Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sheepshanks, Richard
SHEEPSHANKS, RICHARD (1794–1855), astronomer, was the fourth son and sixth child of Joseph Sheepshanks, a cloth manufacturer in Leeds, Yorkshire, by his wife Anne, daughter of Richard Wilson of Kendal, and was born at Leeds on 30 July 1794. John Sheepshanks [q. v.] was his brother. Educated at Richmond school in the same county under James Tate, whose intimate friend he became, he formed, with William Whewell, Adam Sedgwick, Connop Thirlwall, and others, the brilliant group known later at Cambridge as the ‘Northern Lights.’ Sheepshanks entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1812, graduated as tenth wrangler in 1816, and proceeded M.A. in 1819. He was elected fellow of his college in 1817, and, never marrying, retained the fellowship till his death. He was called to the bar in 1825, took orders in the church of England in 1828, but practised neither profession, the comparative affluence in which his father's death left him permitting him to follow instead his scientific vocation. He joined the Astronomical Society on 14 Jan. 1825, and, as its secretary from 1829 onwards, edited for many years and greatly improved its ‘Monthly Notices.’ In 1830 the Royal Society admitted him to membership, and two years later elected him to its council. He took part in 1828 in Sir George Airy's pendulum-operations in Dolcoath mine, Cornwall, rendered abortive by subterranean floods, and about the same time actively promoted the establishment of the Cambridge observatory. Appointed in 1831 a commissioner for revising borough boundaries under the Reform Act, he visited and determined most of those between the Thames and Humber. His advice in favour of suppressing the imperfect edition of Stephen Groombridge's ‘Circumpolar Catalogue’ was acted on by the admiralty in 1833; and he was entrusted with the reduction of the astronomical observations made by Lieutenant Murphy during General Chesney's survey of the Euphrates valley in 1835–6.
Sheepshanks took a prominent part in the South equatoreal case as scientific adviser on the side of Edward Troughton [q. v.] The hostile relations between him and Sir James South [q. v.], which began with disputes at the council board of the Astronomical Society, were thereby embittered; and Charles Babbage [q. v.], another of his foes, wrote a chapter on ‘The Intrigues of Science’ in his ‘Exposition of 1851,’ consisting mainly of a violent attack upon him and Sir George Airy, both of whom he suspected of having adversely influenced the government as regards his calculating machine. South then published in the ‘Mechanics' Magazine’ for 24 Jan. 1852 a maliciously embellished account of a smuggling transaction by which Sheepshanks had introduced in 1823 from Paris to London a Jecker's circle with Troughton's name engraved upon it. Babbage sent copies to the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society, ‘as a sort of impeachment,’ and even brought the matter before the board of visitors of the Royal Observatory, to which Sheepshanks belonged. He defended himself, admitting and regretting the fraud upon the custom-house, but denying the alleged aggravating circumstances, in a lengthy and abusive ‘Letter in Reply to the Calumnies of Mr. Babbage’ (1854). This was one of several ‘piquant pamphlets’ which ‘remain to illustrate the science of our century, and will furnish ample materials to the future collector of our literary curiosities’ (De Morgan). Another dealt with the award of the ‘Neptune medal;’ a third, in 1845, with the affairs of the Liverpool observatory. ‘When asked why he allowed himself to enter into such disputes, he would reply that he was just the person for it; that he had leisure, courage, and contempt for opinion when he knew he was right’ (De Morgan in Examiner, 8 Sept. 1855).
Sheepshanks was a member of the royal commissions on weights and measures in 1838 and 1843, and was entrusted in 1844, after the death of Francis Baily [q. v.], with the reconstruction of the standard of length. The work, for which he accepted no payment, occupied eleven laborious years. It was carried on in a cellar beneath the Astronomical Society's rooms in Somerset House, and involved the registration of nearly ninety thousand micrometrical readings. In order to insure their accuracy he constructed his own standard thermometers by a process communicated to the Royal Astronomical Society in June 1851 (Monthly Notices, xi. 233). His succinct account of the whole series of operations was embodied in the report of the commissioners presented to parliament in 1854; and they were described by Sir George Airy before the Royal Society on 18 June 1857 (Phil. Trans. cxlvii. 646). Their result was of first-class excellence, and the new standard, with certain authorised copies, was legalised by a bill which received the royal assent on 30 July 1855.
Sheepshanks presented in 1838 to the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, an eight-foot equatoreal, with an object-glass, by Cauchoix, of nearly seven inches aperture. In the same year he determined the longitudes of Antwerp and Brussels (Mémoires de l'Acad. des Sciences, t. xvi., Bruxelles, 1843), and in 1844 those of Valentia, Kingstown, and Liverpool, collecting for the purpose an array of the best chronometers. On instruments he spared no expense; he was an adept in their history and theory, experimenting more than he observed with them; and he contributed to the ‘Penny Cyclopædia’ a number of admirable articles on this branch of astronomy. Many now familiar improvements were of his devising, and he originated an effective and easy method of driving an equatoreal by clockwork. He resided from 1824 to 1841 at Woburn Place, London, thenceforward at Reading. A small observatory was attached to each house.
On 29 July 1855 he was struck with paralysis, and died on 4 Aug. at Reading, aged 61. His character presented a curious mixture of merits and defects. He was a thorough friend and an unsparing opponent. He had a keen wit, and his satire cut to the bone; yet it was inspired by no real malignity. Augustus de Morgan, one of his closest intimates, described him as ‘a man of hardly middle stature, of rapid and somewhat indistinct utterance, of very decided opinion upon the matter in discussion, and apparently of a sarcastic turn of thought and a piquant turn of phrase.’ But in defending what he considered worth fighting for, ‘the tone of flighty sarcasm disappeared, and an earnest deportment took its place.’ The ‘radical parson,’ as another of his associates called him, was excellent company. A classical scholar of no mean quality, he was also versed in English literature, and deeply read in military tactics. A portrait of him in early life was painted by John Jackson (1778–1831) [q. v.], and a monument, surmounted with a bust by John Henry Foley [q. v.], was erected to his memory in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge.
His sister, Anne Sheepshanks (1789–1876), lived with him from the time he left college, and was his sole heiress. In 1858 she presented 10,000l. to the university of Cambridge for the promotion of research in astronomy, terrestrial magnetism, and meteorology at the observatory, as well as for the foundation of an exhibition in astronomy bearing her brother's name; to which munificent gift she added in 1860 2,000l. for the purchase of a transit circle. To the Royal Astronomical Society she made, in 1857, a donation of Sheepshanks's extensive and valuable collection of instruments, and was elected in return to honorary membership on 14 Feb. 1862. She died at Reading on 8 Feb. 1876, aged 86.
[Monthly Notices Roy. Astr. Society, xvi. 90, xviii. 90, xxxvii. 143; Proceedings Roy. Soc. vii. 612; Memoir of Augustus de Morgan by Sophia de Morgan; Ann. Reg. 1855, p. 298; Taylor's Leeds Worthies, pp. 239, 457; English Cyclopædia (Knight).]