Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Glaisher, James

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1524147Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement, Volume 2 — Glaisher, James1912Henry Park Hollis

GLAISHER, JAMES (1809–1903), astronomer and meteorologist, born at Rotherhithe on 7 April 1809, was son of James Glaisher, who soon removed with his family to Greenwich. There the boy, whose opportunities of education were slender, made the acquaintance of William Richardson, an assistant at the Royal Observatory, then under the direction of John Pond [q. v.], astronomer royal. Glaisher visited the observatory and was deeply impressed by Pond's delicate manipulation of the scientific instruments. A younger brother John became a computer in the observatory. From 1829 to 1830 James worked on the ordnance survey of Ireland under Lieut.-col. James. The occupation was thoroughly congenial, but serious illness brought on by exposure terminated the engagement. In 1833 Prof. (afterwards Sir George) Airy [q. v. Suppl. I], then director of the Cambridge University observatory, appointed Glaisher an assistant there, and with the equatorial he made a series of observations of the position of Halley's comet at its return in 1835. On 18 June 1835 Airy became astronomer-royal at Greenwich, and Glaisher followed him to the Royal Observatory on 4 Dec. He was succeeded at Cambridge by his brother John, who ten years later was assistant to Dr. John Lee (1783–1866) [q. v.] at Hartwell House, Aylesbury, and died in 1846.

In 1838 Airy put Glaisher in charge at Greenwich of the new magnetic and meteorological department, which was at first designed to last for a period of three years. But the term was afterwards extended to five, and the department was finally made permanent. As its chief till 1874 Glaisher organised the science of meteorology, and earned for himself the title 'Nestor of Meteorologists.'

Scientific meteorology was in its infancy when Glaisher began his work in it, and his first efforts were devoted to improving the instruments and organising observations. In February 1847 he communicated to the Royal Society his first important research — the result of three years' experiments — on 'The amount of the radiation of heat at night from the earth and from various bodies placed on or near the surface of the earth.' In 1847 he published his useful 'Hygrometrical Tables adapted to the Use of the Dry and Wet Bulb Thermometer,' which passed through very many editions. From 1848 to 1876 he regularly communicated to the Royal Society or the Meteorological Society tabulations and discussions of meteorological observations made at Greenwich. An error which Glaisher detected in 1847 in one of the registrar-general's quarterly meteorological reports led him to organise a system of precise meteorological observation which succeeded where all previous attempts had failed. He induced sixty volunteers (mostly medical men and clergymen) in different parts of the country to take daily weather notes with the accurate standard thermometer invented by Richard Sheepshanks [q. v.]. Filling up vacancies as they occurred among these volunteer observers, Glaisher succeeded in maintaining his voluntary service till his death. From 1847 to 1902 he prepared the meteorological reports for the registrar-general's returns of births, deaths and marriages. During 1849 he helped the 'Daily News,' by inspecting apparatus and offering various suggestions, to establish a daily weather report, which was first tried on 31 Aug. 1848, and being then soon abandoned, was revived in permanence with Glaisher's co-operation in the following year.

Glaisher joined the Royal Astronomical Society in 1841, and was elected F.R.S. in 1849. Other societies in whose affairs he was active were the Royal Microscopical, of which he was president in 1865-8, and the Photographic, of which he was president from 1869 to 1892. The British Meteorological Society, now the Royal Meteorological Society, was formed with Glaisher as secretary on 3 April 1850 at a meeting summoned by John Lee [q. v.] at Hartwell House. Glaisher remained secretary until 1872, but during 1867-8 retired from this office to serve as president. Through the Society's early years, Glaisher was its mainstay.

Glaisher endeavoured with energy to illustrate the practical value of meteorological research. He sought to define the relations between the weather and the cholera epidemics in London in 1832, 1849, and 1853-4 in a meteorological report for the general board of health in 1854. Glaisher often gave evidence before parliamentary committees on bills dealing with water supply, and in 1863 he prepared an official report on the meteorology of India. He studied the meteorological conditions affecting water supply and joined the board of directors of gas and water companies at Harrow and Barnet.

Glaisher was brought prominently into public notice by his active association with aeronautics. In 1861 the British Association reappointed a committee which had made some unsuccessful efforts in 1852 to pursue meteorological observation from balloons. A large balloon was constructed for the purpose by Henry Coxwell [q. v. Suppl. I], and in it he and Glaisher made with necessary instruments eight ascents in 1862. In four of these ascents from the Crystal Palace, and in one from Mill Hill, Hendon, Glaisher accompanied Coxwell as an ordinary passenger on ascents for public exhibition. The greatest height attained on these occasions was between six and seven thousand feet. Three ascents from Wolverhampton were arranged solely in the interest of the British Association's committee, and immense altitudes were scaled. On 17 July 1862, the first ascent from Wolverhampton, a height of 26,000 feet was reached, and on 18 August, 23,000 feet. The most remarkable feat was the third ascent from Wolverhampton on 5 September, when the height was reckoned at nearly seven miles (cf. British Association Report, 1862, pp. 384, 385). At an elevation of 29,000 feet Glaisher became unconscious. Coxwell temporarily lost the use of his limbs, but seized with his teeth the cord which opened the valve, and by this means caused the balloon to descend from an altitude of 37,000 feet. Neither Glaisher nor Coxwell suffered permanent injury. Glaisher made many later ascents: eight in 1863, eight in 1864, and four in 1865 and 1866. He published in full detail his meteorological observations in the 'British Association Reports' (1862–6). Subsequently he ascended in a captive balloon at Chelsea, at the invitation of its owner, Mr. Giffard, and made observations at low altitudes (cf. British Association Report, 1869). In 1809 Glaisher contributed an account of his ascents to 'Voyages Aériens,' in which C. Flammarion, W. D. Fonville, and G. Tissandier were his coadjutors. He afterwards superintended the production of the English edition of that book under the title 'Travels in the Air' (1871; new edit. 1880). The Aeronautical Society was founded in 1806, and Glaisher was its first treasurer. But his interest in aeronautics was always subsidiary to the scientific results to be obtained by their means. In spite of hi« devotion to meteorology, Glaisher always maintained his interest in astronomy and mathematical science. In 1875 he joined the committee of the British Association on mathematical tables of which his son, Dr. J. V. L. Glaisher, was reporter. With help supplied by a grant from the association he completed for this committee the 'Factor Tables' begun by Burckhardt in 1814 and continued by Dase in 1862-5. Glaisher computed the smallest factor of every number not divisible by 2, 3, or 5 of the fourth, fifth, and sixth millions, those of the first, second, third, seventh, eighth, and ninth millions having been dealt with by his predecessors. Glaisher published his enumerations in 3 vols. 4to, 1879-83.

After retiring from the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, in 1874, Glaisher continued to supply his quarterly report to the registrar-general until the last year of his life. He took great interest in the Palestine Exploration Fund, being chairman of the executive committee from 1880; he contributed to the publications fifteen papers on meteorological observations made in Palestine.

Glaisher retained his vigour of mind and body until near his death at The Shola, Croydon, on 7 Feb. 1903, in the ninety-fourth year of his age. A bust presented by the fellows of the Royal Photographic Society in 1887 belongs to the Royal Meteorological Society.

Glaisher married in 1843 Cecilia Louisa, youngest daughter of Henry Belville, first assistant at the Royal Observatory. He had two sons and a daughter. Dr. James Whitbread Leo Glaisher, F.R.S., is his surviving son.

Besides the works cited and papers communicated to the Royal Society, the Royal Astronomical Society, the Meteorological Society, and the British Association, Glaisher translated Flammarion's 'Atmosphere' and Guillemin's 'World of Comets' (1876).

[Quarterly Journ. Roy. Meteorolog. See (by Mr. Marriott), vols. xxix. and xxx. ; Roy; Astron See. Monthly Notices (by W. Ellis) 1903 ; Observatory Mag., March 1903; private information.]

H. P. H.