Today, Jesse Ramsden. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
One day, in the late eighteenth century, Jesse Ramsden
went down to the palace of King George III in Kew Gardens. He wasn't expected;
he had to talk his way in. He finally got his audience and was graciously received.
Then he presented the King with a scientific instrument that he'd built on order
-- maybe a sextant or a telescope, I don't know. The King admired it, then said,
I have been told, Mr. Ramsden, that you are ... the least punctual
of any man in England; you have brought home this instrument on the
very day ... appointed. You have mistaken only the year.
For the King to let Ramsden off with so gentle a scolding says volumes about
Ramsden's stature as an instrument maker.
Compared with other monarchs of his time, King George lived a pretty simple
and monogamous life. He was also a devoted student of science and agriculture,
seriously interested in the latest scientific tools. That's why he hired
Jesse Ramsden to build his instruments.
Ramsden, born in Yorkshire in 1735, apprenticed as a clothworker and he began
in that business. But his growing fascination with scientific devices led him
to begin a new apprenticeship as a maker of mathematical instruments at the age
of 21. That was old for an apprentice. But he excelled and was soon running
his own business.
He also found a welcome in the wealthy family of John Dollond. Dollond held
the first patent for an achromatic lens. Previous lenses all suffered from
chromatic aberration -- rainbow fringes of light around the edges of objects.
You and I were bothered by that in our early digital cameras. That's because
lenses refract each color differently. Each color has a slightly different focus.
The first solution, invented by others but patented by Dollond, was to put a
second lens with different refractive properties next to the first. Ramsden
went on to use and improve that delicate technology. (He also married Dollond's
Yet lenses were only a fraction of all he made. He built circle dividers,
sextants, balances, protractors, slide rules, transits, barometers ... He
had a staff of some fifty workers, and his quality control seemed to surpass
sanity. He was famous for missing deadlines. He drove clients (like King
George) to distraction. Small wonder that, when he died in 1800, Dollond
family executors could recoup only a tiny fraction of all the money owed him.
Ramsden exemplified a conviction that lay behind the Age of Enlightenment --
that all understanding flowed from precise measurement. Later science would
turn to statistical inference, probabilistic analysis -- and ultimately quantum
physics which would take us quite beyond measurement's reach.
But now I hold an antiquarian catalog of Ramsden's instruments -- all masterpieces
of hand-etching in brass and steel. And I smile the smug Enlightenment
smile-of-reason at King George's year-long wait -- while Ramsden brought his
instrument as close to perfection as one might approach, without offending his
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
A. Chapman, Ramsden, Jesse (1735-1800), Oxford Dictionary of
National Biography, Vol. ?, (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2004): pp. 963-966.
The image of Ramsden is courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. All other
images are from Tesseract: Early Scientific Instruments catalogs,
Issues 86 and 87, Winter 2008/2009 and Spring 2009. (Co-published
with Rittenhouse: the Journal of the American Scientific Instrument
See also the Wikipedia entries on
King George III,
and achromatic lenses.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2009 by John H.