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Glaisher, James, 1809-1903 (astronomer and meteorologist)



James Glaisher was born on 7 April 1809 in Rotherhithe, London, the son of James Glaisher, watchmaker, and his wife, Mary. The family moved to Greenwich shortly afterwards. Glaisher visited the Royal Observatory in 1829, where he expressed interest in the scientific instruments. His first employment was in Ireland in 1829 on the principal triangulation of the Ordnance Survey in County Galway and the Keeper Mountains, near Limerick. In 1833 Glaisher joined the Cambridge University observatory, then under Professor George Airy, and as assistant made a series of observations of the position of Halley's comet at its return in 1835. This was the beginning of forty years' association between the two men. When Airy became astronomer royal at Greenwich, in June 1835, he appointed Glaisher as his assistant in the astronomical department. In 1838 Airy put Glaisher in charge of the new magnetical and meteorological department which he superintended until his resignation in 1874. The observations, made every two hours, day and night, provided the basis for his published tables of 'Corrections to Meteorological Observations for Diurnal Range'. Scientific meteorology was in its infancy, and his first task had been to standardize the instruments and to systematize the collection of observations. On 31 December 1843 Glaisher married Cecilia Louisa, the only daughter from the second marriage of John Henry Belville, an assistant at Greenwich observatory. They had three children: James Whitbread Lee Glaisher (1848–1928) a mathematician; Cecilia Appelina (1845–1932), and Ernest Henry (1858–1885), a naturalist. Glaisher joined the Royal Astronomical Society in 1841, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1849. By 1850 he was the recognized authority in Britain for the verification of meteorological instruments. In 1850 he joined ten fellows of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society to found the British Meteorological Society. Elected the society's first secretary, Glaisher held that office until 1873, except for 1867–8 when he was president. He edited the society's publications for many years. From 1848 to 1876 he regularly contributed papers to the Royal Society, the Meteorological Society, and the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS). In 1861 BAAS appointed a balloon committee to oversee the collection of meteorological observations at high altitudes. A large balloon was constructed by Henry Coxwell, a popular aeronaut. Glaisher and Coxwell made eight ascents in 1862, including some for public exhibition at Crystal Palace. Glaisher employed volunteers to record the balloon's path and its height, and himself made observations every 20 seconds on his instruments, which were tied to a board attached to the basket. Glaisher made many later ascents with Coxwell and other aeronauts under the auspices of BAAS between 1863 and 1866, publishing his balloon observations in the BAAS Reports (1862–6). After his relationship with Coxwell deteriorated following a riot that resulted in the destruction of Coxwell's balloon, Glaisher ascended in a captive balloon at Chelsea, and made low altitude observations. He edited an account of his own ascents, with essays by French astronomers who had promoted balloon meteorology, as 'Travels in the Air' (1871). In 1866 he helped to found the Aeronautical Society and served as its treasurer. He frequently lectured and wrote articles to promote the balloon as a 'philosophical instrument' instead of in its traditional form, as a vehicle of entertainment. Glaisher died from a cerebral haemorrhage on 7 February 1903.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:


The Cambridge Antiquarian Society Glaisher Collection of aeronautical engravings and pictures

Reference Code: GBR/0012/MS Add.10207
Scope and Contents The collection is principally one created by James Glaisher and slightly augmented by his son, James Whitbread Lee Glaisher. It consists of a series of scrapbooks containing newspaper cuttings on eighteenth and nineteenth century balloon ascents, loose newspaper cuttings on ballooning, nineteenth century journals and periodicals featuring articles on ballooning and aeronautical flights, scientific papers principally concerned with James Glaisher's experiments for the British Association for...
Dates: 1693-1928
Conditions Governing Access: Unless restrictions apply, the collection is open for consultation by researchers using the Manuscripts Reading Room at Cambridge University Library. For further details on conditions governing access please contact Information about opening hours and obtaining a Cambridge University Library reader's ticket is available from the Library's website (