George Forbes — a short life
George Forbes was an outstanding product of Victorian
academia and industry whose contribution to electrical engineering benefits
us to this day. He was also a gifted astronomer. Forbes led the British
party to observe the Transit of Venus from Hawaii in 1874 and wrote and
lectured widely about astronomy for professional and popular audiences. He
predicted the existence of a trans-Neptunian planet 50 years before the
discovery of Pluto.
Born in Edinburgh in 1849, Forbes was the second son of
James David Forbes and Alicia Wauchope. His father was later Principal of
St Andrews University. Forbes was educated at Edinburgh Academy, the
University of St Andrews, Christ’s College and St Catherine’s College
In 1872 he was appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy
at Anderson’s University, Glasgow (the nucleus of the University of
Strathclyde). In his lectures he advocated using electricity to power
transportation. His main work at this time, however, was research into the
velocity of light.
In 1874 Forbes led a British expedition to Hawaii to
observe the transit of Venus. He returned to Scotland via Peking and St
Petersburg, crossing the Gobi desert and Siberia in 1875. Nearly 25 years
later Forbes wrote up his odyssey — it was a journey few seasoned western
explorers had made, much less lone travellers in their mid-20s. With
contacts made on this journey, Forbes was able to become the only British
war correspondent with the Russian army in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877,
reporting for The Times. He received the Russian Order of St George for this
In 1880 Forbes resigned from Anderson’s University and
moved to London. For the next two decades he devoted himself to electrical
power engineering. Commissioned to report on how the City and South London
Railway should be powered, he recommended electricity. Soon the entire
London Underground would follow his advice. In 1881 he served as a juror at
the Paris Exposition Internationale d’électricité. He was subsequently
admitted to the French Legion of Honour.
A year later he became manager of the British Electric
Light Company, manufacturers of carbon filaments and arc lamps. He
experimented with using carbon for the brushes in electric motors, rather
than wire or gauze, and in 1885 took out a patent for the ‘Improved Means
for Establishing Electric Connection between Surfaces in Relative Motion
Applicable to the Collectors of Dynamo Machines’. This advocated carbon as a
current collector for rotating electrical machines. The invention would
prove outstandingly successful and it is in universal use in electricity
generation to this day. He could have become a rich man with such an
innovation, but he sold his American patent rights to the Westinghouse
Company for £2,000. There is no evidence that he received any UK royalties.
In the obituary published in the Proceedings of the Philosophical Society,
G.L. Addenbroke wrote that: “Forbes always referred to this work with much
modesty, but there can be no doubt that he presented to the World an idea of
great engineering and commercial value, the importance of which he does not
seem to have fully grasped at the time.”
From 1891 to 1895 Forbes was consulting engineer on the
Niagara Falls hydroelectric scheme. He also advised on other schemes in
India (1893), South Africa (1895), New Zealand (1896) and Egypt (1898).
While in South Africa he consolidated his friendship with the astronomer Sir
After the turn of the century, Forbes moved on to
military work, studying techniques of gunnery. Between 1903 and 1906,
working with the Admiralty, he developed a range-finder that was still in
use by the Navy at the outset of the Second World War. During the First
World War he was involved in devising methods of signalling for submarines.
In 1906 he built a home near Pitlochry to house his
library. Forbe’s family had frequently holidayed in Pitlochry and his father
had befriended the Butters — the area’s main landowners — who initially
leased and eventually sold Forbes the land on which his house stood. This
house, which he called ‘The Shed’, was a large wooden structure with an
observatory on the upper storey. It overlooks the valley that in the 1950s
would be flooded to create Loch Faskally and the hydroelectric scheme Forbes
had proposed in the early 1900s.
In Pitlochry he returned to an earlier interest, from
1906 to 1930 delivering the David Elder lectures on Astronomy at the Royal
Technical College in Glasgow.
He published throughout his life. Titles include The
Transit of Venus (1874), Lectures on Electricity (1888) and Alternating and
Interrupted Electric Currents (1895). Once he settled in Pitlochry, his
output became prolific: History of Astronomy (1909) Star Talks to Boy Scouts
(1911), David Gill, Man and Astronomer (1916), The Wonder and the Glory of
the Stars (1926) and numerous contributions to learned journals were all
produced during this time.
He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1887. He
was also Fellow of the Royal Society of Engineers, FRAS, MInstCE and Member
of the Vienna Astronomiches Verein. Forbes was elected a Member of the
Institution of Electrical Engineers and received an honourary LLD from St
Forbes did not marry and, in his last years, became
something of a recluse, disillusioned that his obvious talents had earned
him neither fame nor fortune. He lived in increasing poverty, though in 1928
friends did successfully petition a variety of organisations for assistance
on his behalf. Until close to the end of his life, Pitlochry was his home.
Eventually, however, friends insisted that he move south where he could be
more easily cared for. He died in an accident at his home in Worthing on 22
George Forbes was described in his obituaries as a man
with a “stern code of honour” who “thought much of his work and little of
his reward”. A friend, the engineer Samuel Mavor, was more effusive: for
him, Forbes “was the best type of Scottish gentleman, of tall and handsome
appearance... he had a singularly attractive personality, fine character, a
brilliant intellect and the manners of a courtier.”
The University of Strathclyde honoured his memory in 1987
by naming a new student hall of residence after him.
Based, with permission, on notes by Dr J.S. McGarth.
June 06, 2004
The hunt for a peek at Venus's heavenly body.
On Tuesday the planet can be seen crossing the sun from
Earth. Charles Gris reports on the adventurers who have sought this rare
sight over the centuries
Cast your eyes upwards and eastwards this Tuesday and you
will witness an extraordinary event.
Venus, the nearest planet to earth, will cross the face
of the sun between around 5.20am and 11.20am. And while it might not match
an eclipse for drama, the scientific import of the occasion is huge — as is
the rarity. There is not a person alive today who has witnessed such a
Assuming the skies are clear, you will be able to witness
something that governments have spent billions of pounds to observe.
Hundreds of lives have been lost trying, sometimes forlornly, to measure
such transits. One continent was discovered — at least by the rest of the
world — as a result of a mission to observe one.
Most importantly, it is only because of earlier transits
that we have, thoughout the modern age, had a reasonably accurate idea of
our real place in the universe. It was that tantalising prospect that drove
the Victorian adventurer George Forbes to the ends of the earth more than a
century ago to watch Venus line up with the sun.
But to comprehend fully the passionate commitment of men
like Forbes, you have to understand the magnetism of a unique astronomical
Transits of Venus occur in pairs every 120 years or so.
The first recorded instance was in 1639, when Jeremiah Horrocks accurately
predicted, and then observed, the phenomenon from a house near Liverpool.
Thirty years later, Sir Edmund Halley was mapping the southern skies from St
Helena, a tiny island 1,200 miles off the west coast of Africa, when he came
to a profound realisation.
If a transit of Venus could be accurately measured from
different points on the earth’s surface, it would be possible, by the means
of complex trigonometry, to calculate accurately the distance between Earth
and the sun.
This idea gripped the imaginations of scientists and
governments alike and by 1761, when there was next a transit, astronomers
were stationed at more than 120 locations all over the world to take their
measurements. The French and British navies battled — at times very bloodily
— to obtain footholds on the remotest islands and the astronomers sailed for
the best part of a year to get into position.
Guillaume Le Gentil, the French astronomer, was
particularly unlucky. He spent four months at sea pursued by the Royal navy.
He evaded them as far as Mauritius, only to discover that his intended
observation spot, Pondichery, in southern India, was besieged by the British
His hopes that the French navy might intervene on his
behalf were dashed when its fleet hit coral reefs during a hurricane while
on their way to India. Disaster hit again when his own ship was caught in
storms, which meant that he was stuck at sea when the transit arrived.
Le Gentil was not the only one who failed. Many saw
nothing because of poor weather. Others found that results taken from
identical positions were at such variance as to be useless.
With those experiences behind it, the scientific
community redoubled its efforts for the next transit in 1769. In Britain,
the Royal Society commissioned Captain James Cook to sail with its
observers, in a specially fitted out ship, Endeavour, to Tahiti, in the hope
of taking accurate measurements.
Although cloudy skies in the days leading up to the
transit augured ill, they cleared in the nick of time and the party from the
ship took some of the best measurements that had yet been made. They then
spent the next 2½ years “discovering” New Zealand and afterwards charting
Australia’s eastern seaboard.
Despite the quality of results obtained by Cook’s party
and others in 1769 the calculations that flowed from them were frustrating.
For over a century astronomers crunched the numbers, but even the best
attempts to measure the distance to the sun failed to add up. Such
imprecision was never going to satisfy the grindingly empirical Victorians,
so as the 1874 transit approached, fresh voyages were planned.
The scale of operations was already dizzying, as Forbes
joined the fray as second-in-command of the British effort, bringing an
extraordinary intellect to the challenge.
At just 22, after an impressive undergraduate career,
Forbes had been appointed professor of natural philosophy at Andersons
University in Glasgow (the nucleus around which Strathclyde University was
created). Two years later the university granted a request from Sir George
Airy, the astronomer royal, that Forbes be given leave to work on the
Forbes left an astonishingly vivid account of the events
which saw 27 professional observers and their crews travel to locations as
remote as Egypt, New Zealand, the Kerguelen Islands and Hawaii.
In the spring of 1874, Forbes and Airy assembled their
staff at Greenwich to instruct them in the use of the equipment they would
be taking with them. This continued until June 3, when half of the staff
sailed from Liverpool on the SS Illimani.
The long voyage gave Forbes the time to write a book
about the forthcoming transit, explaining its significance and assessing the
relative merits of the differing means of measurement.
After arriving in Hawaii on November 5, he immediately
set about assembling the octagonal timber observation station. Once all the
equipment had been installed in the 10ft x 15ft pod there was scarcely
enough space for two people to work.
Everything was ready by November 15, and Forbes started
making “continuous observations” to establish as accurately as possible
their location and to determine any other factors that might effect the
recording of the transit.
Forbes’s notes from December 8, the big day, show how
tense he was. “20.21. Clouds obscured the sun . . . I have almost given up
hope.” Nevertheless, by 8.34pm the clouds parted, and Forbes saw Venus at
the start of the transit. Crucially, he was able to make a number of
precision measurements with a micrometer attached to a telescope. He judged
these results to be satisfactory.
Overall, however, the results did not render much
improvement on previous figures. Airy laboured over his report for nearly a
decade — paying for much of the work himself after falling out with the
Admiralty over the length of time it was taking. Forbes, meanwhile,
travelled back to Glasgow overland through Peking to St Petersburg, taking
in the Gobi desert and Siberia — one of few westerners to have made that
trip at the time.
Once back in Scotland, he made his name as a prolific
inventor, and ended his days in the astronomical observatory he built for
himself in Pitlochry.
The prodigious efforts of 1874 rather overshadowed those
of the most recent transit, in 1882. Disputes over the veracity of the
technique as a means of determining the distance to the sun meant that
considerably less effort was devoted to new observations.
During the 1930s, the theory that had been applied to the
transit of Venus was applied to asteroids, with far greater success.
And with the advent of radar (invented by another Scot,
Sir Robert Watson-Watt, who lived in Forbes’s observatory after the
astronomer’s death) a couple of decades later, the veracity of those results
If you want to be one of those who observes the transit
this week, some safety measures are necessary. To observe it directly,
optical equipment of the quality of welder’s goggles are necessary. Far
easier, though, is to make a small pin-hole projector, or use a telescope to
project an image of the sun onto a piece of card.
You might not be able to determine for yourself that the
sun is 92,958,329 miles from Earth, but it will give you an insight into how
we do know that.
Star Talks by George Forbes is published by the The
Observatory Press at £4. For more information on George Forbes visit