Samuel Arthur Saunder

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18 May 1852
London, England
8 December 1912
Oxford, England

Samuel Saunder was an English mathematician and amateur astronomer who developed a method to give positions of lunar features with great accuracy. It was also through his efforts that an international committee was set up to standardise lunar nomenclature.


Samuel Saunder was the son of William Deacle Saunder (1812-1888) and Sarah Patience Nokes (1815-1894). William Saunder, the son of the surgeon Samuel Saunder (1774-1856) and Sarah Williamson (1772-1842) became a dental surgeon having obtained the Certificate of Qualification in Dental Surgery from the Royal College of Surgeons. He lived at Lower Seymour Street, Portman Square, London. William Deacle Saunder had a son William Saunder born in 1839 with his first wife. After the death of his first wife, William Deacle Saunder married his second wife Sarah Patience Nokes in St Mary the Virgin and St Cedd Church in Stifford, Essex, on 12 November 1842. They had four children: Sarah Anne Saunder (born 1850, who died as an infant), Samuel Arthur Saunder (1852-1912), the subject of this biography), Francis Sarah Saunder (1854-1909) and George Douglas Saunder (1856-1931).

Samuel Arthur Saunder was educated as St Paul's School, a famous independent school founded in 1509. He showed exceptional mathematical ability and was admitted as a pensioner to study the mathematical tripos at Trinity College Cambridge on 8 July 1871. He began his studies at Trinity College in October 1871 and was taught by leading mathematicians including George Stokes, John Couch Adams and James Clerk Maxwell in applied mathematics and Arthur Cayley in pure mathematics. He was awarded a scholarship in 1874.

Saunder was one of several outstanding undergraduates taking the mathematical tripos at that time. These included William Burnside, first at St John's College but later at Pembroke College, George Chrystal at Peterhouse, who had already been awarded a first class honours degree from the University of Aberdeen, and John William Lord of Trinity College. Despite being in a class with such outstanding fellow students, Saunder was predicted to be ranked in the top three places in the mathematical tripos, and many expected him to be the Senior Wrangler. The pressure, however, proved too much for Saunder and he had a mental collapse during the examinations. In fact he left at least one of the papers completely blank, but despite this he was still listed as the fourteenth Wrangler. We note that John William Lord was the Senior Wrangler with Chrystal and Burnside being placed equal Second Wranglers.

While an undergraduate at Cambridge, Saunder, like his fellow student William Burnside, was an enthusiastic rower. Saunder was presented with the Colquhoun Sculls, a pair of silver sculls, that he was allowed to keep from Easter 1875 when he won the sculling match, until November 1875.

Saunder graduated from Cambridge on 30 April 1875 and later that year worked with George Chrystal in the Cavendish Laboratory. Yousuf writes [21]:-
Just after his graduation from Cambridge in the spring of 1875, a series of experiments was made by George Chrystal with a view to comparing the different resistance coils of the set of British Association Units formerly deposited at Kew Observatory and now in the Cavendish Laboratory. In view of possible change in resistance of any or all of them, it was important to compare them with each other at frequent intervals. The comparison was difficult because accurate temperature determinations were almost impossible owing to the wires being embedded in solid paraffin. In the month of October a final set of experiments was made, which was the work of both George Chrystal and S A Saunder, sometimes working together and sometimes separately. The results of these experiments were submitted by them to the British Association and the General Committee of the British Association ordered these to be printed in extenso among the reports of the British Association meeting at Glasgow.
An extract from this Report [4] by Chrystal and Saunder can be read at THIS LINK.

In 1876 Saunder was appointed assistant mathematics master at Wellington College, an independent school in the village of Crowthorne, Berkshire, England. The school had been built to honour the Duke of Wellington and its foundation stone had been laid by Queen Victoria on 29 January 1859. Although Saunder was initially saddened by the fact that his mental collapse during the Cambridge examinations had meant he would not be able to continue with a research career, nevertheless he soon came to love his teaching post [8]:-
Saunder was a man of many interests and a hard worker at them all. To his regular school duties he added the care of the Scientific Society, which included the arrangement of lectures, many of which he gave himself, and the working of the lantern. He also started the school "tuck-shop," and managed it with great business ability so as to subsidise other school enterprises. ... he did much canoeing on the canals of England and was also a keen and expert fisherman.
On 16 August 1888, Saunder married Alice Duthoit. She had been born on 16 August 1866 at Mirzapur, Bengal, India to the Rev William Duthoit and his wife Fanny Cumberlege. When Saunder met Alice she was living with her parents in Crowthorne, Berkshire, where her father was the local priest. Samuel and Alice Saunder had three children. The first was a girl who died as an infant. Their two boys were Douglas Arthur Saunder (1891-1941) and George Bertram Saunder (1893-1917). Douglas Arthur Saunder served in World War I, and then became a schoolmaster at Jamison House, Prince Edward School, Salisbury, Rhodesia. George Bertram Saunder served as a Second Lieutenant in the Buffs Regiment (East Kent) in World War I and was killed in action at Loos-en-Gohelle, Departement du Pas-de-Calais, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France on 15 April 1917. Alice Saunder died on 21 August 1893, eight days after the birth of George Bertram Saunder.

Saunder was a very popular teacher at Wellington College but it is not because of his mathematics teaching that he is included in the Archive, rather it is because he took up astronomy as a hobby. He purchased a 7-inch refractor by Troughton and Simms, designed a back garden shed to house it, and built the shed himself. In doing this he provided [17]:-
... the model for back-garden observatories for several generations to come.
He was a founder member of the British Astronomical Association in 1890 and was elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in November 1894. He regularly attended the monthly meetings of the British Astronomical Association despite the tedious 45-mile railway journey from Crowthorne to London. In 1895 he published the paper How to determine the time with a small equatorial in the Journal of the British Astronomical Association. You can read the first paragraph of this paper at THIS LINK.

Of course, Saunder was a mathematician by training and career, so it is not surprising that he published astronomy papers using his mathematical skills, such as The Stereographic Projection of the Celestial Sphere (1897) and papers in the Mathematical Gazette such as On the expression, "Motion at an Instant" (1899) which looks at Zeno's arrow paradox. You can read extracts from these and other Saunder papers at THIS LINK.

Saunder became an expert on the study of the Moon, both with observations of his own and by studying the positions of lunar features on photographs taken at major observatories. Two things disturbed him, both of which he made strenuous efforts to rectify. One was the realisation that the positions of lunar features was not accurately known. He wrote the paper The Determination of Selenographic Positions and the Measurement of Lunar Photographs (1900) which begins with the paragraph [12]:-
The object of this paper is to call attention to the great uncertainty that attaches to our knowledge of the positions of lunar formations, and to suggest means by which these positions may be determined more accurately than has yet been accomplished.
This paper contains a discussion of the errors in the positions of lunar features which are in the standard references of the time. We quoted from the beginning of this discussion at THIS LINK.

It took Saunder several attempts to come up with a method of measurement which would yield accurate positions but eventually he was able to compute the positions of 3000 lunar features with an accuracy 50 times better that existed before he began his work [8]:-
This result was naturally not achieved without much work and many disappointments. The method first tried, which involved using existing knowledge as a basis, broke down altogether. The places were too rough to give even a start. Then he devised a very ingenious method of measuring two plates with different librations, using the stereoscopic displacement as a base: but the base was not long enough, and this method would not do. It was apparently necessary to measure at the telescope the distances of several fundamental points from Mösting A, and this work Saunder undertook himself, though he was much helped by Professor Barnard's measures of two points. ... This third attempt, starting from measures at the telescope as a basis, was completely successful, and led to the Catalogue of over 3000 selenographical positions in 'Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society' 57 (1905).
Now having given some details of his strenuous efforts to rectify precise knowledge of the positions of lunar features, we should look at the strenuous efforts he made to ensure that a naming system was introduced for lunar features so that each had a unique name. When he was studying the Moon, he was aware that certain features were known by several different names while certain names were attached to different features in different catalogues. He discussed that problem in detail in On the Present State of Lunar Nomenclature (1905) which begins as follows [15]:-
Some apology is due from me for again occupying the time of the Society with a subject so familiar to all selenographers as the confusion now existing in lunar nomenclature, and the inadequacy of our present system for the growing needs of selenography; but, as some recent remarks of mine have led the Council of this Society to take a course of action which it is hoped may lead to an authoritative reconsideration of the questions involved, I have thought that a fuller statement of the difficulties might be of interest to those whose work lies in other directions, and might also lead to some useful suggestions from those who, like myself, have found themselves hampered by the want of a recognised language in which to express the results of their labours.
For a longer extract from this paper, see THIS LINK.

Realising that international agreement was necessary, Saunder first approached the Royal Astronomical Society, then the Royal Society which made a proposal to the International Association of Academies at its Vienna meeting on 29-30 May 1907 [19]:-
The proposal of the Royal Society for a committee on lunar nomenclature was adopted without opposition; and the following were nominated to serve on the committee, with power to add to their number:- Loewy (chairman), Newcomb, Weiss, Franz, Saunder, and Turner.
Maurice Loewy, the chairman of the committee, asked Herbert Hall Turner to act as secretary to the committee and they added one further member, William Henry Pickering. Loewy asked Saunder and Julius Heinrich Franz to create an accurate map of the Moon which could be used to standardise the names of features. Sadly Maurice Loewy died suddenly at a meeting in Paris on 15 October 1907. After his death, Pierre Puiseux and Benjamin Bailaud were added to the committee. Bailaud had, in fact, succeeded Loewy at the Observatory at Paris. Saunder and Franz set to work on creating the accurate Moon map.

Saunder, although only an amateur astronomer, had become recognised as a world leading expert on the Moon. He was elected President of the British Astronomical Society in 1902-04, Secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society from 1906 to 1912 and elected Gresham Professor of Astronomy on 2 December 1908.

After achieving international recognition, it is sad to record that Saunder's career ended somewhat sadly. When Saunder had been appointed to Wellington College, the Headmaster was Edward Charles Wickham who had studied classics at New College, Oxford and, after being headmaster, became Dean of Lincoln in 1894. His successor was Bertram Pollock, appointed Headmaster of Wellington College in 1893, who had studied the Classical Tripos at Trinity College, Cambridge. Under both these headmasters, Saunder had flourished being greatly appreciated by both. In 1910 Pollock was appointed Bishop of Norwich and William Wyamar Vaughan became Headmaster of Wellington College. Unlike the two previous headmasters, Saunder did not seem to get on well with Vaughan. Ian Seymour writes [17]:-
Vaughan was profoundly mediocre and resented being outshone by a junior. Saunder refused to resign and was sacked - compelled to "retire without pension" in July 1912. Vaughan's motivations were widely known and the case aroused outrage ...
Vaughan had been educated at Rugby School and then at New College, Oxford where he studied classics, and then he studied at the University of Paris. He would move from Wellington College to be Headmaster of Rugby School in 1921. With a biography in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, he does not look "profoundly mediocre" but certainly he fell out with Saunder. Perhaps there is a clue in the description of Vaughan's character in [20]:-
In him a rapid and sometimes explosive reaction to folly, neglect, or wrongdoing was tempered by a strong sense of justice, deep sympathies, and a keen sense of humour.
Let us conjecture that Vaughan felt that Saunder should not be spending so much time on astronomy when employed as a Senior Master at Wellington College. In addition to the major task he was undertaking on lunar nomenclature, he had considerable duties as Secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society, and as Gresham Professor of Astronomy he had to deliver a series of lectures each year. Although saddened by being forced to retire in 1912, nevertheless he felt happy that he would be able to devote even more time to astronomy [8]:-
After some consideration he arranged to settle at Oxford, finding a house with a garden suitable for his telescope and not too far from the University Observatory. But after the lease had been signed, and while he was planning the building for his telescope, he became ill, and it soon became clear that the trouble was possibly serious, though exact diagnosis was difficult.
Despite the illness, he was determined to deliver the fourth series of lectures as Gresham Professor of Astronomy on the topic of Tides and tidal friction. His lecture course was [8]:-
... given under conditions such as few lecturers have ever faced : illness came suddenly upon him in a way which made it a severe pain to speak at all loudly : but he heroically declined all offers of help except that which a masseur could give him immediately before each lecture, and it is probable that the audiences never suspected what torture their lecturer was undergoing. He went straight from the last lecture to the bed from which he was never destined to rise.
Herbert Hall Turner writes in the Introduction to [2]:-
Saunder had also secured the devoted help of Miss M A Blagg in collating the list here printed of names [of lunar features] in Beer and Mädler, Schmidt, and Neison. ... On his deathbed [on 30 November 1912] Saunder handed to me this collated list in manuscript, and I gathered that, although it was of great value and represented much careful labour, considerations of cost had deterred him up to that time from printing it. As soon as I had had time to review the situation, I realised the great advantages that would follow from printing this list; and found further that Miss Blagg would undertake to see it through the press.
Saunder died on 8 December 1912, a few days before the meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society where he was going to be nominated as President of the Society.

Let us end with two tributes, the first from [22]:-
In Mr Saunder astronomical science has lost a devoted and conscientious worker who gave himself whole-heartedly to a line of study requiring much ability, and involving immense labour, but offering no prospect of startling results.
The second tribute is from J A Hardcastle who writes in [6]:-
Mr Saunder was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1894 and from 1906 to 1912 he was one of the secretaries, fulfilling the duties of that post, as a colleague one wrote, "with tact, good judgement, and devotion to duty." And it is, perhaps, these last words that strike the keynote of his life and by which he himself would have chosen to be remembered. All who knew him will recall how unsparing of himself he was in fulfilling all his duties and engagements; he was careful and businesslike in all that he did, level-headed, of sterling principles and almost incredible industry. Mr Saunder was, perhaps, too reserved to have a wide circle of friends, but by all who knew him well he will be long and deeply regretted.

References (show)

  1. L B Abbey, Saunder, Samuel Arthur, in T Hockey, V Trimble, T R William Bracher, R A Jarrell, J D Marché, J Palmeri and D W E Green, The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers (Springer, New York, NY, 2007).
  2. M A Blagg and S A Saunder, Collated List of Lunar Formations Named or Lettered in the Maps of Neison, Schmidt, and Mädler (Neill and Co., Edinburgh, 1913).
  3. Commission de nomenclature lunaire, in F J M Stratton (ed.), Transactions of the International Astronomical Union 3 Third General Assembly held at Leiden 5-13 July 1928 (Cambridge University Press, 1929), 111-112.
  4. G Chrystal and S A Saunder, Results Of A Comparison Of The B. A. Units Of Electrical Resistance, British Association Reports, Glasgow Meeting (1876), 13-19.
  5. A G Cook and M A Blag, J A Hardcastle: An appreciation, British Astronomical Association.
  6. J A Hardcastle, S A Saunder, British Astronomical Association.
  7. History of the Lunar Section, British Astronomical Association.
  8. Obituary Notices: Fellows: Saunder, Samuel Arthur, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 73 (1913), 214-217.
  9. Samuel Arthur Saunder, Royal Astronomical Society (2024).
  10. Samuel Arthur Saunder, Science (27 December 1912), 901.
  11. S A Saunder, On the expression, "Motion at an Instant", The Mathematical Gazette 1 (17) (1899), 250-252.
  12. S A Saunder, The Determination of Selenographic Positions and the Measurement of Lunar Photographs, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 60 (3) (1900), 174-201.
  13. S A Saunder, Note on Measures by Professor Barnard of two Standard Points on the Moon's Surface, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 60 (8) (1900), 540-543.
  14. S A Saunder, Note on the use of Peirce's Criterion for the Rejection of Doubtful Observations, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 63 (8) (1903), 432-436.
  15. S A Saunder, On the Present State of Lunar Nomenclature, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 66 (2) (1905), 41-46.
  16. S A Saunder, Contracted Multiplication and Division, The Mathematical Gazette 4 (64) (1907), 81-83.
  17. I Seymour, The man on the Moon, Astronomy Now 38 (5) (May 2024), 21.
  18. H H Turner, Lunar Nomenclature, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 68 (1907), 134-135.
  19. H H Turner, International Association of Academies, Nature 76 (1907), 177-178.
  20. Vaughan, William Wyamar, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (23 September 2004).
  21. M Yousuf, The life and work of Prof George Chrystal (Ph.D. Thesis, University of St Andrews, 1990), 36.
  22. Mr S A Saunder, Nature 90 (2250) (12 December 1912), 415-416.

Additional Resources (show)

Other websites about Samuel Saunder:

  1. zbMATH entry

Cross-references (show)

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update June 2024