Ball | Sir | Robert Stawell | 1840-1913 | astronomer and mathematician

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Robert Stawell Ball (1840-1913) was an astronomer, mathematician, and writer of popular science books. His father was Robert Ball, a naturalist. Born in Ireland, he attended Tarvin Hall school before going to study at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1865, Laurence Parsons, Lord Rosse (1840-1908) asked Ball to be his children's tutor. He agreed on condition of being able to use Rosse's reflector, at the time, the largest in the world. During this time, he made many observations of nebulae. He also corrected mathematically one of the telescope's inaccuracies.

In 1867, he was appointed to a post in the Royal College of Science, Dublin, a role that coincided with that of Royal Astronomer of Ireland. He went on to become professor of astronomy at the University of Cambridge, where he replaced the eminent astronomer John Couch Adams (1819-1892), discoverer of Neptune.

Ball wrote a series of successful books of popular astronomy, making him famous for his astronomical work, his real talent lay in mathematics. Ball's skill in astronomy was curtailed by his lack of proper training, his first experience of practical astronomy having been Rosse's reflector, when he was already 25.


Lord Rosse's reflector gave Ball his first experience of practical astronomy. Son of Robert Ball, naturalist and president of the Geological Society of Ireland.

Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

Experimental Mechanics, (1871)

The Theory of Screws: A Study in the Dynamics of a Rigid Body, (1876)

A Story of the Heavens, (1886)

The Story of the Sun, (1893)

A Treatise on the Theory of Screws, ( 1900)

A Treatise on Spherical Astronomy, ( 1908)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1867: Appointed Professor of Applied Mathematics and Mechanics, Royal College of Science, Dublin

1873: Elected Fellow of the Royal Society

1874-1892: Appointed Andrews Professor of Astronomy, University of Dublin

1877-1880: Appointed Secretary, Royal Irish Academy

1885-1892: Elected Vice-President, Royal Irish Academy

1886: Awarded Knighthood

1890: Elected President, Royal Zoological Society

1893-1913: Appointed Lowndean Professor of Astronomy, Universoty of Cambridge


List of sources for the biographical information:

Royal Society, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series A, vol. 91, (London, Harrison and Sons, 1915)

Dictionary of National Biography 1912-1921 , (London, University Press, Humphrey Milford, 1927)