[Sir] William Rowan Hamilton (1805-65)

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); fell in love with Catherine Disney, who entered a marriage with Rev. William Barlow [see under Jane Barlow, q.v.]; suffered from romantic disappointment and depression; later became enamoured of Ellen de Vere; m. Helen Maria Bayly, April 1833, also a love-match, residing together at the Dunsink Observatory; he was knighted in 1835 for his discovery of conical refraction;
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); 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’); lectured on quaternions, 1843; issued Elements of Quaternions (1866) or an ‘algebra of pure space’;
d. 2 Sept. 1965, in Dublin; Charles Jasper Joly [q.v.] edited his Quaternions (1899-1901) and later published a Manual of Quaterions (1905); besides his mathematical attainments, Hamiulton was an acknowledged linguist and poet; there is a portrait by Thomas Kirk; Robert Perceval Graves biography of Hamilton (1882-89) erroneously implied that he suffered marital unhappiness and declined into drunkenness - a view corrected in later studies; Hamilton’s theory of Quaternions gives us the word ‘vectors’ meaning a quarternion of which a part is 0 [zero]. CAB PI ODNB TAY DIB DIW DIH RAF OCEL OCIL
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Go to the TCD History of Mathematics website created by David R. Wilkins (TCD) - online:
Note: History of Mathematics cContains further articles on George Berkeley and George Boole.

Note: Anne van Weerden (Univ. of Utrecht, NL) has written on the marriage of W. R. Hamilton correcting the widespread supposition that he was a drunkard in later life, as portrayed in the life by Robert Perceval Graves (1882-89). See ‘A most gossiped about genius: Sir William Rowan Hamilton’, in BSHM Bulletin: The Journal of the British Society for the History of Mathematics (12 Dec. 2017), pp.2-20 - available online. See also van Weerden’s full-length study, A Victorian Marriage: Sir William Rowan Hamilton (Stedum, NL: J Fransje van Weerden 2015; corr. edn. 2017) - available at Google Books online.
Photo Album

Anne van Weerden has a Photo-page (album) of Sir William Hamilton at different ages, also with his wife, and portraits of others in Ireland associated with his life in science.

See further - online; accessed 20.02.2018.

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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).

Restored plaque commemorating the discovery of Quaternions at Broome Bridge, Dublin
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 also photo of the plaque before restoration as given at Wikipedia - online or as attached [accessed 19.05.2011].

William Rowan Hamilton's sonnet on Shakespeare:

Who says that Shakspeare did not know his lot,
But deem’d that in time’s manifold decay
His memory should die and pass away,
And that within the shrine of human thought
To him no altar should be reared? O hush!
O veil thyself awhile in solemn awe!
Nor dream that all man’s mighty spirit-law
Thou know’st; how all the hidden fountains gush
Of the soul’s silent prophesying power.
For as deep Love, ’mid all its wayward pain,
Cannot believe but it is loved again,
Even so, strong Genius, with its ample dower
Of a world-grasping love, from that deep feeling
Wins of its own wide sway the clear revealing.

Quoted at the conclusion of Rev. Charles Graves's memorial address on Hamilton given before the Royal Irish Academy on 30th November, 1865. See History of Mathematics (TCD) - online; accessed 09.02.2018. Charles Graves was himself an RIA President while his brother John Graves was the author of an RIA paper on imaginary logarithms.

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  • Robert Percival Graves, Life of Sir William Rowan Hamilton: Including Selections from His Poems, Correspondence, and Miscellaneous Writings, 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).
  • Thomas L. Hankins, William Hamilton Rowan (Johns Hopkins UP 2004), 496pp. [see note].
  • Anne van Weerden, ‘A most gossiped about genius: Sir William Rowan Hamilton’, in BSHM Bulletin: The Journal of the British Society for the History of Mathematics (12 Dec. 2017), pp.2-20 [available online].
  • Anne van Weerden, A Victorian Marriage: Sir William Rowan Hamilton (J. Fransje van Weerden 2017), 508pp. [available online].

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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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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.

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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A Portrait of William Rowan Hamilton by Thomas Kirk (see Anne Crookshank Irish Portraits [Exhibition Catalogue], Ulster Museum 1965). Note that Mary Moorman quotes from the life of Hamilton by Robert Perceval Graves (1882) in her biography of William Wordsworth.

Kith & Kin: William Rowan Hamilton [WRH] was a son of Archibald Hamilton (AH) and grandson of William Hamilton (WH), a Dublin apothecary. WH had married Grace MacFerrand, orig. from Galloway in Scotland, who had been adopted by Gawen Hamilton and Jane Rowan [Lady Jane Rowan Hamilton] of Killileagh Castle (or Killileigh; i.e., Killyleagh, Co. Down), thus becoming the sister of the United Irishman Archibald Hamilton Rowan (1750-1834; qv.). Hence Archibald Hamilton Rowan (AHR) was WRH’s paternal grand-uncle - and also his godfather. (Synopsis of remarks by Anne van Weerden on Hamilton’s second given name.) [For further on Killyleagh Castle, see under Archibald Hamilton Rowan - as infra.]

Thomas L. Hankins, William Hamilton Rowan (Johns Hopkins UP 2004): ‘One of the most imaginative mathematicians of the nineteenth century, Sir William Rowan Hamilton (1805–1865) changed the course of modern algebra with his discovery of quaternions in 1843. Although Hamilton's work was largely theoretical, his ideas came to have invaluable practical applications with the advent of quantum mechanics in the twentieth century. In this acclaimed biography, Thomas L. Hankins brings together the many aspects of Hamilton's life and work―from his significant contributions to mathematics, optics, and mechanics to his passion for metaphysics, poetry, and politics―fully portraying the brilliant man whose faith and idealism guided him in everything he did.’ (Amazon notice - online; accessed 20.02.2018).

Gameboy: The Icosian Game is a board game devised by Hamilton consisting of 20 numbered pieces in the shape of plugs which move on a round board configured in irradiating variable pentagons with plug-holes at each juncture. The game is held in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin (RIA).

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