Demainbray, Stephen Charles Triboudet (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 14
Demainbray, Stephen Charles Triboudet

by William Dunn Macray ‎

DEMAINBRAY, STEPHEN CHARLES TRIBOUDET (1710–1782), electrician and astronomer, the original form of whose surname is said to have been Triboudet de Mombray, was son of Stephen Triboudet (descended maternally from Jean Baptist Colbert), who fled from France to Holland on the revocation of the edict of Nantes, and thence came over to England with William III. He died soon after the birth of his only son in 1710, and the latter was then placed by an uncle, Captain Demainbray, at Westminster School, where he was boarded in the house of the well-known mathematical lecturer, Dr. Theophilus Desaguliers. At the age of seventeen he married, and then went to the university of Leyden; but his name is not given in the official ‘Album Studiosorum,’ published at Leyden in 1875. In 1740 he removed to Edinburgh, and there lectured with great success on experimental philosophy. There also he took the degree of LL.D., but, strange to say, his name is in this instance also not to be found in the university list of graduates. His discovery of the influence of electricity in stimulating the growth of plants was made while employed in lecturing at Edinburgh, a discovery afterwards claimed by the Abbé Nollet. Priestley, in his ‘History of Electricity’ (London, 1797, p. 140), thus notices this discovery: ‘Mr. Maimbray at Edinburgh electrified two myrtle-trees during the whole month of October 1746, when they put forth small branches and blossoms sooner than other shrubs of the same kind which had not been electrified. Mr. Nollet, hearing of this experiment, was encouraged to try it himself.’ On the outbreak of the rebellion in 1745 Demainbray quitted Edinburgh for a time to serve in the English army as a volunteer, and was present at the battle of Prestonpans, but resumed his academic work in 1746, keeping at the same time a boarding-school for young ladies. From Edinburgh he migrated about 1748 to Dublin, continuing there and lecturing for a year and a half, and then removing to Bordeaux upon the invitation of the Royal Academy there. Very shortly after he went thence to Montpelier, where he became a member of the Academémie des Sciences of Paris. Here, in 1750, his wife died, after whose death, resisting an invitation to go to Madrid, he returned to England, in consequence of a proposal that he should become the tutor of the Prince of Wales (afterwards George III) in mathematics, experimental philosophy, and natural history. On his way homewards he lectured for three months at Lyons. It was about November 1754 that he commenced his work as the prince's tutor, which did not cease until his pupil's accession to the throne, and it was then continued with the newly married Queen Charlotte, who attended his lectures with interest. On the termination of his employment in this capacity he was appointed to three remunerative offices in the custom house, and in 1768, upon the king's erecting an observatory at Kew, specially with a view to the transit of Venus in the following year, Demainbray was appointed astronomer there, an office which he retained until his death, at the age of seventy-two, 20 Feb. 1782. He was buried at Northolt, Middlesex. He does not appear to have at any time contributed to philosophical journals, either in France or England, or to have been known as an author in any other way. Two short notices of his first electrical experiments were communicated by him to the ‘Caledonian Mercury’ in February 1746, which were reprinted in the ‘Scots Magazine.’ He was succeeded in the observatory at Kew by his son, Rev. Stephen Geo. Francis Triboudet Demainbray, B.D., of Exeter College, Oxford, who retained the post of astronomer there for the long period of fifty-eight years, until in 1840 that observatory was given up. During the earlier part of this period he was assisted by the husband of his half-sister Mary, Stephen Rigaud, and after the latter's death in 1814 by his son, Stephen Peter Rigaud, M.A., of Exeter College, the Savilian professor and Radcliffe observer at Oxford. Demainbray (who was royal chaplain for fifty-two years, 1802 till death) retired on a pension, and died at his rectory of Somerford Magna, Wiltshire (which he held from 1799), on 6 July 1854, aged 95. He was the author of a very sensible and practical pamphlet on village allotments, giving the results of twenty-four years' experience, when as yet such allotments were not common. It was published in 1831 as a letter to the Marquis of Salisbury, under the title of ‘The Poor Man's Best Friend.’

[Scots Magazine, 1747, ix. 40, 93; Lysons's Environs of London, 1795, iii. 317–18; Memoir by Major-general Gibbes Rigaud in No. 66 of the Observatory and Monthly Review of Astronomy for October 1882; obituary notice of Mr. S. G. Demainbray in Gent. Mag. for August 1854, p. 193.]

W. D. M.