Bacon, John Mackenzie (DNB12)

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

BACON, JOHN MACKENZIE (1846–1904), scientific lecturer and aeronaut, born at Lambourn Woodlands, Berkshire, on 19 June 1846, was fourth son of John Bacon, vicar of Lambourn Woodlands, a friend and neighbour of Charles Kingslcy and Tom Hughes, by his wife Mary Lousada, of Spanish ancestry. His great-grandfather was John Bacon, R.A. [q. v.], and his grandfather John Bacon (1777-1859), sculptor [q.v.]. After education at home and at a coaching establishment at Old Charlton, with a view to the army, he matriculated from Trinity College, Cambridge, in October 1865, gaining a foundation scholarship in 1869. Eye trouble compelled an 'aegrotat' degree in the mathematical tripos of 1869. His intimate friends at Cambridge included William Kingdon Clifford [q. v.], Francis Maitland Balfour [q. v.], and Edward Henry Palmer, the orientalist [q. v.].

From 1869 to 1875 he worked with a brother at Cambridge as a pass 'coach.' Taking holy orders in 1870, he was unpaid curate of Harston, Cambridge, until 1875, when he settled at Cold ash, Berkshire. There he assisted in parochial work, was a poor law guardian, initiated cottage shows, and encouraged hand-bell ringing and agriculture. He acted as curate of Shaw, four miles from Coldash, from 1882 until 1889, when his 'The Curse of Conventionalism : a Remonstrance by a Priest of the Church of England,' boldly challenged the conventional clerical attitude to scientific questions, and brought on him. the censure of the orthodox. Thereupon he abandoned clerical work, and devoted himself to scientific study.

Astronomy and aeronautics had interested him from boyhood, and much of his life was devoted to stimulating public interest in these subjects. On 10 Feb. 1888 he became a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, before which he read in 1898 a paper on 'Actinic qualities of light as affected by different conditions of atmosphere.' With the British Astronomical Association, which he joined in 1895, subsequently becoming a member of council and of the eclipse committees, he witnessed at Vadso, in Norwegian Lapland, the total eclipse of the sun (9 Aug. 1896). In Dec. 1897 he led a party to Buxar in India for the solar eclipse of January 1898, and took the first animated photographs of the eclipse, but the films mysteriously disappeared on the voyage home. Of this eclipse Bacon gave an account in the 'Journal' of the association (viii. 264). Bacon, as special correspondent to 'The Times,' observed the solar eclipse of 28 May 1900 at Wadesborough, North Carolina, and made further experiments with the cinematograph.

From kite-flying Bacon early turned to ballooning and to the acoustic and meteorological researches for which it gave opportunity. His first balloon ascent was made from the Crystal Palace on 20 Aug. 1888 with Captain Dale. Experiments in 1899 proved that sound travelled through the air less rapidly upwards than downwards. In August of that year he successfully experimented from his balloon with wireless telegraphy. On 15 Nov. 1899 he and his daughter narrowly escaped a fatal accident when descending at Neath, South Wales, after a balloon journey of ten hours to examine the Leonid meteors (for account see Journal Brit. Astr. Assoc. x. 48). In November 1902 Bacon crossed the Irish Channel in a balloon, a feat accomplished only once before in 1817. On the voyage he proved the theory that the sea bottom was visible and could be photographed from a great height. Bacon photographed from his balloon, at a height of 600 feet, the beds of sand and rock ten fathoms deep in the bottom of the Irish Channel. Bacon's photographs were exhibited at the Royal Society's soiree at Burlington House in the spring of 1903. With Mr. J. Nevil Maskelyne Bacon began experiments in the inflation of balloons with hot air by the vaporisation of petroleum, in place of coal gas, thereby greatly quickening the process and the better adapting balloons to military uses. Bacon also prosecuted inquiries into the causes and cure of London fog, insisting on the need of stronger currents of air through the streets, by widening thoroughfares and increasing the number of open spaces.

Bacon's investigations exhausted his slender resources, and from the winter of 1898 he was active and successful as a popular lecturer on his work and experiences and as a popular scientific writer in the press. On 15 Feb. 1899 and 22 Jan. 1902 he read before the Society of Arts papers on 'The Balloon as an Instrument of Scientific Research ' (cf. Journal Soc. of Arts, 17 Feb. 1899), and 'Scientific Observations at High Altitudes' (ib. 24 Jan. 1902). In a paper at the Cambridge meeting of the British Association on 'Upper Air Currents and their Relation to the Far Travel of Sound' (1904) he summarised his more recent acoustic experiments in balloons. He died of pleurisy at Coldash on 26 Dec. 1904, and was buried in Swallowfield churchyard, near Reading.

Bacon married twice: (1) on 11 April 1871 Gertrude (d. 19 Jan. 1894), youngest daughter of Charles John Myers, fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and vicar of Flintham, Nottingham, and had issue two sons and one daughter, Gertrude; (2) on 7 Oct. 1903 Stella, youngest daughter of Captain T. B. H. Valintine of Goodwood, by whom he had one daughter. His elder daughter, Gertrude, who was his biographer, often accompanied him in his ascents and eclipse expeditions (see her accounts in Journal Brit. Astron. Assoc. x. 18, 288; xi. 149) and wrote on ballooning. Bacon's separately published works were : 1. 'By Land and Sky,' 1900, a lucid account of the fascination of ballooning. 2. 'The Dominion of the Air,' 1902, a popular history of aeronautics.

[The Record of an Aeronaut, being the life of John M. Bacon, by Gertrude Bacon (with photogravure portrait), 1907; The Times, 27 and 28 Dec. 1904; Journal Brit. Astron. Assoc. 19 Jan. 1905; Roy. Astron. Soc.'s Monthly Notices, Feb. 1905; E. W. Maunder, The Indian Eclipse, 1898 (1899), and The Total Solar Eclipse, 1900 (1901).]

W. B. O.