Robert Stawell Ball

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Sir Robert Stawell Ball
Royal Astronomer of Ireland
In office
Preceded byFranz Brünnow
Succeeded byArthur Alcock Rambaut
Personal details
Born(1840-07-01)1 July 1840
Dublin, Ireland
Died25 November 1913(1913-11-25) (aged 73)
Cambridge, England
Alma materTrinity College Dublin
Known forScrew theory

Sir Robert Stawell Ball FRS (1 July 1840 – 25 November 1913) was an Irish astronomer[1] who founded the screw theory. He was Royal Astronomer of Ireland at Dunsink Observatory.


He was the son of naturalist Robert Ball[2] and Amelia Gresley Hellicar. He was born in Dublin.[3] and was educated at Trinity College Dublin where he won a scholarship in 1859 and was a senior moderator in both mathematics and experimental and natural science in 1861.

Ball worked for Lord Rosse from 1865 to 1867. In 1867, he became Professor of Applied Mathematics at the Royal College of Science in Dublin. There he lectured on mechanics and published an elementary account of the science.[4]

In 1873, he became a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1874, he was appointed Royal Astronomer of Ireland and Andrews Professor of Astronomy in Trinity College Dublin at Dunsink Observatory.[5]

Ball contributed to the science of kinematics by delineating the screw displacement:

When Ball and the screw theorists speak of screws they no longer mean actual cylindrical objects with helical threads cut into them but the possible motion of any body whatsoever, including that of the screw independently of the nut.[6]

Ball's treatise The Theory of Screws (1876) is now in the public domain.[7]

His work on screw dynamics earned him in 1879 the Cunningham Medal of the Royal Irish Academy.[8]

In 1882, Popular Science Monthly carried his article "A Glimpse through the Corridors of Time".[9] The following year it carried his two-part article on "The Boundaries of Astronomy".[10] He was knighted in 1886.[citation needed]

Ball expounded the tides in Time and Tide: a Romance of the Moon (1889).[11] He published in 1891 The Cause of an Ice Age[12][13] and in 1892 An Atlas of Astronomy.[14][15]

In 1892, he was appointed Lowndean Professor of Astronomy and Geometry at Cambridge University at the same time becoming director of the Cambridge Observatory. In 1897, he was elected an International Member of the American Philosophical Society.[16] He was a fellow of King's College, Cambridge.

In 1900, Cambridge University Press published A Treatise on the Theory of Screws.[17] It followed works meant for a more general audience, such as The Story of the Heavens,[18] first published in 1886. Much in the limelight, he stood as President of the Quaternion Society. He was also President of the Mathematical Association in 1900.[19]

In 1908, he published A Treatise on Spherical Astronomy,[20] which is a textbook on astronomy starting from spherical trigonometry and the celestial sphere, considering atmospheric refraction and aberration of light, and introducing basic use of a generalised instrument.[citation needed]

His work, The Story of the Heavens, is mentioned in the "Ithaca" chapter of Ulysses.[21]

His lectures, articles and books (e.g. Starland and The Story of the Heavens) were mostly popular and simple in style.[citation needed]


He died in Cambridge and was buried at the Parish of the Ascension Burial Ground in Cambridge, with his wife, Lady Francis Elizabeth Ball.[22]

Their children were: Frances Amelia, Robert Steele, William Valentine (later Sir), Mary Agnetta, Charles Rowan Hamilton, and Randall Gresley (later Colonel). Reminiscences and Letters of Sir Robert Ball by his son W.V. Ball was published in 1915 by Cassell & Company.[23]

Minor planet 4809 Robertball is named in his honor.[24]

He was the 38th President of the Birmingham and Midland Institute, which holds The Sir Robert Ball Library, the library of The Society for the History of Astronomy.[citation needed]


Ball became celebrated for his popular lectures on science. He gave an estimated 2500 lectures between 1875 and 1910 in towns and cities across Britain and Ireland.[25][26]

In 1881, 1887, 1892, 1898 and 1900 he was invited to deliver the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture, Astronomy; Astronomy and Great Chapters from the Book of Nature. During the Lent term of 1900, he gave a lecture entitled The Eternal Stars to the Junior School section of Monkton Combe School in Combe Down, which was reported in the school magazine, The Magpie, 2 March 1900.[27]


Coat of arms of Robert Stawell Ball
Confirmed by Sir Arthur Edward Vicars, Ulster King of Arms, 12 June 1899.
An arm vambraced embowed Argent charged with two pellets the hand Proper grasping a fireball as in the arms.
Argent on a chevron Gules between three fire balls Proper a galley with one mast sail furled a pennon floutaut in stow of the first.


  1. ^ "Ball, Sir Robert Stawell". Who's Who. 59: 83–84. 1907.
  2. ^ Marché, Jordan D. (2014). "Ball, Robert Stawell". In Hockey, Thomas; Trimble, Virginia; Williams, Thomas R. (eds.). Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers. New York: Springer Publishing. ISBN 978-0-387-31022-0. Retrieved 18 November 2015.
  3. ^ Waterston, C. D.; Shearer, A. Macmillan (2006). "Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1783 – 2002" (PDF). Royal Society of Edinburgh. Retrieved 18 November 2015.
  4. ^ R.S. Ball (1871) Experimental Mechanics: A course of lectures delivered at the Royal College of Science for Ireland. Accessed 19 December 2022.
  5. ^ Ball profile, Accessed 19 December 2022.
  6. ^ Müller-Sievers, Helmut (2012). The Cylinder: Kinematics of the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 148. ISBN 9780520270770.
  7. ^ R.S. Ball (1876) The Theory of Screws: A study in the dynamics of a rigid body from Internet Archive.
  8. ^ "Robert Stawell Ball". University of St Andrews, Scotland. Retrieved 31 October 2014.
  9. ^ R.S. Ball (1882) A Glimpse through the Corridors of Time from Wikisource
  10. ^ R.S. Ball (1883) The Boundaries of Astronomy Part I and Part II
  11. ^ See Project Gutenberg
  12. ^ Ball, Sir Robert Stawell (1891). The Cause of an Ice Age.
  13. ^ "Review of The Cause of an Ice Age by Sir Robert Ball". The Athenaeum (3386): 390. 17 September 1892.
  14. ^ Ball, Sir Robert Stawell (1892). An Atlas of Astronomy: A Series of Seventy-two Plates, with Introduction and Index.
  15. ^ "An Atlas of Astronomy". Nature. 47 (1210): 225. 1893. Bibcode:1893Natur..47..225.. doi:10.1038/047225a0. S2CID 4023823.
  16. ^ "APS Member History". Retrieved 29 February 2024.
  17. ^ R.S. Ball (1900) A Treatise on the Theory of Screws, weblink from Cornell University Historical Math Monographs
  18. ^ The Story of the Heavens is available from Project Gutenberg (external link)
  19. ^ "Court Circular". The Times. No. 36051. London. 29 January 1900. p. 9.
  20. ^ R. S. Ball (1908) A Treatise on Spherical Astronomy Google preview
  21. ^ The title The Story of the Heavens appears in a list of 22 books found on pages 660 to 662 of the 1st edition of Ulysses.Joyce, James (1922). Ulysses (1st ed.). Paris: Shakespeare and Company. p. 661.
  22. ^ Papworth Astronomy Club » Blog Archive » Mark Hurn – “Sir Robert Stawell Ball”. Retrieved 7 June 2014.
  23. ^ W. V. Ball (1915) Reminiscences and Letters of Sir Robert Ball, Cassell & Company.
  24. ^ "(4809) Robertball = 1928 RB = 1969 PS = 1988 CP6". Minor Planet Center. Retrieved 15 December 2018.
  25. ^ Ruiz-Castell, Pedro (2004). "Astronomy and its Audiences: Robert Ball and Popular Astronomy in Victorian Britain". The Antiquarian Astronomer. 1. Society for the History of Astronomy: 34–39. Bibcode:2004AntAs...1...34R.
  26. ^ Jones, Roger (2005). "Sir Robert Ball: Victorian Astronomer and Lecturer par excellence". The Antiquarian Astronomer. 2. Society for the History of Astronomy: 27–36. Bibcode:2005AntAs...2...27J.
  27. ^ The Magpie Magazine, Vol 1, No 2, March 1900, Monkton Combe Junior School
  28. ^ "Grants and Confirmations of Arms Volume I". National Library of Ireland. 5 January 1898. p. 93. Retrieved 26 September 2022.

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