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No 58 - December 2008

Johann von Lamont - Bavaria's Scottish Astronomer Royal

John Lamont was born on 13 Dec 1805 at Corriemulzie near Braemar, the second of 3 sons of Robert Lamont, forester, and his second wife Elspeth Swan. After his father's death in 1817, being a Catholic, he was sent to be educated at the Benedictine monastery of St James, Ratisbon (now Regensburg in Bavaria). Here he was tutored in mathematics and science by the prior, Father Benedikt Deasson, and spent his vacations as an assistant at the observatory at Bogenhausen, now a suburb of Munich. Later he became an official staff member, took his doctorate of philosophy at Munich University in 1830 and was eventually to succeed as Observatory Director when Johann Georg von Soldner died. He was elected a member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences in 1836 and Professor at Munich University in 1852.

He was interested in the work of Gauss and Weber on the Earth's magnetic field, and devised new self-recording instruments. He had a magnetic observatory built, with the aid of Bavarian government funding, took part in an international geomagnetic campaign 1841-45 and travelled throughout Europe promoting regular and simultaneous magnetic observations. In 1850 he announced an approximate 11 year cycle in magnetic declination which was roughly coincident with the sunspot cycle discovered by Heinich Schwabe, and in 1862 discovered Earth currents.

Lamont's tomb at Bogenhausen
Lamont's tomb at Bogenhausen, note the coins in his open hand. Photo: D. Gavine.

With the 11.25 inch refractor by the famous firm of Utzschneider & Fraunhofer he made systematic observations of the satellites of Saturn and Uranus in the late 1830s to ascertain their orbital elements and obtained an estimate for the mass of Uranus. He observed Halley's Comet at its 1836 appearance, and carried out a long series of positional measurements leading to the publication of the places of 34,647 stars in 10 catalogues and a later Supplement. He was the first in Europe to use a recording chronometer to time the meridian transit of stars. He published Handbuch des Erdmagnetismus (Berlin 1849) and Astronomie und Erdmagnetismus (Stuttgart 1851). By chance, he observed Neptune in 1845 and 1846 and recorded it as a star. This was before its actual discovery, and the observations were later used to help determine its orbit. He also observed eclipses, clusters and nebulae. His works extend to some 107 papers not including the reports in the circulars and journals.

Lamont aged about 50
Lamont aged about 50, from J. MacPherson, "Johann von Lamont, Astronomer Royal of Bavaria".

He was also interested in meteorology, proposing a network of weather stations for Bavaria, founded a Meteorological Association in 1842 and from 1842 to 1844 published records in Annalen für Meteorologie und Erdmagnetismus. His many other interests included writings on population statistics, law, health, royal genealogy and land surveying.

He received many honours including the Order of the Crown of Bavaria, a title of nobility from the King, so that his name became "von Lamont", he was a Foreign Member of the Royal Society, Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. A crater on the Moon and a crater on Mars are named after him. He never married and led a solitary life, died at the observatory on 6 Aug 1879 after 51 years of work there, and left a fortune to be used for scholarships in astronomy and mathematical physics.

He was buried in the small churchyard of St Georg in Bogenhausen, a baroque church of ornate beauty, and there is a strikingly lifelike bronze effigy. Storm Dunlop drew my attention to it so I had to make a visit in September while on holiday in Bavaria. The locals, knowing him to have been a Scotsman, put small coins into his open hand: there must have been about a euro there when I saw him. I wonder what he does with the money?

The inscription reads "Et coelum et terram exploravit" (He explored the sky and the Earth) and

Hier ruhet Johann von Lamont, Professor der Astronomie und Direktor der k. Sternwarte. Geb. Zu Braemar in Schottland 13. Dez 1805. gestorben 6. August 1879 auf der k. Sternwarte zu Bogenhausen nach 51 jähriger Thätigkeit an dieser Anstalt.

Here rests Johann von Lamont, professor of astronomy and director of the royal observatory [k. for königliche], born at Braemar in Scotland 13 December 1805. died 6 August 1879 at the royal observatory at Bogenhausen after 51 years' work at this institution.

A plaque opposite, on the church wall, has the same inscription in Latin.

In 1934 Sir James Jeans unveiled a memorial cairn to Lamont at Inverey near Braemar, placed there by the Deeside Field Club.


David Gavine


Cover page

IYA astro-happening at Science Festival

Johann von Lamont - Bavaria's Scottish Astronomer Royal

Never the TWAN shall meet?

Total eclipse of the sun on 1st August 2008

Forthcoming events

Exoplanets come into view

Recent observations

Variable star observing workshop

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