Edward Sabine

Birth: 1788


Sir Edward Sabine (1788-1883), general, royal artillery, and president of the Royal Society, fifth son and ninth child of Joseph Sabine, esq., of Tewin, Hertfordshire, and of Sarah (who died within a month of her son's birth), daughter of Rowland Hunt, esq., of Boreatton Park, Shropshire, was born in Great Britain Street, Dublin, on 14 Oct. 1788. Sir Edward's great-grandfather was General Joseph Sabine (1662?-1739), and Joseph Sabine (1770-1813) was his brother.

Sabine was educated at Marlow and at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, which he entered on 25 Jan. 1803. He received a commission as second lieutenant in the royal artillery on 22 Dec. of the same year, and was stationed at Woolwich. He was promoted to be first lieutenant on 20 July 1804, and on 11 Nov. sailed for Gibraltar, where he remained until August 1806. On his return to England on 1 Sept. he was posted to the royal horse artillery, in which he served at various home stations until the end of 1812. He was promoted to be second captain on 24 Jan. 1813, and on 9 May sailed for Canada from Falmouth in the packet Manchester. When eight days out she was attacked by the Yorktown, an American privateer, but, carrying some light guns and carronades, was able to maintain a running fight for twenty hours, after which an hour's close engagement compelled her to strike her colours. Sabine and his soldier-servant were of great service in working the guns. On 18 July the Manchester was recaptured by the British frigate Maidstone, and Sabine was landed at Halifax, Nova Scotia, whence he proceeded to Quebec.

In the winter of 1813-14 there was an advance of American militia on Quebec, and Sabine was directed to garrison a small outpost. He served during August and September 1814 in the Niagara frontier (Upper Canada) campaign under Lieutenant-general Gordon Drummond, was present at the siege of Fort Erie, took part in the assault on that fort on 15 Aug., when the British lost twenty-seven officers and 326 men, and was engaged in the action of 17 Sept. against a sortie, when the British loss was twenty officers and 270 men, was twice favourably mentioned in despatches, and was privileged to wear the word'Niagara' on his dress and appointments. He returned home on 12 Aug. 1816, and devoted himself to his favourite studies—astronomy, terrestrial magnetism, and ornithology—under the supervision of his brother-in-law, Henry Browne, F.R.S., at whose house (2 Portland Place, London) he met Captain Henry Kater, F.R.S., and other kindred spirits.

Sabine was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1818, and the same year, on the recommendation of the president and council, he was appointed astronomer to the arctic expedition in search of a north-west passage, which sailed in the Isabella under Commander (afterwards Sir) John Ross (1777-1856) and was absent from May to November. His report on the biological results of the expedition appeared in the'Transactions of the Linnean Society,' vol. xii., and embraced twenty-four species of birds from Greenland, of which four were new to the list, and one, the Larus Sabini, entirely new. He further contributed an account of the Esquimaux of the west coast of Greenland to the'Quarterly Journal of Science,' 1819.

+ Read More

Sabine accompanied, in a similar capacity, a second arctic expedition in 1819, which sailed in the Hecla under Lieutenant-commander (afterwards Sir) Edward Parry, and was away from May 1819 until November 1820. He tabulated all the observations, and arranged nearly all the appendix of Parry's journal, and Parry warmly acknowledged his valuable assistance throughout the expedition. During the tedious stay for the winter months in Winter Harbour, when the sun was ninety-six days below the horizon, Sabine edited a weekly journal for the amusement of the party, which was entitled'The North Georgia Gazette and Winter Chronicle,' and extended to twenty-one numbers. In 1821 he received the Copley medal of the Royal Society for various communications relating to his researches during the arctic expedition.

Sabine was next selected to conduct a series of experiments for determining the variation in different latitudes in the length of the pendulum vibrating seconds, with a view to ascertain the true figure of the earth, a subject which had engaged his attention in the first arctic voyage. He sailed in the Pheasant on 12 Nov. 1821, and returned on 5 Jan. 1823, having visited St. Thomas (Gulf of Guinea), Maranham, Ascension, Sierra Leone, Trinidad, Bahia, and Jamaica. On 1 May 1823 he sailed in the Griper on the same duty, returning on 19 Dec., having visited New York, Trondhjem, Hammerfest, Greenland, and Spitzbergen.

Sabine's observations of the magnetic inclination and force at St. Thomas in 1822 were the first made on that island. Utilised as a base of comparison with later observations of the Portuguese, they are important as showing the remarkable secular change which was in progress during the interval. The account of Sabine's pendulum experiments, printed in a quarto volume by the board of longitude in 1825, is an enduring monument of his indefatigable industry, his spirit of inquiry, and wide range of observation. The work was honoured by the award to him of the Lalande gold medal of the Institute of France in 1826.

In 1825 Sabine was appointed a joint commissioner with Sir John Herschel to act with a French government commission in determining the precise difference of longitude between the observatories of Paris and Greenwich by means of rocket-signals. The difference of longitude thus found was nine minutes 21.6 seconds. The accepted difference at the present time, by electric signalling, is nine minutes twenty-one seconds. On 31 Dec. 1827 Sabine was promoted first captain, and having obtained from the Duke of Wellington, then master-general of the ordnance, general leave of absence so long as he was not required for military service, and on the understanding that he was usefully employed in scientific pursuits, he acted until 1829 as one of the secretaries of the Royal Society.

In 1827 and the two following years Sabine made experiments to determine the relative lengths of the seconds pendulum in Paris, London, Greenwich, and Altona, and he afterwards determined the absolute length at Greenwich. On the abolition of the board of longitude in 1828, it was arranged that three scientific advisers of the admiralty should be nominated, the selection being limited to the council of the Royal Society. Sabine, Faraday, and Young were appointed. Sabine's appointment was violently attacked by Charles Babbage in a pamphlet generally denouncing the Royal Society, entitled'Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on some of its Causes' (1830). Sabine did not answer Babbage's unmannerly attack, but contented himself with inserting in the'Philosophical Magazine' for 1830 an explanation on one point upon which particular stress had been laid.

The condition of Ireland in 1830 necessitated an increased military establishment, and Sabine was recalled to military duty in that country, where he served for seven years. During this time he continued his pendulum investigations, and in 1834 commenced, in conjunction with Professor Humphrey Lloyd, afterwards provost of Trinity College, Dublin, and Captain (afterwards Sir) James Clark Ross, the first systematic magnetic survey ever made of the British Islands. He extended it single-handed to Scotland in 1836, and in conjunction with Lloyd, Ross, and additional observers, in the following year to England. With the exception of the mathematical section of the Irish report, which was Professor Lloyd's, the reports—published by the British Association—were mainly Sabine's, as was also a very large share of the observations, more particularly the laborious task of combining them, by equations of condition, to obtain the most probable mean results.

Sabine was promoted to be brevet-major on 10 Jan. 1837, and did duty at Woolwich. On 22 April 1836 Humboldt wrote to the Duke of Sussex, president of the Royal Society, in reference to a conversation he had recently held in Berlin with Sabine and Lloyd, and urged the establishment throughout the British empire of regular magnetic stations similar to those which, mainly by his influence, had been for some time in operation in Northern Asia. The proposal was reported upon by Mr. (afterwards Sir) George Airey, astronomer royal, and Mr. Samuel Hunter Christie (see Royal Soc. Proc. vol. iii.). A committee on mathematics and physics, appointed in May, of which Sabine, Lloyd, and Lieutenant (afterwards Sir) William Thomas Denison were prominent members, worked out the details, and towards the end of the year a definite official representation was made to government to establish magnetic observatories at selected stations in both hemispheres, and to despatch a naval expedition to the South Antarctic regions to make a magnetical survey of them. In the spring of 1839 the scheme was approved by the government.

The fixed observatories were to be established at Toronto in Canada, St. Helena, and the Cape of Good Hope, and at stations to be determined by the East India Company, while other nations were invited to co-operate. Sabine was appointed to superintend the whole, and the observatories began their work in 1840. Sabine's first publication of results was a quarto volume in 1843 of'Observations on Days of Unusual Magnetic Disturbance,' which was followed by a second volume on the same subject in 1851. The subsequent publications, which were entirely edited by Sabine, who wrote an introduction to each volume, were: Toronto, 1842-1847, in 3 vols., dated 1845, 1853, and 1857 respectively (observations were carried on from 1848 to 1853, but were not printed); St. Helena, 1843-9, in 2 vols., dated 1850 and 1860; Cape of Good Hope, the magnetic observations to 1846, 1 vol., dated 1851, and the meteorological to 1848, 1 vol., dated 1880; Hobart Town, Tasmania, to 1842, in 3 vols., dated 1850, 1852, and 1853 respectively. To enable Sabine to cope with the work, a small clerical staff was maintained by the war office at Woolwich for about twenty years.

In 1839 Sabine was appointed general secretary of the British Association, a laborious office which he held for twenty years, with the single exception of 1852, when he occupied the presidential chair at Belfast. In 1840 he commenced the series of'Contributions to Terrestrial Magnetism,' which comprised fifteen papers in the'Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society,' spread over thirty-six years. This gigantic work was a survey of the general distribution of magnetism over the globe at this epoch. In it is to be found every observation of any authority taken by sea or land since 1818 or thereabouts, arranged in zones of 5° and 10° of latitude, and taken in the order of longitude eastwards from Greenwich round the globe. Illustrative maps were prepared for it in the hydrographical department of the admiralty, under the supervision of Captain (afterwards Rear-admiral Sir) Frederick Evans, R.N. Several of the numbers appeared after Sabine had lost the aid of his staff of clerks at Woolwich. Numbers 11, 13, 14, and 15 contain a complete statement of the magnetic survey of the globe, in the double form of catalogue or tables and of magnetic maps.

On 25 Jan. 1841 Sabine was promoted to be regimental lieutenant-colonel. On 1 Dec. 1845 he was elected foreign secretary of the Royal Society. In 1849 he was awarded one of the gold medals of the society for his papers on terrestrial magnetism. On 30 Nov. 1850 he was elected treasurer to the society. On 11 Nov. of the following year he was promoted to be regimental colonel, and on 14 June 1856 major-general. Between 1858 and 1861, at the request of the British Association, he undertook to repeat the magnetic survey of the British Isles. Dr. Lloyd was again his coadjutor, and, as before, Sabine reduced and reported the results relating to the elements of dip and force, Evans dealing with the declination. In 1859 he edited the'Letters of Colonel Sir Augustus Fraser, K.C.B., commanding the Royal Horse Artillery in the Army under the Duke of Wellington, written during the Peninsular and Waterloo Campaigns.'

Sabine was elected president of the Royal Society in 1861, and held the office until his resignation in 1871. In 1864 he moved the government of India to undertake at various stations of the great trigonometrical survey, from the sea-level at Cape Cormorin to the lofty tablelands of the Himalayas, the series of pendulum observations which have thrown so much light on the constitution of the earth's crust and local variations of gravity.

On 9 Feb. 1865 Sabine was made a colonel-commandant of the royal artillery, and on 20 Sept. of the same year was promoted to be lieutenant-general. In 1869 he was made a civil knight-commander of the Bath, and on 7 Feb. 1870 was promoted to be general. In 1876 his scientific activity came to an end, and he retired from the army on full pay on 1 Oct. 1877. During his later years his mental faculties failed. He died at Richmond on 26 June 1883, and was buried in the family vault at Tewin, Hertfordshire, beside the remains of his wife.

Sabine was created D.C.L. of Oxford on 20 June 1855, and LL.D. of Cambridge. He was a fellow of the Linnean and the Royal Astronomical societies and many other learned bodies. He held the foreign orders of Pour le Merite of Prussia, SS. Maurice and Lazarus of Italy, and the Rose of Brazil. He contributed more than one hundred papers to the'Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society,' besides many others to the'Philosophical Magazine,''Journal of Science,' and kindred publications (see Royal Society's Cat. of Scientific Papers). His scientific capacity was combined with an attractive personality. His grace of manner and invincible cheerfulness rendered him universally popular.

There is an oil portrait of Sabine by S. Pearce in the rooms of the Royal Society, presented by Lady Sabine in 1866. There is also a marble bust of him by J. Durham, presented by P. J. Gassiot, esq., F.R.S., in 1860. In the mess-room of the royal artillery at Woolwich there is a portrait of him by G. F. Watts, R.A., dated 1876.

Sabine married, in 1826, Elizabeth Juliana (1807-1879), daughter of William Leeves, esq., of Tortington, Sussex. She was an accomplished woman, who aided him for more than half a century in his scientific investigations. Her translation of Humboldt's'Cosmos,' in four volumes, was published 1849-58. She also translated'The Aspects of Nature' (1849, 2 vols.) by the same author, Arago's meteorological essays, and'Narrative of an Expedition to the Polar Sea' (1840; 2nd ed. 1844) commanded by Admiral Ferdinand von Wrangel, which were published under the superintendence of her husband. There was no issue of the marriage. Sabine's only surviving nephew on the male side was Admiral Sir Thomas Sabine-Pasley.

The following is a list of some of the more important of Sabine's contributions to the Royal Society'Philosophical Transactions' that have not been mentioned: 1.'Irregularities observed in the Direction of the Compass Needles of H.M.S. Isabella and Alexander in their late Voyage of Discovery, and caused by the Attraction of the Iron contained in the Ships,' 1819. 2.'On the Dip and Variation of the Magnetic Needle, and on the Intensity of the Magnetic Force, made during the late Voyage in search of a North-West Passage,' 1819. 3.'An Account of Experiments to determine the Acceleration of the Pendulum in different Latitudes,' 1821. 4.'On the Temperature at considerable Depths of the Caribbean Sea,' 1823. 5.'A Comparison of Barometrical Measurement with the Trigonometrical Determination of a Height at Spitzbergen,' 1826. 6.'Experiments to determine the Difference in the Number of Vibrations made by an Invariable Pendulum in the Royal Observatory at Greenwich and in the House in London in which Captain Kater's Experiments were made,' 1829. 7.'Experiments to ascertain the Ratio of the Magnetic Forces acting on a Needle suspended horizontally in Paris and London,' 1828. 8.'Experiments to determine the Difference in the Length of the Seconds Pendulum in London and Paris,' 1828. 9.'An Account of Experiments to determine the Amount of the Dip of the Magnetic Needle in London in August 1821, with Remarks on the Instruments which are usually employed in such Determinations,' 1822, being the Bakerian lecture. 10.'On the Dip of the Magnetic Needle in London in August 1828 = 1829.' 11.'On the Reduction to a Vacuum of the Vibration of an Invariable Pendulum,' 1829. 12.'Experiments to determine the Difference in the Number of Vibrations made by an Invariable Pendulum in the Royal Observatories, Greenwich and Altona,' 1830. 13.'Experiments on the Length of the Seconds Pendulum, made at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich,' 1831. 14.'Report on a Paper by the late Mr. Douglas, entitled "Observations taken on the Western Coast of North America,"' 1837. 15.'On Magnetical Observations in Germany, Norway, and Russia,' 1840. 16.'On the Lunar Atmospheric Tide at St. Helena,' 1847. 17.'On the Diurnal Variation of the Magnetic Declination of St. Helena,' 1847. 18.'On the Means adopted in the British Colonial Magnetic Observatories for determining the Absolute Values, Secular Changes, and Annual Variation of the Magnetic Force,' 1850. 19.'On the Annual Variation of the Magnetic Declination at different periods of the day,' 1851. 20.'On Periodical Laws discoverable in the Mean Effect of the larger Magnetic Disturbances,' 1851 and 1852. 21.'On the Periodic and Non-periodic Variations of Temperature at Toronto in Canada from 1841 to 1852 inclusive,' 1853. 22.'On the Influence of the Moon on the Magnetic Direction at Toronto, St. Helena, and Hobarton,' 1853. 23.'On some Conclusions derived from the Observations of the Magnetic Declination at the Observatory of St. Helena,' 1854. 24.'Reply (drawn up by Sabine) of the President and Council of the Royal Society to an Application of the Lords of the Committee of Privy Council for Trade on the Subject of Marine Meteorological Observation,' 1855. 25.'On the Lunar Diurnal Magnetic Variation at Toronto,' 1856. 26.'On the Evidence of the Existence of the Decennial Inequality in the Solar Diurnal Variations and its Non-existence in the Lunar Diurnal Variations of the Magnetic Declination at Hobarton,' 1856. 27.'On what the Colonial Magnetic Observations have accomplished,' 1857. 28.'On the Solar Magnetic Variation of the Magnetic Declination at Pekin,' 1860. 29.'On the Laws of the Phenomena of the Larger Disturbances of the Magnetic Declination in the Kew Observatory, with Notices of the Progress of our Knowledge regarding the Magnetic Storms,' 1860. 30.'On the Lunar Diurnal Variation of the Magnetic Declination obtained from the Kew Photograms in the years 1858-60,' 1861. 31.'On the Secular Change in the Magnetic Dip in London between the years 1821 and 1860,' 1861. 32.'Results of the Magnetic Observations at the Kew Observatory from 1858 to 1862,' 1863. 33.'A Comparison of the most notable Disturbance of the Magnetic Declination in 1858-9 at Kew and Nertschinsk, with Retrospective View of the Progress of the Investigation into the Laws and Causes of the Magnetic Disturbances,' 1864. 34.'Results of Hourly Observations of the Magnetic Declination made by Sir F. L. McClintock, R.N., at Port Kennedy in the Arctic Sea in 1858-9, and a Comparison of them with those of Captain Maguire, R.N., in the Plover in 1852-4 at Point Barrow,' 1864. 35.'Results of the Magnetic Observations at the Kew Observatory of the Lunar Diurnal Variation of the three Magnetic Elements,' 1866. 36.'Results of the First Year's Performance of the Photographically Self-Recording Meteorological Instruments at the Central Observatory of the British System of Meteorological Observations,' 1869. 37.'Analysis of the principal Disturbances shown by the Horizontal and Vertical Force Magnetometers of the Kew Observatory from 1859 to 1864,' 1871. Sabine also published a work 'On the Cosmical Features of Terrestrial Magnetism,' London, 8vo, 1862.

[Royal Artillery Records; War Office Records; Despatches; Proceedings of the Royal Artillery Institution, vol. xii. pp. 381-396; Phil. Trans. and Proc. of the Royal Soc. from 1818 to 1876, vol. li. p. xliii of Proc. (esp.).]


Robert Hamilton Vetch, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 50. pgs. 74-78.

Books & Publications

History of Humanity - History Archive Logo
History of Humanity - History Mysteries Logo
History of Humanity - Ancient Mesopotamia Logo
History of Humanity - Egypt History Logo
History of Humanity - Persian Empire Logo
History of Humanity - Greek History Logo
History of Humanity - Alexander the Great Logo
History of Humanity - Roman History Logo
History of Humanity - Punic Wars Logo
History of Humanity - Golden Age of Piracy Logo
History of Humanity - Revolutionary War Logo
History of Humanity - Mafia History Logo