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Sabine, Sir Edward (1788-1883)

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0117 MS 257
Held at: Royal Society
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Full title: Sabine, Sir Edward (1788-1883)
Date(s): 1818-1875
Level of description: Collection (fonds)
Extent: Five volumes of 1,841 items. Two volumes of 215 items on Terrestrial Magnetism.
Name of creator(s): Sabine | Sir | Edward | 1788-1883 | Knight | General and geophysicist


Administrative/Biographical history:

Born in Dublin in 1788, Sabine was a graduate of the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. He retained his commission, eventually reaching the rank of General - but started scientific work at the end of the Napoleonic wars. He was recommended by the Royal Society to accompany John Ross on an expedition to seek the Northwest Passage in 1818, was with William Edward Parry on his 1819-1820 Arctic expedition, and on a pendulum expedition in 1821-1822 around the Atlantic to determine the true figure of the earth. He was most interested in terrestrial magnetism, in 1826 working with Babbage on the British Isles; in the 1830's he, Humphrey Lloyd, James Clark Ross and others completed the magnetic survey of the British Isles, which he repeated in 1858-1861. His career was distinguished by his successful promotion and administration of a world-wide effort to gather terrestrial magnetism observations, believing in the existence of two magnetic poles and that terrestrial magnetism was essentially the same as atmospheric phenomena. He played a key role both in the dispatching of a British expedition to the southern hemisphere in 1839 to establish a network of magnetic and meteorological observatories, and in its consequencies, motivated by intellectual curiosity and nationalistic zeal. Also, he and Sir John Herschel were in complete agreement on the desirability of seizing this opportunity to advance meteorology. Sabine took over from Lloyd the processing of the data, and between 1841-1861 he maintained a staff at Woolwich for data reduction. He also persuaded the British Association to acquire the King's Observatory at Kew to be the basic geophysical observatory for the Empire, providing standard data and equipment for colonial observations, until in 1871 it was transferred to the Royal Society. Sabine believed that data was not the end in itself, but a preliminary to theory. He was particularly active in the British Association and the Royal Society, shifting programmes from one to the other to gain his objectives, such as the Kew Observatory. He was distressed by the disputes over reforming the Royal Society, and with Grove played a leading reform role which answered the complaints of Davy and Babbage about the election of Fellows. However, he failed to move with the scientific times, in 1863 refusing the demand by younger naturalists for awarding the Copley Medal to Darwin in favour of Adam Sedgwick. Accused by Tyndall of neglecting natural history, he resigned the presidency of the Royal Society in 1871.


Scope and content/abstract:

Correspondence of Sir Edward Sabine, together with two volumes of correspondence on Terrestrial Magnetism by Sir Edward Sabine, Reverend Humphrey Lloyd and others.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

Alphabetically by name of correspondent, and by date under each correspondent.

Conditions governing access:


Conditions governing reproduction:

No publication without written permission. Apply to Archivist in the first instance.

Finding aids:

Catalogued in Archive card catalogue. Table of contents at front of each volume. Detailed catalogue available at

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Presented in 1891 to Royal Society by Mrs Lloyd.

Allied Materials

Related material:

Public Record Office, correspondence and papers, 1825-1877, correspondence with Balfour Stewart, 1859-1870; Devon Record Office, correspondence, 1825-1837; Plymouth and West Devon Record Office, diary, 1818; Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, Cambridge University, papers, 1822, correspondence with Sir George Airy, 1847-1858, correspondence with Sir George Stokes, 1847-1876; National Meteorological Library and Archive, correspondence relating to Meteorological Office and Kew Observatory; Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge University, journal, 1818-1819; Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, ornithological papers, 1830-1820; Archives Department, Institution of Electrical Engineers, 10 letters to Michael Faraday, 1845-1860, correspondence with Sir Francis Ronalds, 1844-1851; St Andrews University Library, correspondence with James Forbes, 1841-1858; Niedersachsische Staats and Universitatsbibliothek, 24 letters to Gottinghen Academy of Science, 1824-1865; Royal Institution of Great Britain, 57 letters to Sir William Grove, 40 letters to John Tyndall; Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center Library, University of Texas at Austin, correspondence with Sir John Herschel, 1822-1866; Library and Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, 260 letters to Sir William Hooker, 1832-1849; Manuscript Collections, British Library, letters to Sir Roderick Murchison, 1845-1862; Castle Ashby, letters to Lord Northampton; Birr Castle Archives, 11 letters to 3rd and 4th Earls of Rosse, 1848-1871; University College London Special Collections, 59 letters to William Sharpey, 1852-1865; Glasgow City Archives, letters to James Smith, 1822-1837; Trinity College Library, Cambridge University, 17 letters to William Whewell, 1837-1854; Natural History Museum, correspondence with Sir Richard Owen, William Clift, 1851-1870.

Publication note:

Description Notes

Archivist's note:
Description produced by the Royal Society and revised by Rachel Kemsley as part of the RSLP AIM25 project.

Rules or conventions:
Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:
Created 7/05/2002, modified 28/05/2002, Sep 2002

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