ASTRONOMERS AND CARTOGRAPHERS

Of English astronomers and physicists, Hally was the chief. He published a theory of "Magnetic Variations," and a "History of the Monsoons," which gained for him the command of a vessel, that he might put his theory into practice.

That which D'Après achieved for the French, Alexander Dalrymple accomplished for the English. His views, however, bordered on the hypothetical, and he believed in the existence of an Antarctic Continent.

He was succeeded by Horsburgh, whose name is justly dear to navigators.

We must now speak of two important expeditions, which ought to have settled the animated discussion as to the shape of the earth. The Academy of Sciences had despatched a mission to America, to compute the arc of the meridian at the Equator. It was composed of Godin, Bouguer, and La Condamine.

It was decided to entrust a similar expedition to the North to Maupertuis.

 

Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis
Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis.

"If," said this scientific man, "the flatness of the earth be not greater then Huyghens supposed, the margin between the degrees of the meridian measured in France, and the first degrees of the meridian near the Equator, would not be too considerable to be attributed to possible errors of the observers, or to the imperfection of instruments. But, if the observation can be made at the Pole, the difference between the first degree of the meridian nearest the equatorial line, and, for example, the sixty-sixth degree, which crosses the polar circle, will be great enough, even by Huyghens' hypothesis, to show itself irresistibly, and beyond the possibility of miscalculation, because the difference would be repeated just as many times as there are intermediate degrees."

The problem thus neatly propounded ought to have obtained a ready solution both at the Pole and the Equator—a solution which would have settled the discussion, by proving Huyghens and Newton to be right.

The expedition embarked in a vessel equipped at Dunkerque. In addition to Maupertuis, it comprised De Clairaut, Camus, and Lemonnier, Academicians, Albey Outhier, canon of Bayeux, a secretary named Sommereux, a draughtsman, Herbelot, and the scientific Swedish astronomer, Celsius.

When the King of Sweden received the members of the mission at Stockholm, he said to them, "I have been in many bloody battles, but I should prefer finding myself in the midst of the most sanguinary, rather than join your expedition."

Certainly, it was not likely to prove a party of pleasure. The learned adventurers were to be tested by difficulties of every kind, by continued privation, by excessive cold. But what comparison can be made between their sufferings, and the agonies, the trials and the dangers which were to be encountered by the Arctic explorers, Ross, Parry, Hall, Payer, and many others.

Damiron in his "Eulogy of Maupertuis," says, "The houses at Tornea, north of the Gulf of Bothnia, almost in the Arctic Circle, are hidden under the snow. When one goes out, the air seems to pierce the lungs, the increasing degrees of frost are proclaimed by the incessant crackling of the wood, of which most of the houses are built. From the solitude which reigns in the streets, one might fancy that the inhabitants of the town were dead. At every step one meets mutilated figures, people who have lost arms or legs from the terrible severity of the temperature. And yet, the travellers did not intend pausing at Tornea."

Now-a-days these portions of the globe are better known, and the region of the Arctic climate thoroughly appreciated, which makes it easier to estimate the difficulties the inquirers encountered.

They commenced their operations in July, 1736. Beyond Tornea they found only uninhabited regions. They were obliged to rely upon their own resources for scaling the mountains, where they placed the signals intended to form the uninterrupted series of triangles.

Divided into two parties in order thus to obtain two measurements instead of one, and thereby also to diminish the chance of mistakes, the adventurous savants, after inconceivable hairbreadth escapes, of which an account can be found in the Memoirs of the Academy of Sciences for 1737, and after incredible efforts, decided that the length of the meridian circle, comprised between the parallels of Tornea and Kittis was 55,023 fathoms and a half. Thus below the Polar circle, the meridian degree comprised a thousand fathoms more than Cassini had imagined, and the terrestrial degree exceeded by 377 fathoms the length which Picard has reckoned it between Paris and Amiens.

The result, therefore, of this discovery (a result long repudiated by the Cassinis, both father and son), was that the earth was considerably flattened at the poles.

Voltaire somewhat maliciously said of it,—

Courrier de la physique, argonaute nouveau,
Qui, franchissant les monts, qui, traversant les eaux,
Ramenez des climats soumis aux trois couronnes,
Vos perches, vos secteurs et surtout deux Laponnes.
Vous avez confirmé dans ces lieux pleins d'ennui
Ce que Newton connut sans sortir de lui.

In much the same vein he alludes to the two sisters who accompanied Maupertuis upon his return, the attractions of one of whom proved irresistible,—