Gilbert Thomas Walker

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14 June 1868
Rochdale, Lancashire, England
4 November 1958
Coulsdon, Surrey, England

Gilbert Walker was an English mathematician who was Senior wrangler in the Mathematical Tripos at Cambridge in 1889, and elected a fellow of Trinity College. His interest moved to meteorology and he worked in India from 1903 to 1924 becoming Director-General of the Indian Observatories. Returning to England, he was appointed Professor of Meteorology at Imperial College of Science and Technology. His interests included boomerangs, and the flight of birds.


Gilbert Walker was the son of Thomas Walker (1833-1909) and Charlotte Elizabeth Haslehurst (1840-1916). Thomas Walker had been born on 1 November 1833 to John Walker and Mary Haslehurst at Dronfield, Derbyshire. He attended Chesterfield School, was apprentice to John Richardson, Mining Engineer and Surveyor of Chesterfield, before being involved in surveys of waterworks and railways for Messrs Mills and Fletcher of Birkenhead, Liverpool. After a three years with the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, Thomas married Charlotte Haslehurst in 1862. The fact that the name Haslehurst appears in both sides of the family is not a coincidence for Thomas and Charlotte were first cousins. They had eight children: Jessie Sarah Walker (born 1863); Charlotte Mary Walker (born 1865); Francis Walker (born 1866); Frances F Walker (born 1866); Gilbert Thomas Walker (the subject of this biography, born 1868); Mildred Walker (born 1871); Howard W Walker (born 1874); and John George Walker (born 1875).

Thomas Walker had become Borough Surveyor of Rochdale in 1865, the town where Gilbert was born, but in 1871 the family moved from Rochdale to South Croydon when Thomas was appointed as the Borough Engineer and Surveyor to the Croydon Local Board of Health. On 11 September 1876 Gilbert entered Whitgift School in Croydon, London. The school, named for John Whitgift, Archbishop of Canterbury, first opened in 1600 but had reopened in 1871 under the name Archbishop Whitgift's Middle-Class Day School. The headmaster from 1871 to 1902 was Robert Brodie (1841-1926) who said at the reopening on 4 May 1871 [3]:-
The object ... is to give to every boy who comes here a sound liberal education. By education I mean no mere cramming of facts and theories - no mere teaching of accomplishments. ... By 'liberal' I mean such a training as will develop a boy's powers to the greatest extent of which they are capable, and which will make him able, when he has left school, to master readily and thoroughly any kind of learning or business which he may wish.
In 1881 Walker won a scholarship to St Paul's School, a private school founded in 1509 occupying a site beside St Paul's Cathedral in London at this time. The headmaster at the time was Frederick William Walker (1830-1910), who was not related to Gilbert Walker, and the Senior Mathematical Master was Charles Pendlebury (1854-1941) who had been appointed to this position in 1877. St Paul's School moved to a new site in 1884, a area bordering the river Thames, in the middle of Walker's time at the school. While at St Paul's School, he matriculated at the University of London in July 1884 but continued studying at St Paul's. He was fortunate to have Francis Macaulay as a teacher after he arrived at St Paul's in 1885. Walker's interest in mechanics rapidly increased and he won the Smee Prize in 1885 for his essay on gyroscopes. On 22 December 1885 Walker was admitted as a pensioner to Trinity College, Cambridge but he spent his final two years at St Paul's School studying science in preparation for the intermediate University of London B.Sc. degree.

In 1886, at the end of Walker's studies at St Paul's School, Charles Pendlebury, the head of mathematics, wrote a report on him which he sent to the headmaster Frederick William Walker (who had the title High Master) [2]:-
My dear High Master,

As Walker is now leaving school for the University, this is the last time that it will be my duty to report to you on his progress and on the quality of his work. Throughout the time that he has spent with me his work has been so uniformly good, and he has been as persistent and untiring in his devotion to it, that I can scarcely speak too highly of him.

It is a matter for special regret that his illness during the examination should have taken from him his last and best opportunity at school of displaying fully his mathematical knowledge and power.

I have never parted from any of my boys with more respect and confidence that I now do for him and I hope that his health will allow his career at the University to be a harmonious continuation of his career at St Paul's.

I am very faithfully yours, C Pendlebury.
The headmaster added the note:-
In all this I fully concur and find it hard to drive from my thoughts the sad intelligence of his serious illness.

Fred W Walker
Walker matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge in the Michaelmas term (October) 1886 where he began his study of the mathematical tripos. Andrew Forsyth was one of his lecturers and Walker said in a lecture he gave in 1936 [19]:-
I owe my earliest introduction to dynamics - at St Paul's School to Mr Pendlebury ..., and at Trinity College, Cambridge, to Professor Forsyth ... The interest that they implanted has survived for half a century; and the applications to sport that I propose to describe are the immediate outcome of that interest.
At Cambridge, he was highly successful being awarded the Thomas Barnes Scholarship in 1887 and the Sheepshanks Scholarship in 1888. In 1889 he was awarded a B.A. and was Senior Wrangler in the mathematical tripos. The Second Wrangler in that year was Frank Watson Dyson (1868-1939) who went on to become Astronomer Royal for Scotland (1905-1910) and then Astronomer Royal at Greenwich (1910-1933). In the late 1880s Walker had visited Australia and become fascinated by boomerangs. He became expert in throwing the boomerang and, back at Trinity College, he spent much time on the Cambridge Backs throwing boomerangs. Not surprisingly, from then on he was known by his friends as "Boomerang Walker". For details of papers that Walker wrote about boomerangs, see THIS LINK.

Walker continued his study of applied mathematics at Cambridge [14]:-
During the academic year 1889-90 he studied more advanced branches of applied mathematics under G H Darwin, J J Thomson and J Larmor, and finished his career as a student by heading the list in part II of the Mathematical Tripos. In 1891 both Walker and Dyson were elected Fellows of Trinity.
We have already seen in Walker's school report that his health was causing worries at that time and the stress of the mathematical tripos did lead to health problems. In an attempt to improve matters, he spent the winters of 1891, 1892 and 1893 in Switzerland. He did much ice skating and climbing which helped him to relax and recover from the pressure he had been under. He published two papers during these years, On the motion of elongated projectiles (1892) and Repulsion and rotation produced by alternating electric currents (1892). The second of these papers involved a mathematical approach to results of experiments carried out by Elihu Thomson (1853-1937). Thomson had been born in England but spent most of his life in the United States where he became an expert in electrical engineering. Walker begins his paper as follows:-
In the 'Electrical World' May, 1887 or the 'Electrical Engineer' (New York), June, 1887, "Novel Phenomena of Alternating Currents," may he seen an account of some experiments by Professor Elihu Thomson on the mechanical force between conductors in which alternating currents are circulating.

In the case of a ring of metal in the presence of an electromagnet, in the coils of which an alternating current is passing, a force of repulsion is experienced by the ring, and this may be accounted for in the words of Professor Thomson as follows:- "It may be stated as certainly true that were the induced currents in the closed conductor unaffected by any self-induction, the only phenomena exhibited would be alternate equal attractions and repulsions, because currents would be induced in opposite directions to that of the primary current when the latter current was I changing from zero to maximum positive or negative current, so producing repulsion; and would be induced in the same direction when changing from maximum positive or negative to zero, so producing attractions."
Geoffrey Taylor writes [14]:-
This work was a good example of the kind of research which a well-trained mathematician of that time might be expected to carry out. It reveals very considerable mathematical power but does not draw attention to any new physical facts or principles. It expressed in quantitative form ideas which Elihu Thomson had put forward qualitatively. The paper was communicated by J J Thomson who may well have suggested it, for in conversation Walker often commented on the difficulty that applied mathematicians experienced in those days in Cambridge in finding something to work on, owing to the fact that their training did not involve any laboratory work.
In 1895, his health now recovered, Walker was appointed as a lecturer in mathematics at Trinity College. His next publications were Some formulae for transforming the origin of reference of Bessel's functions (1895), On a dynamical top (1896) and On boomerangs (1897). This paper on boomerangs was the first of several on this topic. We give more information on his boomerang papers at THIS LINK.

The high quality of his work led to him being awarded the Adams Prize in 1899 for his essay Aberration and some other problems connected with the electromagnetic field. The examiners for the Adams Prize for 1899 had selected the subject "The Theory of the Aberration of Light". Walker begins his preface as follows:-
The phenomena of aberration depend upon the relations of the ether and matter and must therefore be intimately associated with many other facts of nature. In the following essay an attempt is made to construct a theory of the electromagnetic field which shall be consistent with the modern interpretation of chemical, optical and magnetic phenomena in terms of electrically charged particles. That a particular case of such a theory would explain aberration was proved by H A Lorentz in the year 1892.
Walker shared the 1899 Adams Prize with Joseph Larmor who submitted the essay Aether and matter; a development of the dynamical relations of the aether to material systems on the basis of the atomic constitution of matter, including a discussion of the influence of the earth's motion on optical phenomena.

From about this time Walker began to apply for various positions. One such position was the chair of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. This had become vacant in 1901 following the death of Peter Guthrie Tait. Walker applied for the post and was clearly a strong applicant having Lord Kelvin supporting his application. The Canadian physicist, James Gordon MacGregor (1852-1913), was offered the chair, however, and accepted. Also in 1901 the Indian Meteorological Department, which had been founded in September 1875, was looking to appoint somebody who would become the third Director. The second director was John Eliot and he returned to England and approached the Observatories Committee of the Royal Society seeking their advice on a suitable person to succeed him. Eliot explained that he was seeking a person who had a strong mathematical background so, despite Walker having no experience in meteorology, his name was suggested.

Aware of his lack of experience in meteorology and climatology, Walker decided that he had better gain some experience before moving to India. During the years 1902-03 he made a series of visits to meteorological services in Britain, France, Germany and the United States. In America, as well as visiting the Weather Bureau, where he became a close friend of the Director Cleveland Abbe, he visited several observatories. He charmed many of the scientists he met at these establishments with his expertise on boomerangs. In 1903 he became a special scientific assistant to John Eliot, but spent much of the year continuing to gain experience and make links to other meteorological services and observatories. He arrived in India late in 1903 and, on 1 January 1904 was appointed Director General of Observatories in India.

His publication record certainly has gaps, one from 1892 to 1895 almost certainly because of his health problems, and another from 1904 to 1909 while he was converting to become an expert on meteorology and climatology. The quality of his work on applied mathematics, in particular dynamics and electromagnetism, had, however, been outstanding so in 1904 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London. Also in 1904 he was awarded an Sc.D. by the University of Cambridge and in 1905 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society.

On 13 May 1908, at St James Church, Southampton, England, Walker married May Constance Carter (1877-1955). May was the daughter of the butcher Charles Stephen Carter (1839-1913) and Emma Clark (1843-1905). Gilbert and May Walker had a daughter, Verity Micheline Walker (1910-1996) who became a dietitian, and a son Michael Ashley Walker (1917-1983) who became a civil servant.

In India Walker worked at the Indian Meteorological Department at Simla where he had the ideal environment in which to develop and enjoy his wider interests. These interests included throwing boomerangs on the playing fields at Annandale, climbing and walking in the hills around Simla, painting water colours which he showed at the Simla Art Exhibition, ice skating and playing the flute. In terms of his work on meteorology there was one major issue affecting the lives of millions in India [22]:-
The situation in India after the famines of 1877 and 1899 was desperate. Millions had died as a result of droughts that were caused by the failure of the monsoons. There was an urgent need to try to better understand the monsoon and the seasonal rains associated with this event. By the last decade of the nineteenth century, the forecasts were often completely incorrect, partly as a result of a lack of rigorous meteorological or statistical basis but also because of a change in the climate system that Eliot had documented in his 1904 paper. The scientific merit of any kind of weather forecasting was still a subject of great debate in Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, and the idea of the long-range forecasting of monsoons was thought by many to be an unachievable task. Scientific attempts to forecast the monsoon rains had started approximately twenty-five years before Walker's arrival in India, with official forecasts being issued beginning in 1886.
Walker's first paper after taking up his post in India was Correlation in seasonal variation of climate (1909). He takes the mathematical approach of trying to replace a hard problem by a number of simpler ones. He begins the Introduction as follows:-
A cursory examination of the seasonal variations of any country will show that some of the departures from average conditions are directly related to other abnormal features, and the method by which the effects are produced is often fairly well known, as is the case when diminution of pressure is due to rise in temperature. Other departures, however, are connected with abnormal features in distant parts of the earth, and difficulties are experienced in ascertaining not only the nature of the results due to any variation, but also the chain of causes and effects by which the results are produced; as examples of the latter may be quoted the favourable influence upon the Indian monsoon rainfall of the conditions which produce high temperature in the interior of Australia or high pressure in the Argentine Republic. Before attempting therefore to investigate the phenomena on physical lines it appears desirable to ascertain by purely empirical methods the character of as many relationships as possible in the hope of being able to pick out rom the results so obtained a number of which the physical explanation is clear. If we can in this way find the intermediate links in the chain of causes we may replace an intricate problem by a number of simpler ones.
This was the first of twenty papers by Walker with this title (actually he changed the title to Correlation in seasonal variation of weather part way through). Examples of other papers attacking similar problems are: The liability to drought in India as compared with that in other countries (1910); On the meteorological evidence for supposed changes of climate in India (1910); and A further study of relationships with India monsoon rainfall (1914).

Walker retired from his position at the Indian Meteorological Department and returned to England in 1924. For his work in India he was knighted on his return, becoming Sir Gilbert Walker in 1924. In the same year he was appointed to the chair of Meteorology at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London. One aspect of his work there is described by Charles Normand [8]:-
One of the subjects to which he turned his own and his pupils' attention was the cellular structure of an unstable fluid. In striking laboratory experiments they obtained a variety of cellular forms - polygons, transverse and longitudinal vortices - by varying the rate of shear in the fluid, and they were able to show that this physical process explained the mode of formation of a wide variety of cloud forms.
Although he continued to publish on many papers on meteorology, he now also published on his other interests, such as the flight of birds and the physics of sport. You can see more information on these publications at THIS LINK.

In 1934 he retired from Imperial College and went to live in Cambridge. During World War II he undertook research [9]:-
... under the auspices of the Meteorological Committee of the Air Ministry and contributed research papers on long-range forecasting, symmetry points, correlation coefficients between various upper air data, and the relation between European weather and Artic ice.
He gave up his home in Cambridge in 1950 and after that did not settle in one place but lived mostly in Surrey or Sussex. Let us end with a quote from [8]:-
Walker was a man of wide interests, a highly proficient skater and climber in his younger days, always very fond of music, happy to spend a day out of doors sketching in water colour, ever eminently reasonable, liberal minded and very friendly. In all his posts he demonstrated his great intellectual capacity and served with distinction, deservedly reaping many honours during his long life.

References (show)

  1. E P Adams, Review: Outlines of the Theory of Electromagnetism, by Gilbert T Walker, Science 34 (876) (1911), 493-494.
  2. R Allan, Gilbert Walker: A pioneer of modern day climatology, The Walker Institute, University of Reading.
  3. P Cox (ed.), The First Inhabitants, Memories of Whitgift (Labatie, London, 2013).
  4. G W O Howe, Review: Outlines of the Theory of Electromagnetism, by Gilbert T Walker, Science Progress in the Twentieth Century (1906-1916) 6 (24) (1912), 700.
  5. R W Katz, Sir Gilbert Walker and a Connection between El Nino and Statistics, Statistical Science 17 (1) (2002), 97-112.
  6. R C Miller, Review: Meteorology and the Non-Flapping Flight of Tropical Birds, by Gilbert T Walker, The Condor 26 (2) (1924), 80-81.
  7. R B Montgomery, Report on the Work of G T Walker. Reports on Critical Studies of Methods of Long-Range Weather Forecasting, Monthly Weather Review Supplement 39 (1940), 1-22.
  8. C Normand, Sir Gilbert Walker, C.S.I., F.R.S., Nature 182 (1958), 1706.
  9. P R Pisharoty, Sir Gilbert Walker - pioneer meteorologist and versatile scientist, Current Science 59 (2) (1990), 121-122.
  10. M Rajeevan and J Srinivasan, Sir Gilbert Thomas Walker, Indian Academy of Sciences.
  11. P A Sheppard (rev. Isobel Falconer), Walker, Gilbert Thomas, applied mathematician and meteorologist, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004).
  12. P A Sheppard, Sir Gilbert Walker, C.S.I, F.R.S., Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society 85 (1959), 186.
  13. G C Simpson, Sir Gilbert Walker, C.S.I., F.R.S., Weather 14 (1959), 67-68.
  14. G I Taylor, Gilbert Thomas Walker, 1868-1958, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 8 (1962), 166-174.
  15. J Venn and J A Venn (eds.), Walker, Gilbert Thomas, in Alumni Cantabrigienses: A Biographical List of All Known Students, Graduates and Holders of Office at the University of Cambridge, from the Earliest Times to 1900 Volume 2: From 1752 to 1900 (Cambridge University Press, 2011).
  16. W E W, Review: Some Problems of Indian Meteorology by G T Walker, Geography 15 (4) (1929), 312.
  17. J M Walker, Pen Portrait of Sir Gilbert Walker, CSI, MA, ScD, FRS., Weather 52 (1997), 217-220.
  18. G T Walker, On Boomerangs [Abstract], Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 61 (1897), 239-240.
  19. G T Walker, The Physics of Sport, The Mathematical Gazette 20 (239) (1936), 172-177.
  20. G T Walker, Monsoon Forecasting in India, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 19 (7) (1938), 297-299.
  21. G T Walker, The Meteorology of India, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 73 (3793) (1925), 838-855.
  22. S Yalda, Walker, Gilbert Thomas, Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography.

Additional Resources (show)

Honours (show)

Honours awarded to Gilbert Walker

  1. Fellow of the Royal Society 1904

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update June 2021