Thursday, March 12, 2015

Samuel Molyneux: Secretary and Enthusiast of the Stars

Samuel Molyneux (Molyneax) was born on 18 July 1689 at Chester, England. Molyneux was the third and, unfortunately, only surviving child of William Molyneux, noted experimental philosopher and his wife, Lucy, the youngest daughter of the attorney general for Ireland, Sir William Domville. Although his mother and father were Irish, they left Ireland in 1689 after the deposition of Roman Catholic James II. The Protestant family would not return until 1690. Since 1692, Molyneux’s father had maintained a friendship and correspondence with John Locke. It is no surprise that Molyneux’s early education was based on Lockean principles of education, which emphasized the parental role of instilling the virtues of reason and self-denial in their children early in life. His father played an important role in his son’s education until his death in 1698. After the death of his father, Molyneux was passed into the care of his uncle, Dr. Thomas Molyneux, who was a physician and natural philosopher. At sixteen, Molyneux registered at Trinity College, Dublin, where he befriended mathematician George Berkeley. The relationship between the two men was one of great esteem and Berkeley dedicated his Miscellanea mathematica to Molyneux when it was published in 1707. Molyneux graduated Trinity College BA the following year, 1708, and MA in 1710.
            The death of his father left Molyneux the sole inheritor of his estate at Castle Dillon in County Armagh, Ireland. After leaving the university in 1710, Molyneux spent two years making improvements to the estate. After leaving his Irish estate in 1712, Molyneux traveled to England where he was inducted into the Royal Society of London on 12 January. During the winter of 1712-1713, Molyneux found himself in Antwerp where he became acquainted with the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. The young man must have made a favorable impression on the Duke for the Duke sent him on a diplomatic mission to Hanover, where he arrives sometime before 1714. Molyneux was in Hanover in time to witness the sudden death of Electress Sophia on 8 July 1714, which effectively made her son George Ludwig heir to the throne of the United Kingdom. After the death of Queen Anne in 1714, Molyneux accompanied the new royal family to London. Upon the coronation of George I Molyneux was made the secretary to the Prince of Wales, a position he would retain until George II’s ascension to the throne in 1727.
            Secretary to the Prince of Wales was not Molyneux’s only role. He was elected to represent Bossiney and St. Mawes in London Parliament in 1715. In 1717, Molyneux married Lady Elizabeth Capel, the eldest daughter of the Earl of Essex. Lady Elizabeth brought a £10,000 fortune to the marriage and a further £18,000 in 1721 when she inherited the Kew House from her great-uncle’s widow. Molyneux could now consider himself a wealthy man even though the couple would not have any children. The Prince of Wales, Frederick, would develop an interest in the Kew House and take a long lease of it in 1730, two years after Molyneux’s death. The house was eventually demolished in 1804.
            Following the interests of his father and his uncle, Molyneux developed a curiosity for optics and astronomy. He became acquainted with James Bradley, another fellow of the Royal Society, who was a professional astronomer and Savilian chair of astronomy at Oxford. From 1723 to 1725, the pair experimented in creating innovative designs for reflective telescopes with the aim of creating a relatively inexpensive telescope that could be accessible to a wide range of people. Unfortunately, this did not quite work out as hoped. Molyneux and Bradley’s first successful design for a reflective telescope was completed in May 1724 and was of 26 inches focus. Eventually the pair created a design of eight feet. Molyneux would go on to present his method of speculum design to Edward Scarlett, the optician of John V, king of Portugal, and George Hearne, a London manufacturing of mathematical instruments. Doing so helped bring reflective telescopes into general circulation.
            The best-known work of Molyneux and Bradley was their attempt to replicate the work of Robert Hooke and measure the parallax of the Gamma Draconis star. They set up the experiment using a zenith sector built by George Graham, a noted instrument maker, in the observatory Molyneux built in the Kew House on 26 November 1725. Their experiment did not confirm Hooke’s work but did lead to Bradley’s later discovery of the aberration of light. Molyneux had been serving on the Privy Council in England and Ireland by this time and had represented Bossiney and St. Mawes and the city of Exeter in English Parliaments in 1715, 1726, and 1727. He returned to the Parliament in Ireland in 1727 representing the University of Dublin. Once he was appointed as one of the lords of the Admiralty on 27 July 1727, he could no longer devote his assistance to Bradley and his experiments.
             Molyneux passed away on 13 April 1728 a few days after having an attack in the House of Commons by a disease possibly inherited by his mother. He had been under major stress after receiving adamant opposition from his fellows over his proposals for improvements to the navy, which could have contributed to his sudden death. Dr. Robert Smith came into possession of Molyneux’s optic papers shortly before his death and took on the task of completing a book on optics. The work, A Compleat System of Opticks, was published in 1738 and included a chapter written by Molyneux on the grinding and polishing of telescope lenses and another chapter begun by Molyneux on the casting and polishing of telescope mirrors. Upon his death, Molyneux left a widow, who remarried in 1730, and around 700 instruments, which were mostly astronomical.  


Clerke, A. M. “Molyneux, Samuel (1689–1728).” Rev. Anita McConnell. In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by Lawrence Goldman, (accessed March 12, 2015).

John Locke, The Works of John Locke in Nine Volumes, (London: Rivington, 1824 12th ed.). Vol. 8. [Online] available from; accessed 3/11/2015; Internet.

“List of the Fellows of the Royal Society 1660-2007.” PDF file. The Royal Society Library and Information Services. Accessed March 12, 2015.

Loudon, John Claudius.  An Encyclopædia of Gardening. London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1860.

O’Connor, J.J. and E.F. Robertson. “Samuel Molyneux.” The MacTutor History of Mathematics archives. Last modified December, 2008.

O'Hara, James G.. “Molyneux, William (1656–1698).” James G. O'Hara In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by Lawrence Goldman, January 2008. (accessed March 12, 2015).

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