The Life and Work of Sir William Rowan Hamilton:
Some Nineteenth Century Perspectives

About this Collection

This collection contains most of the biographical sketches, obituaries and essays on the life and work of Sir William Rowan Hamilton published in the nineteenth century. The authors are Robert and Charles Graves, Peter Guthrie Tait, Augustus De Morgan, Sir Robert Stawell Ball, Charles Pritchard, Clement Mansfield Ingleby and John Francis Waller.

Most of the articles in this collection were published before the appearance of the Life of Sir William Rowan Hamilton by Robert Perceval Graves (Dublin: Hodges, Figgis and Co., 1882, 1885 and 1889), a massive three-volume biography of Hamilton, which includes a very considerable quantity of Hamilton's general correspondence and his poetry. Consequently there are factual inaccuracies in some of the earlier biographical sketches and obituaries included in this collection.

In this collection, the most thorough account of Hamilton's mathematical work is to be found in the essay by Peter Guthrie Tait published in the North British Review. A substantial and accurate survey of Hamilton's life is provided by the chapter on Hamilton in Great Astronomers by Sir Robert S. Ball.

Biographical Sketches, Obituaries and Essays

Robert Perceval Graves, `Our Portait Gallery: Sir William R. Hamilton', Dublin University Magazine, 19 (1842), pp. 94-110.
This early biographical sketch was published in Hamilton's lifetime, the year before the discovery of quaternions. The editor of the Dublin University Magazine wrote to Hamilton, asking him to recommend an author for a biographical sketch. Hamilton nominated Robert Graves. Robert Graves and his two brothers John and Charles were close friends of Hamilton; the two latter were mathematicians. Robert Graves was at that time curate in charge of the parish of Windermere, in the English Lake District. Robert Graves paid a visit to Hamilton at the Observatory in 1841 for the purpose of collecting facts. Hamilton supplied Graves with written information on his family history and on his work.
John Francis Waller, `Sir William Rowan Hamilton' The Imperial Dictionary of Universal Biography, Mackenzie, London, vol II, p. 801.
This entry in a biographical dictionary was prepared towards the end of Hamilton's life. The author, Dr. J. F. Waller, was the Secretary of the Royal Dublin Society and a Member of the Royal Irish Academy. He was an acquintance of Hamilton, and visited Hamilton at the Observatory on at least one occasion. A proof of this entry was sent to Hamilton himself for critical correction in April, 1861. R. P. Graves, in the introduction to the first volume of the Life of Sir William Rowan Hamilton, describes this entry as `accurate, if not adequate'.
Charles Graves, `Memorial Address' (Éloge) [November 30, 1865.], Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 9 (1867) pp. 307-316.
This Memorial Address, or Éloge, was delivered by Charles Graves, who was President of the Royal Irish Academy at the time of Hamilton's death. Charles Graves was a brother of Robert Perceval Graves, Hamilton's first biographer. The Graves brothers had known Hamilton from his college days: the elder brother John Graves had been a classmate of Hamilton. Charles Graves had been a colleague of Hamilton, as Professor of Mathematics at Trinity College from 1843 to 1862, when he became Dean of the Chapel Royal, Dublin. He was subsequently elevated to the position of Bishop of Limerick. He was a noted linguist and antiquarian, and was the grandfather of the poet Robert Graves.
Charles Pritchard, `William Rowan Hamilton', Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 26 (1866), pp. 109-118.
Charles Pritchard was appointed Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford in 1870. He had earlier been head of a school at Clapham, which was attended by William Edwin, eldest son of William Rowan Hamilton. Hamilton visited the school for a few days when placing his son in Pritchard's care in 1846. Hamilton had previously met Pritchard at Windermere in 1844 (in the home of R. P. Graves). Later in 1846, Hamilton was to write `three elaborate and important letters to Mr. Pritchard,... on the subject of Quaternions'. Hamilton visited Pritchard again in June, 1847. Pritchard was elected President of the Royal Astronomical Society at the meeting of that society at which this address was delivered.
Augustus De Morgan, `Sir W. R. Hamilton' Gentleman's Magazine, vol 1 (new series) (1866), pp. 128-34.
De Morgan corresponded extensively with Hamilton from 1841. During that period the two man never met face to face. (Previously the men had met at a breakfast, about 1830, and had both been present at a banquet in 1838.) Nearly four hundred pages of Graves' Life of Sir William Rowan Hamilton are devoted to a selection from the correspondence of the two mathematicians, ranging from mathematics to family affairs, politics, theology, and many other topics. De Morgan's obituary is appreciative and interesting, but contains a few inaccuracies.
Peter Guthrie Tait, `Sir William Rowan Hamilton', North British Review, 45 (1866), pp. 37-74.
This is the most ambitious of the obituaries of Hamilton, and probably provides the most thorough survey of Hamilton's mathematical work in the nineteenth century literature. Tait was introduced to Hamilton in 1858. Tait was at that time Professor of Mathematics at Queen's College, Belfast, and had become interested in quaternions. The two men corresponded, and Tait was to visit Hamilton at the Observatory on at least one occasion to discuss quaternions. Tait was to publish an introductory textbook on quaternions, and was the most prominent champion of their use in the nineteenth century. In this obituary Tait discusses Hamilton's work on optics, dynamics, quaternions, the hodograph, and the Icosian Game. Tait originated the claim that Hamilton's paternal grandparents had emigrated from Scotland to Ireland with their two sons. This claim was repeated in the article Tait subsequently wrote for the Encyclopaedia Britannica and found its way into other standard reference works. R. P. Graves, in his Addendum to the Life of Sir William Rowan Hamilton, was subsequently to provide evidence to refute this claim, in particular showing that Hamilton's paternal grandfather had been established as an apothecary in Dublin long before his sons were born.
Clement Mansfield Ingleby, `Modern metaphysicians: The late Sir William Rowan Hamilton', British Controversialist, 22 (1869), pp. 161-176.
Hamilton and Ingleby met at a Social Science Congress in 1861, and the two men were to correspond on metaphysics in 1864. Ingleby includes a discussion of Hamilton's approach to algebra and quaternions. This biographical sketch contains a number of inaccuracies.
Robert Perceval Graves, Addendum to the life of Sir William Rowan Hamilton, LL.D., D.C.L., Hodges, Figgis and Co., Dublin, 1891.
In this Addendum R. P. Graves published correspondence in the columns of the Athenaeum between himself and R. E. Anderson, who was the author of Hamilton's entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. Graves wished to draw attention to a number of inaccuracies in Anderson's account, in particular relating to Hamilton's ancestry and to the discovery and reception of the calculus of quaternions. Graves was able to supply information on Hamilton's grandparents not included in the Life of Sir William Rowan Hamilton.
Sir Robert Stawell Ball, `Hamilton', in Great Astronomers, Isbister, London, 1895, pp. 303-334.
This biographical sketch is a chapter in Great Astronomers, and has been adapted from a review of Graves' Life of Sir William Rowan Hamilton. Sir Robert Ball was educated at Trinity College, Dublin in the lifetime of Hamilton, and subsequently was appointed Andrews' Professor of Astronomer, and Royal Astronomer of Ireland, a position previously held by Hamilton for thirty eight years. Sir Robert Ball lived for eighteen years at Dunsink Observatory (which had been Hamilton's home), and used regularly to walk home from Castleknock Church on Sunday mornings with John G. Rathborne, a neighbour who was a nephew of Lady Hamilton. The posthumous `Reminiscences and Letters of Sir Robert Ball' (edited by W. Valentine Ball), contains a short (and slightly inaccurate) account of Hamilton's life, with a descriptions of occasions on which Ball and Hamilton had come into contact, together with a number of anecdotes concerning Hamilton. The chapter in Great Astronomers, however, is based very closely on Graves' Life of Sir William Rowan Hamilton.


D.R. Wilkins
School of Mathematics
Trinity College, Dublin