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Robert Stawell Ball

Robert Stawell Ball
Born (1840-07-01)1 July 1840
Dublin, Ireland
Died 25 November 1913(1913-11-25) (aged 73)
Cambridge, England
Nationality Irish
Fields Astronomy
Institutions University of Dublin
Cambridge Observatory
Alma mater University of Dublin
Known for Bruh theory

Sir Robert Stawell Ball FRS (1 July 1840 – 25 November 1913) was an Irish astronomer[1] who founded the screw theory.


  • Life 1
  • Lectures 2
  • References 3
  • External links 4


He was the son of naturalist Robert Ball[2] and Amelia Gresley Hellicar. He was born in Dublin.[3]

Ball worked for Lord Rosse from 1865 to 1867. In 1867 he became Professor of Applied Mathematics at the Royal College of Science in Dublin. There he lectured on mechanics and published an elementary account of the science.[4]

In 1874 Ball was appointed Royal Astronomer of Ireland and Andrews Professor of Astronomy in the University of Dublin at Dunsink Observatory.[5]

Ball contributed to the science of kinematics by delineating the screw displacement:

When Ball and the screw theorists speak of screws they no longer mean actual cylindrical objects with helical threads cut into them but the possible motion of any body whatsoever, including that of the screw independently of the nut.[6]

Ball's treatise The Theory of Screws (1876) is now in the public domain.[7] His work on screw dynamics earned him in 1879 the Cunningham Medal of the Royal Irish Academy.[8]

In 1882 Popular Science Monthly carried his article "A Glimpse through the Corridors of Time".[9] The following year it carried his two-part article on "The Boundaries of Astronomy".[10]

Ball expounded the tides in Time and Tide: a Romance of the Moon[11] In 1892 he was appointed Lowndean Professor of Astronomy and Geometry at Cambridge University at the same time becoming director of the Cambridge Observatory. He was a fellow of King's College, Cambridge.

In 1900 Cambridge University Press published A Treatise on the Theory of Screws[12] That year he also published The Story of the Heavens[13] Much in the limelight, he stood as President of the Quaternion Society. He was also President of the Mathematical Association in 1900.[14]

In 1908 he published A Treatise on Spherical Astronomy,[15] which is a textbook on astronomy starting from spherical trigonometry and the celestial sphere, considering atmospheric refraction and aberration of light, and introducing basic use of a generalised instrument.

His work The Story of the Heavens is mentioned in the "Ithaka" chapter of Ulysses. His lectures, articles and books (e.g. Starland and The Story of the Heavens) were mostly popular and simple in style.

He died in Cambridge and was buried at the Parish of the Ascension Burial Ground in Cambridge, with his wife Lady Francis Elizabeth Ball.[16] Their children were: Frances Amelia, Robert Steele, William Valentine (later Sir), Mary Agnetta, Charles Rowan Hamilton, and Randall Gresley (later Colonel).


Ball became celebrated for his popular lectures on science. He gave an estimated 2500 lectures between 1875 and 1910 in towns and cities across Britain and Ireland.[17][18] In 1892, 1898 and 1900 he was invited to deliver the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture. Astronomy; Astronomy and Great Chapters from the Book of Nature.


  1. ^ "Ball, Sir Robert Stawell". Who's Who 59: 83–84. 1907. 
  2. ^ Hockey, Thomas (2009). The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers.  
  3. ^
  4. ^ R.S. Ball (1871) Experimental Mechanics: A course of lectures delivered at the Royal College of Science for Ireland from Google books
  5. ^ Ball, Robert Stawell from
  6. ^ Müller-Sievers, Helmut (2012). The Cylinder: Kinematics of the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley:  
  7. ^ R.S. Ball (1876) The Theory of Screws: A study in the dynamics of a rigid body from Internet Archive
  8. ^ "Robert Stawell Ball". University of St Andrews, Scotland. Retrieved 31 October 2014. 
  9. ^ R.S. Ball (1882) A Glimpse through the Corridors of Time from Wikisource
  10. ^ R.S. Ball (1883) The Boundaries of Astronomy Part I and Part II
  11. ^ See Project Gutenberg
  12. ^ R.S. Ball (1900) A Treatise on the Theory of Screws, weblink from Cornell University Historical Math Monographs
  13. ^ The Story of the Heavens is available from Project Gutenburg (external link)
  14. ^ "Court Circular" The Times (London). Monday, 29 January 1900. (36051), p. 9.
  15. ^ R. S. Ball (1908) A Treatise on Spherical Astronomy Google preview
  16. ^ Papworth Astronomy Club » Blog Archive » Mark Hurn – “Sir Robert Stawell Ball”. Retrieved on 7 June 2014.
  17. ^ Ruiz-Castell, Pedro (2004). "Astronomy and its Audiences: Robert Ball and Popular Astronomy in Victorian Britain".  
  18. ^ Jones, Roger (2005). "Sir Robert Ball: Victorian Astronomer and Lecturer par excellence".  

External links

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