On This Day –2 September 1865, birth of William Rowan Hamilton






It was perhaps the most important example of anti-social behaviour in scientific history. What today might merely have merited an ASBO for the scraping of a piece of incomprehensible graffiti, back in 1843 was the breakthrough that William Rowan Hamilton needed to come up with the concept of something called the quaternion.


No one could have predicted at his birth that the son of Sarah Hutton and Archibald Hamilton, a Dunboyne, Co. Meath solicitor, would emerge as Ireland’s  most significant mathematician – other than Eamon de Valera – and one of the world’s foremost scientific minds.  But pretty soon after his birth it was clear to the extended Hamilton family that young William was a bit different.


He was sent at the age of three to live with his uncle James, a teacher and cleric, in Trim and there began to collect languages as a hobby. Before his teens he had already acquired a dozen. In addition to the predictable European tongues he had also picked up Hindustani, Sanskrit and Malay. Clearly the curriculum in Uncle James’s school was an interesting one.


It was a sobering experience at the age of eight that caused young William to wise up and stop messing around with foreign languages. Also something of a whizz at mental arithmethic in 1813 he was pitted against the visiting American mathematical genius Zerah Colburn in a head to head contest. Half the rakes of Dublin probably had money on the outcome. But it wasn’t a happy experience for young Hamilton. In this early Ryder Cup of Hard Sums – or ‘math’ as the young American would probably have called it – he lost out to Colburn. Realising he needed to up his game if he wanted to wanted to become a famous mathematician William Rowan Hamilton abandoned the acquisition of languages in favour of the solving of equations.


He entered Trinity College in 1823 and was appointed Professor of Astronomy in 1827. This was pretty rapid progress as he had yet to even graduate. That same year he took up residence in Dunsink Observatory and spent the rest of his life there.


Which brings us to his famous walk. It took place on 16 October 1843 when he and his wife left Dunsink to go for a stroll along the banks of the Royal Canal. We can only assume that they either walked in silence or that Hamilton, as is sadly the case with a lot of husbands, was paying little or no attention to what his spouse was saying, as they neared Broom Bridge in Cabra. Now while most men, in such circumstances, might have been idly poring over in their heads the advisibility of Manchester United, Chelsea, Kerry or Dublin acquiring a new head coach, Hamilton’s mind was concentrated on higher things – something called quaternions. These I am forced to concede, I know nothing whatever about and can’t even comprehend sufficiently to offer a passable Idiot’s Guide.


As the couple approached Broom Bridge Hamilton began to behave in a fashion that must have caused his wife some concern. He took out a penknife and carved

the following legend in the superstructure of the bridge


i² = j² = k² = ijk = -1


And, no, I’m very sorry but I don’t understand it either. This, it transpired, was the discovery of the quaternion, which apparently extends the range of complex numbers. One can only agree with the use of the word complex. The knowledge that her husband had discovered quaternions and was not simply vandalizing the bridge must have come as a great relief to Mrs. Hamilton.


Of course the moral of the story is, if you are a budding astronomer or mathematician who wants to make a difference, you should never leave the house without carrying a knife.


William Rowan Hamilton, mathematician and astronomer, died one hundred and fifty one years ago, on this day.




On This Day-29.1.1768 – Oliver Goldsmith’s first play The Good-Natured Man opens in London


Oliver Goldsmith must have been the despair of his mother – his father didn’t live long enough to see him fail at almost everything to which he turned his hand. Eventually he would write one of the finest plays, one of the best novels and one of the most ambitious long poems of the 18th century – but not before he had managed to mess up almost every opportunity that came his way.

Goldsmith was born either in Longford or Roscommon in November 1728, son of a Church of Ireland curate. In 1730 the family moved to Westmeath when his father was appointed rector to a parish in that county. In 1744 Goldsmith was admitted to Trinity College – there he learned to drink, gamble and play the flute. Although neither he nor the college greatly profited from his brief tenure his subsequent fame has earned him one of the two most prominent statutes in that venerable institution, overlooking College Green.

His father died around the time he graduated and Goldsmith moved back in to the family home so that he could be a burden on his poor mother rather than on himself. He got a job as a tutor, and quickly lost it after a quarrel. He decided to emigrate to America, but managed to miss his boat. He then took fifty pounds with him to Dublin to help establish himself as a student of law, but instead he lost it all gambling. He pretended to study medicine in Edinburgh, but rather than knuckle down he took off on a Grand Tour of Europe, keeping body and soul together by busking with his flute.

Eventually he settled in London and began to churn out hack writing work to keep him gambling in the manner to which he had become accustomed. Because, in spite of himself, he also occasionally published something of merit, he came to the attention of the famous wit and lexicographer Samuel Johnson. He became a founder member of the club of writers and intellectuals unimaginatively entitled ‘The Club’. This included Johnson, his biographer James Boswell, the actor-manager David Garrick, the statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke and the painter Joshua Reynolds. Heady company for a young ne’er do well from Ballymahon.

In 1760 he wrote the epic poem The Deserted Village – elements of which schoolchildren of a certain age were once forced to learn by heart. This tells the story of the fictional village of Auburn that has been laid waste to make way for the ornamental gardens of a local landowner. The poem is a critique of rural depopulation and the seizure of valuable agricultural land by the wealthy.

… The man of wealth and pride

Takes up a space that many poor supplied;

Space for his lake, his park’s extended bounds,

Space for his horses, equipage, and hounds:

The robe that wraps his limbs in silken sloth

Has robbed the neighbouring fields of half their growth

He followed this up with his charming novel The Vicar of Wakefield in 1766 and one of the greatest comic plays in the English language, She Stoops to Conquer, in 1773. Prior to that classic play he had a modicum of success with The Good Natured Man, which bombed on the London stage but, perversely, sold a lot of copies when the text was published.

Success enabled Goldsmith to carry on a style of life that virtually guaranteed an early exit. And so it proved. He continued to gamble and drink on a spectacular scale and ended up in debt and in bad health, simultaneously. He died in 1774 at the age of 45.

Despite all his achievements as a novelist, playwright and poet he’s probably still best remembered today for an inspired piece of doggerel, no pun intended, Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog – the title gives away the ending but the short verse is a satire on hypocrisy, corruption and pietism in which a man of acknowledged substance, guilty of all three vices, is bitten by a dog and given up for dead by the commentariat – then comes the sting in the tail (and yes, the pun is intended this time)

But soon a wonder came to light,

That showed the rogues they lied:

The man recovered of the bite,

The dog it was that died.


Oliver Goldsmith’s play The Good Natured Man opened in London to less than ecstatic reviews 247 years ago, on this day.