William Pearson (astronomer)

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William Pearson (1767 – 1847) was an English schoolmaster and astronomer. He was one of the founders of the Astronomical Society of London, and author of Practical Astronomy, 2 vol 1825 and 1829.[1]


William Pearson (1767–1847), school master and astronomer, was born at Whitbeck in Cumberland on 23 April 1767. A son of William Pearson by his wife Hannah Ponsonby, he was educated at the grammar school of Hawkshead, near Windermere, Cumberland. He began his career as a schoolmaster at Hawkhead before moving to Lincoln, where he was undermaster at the Free Grammar School. He was interested on astronomy and constructed an astronomical clock and an orrery, probably used for public lectures. He matriculated at Cambridge University but does not appear to have been awarded a degree; he was admitted a sizar at Clare College in 1793, but may not have come into residence.[2]

Pearson was one of the original proprietors of the Royal Institution, and finished in 1803 a planetarium for illustrating Dr. Thomas Young's lectures. On 10 January 1810 he was presented to the rectory of Perivale in Middlesex, and by Lord-chancellor Eldon, on 15 March 1817, to that of South Kilworth in Leicestershire. In 1810 he became owner of Temple Grove School, a large private school at East Sheen,[3] where, having established an observatory, he measured the diameters of the sun and moon during the partial solar eclipse of 7 September 1820 with one of John Dollond's divided object-glass micrometers.

To his initiative the foundation of the Astronomical Society of London was largely due. In 1812, and again in 1816, he took preliminary steps towards the realisation of a design which assumed a definite shape at a meeting held at the Freemasons' Tavern on 12 Jan. 1820. Pearson helped to draw up the rules, and acted as treasurer during the first ten years of the society's existence. In 1819 he was elected F.R.S., and about the same time granted an honorary LL.D. On quitting East Sheen in 1821 he erected an observatory at South Kilworth, first in a wing added to the rectory, later as a separate building. Among the fine instruments collected there were a 3-foot altazimuth, originally constructed by Edward Troughton for the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, a 3½-foot achromatic by Tulley, a transit by William Simms, and a clock by Hardy. A piece of flint-glass by Guinand, nearly seven inches across, purchased by him in 1823 for £250, was worked by Tulley into the largest object-glass then in England.

Pearson's first notable observations at South Kilworth were of the occultations of the Pleiades in July and October 1821. In 1824 and 1829 appeared the two quarto volumes of his Introduction to Practical Astronomy. The first comprised mainly tables for facilitating the processes of reduction; the second gave elaborate descriptions of various astronomical instruments, accompanied by engravings of them (drawn by John Farey, Jr, and engraved by Edmund Turrell) and instructions for their use. For this publication, styled by Sir John Herschel ‘one of the most important and extensive works on that subject which has ever issued from the press’,[4] he received, on 13 Feb. 1829, the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society.

In 1830 Pearson was nominated a member of the new board of visitors to the Royal Observatory, and he undertook in the same year, assisted by a village mathematician named Ambrose Clarke, the reobservation and computation of 520 stars tabulated for occultations in his Practical Astronomy. The resulting catalogue was presented to the Royal Astronomical Society on 11 June 1841. On 29 Oct. 1835 he observed Halley's comet; in 1839 he deduced from his own determinations a value for the obliquity of the ecliptic. His death occurred at South Kilworth on 6 September 1847, and a tablet inscribed to his memory in the church perpetuates the respect earned by his exemplary conduct as a clergyman and a magistrate. His second wife survived him, and he left one daughter by his first wife.


  • Selected Speeches for the Young Gentlemen of the Seminary, 1801. This was a textbook for the teaching of Rhetoric.
  • Introduction to Practical Astronomy, Vol 1, 1824, Vol 2, 1829. This contained 31 plates. drawn by John Farey, jr and engraved by Edmund Turrell
  • For Rees's Cyclopædia he contributed 63 articles on practical astronomy. Amongst these are: Astronomical, Chronometrical, Optical etc. Instruments, Horology, Planetary Machines, Watch. The full list is in Gurman and Harratt,[1] p290
  • He contributed the article on Planetary Machines to the Edinburgh Encyclopædia
  • He contributed numerous articles to Nicholson's Journal, the Philosophical Magazine and the periodicals published by the Royal Astronomical Society. The full list is in Gurman and Harratt, p289


  1. ^ a b Gurman, S. J. & Harratt, S. R. "Revd Dr William Pearson (1767-1847): a Founder of the Royal Astronomical Society". Royal Astronomical Society. Retrieved 17 April 2012. 
  2. ^ "Pearson, William (PR793W)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  3. ^ "History of Temple Grove School". Retrieved 20 April 2012. 
  4. ^ Memoirs Astronomical Society, iv. 261,


 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain"Pearson, William". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.