The South-Troughton quarrel

Edward Troughton, towards the end of his life, became involved in a dispute which with Sir James South, President of the Royal Astronomical Society from 1829 to 1831. The dispute is described in detail in [1] below:-

South after doing good work with smaller instruments, chiefly on double stars, erected an observatory at Camden Hill, Kensington, about 1826. In 1829 he secured what was then the largest object-glass in existence ... He entrusted Troughton with the task of constructing a mounting, and had a large dome built for it. ... In a letter ... dated June 22 [ 1832] he pronounced the dome to be a "national disgrace" and the polar axis "a decided failure". ... An acrimonious correspondence between South and Troughton & Simms, which has commenced in the previous spring, was now resumed with great vigour and, thanks to South's ill-temper, went from bad to worse. Every obstacle was put in the way of the experiments and attempts to strengthen the mounting, by which its makers endeavoured to rectify the faults found with it, a task which turned out to be hopeless owing to the utter impossibility of getting South to listen to reason.

The mounting was of the so-called English form. ... The fault found with it was this: when the instrument was turned a little on its axis and then let go, a series of about a dozen short, quick vibrations followed, each lasting about 0.3 or 0.4 second. This was remedied by Sheepshanks by altering the bearing of the lower pivot. [This produced further problems which Dryer details and explains how they too were corrected.]

The instrument had thus been freed from the imperfections complained of, but South remained obstinate, stopped further work and continued to refuse to pay Troughton's bill. Proceedings were therefore commenced towards the end of 1833 to compel him to do so; but as so many technical questions were involved, the court recommended arbitration, which was agreed to. Mr William Henry Maule, who was made arbitrator, had been senior Wrangler in 1810; he became afterwards a Justice of the Common Pleas. Council for Troughton & Simms was Mr Starkie (Senior Wrangler in 1803), with Sheepshanks as his advisor; for South was Mr Drinkwater Bethune, a high Wrangler of 1823 (Airy's year). (Drinkwater Bethune wrote lives of Galileo and Kepler in the Library of Useful Knowledge, and with Sir John Lubbock a little book On Probability, in the same series.) Maule at once insisted that Troughton & Simms should be allowed to finish their work according to the plan proposed by Sheepshanks, but only to be paid for if successful. In 1834 July, after most of the time allowed had been spent on getting a screw made and the clock put up, the instrument was shown to and tested by Pond and Donkin, who had to acknowledge that it was perfectly fit for the work that it was intended for, viz. micrometric measures of double stars. Measures if several pairs were successfully taken by Airy and others.

The legal proceeding went on for a couple of months longer, and in 1834 December the whole claim was awarded, including payments for the additions. But although the instrument had been proved to be satisfactory, South was not to be turned from his desire of posing martyr. He smashed the whole mounting to pieces, and in 1836 December advertised the fragments for sale by auction, by means of a scurrilous poster, in which the Royal Astronomical Society, Troughton & Simms, and "their assistants, Mr Airy and the Rev R Sheepshanks," came in for a good deal of abuse. His folly cost him fully £8,000. ...

South was in the habit of strolling up and down his garden in the evening, shouting his grievances at the top of his voice to some friend, while people from the neighbourhood were regularly enjoying themselves on the other side of the wall by listening to his ravings. ...

We have given a rather full account of this affair of South's telescope ... as details of it are but little known and, for the sake of Troughton's reputation, deserve to be put in a proper light. This is the more necessary, as South had a good name as a practical astronomer; and it should therefore not be forgotten that his charge against Troughton of having failed to make a proper mounting for a 19-foot telescope was not justified.

1. J L E Dryer, History of the Royal Astronomical Society 1830-1840 in History of the Royal Astronomical Society 1820-1920 (London 1923), 50-81.

References (show)

  1. J L E Dryer, History of the Royal Astronomical Society 1830-1840 in History of the Royal Astronomical Society 1820-1920 (London 1923), 50-81.

Last Updated February 2005