Pearson, William (DNB00)

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PEARSON, WILLIAM (1767–1847), astronomer, was born at Whitbeck in Cumberland on 23 April 1767. He came of a good old yeoman family, and appears to have been the second son of William Pearson by his wife Hannah Ponsonby. Educated at the grammar school of Hawkshead, near Windermere, Cumberland, he took orders and went to reside at Lincoln. There he constructed a curious astronomical clock and an orrery, noticed in Rees's ‘Cyclopædia’ (art. ‘Orrery’); described in 1797 a new electrical machine (Nicholson, Journal of Natural Philosophy, i. 506); and in 1798 an apparatus for showing the phenomena of Jupiter's satellites (ib. ii. 122). Two papers on the minor planet Ceres were dated from Parson's Green in 1802 (ib. i. 284, ii. 48, new ser.)

Pearson was one of the original proprietors of the Royal Institution, and finished in 1803 a planetarium for illustrating Dr. Young's lectures (Rees, Cyclopædia, art. ‘Planetarium’). On 10 Jan. 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 1811 he became owner of a large private school at Temple Grove, East Sheen, where, having established an observatory, he measured the diameters of the sun and moon during the partial solar eclipse of 7 Sept. 1820 with one of Dollond's divided object-glass micrometers (Memoirs Astronomical Society, i. 139).

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 Troughton for the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences (ib. ii. 261), a 3½-foot achromatic by Tulley, a transit by Simms, and a clock by Hardy. A piece of flint-glass by Guinand, nearly seven inches across, purchased by him in 1823 for 250l., 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 (ib. p. 289). In 1824 and 1829 appeared the two quarto volumes of his ‘Introduction to Practical Astronomy.’ The first was mainly composed of tables for facilitating the processes of reduction; the second gave elaborate descriptions of various astronomical instruments, accompanied by engravings of them 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’ (ib. iv. 261), he received, on 13 Feb. 1829, the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. To that body he bequeathed the stock and plates of the work.

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 (ib. xv. 97). 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 (ib. ix. 269, xi. 73). His death occurred at South Kilworth on 6 Sept. 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. Some improvements effected by him in Rochon's doubly refracting micrometer (ib. i. 67, 82, 103) were claimed by Arago (Annales de Chimie, August 1820); but the accusation of plagiarism was satisfactorily refuted (Phil. Mag. lvi. 401). Pearson contributed to Rees's ‘Cyclopædia’ sixty-three articles on subjects connected with practical astronomy. His second wife survived him, and he left one daughter by his first wife.

[Memoirs Royal Astr. Society, xvii. 128; Proceedings Royal Society, v. 712; Lonsdale's Worthies of Cumberland, vi. 147; Gent. Mag. 1847, pt. ii. p. 661; Foster's Index Ecclesiasticus; Allibone's Critical Dict. of English Literature; Poggendorff's Biogr. Lit. Handwörterbuch; Lardner's Handbook of Astronomy, ii. 831, ed. 1856.]

A. M. C.