Royal Astronomical Society's Obituary of Johann Franz Encke

Charles Pritchard (1808-1893), an astronomer, clergyman, educational reformer and founder of Clapham Grammar School in 1834, was one of the two secretaries of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1865, the year that Johann Franz Encke died. He wrote an obituary of Encke which was published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 26 (1865), 129-134. We note that "Johann Franz" has been Anglicised to "John Francis" and certain other names have also been Anglicised which we have retained.

John Francis Encke

John Francis Encke, born Sept. 23, 1791, was the youngest son but one of the deacon of the Jacobi Church in Hamburg. Four years after his birth his father died, leaving the care and the education of eight children to his mother, a lady of much worth, and happily possessed of great mental energy.

The first tutor of the boy was Mr Hipp, a gentleman possessing considerable aptitude for mathematical teaching; and to his honour be it spoken, a man who rendered valuable pecuniary assistance to the orphan and moneyless family. Hipp continued this material encouragement to young Encke even after the time that be entered the College at Hamburg, well known as the Johanneum. At this College, then under the directorship of Johannes Gurlitt (1754-1827), who enjoyed a high reputation for classical learning, the boy-student rapidly advanced, and in addition to considerable ability in Latin composition, his knowledge of Greek was sufficient to enable him to translate and enjoy the Lyrics of Pindar. Notwithstanding, however, this early classical training, when the time came for his entrance at the University, Encke resolved henceforth to devote his attention mainly, if not exclusively, to the study of astronomy.

But here came a very formidable impediment; there were ample funds at the disposal of a poor clergyman's son for a theological career, but none for the prosecution of so unusual a study. Nevertheless, such was the acknowledged ability, and so determined was the inclination, of young Encke, that, as is happily not unusual in such cases, all the difficulties yielded at length to perseverance, and to his great joy, in Oct. 1811, be found himself at Göttingen, and a student under the celebrated Gauss.

The very newspapers of Hamburg were at that day compulsorily printed in French; as a condescension, however, or as an insult to the inhabitants, a German translation was added; in a like spirit even the university matricula of the old "Georgia Angusta" of Göttingen had the image and superscription of Jerome Buonaparte printed upon it. No wonder then that neither Gauss nor astronomy could retain the young student at his books, but, obeying the impulse which animated the whole heart of Germany, in the spring of 1813 he took up arms and marched to Hamburg for the rescue of his country from the domination of the French. After the re-occupation of Hamburg by the foreigner, Encke entered the Hanseatic Legion, then in process of formation in Holstein and Mecklenburg, and there he served as a sergeant-major in the horse artillery until July, 1814. In the autumn of this year he returned to Göttingen and to his astronomical pursuits, and for nearly twelve months continued a diligent student of subjects far more peaceable, and far more congenial to his turn of mind. Nevertheless the return of Napoleon from Elba once more finds him in a soldier's uniform, but now only for a short period, and, happily, for the last time. Waterloo and its consequences restored peace to France and to Europe, and young Encke, who in peace had no taste for soldiership and a uniform, returned, for the third time, to Göttingen and to Gauss. It was thus in the midst of these stirring and troublesome events, that the spirits of such men as Franz Encke and Wilhelm Struve were disciplined and matured.

While Encke was serving as a lieutenant of artillery in the Prussian fortress of Kolberg, he became acquainted with the celebrated Lindenau, at once astronomer and statesman, and after the completion of his studies under Gauss, he was appointed, by the influence of the former, an assistant in the Observatory of Seeburg, not far from Gotha. In 1820 he became Vice-director, and in 1822 he was appointed Director, in the place of Lindenau, who returned to his political career.

It was at Seeberg that Encke commenced and completed his important work on the "Transits of Venus in 1761 and 1769," published at Gotha in 1822 and 1824. He also matured his investigation of the comet of 1680, and of the remarkable comet of short period which bears his name. Zach's Correspondence and Lindenau's Zeitschrift, about this period, contain many evidences of his talents and his industry. During his directorship of the Observatory at Seeberg he was elected an Honorary Associate of the Royal Astronomical Society, and at the time of his decease was the oldest foreign member on our list. In 1824 the Council of our Society awarded to Encke their gold medal for what Mr Colebrooke, the President of that day, properly designated as "the greatest step that had been made in the astronomy of comets since the verification of Halley's Comet in 1759." Encke had long been on the track of his comet. In 1818 he had succeeded in identifying it with the Comet of Mechain and Messier in 1786, and again with the comet discovered by Miss Herschel in 1795, and with the comet of Pons in 1805. The result of his investigations was, that this comet, which astronomers have agreed to designate as "Encke's Comet'' (although he himself always modestly calls it the Comet of Pons), would make its appearance again in 1822, although it would not then be visible in Europe. Accordingly our Society had the gratification of presenting to Mr Rümker their medal for its discovery at Paramatta in 1822, on the same day when they bestowed a similar mark of approbation, as we have already stated, on Encke himself, for its prediction.

It was in these Memoirs, that Encke signalised himself by his systematic and most successful application of the principle of least squares to a number of astronomical observations. For the method itself we are mainly indebted to Legendre and to Gauss, but for the first exhibition of its vast practical value, we are indebted to the example of Encke. His mind, indeed, seems to have been pre-eminently arithmetical, delighting in the orderly and systematic development of what otherwise and to many would seem an inextricable maze of figures. Those who knew him best consider that he probably injured the generality of his mathematical analysis by the fastidious care which he bestowed upon its symmetrical arrangement.

In 1825, at the recommendation of Bessel, Encke was appointed to the Directorship of the Observatory at Berlin; the Observatory itself was both improperly situated, and inadequately supplied with instruments, but ultimately, at the suggestion of Humboldt, a new Observatory was erected at the expense of the Prussian government, Encke superintending personally both its construction and its interior arrangements. And here, for eight or ten years after its completion, he continued with much assiduity to observe both with the Transit Circle and the Equatorial; but his natural tastes did not lie in instrumental observations, and after the discovery of numerous small planets by various observers, he devoted himself with much success to the investigation of planetary disturbances.

The labours of Encke in reference to the comet which bears his name have already been referred to. Having carefully taken into account the perturbing action of the planets on this comet during several successive periods, he established the remarkable fact that there is some extraneous cause in operation which continually diminishes the comet's periodic time. This is evidently the effect which would be produced if the comet suffered a resistance from moving in a very rare ethereal medium, and accordingly this is the explanation proposed by Encke, and at present generally accepted by astronomers.

Encke has also, as already mentioned, devoted special attention to the subject of the perturbations of the Minor Planets.

In the Appendix to the Berliner Jahrbuch for 1887 and 1888, he expounds in detail the method of calculating these perturbations which had been long used by himself and other German astronomers, and which was originally given by Gauss. In this method the perturbations of the six elements of the orbit are computed for successive equal intervals of time by means of mechanical quadratures, and from the values of the elements thus found for any given time, the co-ordinates of the body at that time are determined.

Now this method, although a very beautiful one in theory, is attended with the disadvantage of requiring the determination of double the number of unknown quantities that are really wanted, and the calculations which must be gone through consequently become excessively long.

As the number of the known minor planets became larger, the want of a readier method of computing their perturbations became more and more pressing.

Encke was thus impelled to devise a mode of applying the method of integration by quadratures directly to the differential equations of motion of the disturbed body, and he published an account of this new method in the Proceedings of the Berlin Academy for 1851. In this Memoir he refers the place of the body to rectangular co-ordinates, and he determines the perturbations of its movements during successive short intervals of time by a direct computation of the changes produced in the three co-ordinates by the action of the disturbing planet.

He estimates that the labour of computation is reduced by the new method to less than one-half of that required by the method previously employed.

It should be remarked that Prof G P Bond, in a paper which was communicated to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1849, had already briefly explained a method of calculating perturbations exactly similar in principle to that of Prof Encke, but the latter was totally unaware of the existence of this paper when he published his own Memoir, which enters much more fully into the practical details of the method, and gives greater prominence to the importance of it as applied to the case of the minor planets.

By astronomers of the present day it is possible that Encke may be most highly estimated for the vast improvements which he introduced into the Berlin Ephemeris. The history of astronomical ephemerides is not a little varied and curious; a concise account of it will be found in the fourth volume of the Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society, on the occasion of the council of the Society presenting Encke, through their President, with a gold medal, for the part which he had taken in the improvement of the Berlin Ephemeris. Our own Nautical Almanac, at that day, viz. in 1830, had fallen or had remained greatly behind the requirements of astronomers; but in speaking of the merits of the foreign Ephemeris, the report of the Council runs as follows: ''A gold medal has been voted to Professor Encke for the superb Ephemeris of Berlin. It would be superfluous to dwell upon the merits of this well-known work, which, far outstripping all rivalry, must be considered as the only Ephemeris on a level with the present wants of the sciences." On presenting the medal, Sir James South, the President, adds, "With the Berlin Ephemeris, an observatory scarcely wants a single book; without it, every one." It would, however, be disloyal, though in any other aspect it may be needless, not to add that what has just been said of the Berlin Ephemeris of 1830, may with equal truth be predicated of the Nautical Almanacs from 1834 to the present date; nevertheless the first impulse came from Encke and Berlin.

Many other labours of Encke may also be found in the Memoirs and Monthly Reports of the Berlin Academy, in the Astronomische Nachrichten, and in four volumes of the Berlin Observations. He is also well known by the publication of several excellent speeches, and especially for a memorable éloge on the celebrated Bessel.

Encke visited England in the autumn of 1840, in order to be present at the meeting of the British Association, and for the purpose of inspecting the English Observatories. His account of that journey is a testimony of the deep and pleasing impression which his hearty reception in England left upon his memory.

In 1859 Encke suffered from an apoplectic fit, and foreseeing the commencement of disease of the brain, he obtained leave of absence from his Observatory in the spring of 1863. In the autumn of the same year, finding a recurrence of the same symptoms, and knowing what they implied, with a brave heart, the now aged man explained his forebodings to a physician, and at once placed himself under his care in an institution for diseases of the brain at Kiel. At the commencement of 1864 he requested permission to be relieved from all astronomical work, and until the time of his decease, continued to live in a quiet, happy state of mind, in the midst of his family, at Spandau, near Berlin.

Encke, during the forty years of his professorship at Berlin, impressed the form and bent of his mind upon many pupils, who have ably contributed their share in the progress of astronomical knowledge. There is no greater proof of the real worth of a teacher, than when his pupils speak well and lovingly of him. They see the man in his weakness and in his strength. So it fared with Encke. They bear strong and uniform testimony to his eminent frankness and truthfulness; his labours, they say, were incessant, his recreations few; he was simple in his manners, and in all his habits temperate. Towards his coadjutors and assistants he showed a severe judgment, but he set them a severer example. A man such as this, absorbed in his work, and shutting himself away from the outer world, was likely to be sometimes abrupt, or laconic, or even incautious, in his utterances; these utterances, from their bluntness or their truthfulness, occasionally gave offence, and involved Encke in trouble. As age, however, grew upon him he became more gentle in his manners, and softer in his address; and in the presence of those whom he knew and trusted, the old man would sometimes review his own life, and urge his favourite pupils to draw from his own experience lessons of moderation and self-restraint, both in passing their judgments on the labours of others, and in the amount of labour which they felt it their duty to exact from themselves.

There occurs but one more question regarding this great and venerable man; the writer of this memoir gladly adopts this language, great and venerable, because they are the very words selected by men who served him long and who knew him well, and who are themselves doing good public service in their own day. It is well known that great theological activity, not to say theological strife, surrounded Encke and every other intellectual thinker in Germany; it may not, perhaps, concern us, simply as students in Astronomy, but it cannot fail to interest us as men, to know what effect this independence of thought and boldness of expression had upon the spirit of a man, whose name will for ever be associated with some of the noblest and furthest-reaching efforts of the human mind. In reply to this question, we are told by those who knew him intimately, that Encke retained through life the strength and simplicity of his early faith; and we also learn that he was heard repeatedly to say, that one of the greatest pleasures of his life was derived from the fact, that one of his sons had become a minister of the Gospel.
[C. P.]

Last Updated November 2018