[Sir] William Rowan Hamilton (1805-65)


Life
b. 4 Aug. 1805, 36 Lwr. Dominick St., Dublin; became Professor of Astronomy at Trinity College Dublin, and Astronomer Royal while still an undergraduate; contrib. to Dublin Literary Weekly; his inaugural lecture on astronomy at TCD, 8 Nov. 1832, was reprinted in the newly-founded Dublin University Review, Vol. 1 No. 1. (January 1833);
 
elected honorary member of the Academy of St. Petersberg, and Astronomer Royal for Ireland; elected President of the RIA (1837-46) - in which capacity he secured the £1,000 govt. grant for the publication of O’Donovan’s translation of the Annals of the Four Masters (1848-51); lectures on quaternions, 1843; Elements of Quaternions (1866) or algebra of pure space; he inscribed formula for quaternions on parapet of Broom [prop. Brougham; occas. Broome] Bridge on the Grand Canal while walking with his wife from Dunsink to the Royal Academy on Dawson St., 16 Oct. 1843 (“an electric circuit seemed to close, and a spark flashed forth”);
 
his abilities were impaired by deteriorating marital relations and drinking in later life; d. 2 Sept. Dublin; there is a biography by Robert Perceval Graves (1882) while Charles Jasper Joly (1864-1906) edited his Quaternions and published a Manual of Quaterions (1905); besides his mathematical attainments, he was an acknowledged linguist and poet; there is a portrait of Hamilton by Thomas Kirk. CAB PI ODNB TAY DIB DIW DIH RAF OCEL OCIL

Go to the TCD History of Mathematics Website created by David R. Wilkins (TCD) ...
*Contains further articles on George Berkeley and George Boole.

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Works
Numerous poems incl. in Robert Perceval P. Graves, The Life of Sir W. Rowan Hamilton: Professor of Astronomy in University of Dublin and Royal Astronomer of Ireland, incl. selection from his poems, corr., and miscell. writing (Dublin: Hodges Figgis 1882) [from which Mary Moorman quotes in her biography of Wordsworth]. His introductory lecture on Astronomy at TCD, held among the Madden Papers of the Gilbert Collection as MS 282 (Pearse St. Library, Dublin) was was printed in Dublin University Magazine (Jan. 1833).

There is a memorial plaque on Broome Bridge of the Royal Canal - now somewhat eroded:
Here as he walked by
on the 16th of October 1843
Sir William Rowan Hamilton
in a flash of genius discovered
the fundamental formula for
quarternion multiplication
i2 = j2 = k2 = ijk = 1
& cut it on a stone of this bridge.
See photograph and copy given at Wikipedia online - accessed 19.05.2011.

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Criticism

  • Robert Percival Graves, Life of Sir William Rowan Hamilton: Including Selections from His Poems, Correspondence, and Miscellaneous W ritings 3 vols. (London: Longmans 1882-89);
  • Herbert V. Fackler, ‘Wordsworth in Ireland, 1829: A Survey of His Tour’, in Éire-Ireland, 6, 1 (Spring 1971), pp.53-64;
  • Sean O’Donnell, William Rowan Hamilton: Portrait of a Prodigy (Dublin: Boole Press 1983).

See also Irish Book Lover 2. See also remarks on Hamilton in Speeches of the Rt. Hon. J. P. Curran [ ...] on the late [ ...] State Trials [2nd edn.] (Dublin: Stockdale 1808).

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Commentary
Barbara Hayley, ‘Irish Periodicals’, in Anglo-Irish Studies, ii (1976) [pp.83-108], for remarks: ‘the Dublin University Review and Quarterly, which ran for a year from January 1833, an uncontentious magazine, contained William Rowan Hamilton’s sonnets, also imitations and translations of classical poetry, verses in Spanish, discussions of natural phenomena, continental books reviewed [&c].’ (p.97.)

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References
Dictionary of National Biography
, competed as a child with Zerah Colburn, ‘the calculating boy’; at 16 detected error in Laplace’s Mechanique Céleste; double first at TCD; twice won Vice-Chancellor’s poetry prize; predicted ‘conical refraction’ while an undergraduate; appoint ed Andrews chair of Astronomy, 1827; astronomer royal of Ireland; gold medal, RSoc. for optical discovery, and for theory of general method of dynamics, 1834; knighted 1835; Pres. RIA, 1837; published Lectures on Quaternions (1853); Elements of Quarternions (1866), appeared posthumously.

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Geoffrey Taylor, Irish Poets of the 19th c. (1951). Taylor, Aubrey de Vere reports that Coleridge and Hamilton were the only men to whom Wordsworth would think of applying the term wonderful.

Margaret Drabble, Oxford Companion of English Literature (Oxford: OUP 1985), entry on Hamilton describes him as a mathematician and a friend of Wordsworth - who stayed with him at Dunsink in 1829 - Coleridge, Edgeworth and others.

Belfast Linenhall Library holds R. P. Graves, Life of Sir William Rowan Hamilton, 3 Vol. (1882-89).

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Notes
Equation: the famous equation that Hamilton scratched on Broom Bridge, giving him the key to quaternions, was: i2 = j2 = k2 = ijk=1. (See Village, 30 Dec. 2004, p.53.)

Gameboy: called the Icosian Game, it consisted of 20 numbered pieces in the shape of plugs which are moved on a round board configured in irradiating variable pentagons with plug-holes at each juncture. The board is held in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin (RIA).

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Drink problem: R. L. Graves’ biography makes extensive references to Hamilton's marital unhappiness and his drinking, whilst more recent biographical accounts do not.

A Portrait of William Rowan Hamilton by Thomas Kirk (see Anne Crookshank Irish Portraits [Exhibition Catalogue], Ulster Museum 1965).

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William Wordsworth: Mary Moorman quotes from the life of Hamilton by Robert Perceval P. Graves (1882) in her biography of the English romantic poet.

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