It's Part of What We Are

Science in Irish Culture #3

'Who was Who in Irish Science 1566-1990'

Charles Mollan, Royal Dublin Society, 2007

The following extended review published in the Fall 2008 issue of the Boston College Irish Literary Supplement was developed from two earlier ones, the first in response to a request from the Editor of the American Institute of Physics history newsletter for a note on Irish sources for physicists and astronomers of global historic significance, and the second for Books Ireland. In neither did I feel I was able to do justice to this remarkable book, in the first case because of the specialist requirement, and in the second case because of space constraints. What follows is basically an adaptation of the first review, extending it to domains outside physics.

Historians of science have encountered the 'core-fringe effect' and the 'brain-drain effect' when they work on nations at (what is perceived as) the 'periphery', or on nations in transition from colonial status to independence. In a European context one tends to think of Scandinavia or the Balkans, with the mainstream science action being in Germany, Italy, France, Britain. I have observed the process in Ireland for the past half-century, having been myself part of the brain-drain process twice, and having also participated (for a time in the 1950s) in a creditable attempt to reverse the process by networking the fringe with the core, initiated in the context of the work of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, founded by de Valera in 1939 as a haven for refugees from Fascism, of whom the best known is perhaps Schroedinger.

A recent 2-volume publication(1) from the Royal Dublin Society by Dr Charles Mollan is in effect a 'who was who' in Irish science over the past 4 centuries or so. It is entitled 'It's a Part of What We Are' and is a creditable attempt to document the history of the cultural interaction of science with the emergence of the Irish nation. The first volume, in 854 pages, covers 60 biographies, starting with the Boyles (of whom 3 are identified, the third, 1627-1691, being Robert of the gas laws) and ending with John Tyndall (1820-1893, Tyndall Effect). A further 60 in the second volume take the pagination up to p1770, including index and bibliography; it starts with Samuel Haughton (1821-1897, mathematician, calculator of 'Haughton's Drop' as a means of advising the hangman) and ends with John Stewart Bell (1928-1990, Bells Theorem, which deals with Einstein's 'spooky action at a distance').

How to convey the relevance of this collection to scholarly communities such as global physics historians, or the global Irish Studies community, dominated as it is by the humanities? In the case of the science historians, I pick out some of the world figures who have Irish connections, where Mollan's work may be of use in identifying source references. In the case of the Irish Studies people, in what follows I identify some contact-points with territory which will be familiar to them. I hope to make the case that there is more to Irish Studies than its literary dimension (Yeats, Joyce etc) and that the science dimension in national culture is of importance, especially in the context of the complex politics of a colonial to post-colonial transition(2).

I divide what follows into 4 groups: (a) Irish who worked and made their career in Ireland (b) those who came from abroad and made a significant part of their career in Ireland (c) Irish who worked in Ireland but did their influential work abroad (d) Irish who emigrated and made their careers mainly abroad.

I have selected from the 120 some contributors to world science who I feel are probably internationally known for their work, but whose connection with Ireland is perhaps rarely noticed; I have also included some who I feel might be relevant in the context of an expanding Irish Studies interest in the science dimension, whether via literature, history, development economics, or other ralted cultural field.

(a) Irish origin, Careers in Ireland

George Berkeley (1685-1753): better known as a philosopher, he deserves recognition as a mathematician with his 'Analyst' (1734), and as a development economist with his 'Querist' (1735). These works were subsequent to his period in America (3).

Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817) occurs on the fringe of literary research as the father of Maria Edgeworth, but he deserves recognition in his own right as an important technological innovator, pioneering a system for telegraphic signalling, and the system for road-building for which Macadam is usually credited. He was interested in steam traction, and pioneered the caterpiller principle. Among his descendants was his grandson Francis Edgeworth (1845-1926) the pioneering Oxford economist and statistician, whose pioneering game-theoretic approach to economic decision-making gained him belated recognition.

Thomas Romney Robinson (1794-1882) was from Laurencetown in Co Down; after spending some time in Trinity College he became in 1823 Astronomer at Armagh Observatory, where he did stellar position work culminating in the 1859 Armagh Catalogue, using an innovative instrument from the then pioneering Grubb optical firm.

Robert Emmet (1778-1803) is better known in the political revolutionary context, but Mollan includes him as an interesting 'might have been', having shown an early interest in mathematics and in chemistry, setting up a laboratory in his father's house. Mollan, perhaps optimistically, compares him to Lavoisier, the French revolutionary chemist, who also lost his head. His nephew, John Patten Emmet, became a chemist of some distinction.

Nicholas Joseph Callan (1799-1864) from Dundalk studied for the priesthood in Maynooth, where he specialised in 'natural and experimental philosophy', and subsequently in Rome where he encountered Galvani and Volta. Taking the Chair in Natural Philosophy in Maynooth in 1826, he did pioneering electrical work, inventing the induction coil subsequently popularised by Ruhmkorff, as well as an industrial-scale electromagnet, with improved battery systems as power sources. (Had he produced a dynamo, the industry would perhaps have emerged decades earlier than it did!)

Grubb: Thomas (1800-1878) and Howard (1844-1931); the Grubb optical works in Rathmines originated servicing the needs initially of the Armagh observatory and later of the giant Birr telescope. It went on to be the prime supplier of astronomical telescopes to the world market, up to the first world war, during which it got diverted into supplying the British navy with periscopes and gun sights, resulting it its being moved to England during the subsequent Irish 'troubles'. The firm also served the Bank, printing pound notes.

Parsons (Earls of Rosse): William (1800-1867) and Laurence (1840-1908); their pioneering 72" reflecting telescope was commissioned at Birr Castle in 1845, using 4-ton speculum metal parabolic mirrors which had been cast and polished locally. It remained in use, when weather permitted, up to the end of the century, having contributed to the process whereby some 'nebulae' were identified as galaxies. The technologies developed in the Birr Castle workshops had important innovative economic spin-offs, including the Grubb optical works in Rathmines, which for some decades up to the first world war supplied the world market for large telescopes; also the Parsons steam turbine (see below).

William Rowan Hamilton (1805-1865) after a multi-lingual childhood in Trim, when in Trinity shone in mathematics and was early recruited to a Chair, nominally in astronomy but actually in mathematics, where he contributed seminally to optics and dynamics (the 'Hamiltonian' remains a key tool in energy studies) and went on to invent non-commutative algebras, a key one being 'quaternions' which foreshadowed Einstein's 4-dimensional space-time in a complex-number representation. A current important use is in 3-D animation.

Robert John Kane (1809-1890) (usually known as Sir Robert Kane) is perhaps best remembered for his 1844 book 'Industrial Resources of Ireland'. He had picked up his chemistry in Germany, and despite being Catholic managed to made a name for himself via the Royal Irish Academy and the Royal Dublin Society, becoming the Secretary of the former and the Professor of Natural Philosophy in the latter, then on the road to becoming a Dublin-based University of Technology, having initiated under Kane's management the Museum of Irish Industry, a serious applied-science research institute. He became the first President of Queens College Cork, which seems to have had the effect of undermining his industrial applied science work. Mollan identifies the need for serious in-depth biographical treatment of this important figure; the politics of his Cork appointment raises some interesting questions.

George Salmon (1819-1904) ended his life as Provost of Trinity College, in which context he gets a mention in Ulysses. He was a stout defender of the Church of Ireland and critic of the Roman Catholic Church; his polemic on Papal infallability earned him fame as a controversialist. In the background to this he had earlier been a distinguished mathematician, and his series of books on analytic geometry, first published between 1848 and 1862, were regarded as classics, remaining in print and in use well into the 20th century.

George Francis Fitzgerald (1851-1901) corresponded at length with Hertz, Lorentz, Maxwell and other contemporaries, and was aware of the problem presented by the null result of the Michelson-Morley experiment which was aimed at measuring the rate of drift of the earth in the hypothetical 'ether', postulated as the medium in which e-m waves were transmitted. He came up with what is known as the 'Fitzgerald-Lorentz Contraction', which subsequently emerged as a consequence of Einstein's Special Relativity. Fitzgerald was a prime mover in the setting up of serious technical education in Dublin, and is regarded as being among the founding fathers of the Dublin Institute of Technology.

John Joly (1857-1933) is best remembered for his work on the age of the earth, which he lengthened substantially from Kelvins initial low estimate based on cooling, using the amount of sodium in the sea and the rate of wash-down of soluble sodium salts by rain on the land; he later accepted that this needed substantial increase again due to radioactivity, once the latter had been discovered. He was a prolific deviser of instruments, being at heart a physicist, though nominally Professor of Geology. He played a key part in defending Trinity College during 1916, enabling it to become the imperial military headquarters. Mollan goes in some depth into the family background, which was deeply rooted in the Anglo-Irish ascendancy; there was an Edgeworth link, and links with the Leinster Fitzgeralds.

Kenneth Essex Edgeworth (1880-1972) was a lateral descendant of the Edgeworth family and was an astronomer of significance, on the context of the (ex-?)planet Pluto and the Kuiper and Oort belts, where comets lurk. He had served his time in the Royal Engineers, and was in the Curragh camp at the time of the mutiny in support of the Larne gun-running. In his later life he also made contributions to economics in the context of the 1930s crisis. He was something of an amateur 'jack of all trades' and was an effective populariser of science in his old age. His inclusion here by Mollan makes an interesting bridge into the evolving socio-cultural background.

John Lighton Synge (1897-1995), a nephew of John Millington Synge the playwright, served along with Schroedinger, Heitler, Lanczos and others is the DIAS, being a Senior Professor there from 1948 to 1972. As well as producing works on Relativity and on Tensor Calculus for the world literature, he wrote for popular consumption (eg 'Science: Sense and Nonsense'), and contributed to the history of mathematics with his work with Arthur Conway on W R Hamilton's papers.

Vincent Christopher Barry (1908-1975) worked from 1929 with Professor Dillon in Galway on ground-breaking work on seaweed extracts, which have become important additives in the food industry; most of the value-added work has however continued to be done abroad, on raw material gathered in Galway and exported. (This is another development economics issue.) Then from 1943 he became involved in medical research, in a laboratory set up in Dublin by the Medical Research Council, aimed primarily at the tuberculosis problem, then acute. (The laboratory for many year occupied what had been Joly's Officer Training Corps building, in the Trinity back-yard.) Barry came up with a cure for leprosy, donating the patent to the Government of India. His 1968 Boyle Medal paper(4) was followed by his Presidency of the Royal Irish Academy 1970-73. During the latter he did his best to modernise the internal politics of the Academy, drawing attention to thje negative effects of it earlier refusal to support de Valera's approach to Schroedinger, at the time of the foundation of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

It will be noted that the vast majority of this group had Protestant Ascendancy roots, and Mollan goes to some lengths to suggest how their work in science laid the basis for the emergence of a serious science culture component in the emergent national identity. The Barry Presidency of the Academy, mentioned above, occurred at the beginning of the 'troubles' in the North; he did his best to encourage Northern membership in this context, the Academy being an all-Ireland body, dating from 1785(5). There remains much work to be done teasing out the interactions between the RIA, and indeed also the RDS, in the context of the transition to independence, and in this context Mollan's book will be an important source.

(b) Origin Abroad, Careers in Ireland

John Brinkley (1766-1835) was recruited from Cambridge to the Trinity College Chair of Astronomy in 1790, and became Royal Astronomer of Ireland in 1792, in the new observatory at Dunsink, where in subsequent years he did pioneering though flawed work on stellar parallaxes; his main contribution was in mathematical methodology applied to astronomy, and he was an influence on Hamilton.

George Boole (1815-1864) began as a schoolteacher in Lincoln, with an interest in mathematics; he was taken up by the Cambridge elite, but never took a degree. He published his Mathematical Analysis of Logic in 1847, and then is Laws of Thought in 1854. He spent the last 15 years of his life, from 1849, as Mathematics Professor in the new Queen's College in Cork, whence he published the latter.

Erwin Schroedinger (1887-1961) served in the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies from 1940 to 1956; de Valera was instrumental in 'head-hunting' him as a world-class focus for his innovative foundation, taking advantage of his refugee situation. While there he published his seminal 'What is Life' book in which he laid the theoretical basis for DNA as a genetic information system. His mainstream work had been done, and when in Dublin he tried unsuccessfully to develop a 'unified field theory' taking in gravitation, a problem which still eludes us.

The foregoing group was welcomed and respected as an integral part of the emergent national science culture; the name of Boole figures prominently on the Cork university campus.

(c) Irish origin, worked in Ireland but significant work abroad:

Dionysius Lardner (1793-1859) has several claims to fame, and indeed notoriety; as an established mathematical scholar he was in part responsible for the early recognition of the young Hamilton, but he had also fathered, outside wedlock, Dion Boucicault. He went on to become a serious populiser of science and technology, especially in the context of the railways, and steam power generally, mostly in the British market, but subsequently got into trouble with amorous adventures.

Joseph Larmor (1857-1942) from Co Antrim went to Queens Belfast and then on to Cambridge, and later to the Queen's College Galway where he held the Physics chair from 1880 to 1885, returning to Cambridge subsequently. He is best known for his work in spectroscopy, where his name crops up associated with several important phenomena, for example his 'precession' relating to the splitting and polarisation of spectral lines; his name is also on a 'frequency', a 'theorem' and a 'formula'; the latter relates to the rate of emission of energy from an accelerating electron.

Harry George Ferguson (1884-1960) is best known as the inventor of the Ferguson tractor, the one with the hydraulic lift for attached implements, which eventually became a global agricultural success story. It is less well known that he had built and flown his own aeroplane, in 1909, but this was a false start. His tractor was initially produced in the 1930s in association with David Brown in England, but was later taken up by Ford, for production in the US. He tried to get it produced in Dagenham, without success. He also attempted to get a factory set up to produce it in Belfast, also without success. The problems encountered by Ferguson are a good illustration of the environment for innovative entrepreneurs in small fringe nations trying to emerge under globalised capitalism.

Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton (1903-1995) is the only scientific Irish Nobel Prize winner; he seldom is mentioned in the same breath as the several literary ones, reflecting the culture gap. He worked with Cockroft in Cambridge in the early 1930s, using a van de Graaf machine to generate a beam of protons with which they split lithium into two helium atoms, a seminal event in the subsequent events which led to nuclear weapons. He spend the rest of his career at Trinity College, where he became Professor of Physics in 1946

The fate of Walton however is an illustration of the fact that the public recognition of science as being a significant part of Irish culture has some way to go. Mention of Nobel Prizes always conjures up the literary list, sometimes the peace list, but rarely Walton. The Ferguson saga is perhaps similar to that of Parsons, mentioned below, who devaloped and produced his pioneering steam turbine in Newcastle, England, having served his time in the Birr Castle workshops in support of his father's telescope project.

(d) Irish Origin, Careers Abroad:

Francis Beaufort (1774-1857) from Navan after an adventurous career in the British navy became the key contributor to the charting of the sea and the development of an overall scientific approach to the marine environment; the 'Beaufort scale' for wind remains in use to this day.

George Gabriel Stokes (1819-1903) originally from Sligo, from a distinguished family whose members had contributed to instrument-making in the 18th century, to Celtic studies (Whitley Stokes 1830-1909) and to medical science (William Stokes: 'Cheyne-Stokes Respiration' and 'Stokes-Adams Syndrome' in cardiology). GGS made his career in Cambridge, where contributed to hydrodynamics (Stokes Law for viscous drag, Navier-Stokes Equations) and to the use of spectral analysis in chemistry, anticipating Bunsen and Kirchhoff. He interacted creatively with Kelvin on the physics of the transatlantic cable. Denis Weaire FRS at a Stokes commemoration in Sligo in 1995 identified an 'invisible college' of networked physicists: Stokes, Kelvin, Fitzgerald, Larmor, all Irish.

John Tyndall (1820-1893): his 'Fragments of Science' was published in many editions from 1871, each being updated as regards content, indicating a dynamically changing interaction with the world. He had served his time with the Ordnance Survey, and then with Bunsen and Kirchhoff in Marburg; he became an important broad-spectrum innovator subsequently via his role in the Royal Institution.

William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) (1824-1907) was born in Belfast; the family moved to Glasgow, where he studied initially, moving later to Cambridge and then back to Glasgow to the Chair. He is remembered primarily for his work on thermodynamics, and also for his instrumentation in support of the transatlantic cable. He later contributed flawed estimates of the age of the earth, and was resolutely opposed to Darwinian evolution, becoming out of tune with modern science in his old age.

John Philip Holland (1841-1914) began his working life as a member of the Christian Brothers teaching order, in which context he developed a good approach to the teaching of the practical arts, and an interest in technological innovation. In his formative years he had observed the Famine, and subsequently picked up Fenian ideas. He dropped out of teaching, due to a period of ill-health, resigned the Order, and in 1873 emigrated to the USA to join his family, where he applied his technolgical knowledge to the design of a submarine, initially as a Fenian project, but eventually he managed to arouse the interest of the US navy, and is regarded as having been the inventor of the submarine in its modern form.

Charles Algernon Parsons (1854-1931) is best known as the inventor of the steam turbine; he was the youngest son of William Parsons (Earl of Rosse) and had served his time in the Birr Castle workshops, illustrating an important aspect of the relationship between technology and cutting-edge basic science. He supplied turbines from a factory which he set up in Newcastle.

Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) has Irish roots in that his mother was a Jameson, of whiskey fame; much of his early field work was done in Ireland, and is locally commemorated. Key locations are Rathlin (Ballycastle), Kingstown, Crookhaven, Malin Head, Clifden and Rosslare. Plaques have been unveiled at Ballycastle and Clifden.

John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971) brought to prominence 'science and culture' issues with his influential 1939 book 'Social Function of Science' and went on to make serious contributions, with Mountbatten, to the analysis of innovative scientific approaches to military tactics and strategy ('operations research') during the war. Post-war he developed the experimental technology which enabled Watson and Crick to establish the structure of DNA. He dedicated his efforts to the world peace movement, from a basically Marxist political position. He is celebrated with a plaque in Nenagh Co Tipperary, his birthplace. He had been supportive of the Irish independence movement, insofar as he could from his Cambridge situation, in the early 1920s.

Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-1971) was born in Newbridge Co Kildare and went to Cambridge, where she subsequently worked with Bragg, and with Bernal, on X-ray crystallography, becoming a world figure in that domain. The was a Quaker and active pacifist, doing a term in jail during the war; this however did not prevent her becoming an FRS, and attending seminars in Dublin with Schroedinger. There is a plaque in her honour in Newbridge.

John Stewart Bell (1928-1990) was born in Belfast and went to Queens and then on to the Atomic Energy agency, working at Harwell and Malvern on accelerator design; he was involved in the design of the CERN accelerator. During this time he did his PhD via Birmingham. He moved to CERN in Geneva in 1960 where he spend the rest of his career, apart from a stint with the Stanford Linear Accelerator in 1963-4. The theoretical work leading to Bell's Theorem was thus dominated by a philosophy of experimentation.

There was a political dimension to this emigration, in the cases of Holland and Bernal, but in most cases if was primarily due to the lack of local scientific opportunity in the undeveloped colonial and early post-colonial situation. If one is primarily motivated by interest in science, one tends to go to where the action is, globally. Bell's Theorem is of key importance in the quantum mechanics area in which Einstein was uncomfortable.

Concluding Remarks

The foregoing selection may be helpful to historians of specialised topics in tracking down source material, some of which may be in Ireland, or related to Ireland. Mollan gives extensive notes and references, some of which are to primary source material.

It is also of interest in the context of the post-colonial transition. The list has an overwhelming flavour of a colonial people, for much of the period living as an elite among a relatively uneducated native population. Yet the process of identification with the inclusive emergent Irish nation is evident, and Mollan makes this case strongly.

To get the full flavour of the transition one would need a more detailed analysis of the 20th century. Despite the innovative 1938 personal initiative of de Valera with Schroedinger, the Irish government only woke up to the importance of science in the 1960s, and the economic development which has since taken place may perhaps be attributed to the setting up of the Regional Colleges of Technology in the 1970s(2).

Notes and References

1. Charles Mollan, 'It's Part of What we Are'; Royal Dublin Society, 2007; ISBN 978-0-86027-055-3; 2 vols; this is #3 in a series of which #1 in 2004 was 'Why the History of Science Matters in Ireland' (Attis and Mollan) and #2 in 2005 was 'Science in Ireland - Value for Society', ed Mollan. According to the publisher (RDS), the price is €60 (€50 to RDS Members). However, because of its hefty weight they have to charge P&P on top of the retail price - €14.50 for Ireland and €39.00 worldwide. At the moment there is no on line ordering system. However, order forms are available to download at Orders can then be made by email, fax or telephone; contact Dr Claire Mulhall, Science & Technology Development Executive, RDS, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4, tel: +353 1 2407217; fax: +353 1 6604014; Web:

2. The importance of science in the context of the emergence of national consciousness I have adumbrated earlier; see The present writer also wrote a weekly column in the Irish Times in the 1970s which reflected some aspects of the wake-up process; this has been edited for publication and can be seen at

3. The Querist was well-known to de Valera, who attended the Berkeley bicentenary conference in 1953, organised by Trinity College, where my father Joe Johnston gave the keynote paper; see

4. For an outline of Vincent Barry's Boyle Medal paper see

5. There had been an earlier attempt to bring the Academy into the new national mainstream, under MacNeill's Presidency in the early 1940, during which my father Joe Johnston was recruited, on foot of this Northern background and supportive national record; see

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(c) Copyright on the electronic versions of papers as published in these Proceedings is with Dr Roy Johnston 2003; copyright on contents of papers remains with the authors, and possibly with their publishers if published elsewhere.