William Pearson (astronomer)

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William Pearson (1767–1847) was an English schoolmaster, astronomer, and a founder of the Astronomical Society of London. He authored Practical Astronomy (2 vols., 1825 and 1829).[1][2]


William Pearson was born at Whitbeck in Cumberland on 23 April 1767. After graduating from the grammar school of Hawkshead near Windermere, Cumberland, Pearson began his career as a schoolmaster at Hawkshead. After which, moving to Lincoln as undermaster of the Free Grammar School. Through Pearson's interest in astronomy, Pearson constructed an astronomical clock and an orrery, which was probably used for public lectures. Although enrolled at Cambridge University, he does not appear to have earned a degree. He was admitted as a sizar at Clare College in 1793, but may not have gained residence.[3]

An original proprietor of the Royal Institution, Pearson finished a planetarium in 1803 that illustrated Dr. Thomas Young's lectures. On 10 January 1810 Pearson was presented to the rectory of Perivale in Middlesex. On 15 March 1817, Lord-chancellor Eldon presented Pearson to the rectory of South Kilworth in Leicestershire.[4]

He acquired the Temple Grove School, a large private institution at East Sheen[5] in 1810. After establishing an observatory there, 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.

The foundation of the Astronomical Society of London (later the Royal Astronomical Society) was largely due to his efforts. In 1812 and 1816, he began development of the society that formally took shape during a meeting at the Freemasons' Tavern on 12 January 1820. Pearson helped write the rules and served as treasurer during the society's first ten years. In 1819, he was elected F.R.S. and received an honorary LL.D.

After leaving East Sheen in 1821, William erected an observatory at South Kilworth that possessed a 36-inch focal-length altazimuth telescope, originally constructed by Edward Troughton for the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. The observatory was also equipped with a 42-inch focal-length achromatic refractor by Tulley, a transit circle by William Simms, and a clock by Hardy.

While at South Kilworth, Pearson observed the occultations of the Pleiades in July and October 1821. In 1824 and 1829, he published the two quarto volumes of his Introduction to Practical Astronomy. The first volume mainly contained tables for the processes of reduction. The second volume included elaborate descriptions and engravings of various astronomical instruments (drawn by John Farey, Jr, and engraved by Edmund Turrell) along with instructions for their use. Pearson received the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (then known as the Astronomical Society of London) on 13 February 1829 for the publication, which Sir John Herschel called ‘one of the most important and extensive works on that subject which has ever issued from the press’.[6]

In 1830, the Royal Observatory nominated Pearson to its new board of visitors. Assisted by a village mathematician named Ambrose Clarke, Pearson began the reobservation and computation of the 520 stars tabulated for occultations in his Practical Astronomy during the same year. He presented the resulting catalogue to the Royal Astronomical Society on 11 June 1841.

Pearson observed Halley's comet on 29 October 1835, and in 1839 he deduced a value for the obliquity of the ecliptic from his own research. He died on 6 September 1847 at South Kilworth, and a tablet honoring his memory in the church recognizes the respect earned by his exemplary conduct as a clergyman and magistrate. His second wife survived him and he left one daughter by his first wife.


  • His textbook, Selected Speeches for the Young Gentlemen of the Seminary (1801), taught Rhetoric.
  • Introduction to Practical Astronomy, Vol 1, 1824, and Vol 2, 1829, contained 31 plates drawn by John Farey, Jr, and engraved by Edmund Turrell.
  • Pearson contributed 63 articles to Rees's Cyclopædia on practical astronomy, which included Astronomical, Chronometrical, Optical etc. Instruments, Horology, Planetary Machines, and Watch. The full list is in Gurman and Harratt,[1] p290.
  • He wrote the article on Planetary Machines in the Edinburgh Encyclopædia
  • He authored numerous articles in Nicholson's Journal, the Philosophical Magazine, and periodicals published by the Royal Astronomical Society. The full list is in Gurman and Harratt,[1] p289.



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