Stone E.J.

STONE,  Edwin James [FRS]
Professional Astronomer

Born: 28 February 1831, London, U.K.
Died: 9 May 1897, Oxford, U.K.


In brief :
Famous for:
Director of the
Cape Observatory between 1870 to 1879.
Produced the Catalogue of Southern Hemisphere Stars
Produced Radcliffe Catalogue.
Did the first scientific spectroscopy in South Africa
Nominated as the Radcliffe Observer, Oxford, between 1879 to ?
Directing astronomer for the British Transit committee. (1882
Transit of Venus)
Stone suffered from ill health. Observation in the cool of the night did not agree with his constitution. As a brilliant mathematician his talents lay more in the theoretical aspects of astronomy and he specialized in distance calculations (Astronomical Unit). He was even appointed director to organize the British Transit committee for the Transit of Venus in 1882. This was part of an international effort to calculate the Astronomical Unit.
The Admiralty had a problem with South Africa in that the appointed astronomer at the Cape Observatory did not do what was requested of him. The astronomer was Maclear, a brilliant astronomer in all respects, but he dragged his feet to prepare a catalogue of the positions and brightness of Southern Hemisphere stars. Stone was chosen as director at the Cape after Maclear’s retirement. He did a brilliant job of preparing the catalogue in a short period of time. The drawback was that he was too focused on the catalogue and he neglected other duties and when he left the Cape Observatory was in a serious state of disrepair. He became the Radcliffe Observer at Oxford.

Historical background :
Edward James Stone was born in London on 28 February 1831. He was a sickly person and spends most of his early years with relatives in Devon. He showed no particular predilection for study until his late teens.
At the age of twenty his abilities at mathematics became apparent and he was persuaded to become a student at Kings College in London. His progress was rapid and in 1855 he entered Queens College, Oxford. Continued ill health frustrated his studies but in 1859 he graduated as Fifth Wrangler. (‘Wrangler is the name given in the University of Cambridge to those who have attained the first class in the public mathematical honours examination.  The word itself is derived from the public disputations in which candidates for degrees were, in former times, required to exhibit their powers.’ [Moore, p.44.]) Shortly afterwards he was appointed a Fellow of his College. [Warner – Astronomers, p.73.]
In 1860 the Astronomer Royal, Sir George Airy, appointed Stone as Chief assistant to Greenwich Observatory. He had no experience of Astronomy which necessitated instruction from the senior members of staff. Although he quickly mastered the techniques of practical astronomy, his lack of practical inclination and inability to tolerate night work (due to his health), led Stone to follow his talents in the theoretical field. [Warner – Astronomers, p.73.]
During his time at Greenwich Stone accomplished an impressive quantity of original research. His principal interest was to determine the size of the solar system, in particular to calculate the distance from the Earth to the Sun, referred to as the Astronomical Unit. Airy referred to the Astronomical Unit as “the noblest problem in Astronomy.” As he was not a great observational astronomer he re-examined published studies, including measurements made by Maclear on the position of Mars. Due to the success of his research Stone was elected to the Royal Society in 1868 and received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1869. [Warner – Astronomers, pp.73 – 74.]
In 1866 he married Grace Tuckett.
  In June 1870 Stone was appointed as director of the Cape Observatory. The predecessor to Stone was Thomas Maclear, who tasked with preparing a catalogue of Southern Hemisphere Stars. He made an incredible amount of observations but not the reductions. When Maclear retired nearly four decades after the request, the catalogue was not even close to completion. The British Admiralty was looking for a person who could complete the star catalogue as the main priority. To Airy the logical choice was Stone.
Stone and his family (Grace and a child) sailed on the mail steamer Saxon and arrived at Cape Town on 13 October 1870. He took up residence at the Observatory on 22 October.
   In contrast to Maclear who was very active in social activities at the Cape, Stone was very withdrawn. The following letter by Stone to Airy (dated 17 June 1871) illuminates the problems: [Warner – Astronomers, pp.74 – 75.]
“Dear Sir,
I must congratulate the KCB’s on having you amongst them. [Airy had several times previously declined knighthood]. I am getting on quite well comfortably and have complete command over the observatory and staff. My orders are carried out without murmurs audible to me; more I cannot of course answer for. I have to keep myself rather aloof from Sir Thos [his abbreviation for Thomas] Maclear although, I believe, that we are on perfectly friendly terms and I fully recognize his many good and engaging qualities. He was however rather inclined to hang me here and patronize me and naturally enough, on his part, was anxious to force his son prominently forward on terms on equality: this on my part, equally naturally I presume, did not, under the circumstances, consider desirable for,
Mr G. Maclear is not a man of any knowledge or power-:
I found out when I arrived that my appointment had been made a question of newspaper discussion by some friends of the Maclears and
Manns. Sir Thos was regarded here as a great astronomical genius, equal at least of the Herschel‘s and yourself. Mr Mann was considered as second only to Sir Thos. The observatory was regarded as one of the wonders of the world, and the amount of work done by the observatory as prodigious.
Of me they had never heard and knew nothing except that I had been an assistant at Greenwich as G. Maclear was here. It was not known that I was a University man or had ever done anything or obtained any position at all in England. It was thought however that I had been most unfairly and unjustly appointed instead or Mr Mann, through a piece of red tapes in England, because Mr Mann happened to be a year or two over fifty-¦
You will see that our arrival here were rather in a hornets’ nest. Poor old Sir Thos too could not sigh leave of attendance, on one excuse and another, at the observatory not attempting to interfere when here … I very soon shewed that I would brook no interference in Observatory matters. In this I took my own course without the slightest regard to the opinion of any one here -¦ It was soon found that things were going on and all difficulties began to vanish. There has followed what you might expect, a reaction and we now have to take care that we are not drawn out into Society more than either of us wish.
You need not fear about my position here. I can hold my own with the greatest ease. I of course shall not be popular, in the same sense that Maclear was popular, when the observatory was open at night to visitors and turned into a show place.”
During Stone’s time as Director, he worked mostly on reducing Maclear’s data.  Stone noted the position of all Southern Stars brighter than  7th magnitude. +/- 12 000 stars. This includes the Radcliffe Catalogue. (Position of 6 424 stars between the celestial  equator and declination -25)
Spectroscopy was a relative new science at the time and Stone decided to try. He brought with him from England a Browning spectroscope and mounted it on the Mertz 7-inch telescope. The mounting was too weak and he ordered a new mounting which arrived in 1874. He also ordered a larger spectrograph, but it is not known if this instrument ever arrived at Cape Town. [Warner – Astronomers, p.76.]
In 1871 Stone worked on the methodology on how to measure the speed of sound. The firing of the noon day cannon was controlled electronically from the Observatory.  He used chronographic (time) measurements of the interval between firing of the noon day gun and the instant  the sound arrived at  the Cape Observatory. (About thirteen seconds) Corrections of air temperature and wind velocity were available from the Wind Tower. [Laing, p. 11; Warner – Astronomers, p.76.]
1872:  Whilst in Cape Town, he witnessed the memorable Aurora of February.
On 16 April 1874 there was a total solar eclipse in the northern parts of South Africa.  In order to cause the least amount of interruption to the work at the Observatory Stone took only his wife along to Klipfontein in Namaqualand. As the Observatory did not have a portable telescope at this time he borrowed a 4-inch telescope from a Mr. Henry Solomon of Cape Town. Stone and his wife travelled to Namaqualand first on a Copper Ore Ship to Port Nolloth. From there by a railway line so recently completed that there was not yet a locomotive and the mine tramway was pulled by mules inland to Klipfontein. (Not the same Klipfontein visited by Lacaille and Maclear.) He took his
Browning spectroscope along and made the first ever scientific spectroscopic observations in Southern Africa. Before the eclipse Stone published a newspaper article alerting interested observers to the importance of making carefully executed drawings of the corona. The results of his observations and drawings, and the drawings received from were published in the Memoirs of the Royal Society. He confirmed Young’s spectroscopic observation of “reversing layer” above the sun’s bright surface. [Warner – Astronomers, p.76.]
Shortly before the solar eclipse, the Cape Observatory received new magnetic equipment from England and Stone made a few measurements in Cape Town. He took these instruments on the eclipse expedition and produced the first set of magnetic observations of Namaqualand. [Warner – Astronomers, p.76.]
Stone also made great contributions to
Transit of Venus observations. After the disappointing results from the 1874 transit he reviewed the British report and noted serious discrepancies. By reworking the data he estimated a more accurate value for the Sun-Earth distance. [Koorts – British, pp. 36 – 37]
During 1875 Stone went on a quick visit to England to organise the publishing of the results of  the reduction work as they were progressing very well. While he was there he was persuaded to assist in an international effort to monitor sunspots. As a result he brought back with him a De La Rue type photoheliograph made by Dallmeyer. With this instrument he intended to take two photographs of the Sun everyday. It was installed in a wooden hut with an attached darkroom, the only building that was erected during Stone’s tenure as director. After an enthusiastic start of Observations on 12 February 1876 interest slowly waned and only a very few photographs were actually taken. [Warner – Astronomers, p.77.]
Most of the early Astronomers at the Cape Observatory were very active in the social life at the Cape. Stone was an exception. Stone’s appointment was not received favourably amongst Capetonians. Furthermore he had to compete with
Maclear, his predecessor who was very popular. Maclear also continued his social activities after he retired and it was only when Maclear became blind that niches opened for Stone to fill. Stone served on the Meteorological Commission from 1874, on the Council (and as examiner) for the University of the Cape of Good Hope from 1878 and of the Committee of the South African Public Library in 1879.
During Stone’s directorship the Cape Observatory was not a happy place to work at. In the first place he was very rigid and therefore not a popular director. The focus at the Observatory was to produce the catalogue of Southern Hemisphere Stars and little else. The work to reduce Maclear’s data was not very exiting. Added to this situation was remuneration. “The salaries of the observatory staff have been fixed much below the Colonial Standard [since it was paid by the Admiralty] and young men of ability can get appointments under the Colonial Government at higher salaries for less work and less drain upon the brain”. Thus there was a high turnover of personnel. Stone appealed to no avail to the Admiralty to improve the salaries. [Warner – Astronomers, p.77.]
In his last years as director Maclear did not pay much attention to the upkeep of the Observatory grounds and it fell into slight disrepair. When Stone took over he was totally focused on producing the catalogue and little else. As Professor Warner so aptly states: “Although Stone gathered no moss, the Observatory certainly did”. Thus at the end of his tenure the grounds were in a state of total disrepair, and as Stone himself wrote: “My successor will find things in a great mess. I have devoted my last month to a general cleaning up which is much required, and to putting away all the books of the observations and the books of the reduction accumulated here during my term of office in the Record Room”. His successor,
David Gill, indeed had a momentous task ahead of him. [Warner – Astronomers, p.78.]
The leadership style of Stone; he commanded, rather than earned respect.

 In 1878 the Radcliffe Observer at Oxford, Robert Main, died and Stone was one of five applicants for the post. In December 1878 Stone was appointed Radcliffe Observer in Oxford, England with the provision that he stays on at the Cape and finish the catalogue. The reasons he cited for wishing to leave the Cape were the following: [Warner – Astronomers, pp.77 – 78.

  • That this relaxing climate does not suit me at all. It is a fine climate for one who has no work to do, but a very trying one for anyone who has to work hard. Every hot season I have been obliged to take tonics and my medical man has warned me that I could not long continue in this climate to work as I was now working.
  • My wife has convinced herself that the Cape, or at all events the Observatory, does not suit her. We are surrounded by marshes and when the hot season sets in we are liable to miasma.
  • Since the establishment of Responsible Government at the Cape the salaries of all kinds have increased to such an extend that it is quite impossible to maintain an efficient staff here-¦You can hardly expect people to live here for years amongst Colonists without adopting their ideas and Standards of salaries and living. So far as I am concerned, although we have lived in a style that the people here call mean, I have not been able to save anything worth consideration.

  In May 1879 the catalogue was completed and he sailed for England on 27 May. The catalogue of Southern Hemisphere Stars contained 12 441 stars and it was published in 1880. Thus the catalogue the Admiralty requested from Maclear in 1834 took nearly half a century to complete. . [Warner – Astronomers, p.79.]
Stone was awarded the Lalande Medal of the Paris Academy of Sciences for producing the Catalogue. [Warner – Astronomers, p.79.]
For the 1882 transit he was appointed directing astronomer responsible for arranging the British expeditions and reduce the data. [Koorts – British, pp. 36 – 37]
At Oxford he produced the Radcliffe Catalogue in 1890 of 6 424 stars. . [Warner – Astronomers, p.79.]
Stone died whilst he was still the Radcliffe Observer, on 9 May 1897.

1859: Graduated  King’s College, Cambridge. Fifth Wrangler
1860 – 1870: Chief Assistant at Greenwich Observatory to Sir George Airy.
(Astronomer Royale)
1868: Elected to be a member of the Royal Society.
1869: Received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society.
1870 – 1879: Director of the Royal Cape Observatory
His Chief Assistants were: Mann (1870 – 1872)
Finlay (1873 – 1879)
1874 – 79: Served on Meteorological Commission.
1878 – 79: Served on Council (and as examiner) for the University of the Cape of Good Hope.
1879: Served on the Committee of the South African Public Library.
1879:  Returned to England upon being nominated Radcliffe Observer
at Oxford.
1880: Publish the Catalogue of Southern Hemisphere Stars.
Awarded Lalande Medal from the French Academie of Sciences for the Catalogue.
1882: For the transit of Venus Stone was appointed as the directing astronomer   responsible for arranging the British expeditions and reduce the data.
1890:  Publish Radcliffe Catalogue.

1831 February 28:  Born in London.
Spend most of his youth in Devon as he was sickly.
Student at Kings College, London.
1855: Entered Queens College, Oxford.
1897 May 9:  Died at Oxford
Stone described his time in Cape Town as the most rewarding in his life.
The leadership style of Stone; he commanded, rather than earned respect.


Link to the Telescope Manufacturers.

Browning Spectroscope


Link to the Main Bibliography Section and more information about Sources.

Remaining Artifacts:Pictorial:
Laing,  J.D. (ed.), The Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope 1820 – 1970 Sesquicentennial Offerings.Bibliography:
Koorts, W.: The 1882 transit of Venus: The British expeditions to South Africa; MNASSA April 2004, Vol. 63 nos. 3 & 4, pp. 34 – 57.
Laing, J.D. (ed.), The Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope 1820  – 1970 Sesquicentennial Offerings, p. 11.
Moore, P. & Collins, P., Astronomy in Southern Africa, p. 71.   (General Source)
Smits, P., A Brief History of Astronomy in Southern Africa. (Unpublished)
Warner, B., Astronomers at the Royal Observatory Cape of Good Hope.

By Stone:

-Maclear-Mann Papers (Accession No. 515): this extensive accumulation  of manuscripts and correspondence is contained in 139 files. They  derive from presentations made by members of the Maclear family and from donations from the Trigonometric Survey and from the Royal Observatory, Cape. Although mostly concerning Sir Thomas Maclear and William Mann, a considerable amount of material relates to Sir  John Herschel and to the early history of the Cape Observatory. Excluding miscellaneous files of accounts, testimonials, newspaper  cuttings, etc., the most significant references are:
121 Miscellaneous, including Henderson’s R.A. and Dec. reductions, Stone’s accounts. Gill’s expedition to Ascension Islands.

-Edward J. Stone (1870-79). Correspondence: General and official (1870-79), Simon’s Town (1870-78), Admiralty (1870-79), Hydrographer (1870-74), HMSO (1870-75), Port Elizabeth Time Ball (1871-76), Coast Lighthouses Commission (1871-76), Meteorological Commission (1874-78), Accounts (1871-76), Airy (1870-79, 2 vols.).

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Edward James Stone
Source: Laing