards utilized very effectively at the Harton Pit in comparing the density of the Earth's crust with its mean density; and it was very useful to him in connection with geodetic surveys and experiments on which he was consulted. And his mechanical knowledge was useful in almost everything.

The subjects (outside those required for his professional work) in which he took most interest were Poetry, History, Theology, Antiquities, Architecture, and Engineering. He was well acquainted with standard English poetry, and had committed large quantities to memory, which he frequently referred to as a most valuable acquisition and an ever-present relief and comfort to his mind. History and theology he had studied as opportunity offered, and without being widely read in them he was much at home with them, and his powerful memory made the most of what he did read. Antiquities and architecture were very favourite subjects with him. He had visited most of the camps and castles in the United Kingdom and was never tired of tracing their connection with ancient military events: and he wrote several papers on this subject, especially those relating to the Roman invasions of Britain. Ecclesiastical architecture he was very fond of: he had visited nearly all the cathedrals and principal churches in England, and many on the Continent, and was most enthusiastic on their different styles and merits: his letters abound in critical remarks on them. He was extremely well versed in mechanics, and in the principles and theory of construction, and took the greatest interest in large engineering works. This led to much communication with Stephenson, Brunel, and other engineers, who consulted him freely on the subject of great works on which they were engaged: in particular he rendered much assistance in connection with the construction of the Britannia Bridge over the Menai Straits. There were various other subjects which he read with much interest (Geology in particular), but he made no study of Natural History, and knew very little about it beyond detached facts. His industry was untiring, and in going over his books one by one it was very noticeable how large a number of them were feathered with his paper "marks," shewing how carefully he had read them and referred to them. His nature was essentially cheerful, and literature of a witty and humourous character had a great charm for him. He was very fond of music and knew a great number of songs; and he was well acquainted with the theory of music: but he was no performer. He did not sketch freehand but made excellent drawings with his Camera Lucida.

At the time when he took his degree (1823) and for many years afterwards there was very great activity of scientific investigation and astronomical enterprise in England. And, as in the times of Flamsteed and Halley, the earnest zeal of men of science occasionally led to much controversy and bitterness amongst them. Airy was by no means exempt from such controversies. He was a man of keen sensitiveness, though it was combined with great steadiness of temper, and he never hesitated to attack theories and methods that he considered to be scientifically wrong. This led to differences with Ivory, Challis, South, Cayley, Archibald Smith, and others; but however much he might differ from them he was always personally courteous, and the disputes generally went no farther than as regarded the special matter in question. Almost all these controversial discussions were carried on openly, and were published in the Athenaeum, the Philosophical Magazine, or elsewhere; for he printed nearly everything that he wrote, and was very careful in the selection of the most suitable channels for publication. He regarded it as a duty to popularize as much as possible the work done at the Observatory, and to take the public into his confidence. And this he effected by articles communicated to newspapers, lectures, numerous Papers written for scientific societies, reports, debates, and critiques.

His strong constitution and his regular habits, both of work and exercise, are sufficient explanation of the good health which in general he enjoyed. Not but what he had sharp touches of illness from time to time. At one period he suffered a good deal from an attack of eczema, and at another from a varicose vein in his leg, and he was occasionally troubled with severe colds. But he bore these ailments with great patience and threw them off in course of time. He was happy in his marriage and in his family, and such troubles and distresses as were inevitable he accepted calmly and quietly. In his death, as in his life, he was fortunate: he had no long or painful illness, and he was spared the calamity of aberration of intellect, the saddest of all visitations.




George Biddell Airy was born at Alnwick in Northumberland on July 27th 1801. His father was William Airy of Luddington in Lincolnshire, the descendant of a long line of Airys who have been traced back with a very high degree of probability to a family of that name which was settled at Kentmere in Westmorland in the 14th century. A branch of this family migrated to Pontefract in Yorkshire, where they seem to have prospered for many years, but they were involved in the consequences of the Civil Wars, and one member of the family retired to Ousefleet in Yorkshire. His grandson removed to Luddington in Lincolnshire, where his descendants for several generations pursued the calling of small farmers. George Biddell Airy's mother, Ann Airy, was the daughter of George Biddell, a well-to-do farmer in Suffolk.

William Airy, the father of George Biddell Airy, was a man of great activity and strength, and of prudent and steady character. When a young man he became foreman on a farm in the neighbourhood of Luddington, and laid by his earnings in summer in order to educate himself in winter. For a person in his rank, his education was unusually good, in matters of science and in English literature. But at the age of 24 he grew tired of country labour, and obtained a post in the Excise. After serving in various Collections he was appointed Collector of the Northumberland Collection on the 15th August 1800, and during his service there his eldest son George Biddell Airy was born. The time over which his service as Officer and Supervisor extended was that in which smuggling rose to a very high pitch, and in which the position of Excise Officer was sometimes dangerous. He was remarkable for his activity and boldness in contests with smugglers, and made many seizures. Ann Airy, the mother of George Biddell Airy, was a woman of great natural abilities both speculative and practical, kind as a neighbour and as head of a family, and was deeply loved and respected. The family consisted of George Biddell, Elizabeth, William, and Arthur who died young.

William Airy was appointed to Hereford Collection on 22nd October 1802, and removed thither shortly after. He stayed at Hereford till he was appointed to Essex Collection on 28th February 1810, and during this time George Biddell was educated at elementary schools in writing, arithmetic, and a little Latin. He records of himself that he was not a favourite with the schoolboys, for he had very little animal vivacity and seldom joined in active play with his schoolfellows. But in the proceedings of the school he was successful, and was a favourite with his master.

On the appointment of William Airy to Essex Collection, the family removed to Colchester on April 5th 1810. Here George Biddell was first sent to a large school in Sir Isaac's Walk, then kept by Mr Byatt Walker, and was soon noted for his correctness in orthography, geography, and arithmetic. He evidently made rapid progress, for on one occasion Mr Walker said openly in the schoolroom how remarkable it was that a boy 10 years old should be the first in the school. At this school he stayed till the end of 1813 and thoroughly learned arithmetic (from Walkingame's book), book-keeping by double entry (on which knowledge throughout his life he set a special value), the use of the sliding rule (which knowledge also was specially useful to him in after life), mensuration and algebra (from Bonnycastle's books). He also studied grammar in all its branches, and geography, and acquired some knowledge of English literature, beginning with that admirable book The Speaker, but it does not appear that Latin and Greek were attended to at this school. He records that at this time he learned an infinity of snatches of songs, small romances, &c., which his powerful memory retained most accurately throughout his life. He was no hand at active play: but was notorious for his skill in constructing guns for shooting peas and arrows, and other mechanical contrivances. At home he relates that he picked up a wonderful quantity of learning from his father's books. He read and remembered much poetry from such standard authors as Milton, Pope, Gay, Gray, Swift, &c., which was destined to prove in after life an invaluable relaxation for his mind. But he also studied deeply an excellent Cyclopaedia called a Dictionary of Arts and Sciences in three volumes folio, and learned from it much about ship-building, navigation, fortification, and many other subjects.

During this period his valuable friendship with his uncle Arthur Biddell commenced. Arthur Biddell was a prosperous farmer and valuer at Playford near Ipswich. He was a well-informed and able man, of powerful and original mind, extremely kind and good-natured, and greatly respected throughout the county. In the Autobiography of George Biddell Airy he states as follows:

"I do not remember precisely when it was that I first visited my uncle Arthur Biddell. I think it was in a winter: certainly as early as the winter of 1812—13. Here I found a friend whose society I could enjoy, and I entirely appreciated and enjoyed the practical, mechanical, and at the same time speculative and enquiring talents of Arthur Biddell. He had a library which, for a person in middle life, may be called excellent, and his historical and antiquarian knowledge was not small. After spending one winter holiday with him, it easily came to pass that I spent the next summer holiday with him: and at the next winter holiday, finding that there was no precise arrangement for my movements, I secretly wrote him a letter begging him to come with a gig to fetch me home with him: he complied with my request, giving no hint to my father or mother of my letter: and from that time, one-third of every year was regularly spent with him till I went to College. How great was the influence of this on my character and education I cannot tell. It was with him that I became acquainted with the Messrs Ransome, W. Cubitt the civil engineer (afterwards Sir W. Cubitt), Bernard Barton, Thomas Clarkson (the slave-trade abolitionist), and other persons whose acquaintance I have valued highly. It was also with him that I became acquainted with the works of the best modern poets, Scott, Byron, Campbell, Hogg, and others: as also with the Waverley Novels and other works of merit."

In 1813 William Airy lost his appointment of Collector of Excise and was in consequence very much straitened in his circumstances. But there was no relaxation in the education of his children, and at the beginning of 1814 George Biddell was sent to the endowed Grammar School at Colchester, then kept by the Rev. E. Crosse, and remained there till the summer of 1819, when he went to College. The Autobiography proceeds as follows:

"I became here a respectable scholar in Latin and Greek, to the extent of accurate translation, and composition of prose Latin: in regard to Latin verses I was I think more defective than most scholars who take the same pains, but I am not much ashamed of this, for I entirely despise the system of instruction in verse composition.

"My father on some occasion had to go to London and brought back for me a pair of 12-inch globes. They were invaluable to me. The first stars which I learnt from the celestial globe were alpha Lyrae, alpha Aquilae, alpha Cygni: and to this time I involuntarily regard these stars as the birth-stars of my astronomical knowledge. Having somewhere seen a description of a Gunter's quadrant, I perceived that I could construct one by means of the globe: my father procured for me a board of the proper shape with paper pasted on it, and on this I traced the lines of the quadrant.

"My command of geometry was tolerably complete, and one way in which I frequently amused myself was by making paper models (most carefully drawn in outline) which were buttoned together without any cement or sewing. Thus I made models, not only of regular solids, regularly irregular solids, cones cut in all directions so as to shew the conic sections, and the like, but also of six-gun batteries, intrenchments and fortresses of various kinds &c.

"From various books I had learnt the construction of the steam-engine: the older forms from the Dictionary of Arts and Sciences; newer forms from modern books. The newest form however (with the sliding steam valve) I learnt from a 6-horse engine at Bawtrey's brewery (in which Mr Keeling the father of my schoolfellow had acquired a partnership). I frequently went to look at this engine, and on one occasion had the extreme felicity of examining some of its parts when it was opened for repair.

"In the mean time my education was advancing at Playford. The first record, I believe, which I have of my attention to mechanics there is the plan of a threshing-machine which I drew. But I was acquiring valuable information of all kinds from the Encyclopaedia Londinensis, a work which without being high in any respect is one of the most generally useful that I have seen. But I well remember one of the most important steps that I ever made. I had tried experiments with the object-glass of an opera-glass and was greatly astonished at the appearance of the images of objects seen through the glass under different conditions. By these things my thoughts were turned to accurate optics, and I read with care Rutherford's Lectures, which my uncle possessed. The acquisition of an accurate knowledge of the effect of optical constructions was one of the most charming attainments that I ever reached. Long before I went to College I understood the action of the lenses of a telescope better than most opticians. I also read with great zeal Nicholson's Dictionary of Chemistry, and occasionally made chemical experiments of an inexpensive kind: indeed I grew so fond of this subject that there was some thought of apprenticing me to a chemist. I also attended to surveying and made a tolerable survey and map of my uncle's farm.

"At school I was going on successfully, and distinguished myself particularly by my memory. It was the custom for each boy once a week to repeat a number of lines of Latin or Greek poetry, the number depending very much on his own choice. I determined on repeating 100 every week, and I never once fell below that number and was sometimes much above it. It was no distress to me, and great enjoyment. At Michaelmas 1816 I repeated 2394 lines, probably without missing a word. I do not think that I was a favourite with Mr Crosse, but he certainly had a high opinion of my powers and expressed this to my father. My father entertained the idea of sending me to College, which Mr Crosse recommended: but he heard from some college man that the expense would be L200 a year, and he laid aside all thoughts of it.

"The farm of Playford Hall was in 1813 or 1814 hired by Thomas Clarkson, the slave-trade abolitionist. My uncle transacted much business for him (as a neighbour and friend) in the management of the farm &c. for a time, and they became very intimate. My uncle begged him to examine me in Classical knowledge, and he did so, I think, twice. He also gave some better information about the probable expenses &c. at College. The result was a strong recommendation by my uncle or through my uncle that I should be sent to Cambridge, and this was adopted by my father. I think it likely that this was in 1816.

"In December 1816, Dealtry's Fluxions was bought for me, and I read it and understood it well. I borrowed Hutton's Course of Mathematics of old Mr Ransome, who had come to reside at Greenstead near Colchester, and read a good deal of it.

"About Ladyday 1817 I began to read mathematics with Mr Rogers (formerly, I think, a Fellow of Sidney College, and an indifferent mathematician of the Cambridge school), who had succeeded a Mr Tweed as assistant to Mr Crosse in the school. I went to his house twice a week, on holiday afternoons. I do not remember how long I received lessons from him, but I think to June, 1818. This course was extremely valuable to me, not on account of Mr Rogers's abilities (for I understood many things better than he did) but for its training me both in Cambridge subjects and in the Cambridge accurate methods of treating them. I went through Euclid (as far as usually read), Wood's Algebra, Wood's Mechanics, Vince's Hydrostatics, Wood's Optics, Trigonometry (in a geometrical treatise and also in Woodhouse's algebraical form), Fluxions to a good extent, Newton's Principia to the end of the 9th section. This was a large quantity, but I read it accurately and understood it perfectly, and could write out any one of the propositions which I had read in the most exact form. My connexion with Mr Rogers was terminated by his giving me notice that he could not undertake to receive me any longer: in fact I was too much for him. I generally read these books in a garret in our house in George Lane, which was indefinitely appropriated to my brother and myself. I find that I copied out Vince's Conic Sections in February, 1819. The first book that I copied was the small geometrical treatise on Trigonometry, in May, 1817: to this I was urged by old Mr Ransome, upon my complaining that I could not purchase the book: and it was no bad lesson of independence to me."

During the same period 1817-1819 he was occupied at school on translations into blank verse from the Aeneid and Iliad, and read through the whole of Sophocles very carefully.

The classical knowledge which he thus gained at school and subsequently at Cambridge was sound, and he took great pleasure in it: throughout his life he made a practice of keeping one or other of the Classical Authors at hand for occasional relaxation. He terminated his schooling in June 1819. Shortly afterwards his father left Colchester and went to reside at Bury St Edmund's. The Autobiography proceeds as follows:

"Mr Clarkson was at one time inclined to recommend me to go to St Peter's College (which had been much enriched by a bequest from a Mr Gisborne). But on giving some account of me to his friend Mr James D. Hustler, tutor of Trinity College, Mr Hustler urged upon him that I was exactly the proper sort of person to go to Trinity College. And thus it was settled (mainly by Mr Clarkson) that I should be entered at Trinity College. I think that I was sent for purposely from Colchester to Playford, and on March 6th, 1819, I rode in company with Mr Clarkson from Playford to Sproughton near Ipswich to be examined by the Rev. Mr Rogers, incumbent of Sproughton, an old M.A. of Trinity College; and was examined, and my certificate duly sent to Mr Hustler; and I was entered on Mr Hustler's side as Sizar of Trinity College.

"In the summer of 1819 I spent some time at Playford. On July 27th, 1819 (my birthday, 18 years old), Mr Clarkson invited me to dinner, to meet Mr Charles Musgrave, Fellow of Trinity College, who was residing for a short time at Grundisburgh, taking the church duty there for Dr Ramsden, the Rector. It was arranged that I should go to Grundisburgh the next day (I think) to be examined in mathematics by Mr Musgrave. I went accordingly, and Mr Musgrave set before me a paper of questions in geometry, algebra, mechanics, optics, &c. ending with the first proposition of the Principia. I knew nothing more about my answers at the time; but I found long after that they excited so much admiration that they were transmitted to Cambridge (I forget whether to Mr Musgrave's brother, a Fellow of Trinity College and afterwards Archbishop of York, or to Mr Peacock, afterwards Dean of Ely) and were long preserved.

"The list of the Classical subjects for the first year in Trinity College was transmitted to me, as usual, by Mr Hustler. They were—The Hippolytus of Euripides, the 3rd Book of Thucydides, and the 2nd Philippic of Cicero. These I read carefully and noted before going up. Mr Hustler's family lived in Bury; and I called on him and saw him in October, introduced by Mr Clarkson. On the morning of October 18th, 1819, I went on the top of the coach to Cambridge, knowing nobody there but Mr Hustler, but having letters of introduction from Mr Charles Musgrave to Professor Sedgwick, Mr Thomas Musgrave, and Mr George Peacock, all Fellows of Trinity College.

"I was set down at the Hoop, saw Trinity College for the first time, found Mr Hustler, was conducted by his servant to the robe-maker's, where I was invested in the cap and blue gown, and after some further waiting was installed into lodgings in Bridge Street. At 4 o'clock I went to the College Hall and was introduced by Mr Hustler to several undergraduates, generally clever men, and in the evening I attended Chapel in my surplice (it being St Luke's day) and witnessed that splendid service of which the occasional exhibition well befits the place.

"As soon as possible, I called on Mr Peacock, Mr Musgrave, and Professor Sedgwick. By all I was received with great kindness: my examination papers had been sent to them, and a considerable reputation preceded me. Mr Peacock at once desired that I would not consider Mr C. Musgrave's letter as an ordinary introduction, but that I would refer to him on all occasions. And I did so for several years, and always received from him the greatest assistance that he could give. I think that I did not become acquainted with Mr Whewell till the next term, when I met him at a breakfast party at Mr Peacock's. Mr Peacock at once warned me to arrange for taking regular exercise, and prescribed a walk of two hours every day before dinner: a rule to which I attended regularly, and to which I ascribe the continuance of good general health.

"I shewed Mr Peacock a manuscript book which contained a number of original Propositions which I had investigated. These much increased my reputation (I really had sense enough to set no particular value on it) and I was soon known by sight to almost everybody in the University. A ridiculous little circumstance aided in this. The former rule of the University (strictly enforced) had been that all students should wear drab knee-breeches: and I, at Mr Clarkson's recommendation, was so fitted up. The struggle between the old dress and the trowsers customary in society was still going on but almost terminated, and I was one of the very few freshmen who retained the old habiliments. This made me in some measure distinguishable: however at the end of my first three terms I laid these aside.

"The College Lectures began on Oct. 22: Mr Evans at 9 on the Hippolytus, and Mr Peacock at 10 on Euclid (these being the Assistant Tutors on Mr Hustler's side): and then I felt myself established.

"I wrote in a day or two to my uncle Arthur Biddell, and I received from him a letter of the utmost kindness. He entered gravely on the consideration of my prospects, my wants, &c.: and offered at all times to furnish me with money, which he thought my father's parsimonious habits might make him unwilling to do. I never had occasion to avail myself of this offer: but it was made in a way which in no small degree strengthened the kindly feelings that had long existed between us.

"I carefully attended the lectures, taking notes as appeared necessary. In Mathematics there were geometrical problems, algebra, trigonometry (which latter subjects the lectures did not reach till the terms of 1820). Mr Peacock gave me a copy of Lacroix's Differential Calculus as translated by himself and Herschel and Babbage, and also a copy of their Examples. At this time, the use of Differential Calculus was just prevailing over that of Fluxions (which I had learnt). I betook myself to it with great industry. I also made myself master of the theories of rectangular coordinates and some of the differential processes applying to them, which only a few of the best of the university mathematicians then wholly possessed. In Classical subjects I read the Latin (Seneca's) and English Hippolytus, Racine's Phedre (which my sister translated for me), and all other books to which I was referred, Aristotle, Longinus, Horace, Bentley, Dawes &c., made verse translations of the Greek Hippolytus, and was constantly on the watch to read what might be advantageous.

"Early in December Mr Hustler sent for me to say that one of the Company of Fishmongers, Mr R. Sharp, had given to Mr John H. Smyth, M.P. for Norwich, the presentation to a small exhibition of L20 a year, which Mr Smyth had placed in Mr Hustler's hands, and which Mr Hustler immediately conferred on me. This was my first step towards pecuniary independence. I retained this exhibition till I became a Fellow of the College.

"I stayed at Cambridge during part of the winter vacation, and to avoid expense I quitted my lodgings and went for a time into somebody's rooms in the Bishop's Hostel. (It is customary for the tutors to place students in rooms when their right owners are absent.) I took with me Thucydides and all relating to it, and read the book, upon which the next term's lectures were to be founded, very carefully. The latter part of the vacation I spent at Bury, where I began with the assistance of my sister to pick up a little French: as I perceived that it was absolutely necessary for enabling me to read modern mathematics.

"During a part of the time I employed myself in writing out a paper on the geometrical interpretation of the algebraical expression sqrt(-1). I think that the original suggestion of perpendicular line came from some book (I do not remember clearly), and I worked it out in several instances pretty well, especially in De Moivre's Theorem. I had spoken of it in the preceding term to Mr Peacock and he encouraged me to work it out. The date at the end is 1820, January 21. When some time afterwards I spoke of it to Mr Hustler, he disapproved of my employing my time on such speculations. About the last day of January I returned to Cambridge, taking up my abode in my former lodgings. I shewed my paper on sqrt(-1) to Mr Peacock, who was much pleased with it and shewed it to Mr Whewell and others.

"On February 1 I commenced two excellent customs. The first was that I always had upon my table a quire of large-sized scribbling-paper sewn together: and upon this paper everything was entered: translations into Latin and out of Greek, mathematical problems, memoranda of every kind (the latter transferred when necessary to the subsequent pages), and generally with the date of the day. This is a most valuable custom. The other was this: as I perceived that to write Latin prose well would be useful to me, I wrote a translation of English into Latin every day. However much pressed I might be with other business, I endeavoured to write at least three or four words, but if possible I wrote a good many sentences.

"I may fix upon this as the time when my daily habits were settled in the form in which they continued for several years. I rose in time for the chapel service at 7. It was the College regulation that every student should attend Chapel four mornings and four evenings (Sunday being one of each) in every week: and in this I never failed. After chapel service I came to my lodgings and breakfasted. At 9 I went to College lectures, which lasted to 11. Most of my contemporaries, being intended for the Church, attended also divinity lectures: but I never did. I then returned, put my lecture notes in order, wrote my piece of Latin prose, and then employed myself on the subject which I was reading for the time: usually taking mathematics at this hour. At 2 or a little sooner I went out for a long walk, usually 4 or 5 miles into the country: sometimes if I found companions I rowed on the Cam (a practice acquired rather later). A little before 4 I returned, and at 4 went to College Hall. After dinner I lounged till evening chapel time, 1/2 past 5, and returning about 6 I then had tea. Then I read quietly, usually a classical subject, till 11; and I never, even in the times when I might seem most severely pressed, sat up later.

"From this time to the close of the annual examination (beginning of June) I remained at Cambridge, stopping there through the Easter Vacation. The subjects of the mathematical lectures were ordinary algebra and trigonometry: but Mr Peacock always had some private problems of a higher class for me, and saw me I believe every day. The subjects of the Classical lectures were, the termination of Hippolytus, the book of Thucydides and the oration of Cicero. In mathematics I read Whewell's Mechanics, then just published (the first innovation made in the Cambridge system of Physical Sciences for many years): and I find in my scribbling-paper notes, integrals, central forces, Finite Differences, steam-engine constructions and powers, plans of bridges, spherical trigonometry, optical calculations relating to the achromatism of eye-pieces and achromatic object-glasses with lenses separated, mechanical problems, Transit of Venus, various problems in geometrical astronomy (I think it was at this time that Mr Peacock had given me a copy of Woodhouse's Astronomy 1st Edition), the rainbow, plans for anemometer and for a wind-pumping machine, clearing lunars, &c., with a great number of geometrical problems. I remark that my ideas on the Differential Calculus had not acquired on some important points the severe accuracy which they acquired in a few months. In Classics I read the Persae of Aeschylus, Greek and Roman history very much (Mitford, Hooke, Ferguson) and the books of Thucydides introductory to that of the lecture subject (the 3rd): and attended to Chronology. On the scribbling-paper are verse-translations from Euripides, careful prose-translations from Thucydides, maps, notes on points of grammar &c. I have also little MS. books with abundant notes on all these subjects: I usually made a little book when I pursued any subject in a regular way.

"On May 1st Mr Dobree, the head lecturer, sent for me to say that he appointed me head-lecturer's Sizar for the next year. The stipend of this office was L10, a sum upon which I set considerable value in my anxiety for pecuniary independence: but it was also gratifying to me as shewing the way in which I was regarded by the College authorities.

"On Wednesday, May 24th, 1820, the examination began. I was anxious about the result of the examination, but only in such a degree as to make my conduct perfectly steady and calm, and to prevent me from attempting any extraordinary exertion.

"When the Classes were published the first Class of the Freshman's Year (alphabetically arranged, as is the custom) stood thus: Airy, Boileau, Childers, Drinkwater, Field, Iliff, Malkin, Myers, Romilly, Strutt, Tate, Winning. It was soon known however that I was first of the Class. It was generally expected (and certainly by me) that, considering how great a preponderance the Classics were understood, in the known system of the College, to have in determining the order of merit, Field would be first. However the number of marks which Field obtained was about 1700, and that which I obtained about 1900. No other competitor, I believe, was near us."—In a letter to Airy from his College Tutor, Mr J. D. Hustler, there is the following passage: "It is a matter of extreme satisfaction to me that in the late examination you stood not only in the First Class but first of the first. I trust that your future exertions and success will be commensurate with this honourable beginning."

"Of the men whom I have named, Drinkwater (Bethune) was afterwards Legal Member of the Supreme Court of India, Field was afterwards Rector of Reepham, Romilly (afterwards Lord Romilly) became Solicitor-General, Strutt (afterwards Lord Belper) became M.P. for Derby and First Commissioner of Railways, Tate was afterwards master of Richmond Endowed School, Childers was the father of Childers who was subsequently First Lord of the Admiralty.

"I returned to Bury immediately. While there, some students (some of them men about to take their B.A. degree at the next January) applied to me to take them as pupils, but I declined. This year of my life enabled me to understand how I stood among men. I returned to Cambridge about July 11th. As a general rule, undergraduates are not allowed to reside in the University during the Long Vacation. I believe that before I left, after the examination, I had made out that I should be permitted to reside: or I wrote to Mr Hustler. I applied to Mr Hustler to be lodged in rooms in College: and was put, first into rooms in Bishop's Hostel, and subsequently into rooms in the Great Court.

"The first affair that I had in College was one of disappointment by no means deserving the importance which it assumed in my thoughts. I had been entered a Sizar, but as the list of Foundation Sizars was full, my dinners in Hall were paid for. Some vacancies had arisen: and as these were to be filled up in order of merit, I expected one: and in my desire for pecuniary independence I wished for it very earnestly. However, as in theory all of the first class were equal, and as there were some Sizars in it senior in entrance to me, they obtained places first: and I was not actually appointed till after the next scholarship examination (Easter 1821). However a special arrangement was made, allowing me (I forget whether others) to sit at the Foundation-Sizars' table whenever any of the number was absent: and in consequence I received practically nearly the full benefits.

"Mr Peacock, who was going out for the vacation, allowed me access to his books. I had also (by the assistance of various Fellows, who all treated me with great kindness, almost to a degree of respect) command of the University Library and Trinity Library: and spent this Long Vacation, like several others, very happily indeed.

"The only non-mathematical subjects of the next examination were The Gospel of St Luke, Paley's Evidences, and Paley's Moral and Political Philosophy. Thus my time was left more free to mathematics and to general classics than last year. I now began a custom which I maintained for some years. Generally I read mathematics in the morning, and classics for lectures in the afternoon: but invariably I began at 10 o'clock in the evening to read with the utmost severity some standard classics (unconnected with the lectures) and at 11 precisely I left off and went to bed. I continued my daily translations into Latin prose as before.

"On August 24th, 1820, Rosser, a man of my own year, engaged me as private tutor, paying at the usual rate (L14 for a part of the Vacation, and L14 for a term): and immediately afterwards his friend Bedingfield did the same. This occupied two hours every day, and I felt that I was now completely earning my own living. I never received a penny from my friends after this time.

"I find on my scribbling-paper various words which shew that in reading Poisson I was struggling with French words. There are also Finite Differences and their Calculus, Figure of the Earth (force to the center), various Attractions (some evidently referring to Maclaurin's), Integrals, Conic Sections, Kepler's Problem, Analytical Geometry, D'Alembert's Theorem, Spherical Aberration, Rotations round three axes (apparently I had been reading Euler), Floating bodies, Evolute of Ellipse, Newton's treatment of the Moon's Variation. I attempted to extract something from Vince's Astronomy on the physical explanation of Precession: but in despair of understanding it, and having made out an explanation for myself by the motion round three axes, I put together a little treatise (Sept. 10, 1820) which with some corrections and additions was afterwards printed in my Mathematical Tracts. On Sept. 14th I bought Woodhouse's Physical Astronomy, and this was quite an epoch in my mathematical knowledge. First, I was compelled by the process of "changing the independent variable" to examine severely the logic of the Differential Calculus. Secondly, I was now able to enter on the Theory of Perturbations, which for several years had been the desired land to me.

"At the Fellowship Election of Oct. 1st, Sydney Walker (among other persons) was elected Fellow. He then quitted the rooms in which he had lived (almost the worst in the College), and I immediately took them. They suited me well and I lived very happily in them till I was elected Scholar. They are small rooms above the middle staircase on the south side of Neville's Court. (Mr Peacock's rooms were on the same staircase.) I had access to the leads on the roof of the building from one of my windows. This was before the New Court was built: my best window looked upon the garden of the College butler.

"I had brought to Cambridge the telescope which I had made at Colchester, and about this time I had a stand made by a carpenter at Cambridge: and I find repeated observations of Jupiter and Saturn made in this October term.

"Other mathematical subjects on my scribbling-paper are: Geometrical Astronomy, Barometers (for elevations), Maclaurin's Figure of the Earth, Lagrange's Theorem, Integrals, Differential Equations of the second order, Particular Solutions. In general mathematics I had much discussion with Atkinson (who was Senior Wrangler, January 1821), and in Physics with Rosser, who was a friend of Sir Richard Phillips, a vain objector to gravitation. In Classics I read Aeschylus and Herodotus.

"On October 5th I received notice from the Head Lecturer to declaim in English with Winning. (This exercise consists in preparing a controversial essay, learning it by heart, and speaking it in Chapel after the Thursday evening's service.) On October 6th we agreed on the subject, "Is natural difference to be ascribed to moral or to physical causes?" I taking the latter side. I spoke the declamation (reciting it without missing a word) on October 25th. On October 26th I received notice of Latin declamation with Myers: subject agreed on, "Utrum civitati plus utilitatis an incommodi afferant leges quae ad vitas privatorum hominum ordinandas pertinent"; I took the former. The declamation was recited on November 11, when a curious circumstance occurred. My declamation was rather long: it was the first Saturday of the term on which a declamation had been spoken: and it was the day on which arrived the news of the withdrawal of the Bill of Pains and Penalties against Queen Caroline. (This trial had been going on through the summer, but I knew little about it.) In consequence the impatience of the undergraduates was very great, and there was such an uproar of coughing &c. in the Chapel as probably was never known. The Master (Dr Wordsworth, appointed in the beginning of the summer on the death of Dr Mansell, and to whom I had been indirectly introduced by Mrs Clarkson) and Tutors and Deans tried in vain to stop the hubbub. However I went on steadily to the end, not at all frightened. On the Monday the Master sent for me to make a sort of apology in the name of the authorities, and letters to the Tutors were read at the Lectures, and on the whole the transaction was nowise disagreeable to me.

"On the Commemoration Day, December 15th, I received my Prize (Mitford's Greece) as First-Class man, after dinner in the College Hall. After a short vacation spent at Bury and Playford I returned to Cambridge, walking from Bury on Jan. 22nd, 1821. During the next term I find in Mathematics Partial Differential Equations, Tides, Sound, Calculus of Variations, Composition of rotary motions, Motion in resisting medium, Lhuillier's theorem, Brightness of an object as seen through a medium with any possible law of refraction (a good investigation), star-reductions, numerical calculations connected with them, equilibrium of chain under centripetal force (geometrically treated, as an improvement upon Whewell's algebraical method), investigation of the magnitude of attractive forces of glass, &c., required to produce refraction. I forget about Mathematical Lectures; but I have an impression that I regularly attended Mr Peacock's lectures, and that he always set me some private problems.

"I attended Mr Evans's lectures on St Luke: and I find many notes about the history of the Jews, Cerinthus and various heresies, Paley's Moral Philosophy, Paley's Evidences, and Biblical Maps: also speculations about ancient pronunciations.

"For a week or more before the annual examination I was perfectly lazy. The Classes of my year (Junior Sophs) were not published till June 11. It was soon known that I was first with 2000 marks, the next being Drinkwater with 1200 marks. After a short holiday at Bury and Playford I returned to Cambridge on July 18th, 1821. My daily life went on as usual. I find that in writing Latin I began Cicero De Senectute (retranslating Melmoth's translation, and comparing). Some time in the Long Vacation the names of the Prizemen for Declamations were published: I was disappointed that not one, English or Latin, was assigned to me: but it was foolish, for my declamations were rather trumpery.

"My former pupil, Rosser, came again on August 14th. On August 29th Dr Blomfield (afterwards Bishop of London) called, to engage me as Tutor to his brother George Beecher Blomfield, and he commenced attendance on Sept. 1st. With these two pupils I finished at the end of the Long Vacation: for the next three terms I had one pupil, Gibson, a Newcastle man, recommended by Mr Peacock, I believe, as a personal friend (Mr Peacock being of Durham).

"The only classical subject appointed for the next examination was the 5th, 6th and 7th Books of the Odyssey: the mathematical subjects all the Applied Mathematics and Newton. There was to be however the Scholarship Examination (Sizars being allowed to sit for Scholarships only in their 3rd year: and the Scholarship being a kind of little Fellowship necessary to qualify for being a candidate for the real Fellowship).

"When the October term began Mr Hustler, who usually gave lectures in mathematics to his third-year pupils, said to me that it was not worth my while to attend his lectures, and he or Mr Peacock suggested that Drinkwater, Myers, and I should attend the Questionists' examinations. The Questionists are those who are to take the degree of B.A. in the next January: and it was customary, not to give them lectures, but three times a week to examine them by setting mathematical questions, as the best method of preparing for the B.A. examination. Accordingly it was arranged that we should attend the said examinations: but when we went the Questionists of that year refused to attend. They were reported to be a weak year, and we to be a strong one: and they were disposed to take offence at us on any occasion. From some of the scholars of our year who sat at table with scholars of that year I heard that they distinguished us as 'the impudent year,' 'the annus mirabilis' &c. On this occasion they pretended to believe that the plan of our attendance at the Questionists' examinations had been suggested by an undergraduate, and no explanation was of the least use. So the Tutors agreed not to press the matter on them: and instead of it, Drinkwater, Myers, and I went three times a week to Mr Peacock's rooms, and he set us questions. I think that this system was also continued during the next two terms (ending in June 1822) or part of them, but I am not certain.

"In August 1821 I copied out a M.S. on Optics, I think from Mr Whewell: on August 24th one on the Figure of the Earth and Tides; and at some other time one on the motion of a body round two centers of force; both from Mr Whewell. On my scribbling paper I find—A problem on the vibrations of a gig as depending on the horse's step (like that of a pendulum whose support is disturbed), Maclaurin's Attractions, Effect of separating the lenses of an achromatic object-glass (suggested by my old telescope), Barlow's theory of numbers, and division of the circle into 17 parts, partial differentials, theory of eye-pieces, epicycloids, Figure of the Earth, Time of body in arc of parabola, Problem of Sound, Tides, Refraction of Lens, including thickness, &c., Ivory's paper on Equations, Achromatism of microscope, Capillary Attraction, Motions of Fluids, Euler's principal axes, Spherical pendulum, Equation b squared(d squaredy/dx squared)=(d squaredy/dt squared), barometer, Lunar Theory well worked out, ordinary differential equations, Calculus of Variations, Interpolations like Laplace's for Comets, Kepler's theorem. In September I had my old telescope mounted on a short tripod stand, and made experiments on its adjustments. I was possessed of White's Ephemeris, and I find observations of Jupiter and Saturn in October. I planned an engine for describing ellipses by the polar equation A/(1 + e cos theta) and tried to make a micrometer with silk threads converging to a point. Mr Cubitt called on Oct. 4 and Nov. 1; he was engaged in erecting a treadmill at Cambridge Gaol, and had some thoughts of sending plans for the Cambridge Observatory, the erection of which was then proposed. On Nov. 19 I find that I had received from Cubitt a Nautical Almanac, the first that I had. On Dec. 11 I made some experiments with Drinkwater: I think it was whirling a glass containing oil on water. In Classics I was chiefly engaged upon Thucydides and Homer. On October 6th I had a letter from Charles Musgrave, introducing Challis, who succeeded me in the Cambridge Observatory in 1836.

"At this time my poor afflicted father was suffering much from a severe form of rheumatism or pain in the legs which sometimes prevented him from going to bed for weeks together.

"On the Commemoration Day, Dec. 18th, I received my prize as first-class man in Hall again. The next day I walked to Bury, and passed the winter vacation there and at Playford.

"I returned to Cambridge on Jan. 24th, 1822. On Feb. 12th I kept my first Act, with great compliments from the Moderator, and with a most unusually large attendance of auditors. These disputations on mathematics, in Latin, are now discontinued. On March 20th I kept a first Opponency against Sandys. About this time I received Buckle, a Trinity man of my own year, who was generally supposed to come next after Drinkwater, as pupil. On my sheets I find integrals and differential equations of every kind, astronomical corrections (of which I prepared a book), chances, Englefield's comets, investigation of the brightness within a rainbow, proof of Clairaut's theorem in one case, metacentres, change of independent variable applied to a complicated case, generating functions, principal axes. On Apr. 8th I intended to write an account of my eye: I was then tormented with a double image, I suppose from some disease of the stomach: and on May 28th I find by a drawing of the appearance of a lamp that the disease of my eye continued.

"On Feb. 11th I gave Mr Peacock a paper on the alteration of the focal length of a telescope as directed with or against the Earth's orbital motion (on the theory of emissions) which was written out for reading to the Cambridge Philosophical Society on Feb. 24th and 25th. [This Society I think was then about a year old.] On Feb. 1 my MS. on Precession, Solar Inequality, and Nutation, was made complete.

"The important examination for Scholarships was now approaching. As I have said, this one opportunity only was given to Sizars (Pensioners having always two opportunities and sometimes three), and it is necessary to be a Scholar in order to be competent to be a candidate for a Fellowship. On Apr. 10th I addressed my formal Latin letter to the Seniors. There were 13 vacancies and 37 candidates. The election took place on Apr. 18th, 1822. I was by much the first (which I hardly expected) and was complimented by the Master and others. Wrote the formal letter of thanks as usual. I was now entitled to claim better rooms, and I took the rooms on the ground floor on the East side of the Queen's Gate of the Great Court. Even now I think of my quiet residence in the little rooms above the staircase in Neville's Court with great pleasure. I took possession of my new rooms on May 27th.

"The Annual Examination began on May 30th. The Classes were published on June 5th, when my name was separated from the rest by two lines. It was understood that the second man was Drinkwater, and that my number of marks was very nearly double of his. Having at this time been disappointed of a proposed walking excursion into Derbyshire with a college friend, who failed me at the last moment, I walked to Bury and spent a short holiday there and at Playford.

"I returned to Cambridge on July 12th, 1822. I was steadily busy during this Long Vacation, but by no means oppressively so: indeed my time passed very happily. The Scholars' Table is the only one in College at which the regular possessors of the table are sure never to see a stranger, and thus a sort of family intimacy grows up among the Scholars. Moreover the Scholars feel themselves to be a privileged class 'on the foundation,' and this feeling gives them a sort of conceited happiness. It was the duty of Scholars by turns to read Grace after the Fellows' dinner and supper, and at this time (1848) I know it by heart. They also read the Lessons in Chapel on week days: but as there was no daily chapel-service during the summer vacation, I had not much of this. In the intimacy of which I speak I became much acquainted with Drinkwater, Buckle, Rothman, and Sutcliffe: and we formed a knot at the table (first the Undergraduate Scholars' table, and afterwards the Bachelor Scholars' table) for several years. During this Vacation I had for pupils Buckle and Gibson.

"I wrote my daily Latin as usual, beginning with the retranslation of Cicero's Epistles, but I interrupted it from Sept. 27th to Feb. 8th. I believe it was in this Vacation, or in the October term, that I began every evening to read Thucydides very carefully, as my notes are marked 1822 and 1823. On August 27 I find that I was reading Ovid's Fasti.

"In Mathematics I find the equation x + y = a, x^q + y^q = b, Caustics, Calculus of Variations, Partial Differentials, Aberration of Light, Motions of Comets, various Optical constructions computed with spherical aberrations, Particular Solutions, Mechanics of Solid Bodies, Attractions of Shells, Chances, Ivory's attraction-theorem, Lunar Theory (algebraical), Degrees across meridian, theoretical refraction, Newton's 3rd Book, Investigation of the tides in a shallow equatoreal canal, from which I found that there would be low-water under the moon, metacentres, rotation of a solid body round three axes, Attractions of Spheroids of variable density, finite differences, and complete Figure of the Earth. There is also a good deal of investigation of a mathematical nature not connected with College studies, as musical chords, organ-pipes, sketch for a computing machine (suggested by the publications relating to Babbage's), sketch of machine for solving equations. In August there is a plan of a MS. on the Differential Calculus, which it appears I wrote then: one on the Figure of the Earth written about August 15th; one on Tides, Sept. 25th; one on Newton's Principia with algebraical additions, Nov. 1st. On Sept. 6th and 10th there are Lunar Distances observed with Rothman's Sextant and completely worked out; for these I prepared a printed skeleton form, I believe my first. On December 13th there are references to books on Geology (Conybeare and Phillips, and Parkinson) which I was beginning to study. On July 27th, being the day on which I completed my 21st year, I carefully did nothing.

"Another subject partly occupied my thoughts, which, though not (with reference to practical science) very wise, yet gave me some Cambridge celebrity. In July 1819 I had (as before mentioned) sketched a plan for constructing reflecting telescopes with silvered glass, and had shewn it afterwards to Mr Peacock. I now completed the theory of this construction by correcting the aberrations, spherical as well as chromatic. On July 13th, 1822, I drew up a paper about it for Mr Peacock. He approved it much, and in some way communicated it to Mr (afterwards Sir John) Herschel. I was soon after introduced to Herschel at a breakfast with Mr Peacock: and he approved of the scheme generally. On August 5th I drew up a complete mathematical paper for the Cambridge Philosophical Society, which I entrusted to Mr Peacock. The aberrations, both spherical and chromatic, are here worked out very well. On Nov. 25th it was read at the meeting of the Philosophical Society, and was afterwards printed in their Transactions: this was my first printed Memoir. Before this time however I had arranged to try the scheme practically. Mr Peacock had engaged to bear the expense, but I had no occasion to ask him. Partly (I think) through Drinkwater, I communicated with an optician named Bancks, in the Strand, who constructed the optical part. I subsequently tried my telescope, but it would not do. The fault, as I had not and have not the smallest doubt, depends in some way on the crystallization of the mercury silvering. It must have been about this time that I was introduced to Mr (afterwards Sir James) South, at a party at Mr Peacock's rooms. He advised me to write to Tulley, a well-known practical optician, who made me some new reflectors, &c. (so that I had two specimens, one Gregorian, the other Cassegrainian). However the thing failed practically, and I was too busy ever after to try it again.

"During the October term I had no pupils. I kept my second Act on Nov. 6 (opponents Hamilton, Rusby, Field), and an Opponency against Jeffries on Nov. 7. I attended the Questionists' Examinations. I seem to have lived a very comfortable idle life. The Commemoration Day was Dec. 18th, when I received a Prize, and the next day I walked to Bury. On Jan. 4th, 1823, I returned to Cambridge, and until the B.A. Examination I read novels and played cards more than at any other time in College.

"On Thursday, Jan. 9th, 1823, the preliminary classes, for arrangement of details of the B.A. Examination, were published. The first class, Airy, Drinkwater, Jeffries, Mason. As far as I remember, the rule was then, that on certain days the classes were grouped (in regard to identity of questions given to each group) thus: 1st, {2nd/3rd}, {4th/5th} &c., and on certain other days thus: {1st/2nd}, {3rd/4th}, &c. On Saturday, Jan. 11th, I paid fees. On Monday, Jan. 13th, the proceedings of examination began by a breakfast in the Combination Room. After this, Gibson gave me breakfast every day, and Buckle gave me and some others a glass of wine after dinner. The hours were sharp, the season a cold one, and no fire was allowed in the Senate House where the Examination was carried on (my place was in the East gallery), and altogether it was a severe time.

"The course of Examination was as follows:

"Monday, Jan. 13th. 8 to 9, printed paper of questions by Mr Hind (moderator); half-past 9 to 11, questions given orally; 1 to 3, ditto; 6 to 9, paper of problems at Mr Higman's rooms.

"Tuesday, Jan. 14th. 8 to 9, Higman's paper; half-past 9 to 11, questions given orally; 1 to 3, ditto; 6 to 9, paper of problems in Sidney College Hall.

"Wednesday, Jan. 15th. Questions given orally 8 to 9 and 1 to 3, with paper of questions on Paley and Locke (one question only in each was answered).

"Thursday, Jan. 16th. We went in at 9 and 1, but there seems to have been little serious examination.

"Friday, Jan. 17. On this day the brackets or classes as resulting from the examination were published, 1st bracket Airy, 2nd bracket Jeffries, 3rd bracket Drinkwater, Fisher, Foley, Mason, Myers.

"On Saturday, Jan. 18th, the degrees were conferred in the usual way. It had been arranged that my brother and sister should come to see me take my degree of B.A., and I had asked Gibson to conduct them to the Senate House Gallery: but Mr Hawkes (a Trinity Fellow) found them and stationed them at the upper end of the Senate House. After the preliminary arrangements of papers at the Vice-Chancellor's table, I, as Senior Wrangler, was led up first to receive the degree, and rarely has the Senate House rung with such applause as then filled it. For many minutes, after I was brought in front of the Vice-Chancellor, it was impossible to proceed with the ceremony on account of the uproar. I gave notice to the Smith's Prize Electors of my intention to 'sit' for that prize, and dined at Rothman's rooms with Drinkwater, Buckle, and others. On Monday, Jan. 20th, I was examined by Professor Woodhouse, for Smith's Prize, from 10 to 1. I think that the only competitor was Jeffries. On Tuesday I was examined by Prof. Turton, 10 to 1, and on Wednesday by Prof. Lax, 10 to 1. On Thursday, Jan. 23rd, I went to Bury by coach, on one of the coldest evenings that I ever felt.

"Mr Peacock had once recommended me to sit for the Chancellor's medal (Classical Prize). But he now seemed to be cool in his advice, and I laid aside all thought of it."

* * * * *

It seems not out of place to insert here a copy of some "Cambridge Reminiscences" written by Airy, which will serve to explain the Acts and Opponencies referred to in the previous narrative, and other matters.

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