Tag Archives: Thomas Hirst

Thomas Archer Hirst – member of the X Club: a Steampunk Feminist’s Perspective

Quote from one of Thomas Hirst’s students at the University College London:

His presence in the classroom was striking. He was tall, and held himself erect with an almost military air. he had a long black beard and a great, bald, dome-like forehead. He was a man with whom it was impossible to imagine the most audacious student venturing to take a liberty. There was something about him that invested his unlovely subject with dignity, if not interest. Less, perhaps, than any of the other professors, did he seem to think of examinations. To him, I believe, incredible as it sounds, mathematics must have been a solemn, high pursuit: a passion, if not religion. Yet with all his aloofness of manner he could be very simple, very patient, and extremely kind. Certainly to one of his most hopeless pupils he showed himself all three.


Thomas Archer Hirst – member of the X Club

No biography of Hirst is complete without the mention of John Tyndall, his mentor and friend and fellow X Club member, and as this is blog post relates directly back to the X Club, their important relationship deserves first mention. In 1844, Hirst’s father died in an accident, and he went to work for an engineering firm, where he met Tyndall. Tyndall made friends with the younger man, and encouraged him to read textbooks and continue his education. After Tyndall (and Edward Frankland, another future member of the X Club) had moved to Marburg to study chemistry, Hirst’s mother died and left him enough money that he could give up his job and follow Tyndall and his example. So, in 1850, Hirst enrolled at the University of Marburg to study mathematics, physics and chemistry. Without Tyndall’s support, there is no doubt Hirst would not have become the successful scientist.

John Tyndall as a young man

Hirst was a writer and educator to the core. He started writing diaries at fifteen and over his lifetime he wrote about the changes happening in the scientific and mathematical arenas. That was nearly 45 years of observation and commentary, a real treasure for historians and scientists, because of his membership of the X Club. Not to put down his own achievements, but this eyewitness account of the X Club was an important contribution to history.

Thomas Hirst

Sadly, Hirst’s wife died young of tuberculosis and he never remarried. Instead, he poured his energy into his work.

Hirst spent from 1860 to 1882 as an educator, either teaching at the University College School or the University College London, or as the Director of Studies at the Royal Naval College at Greenwich. At the same time, an active member of the governing councils of the Royal Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and the London Mathematical Society. He was the founding president of an association to reform school mathematics curricula and also worked to promote the education of women. In 1869 he gave a course of twenty-four lectures on the Elements of Geometry to the Ladies Educational Association of London. The lectures were very successful both for their quality and for the large number of women who signed up for the course.

A excerpt from one of Hirst’s diaries, dated the 27th of July 1869: I attended Königsberger’s lecture on the theory of determinants. He introduced me to a young Russian lady [Sofia Kovalevskaya] who attends his lectures and is at home in elliptic functions. She belongs to the mathematically gifted family of Schuberts. She is pretty and exceedingly modest.

Sofja Wassiljewna Kowalewskaja 1.jpg

Sofia Kovalevskaya

Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya was the first major Russian female mathematician, responsible for important original contributions to analysis, partial differential equations and mechanics, and the first woman appointed to a full professorship in Northern Europe. She was also one of the first women to work for a scientific journal as an editor. Instead of being horrified that her brain might melt from thinking about mathematics, Hirst’s diary excerpt praises her intelligence first and then makes a comment on her looks and manner. He would also comment upon the appearance and manner of all the male mathematicians he met, so he wasn’t treating Kovalevskaya any differently to the men. I think this is a good example of his attitude towards women … they were as easily educated as men.

I was unable to find any direct quotes from Hirst supporting the rights of women, but his actions do speak volumes. As he was a member of the X Club, and as the X Club was a major influence on the academic realm in Victorian Britain, his positive attitude to educating women must have had an impact on the misogynistic thinking of the era. All in all, he comes across as a delightful man, educator, and mathematician.

Geometry is all about patterns and balance. Hirst was a geometrician to his very bones.



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Filed under Characterization, Historical Personage, History, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Genre, Uncategorized

The X (Club) Marks the Spot: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

T H Huxley with human skull

T H Huxley

The X Club was a dining club of nine  British scientists who supported academic liberalism in late 19th-century England. The club met in London once a month, except in the summer months, from November 1864 until March 1893. During this time, this ‘social’ club exerted a major influence on the scientific arena. The group went a long way in supporting Darwin and his theory of natural selection. I plan on doing a blog article on each of the men over the coming week.

The Members of the X Club were:

Thomas Henry Huxley, biologist and anatomist, also known as Darwin’s Bulldog, and the founder of the X Club. To my mind,  his dedication in developing scientific education in Britain is what made him a truly great scientist. He believed schooling was a lifelong process and adult education should be encouraged.

George Busk

George Busk, a British naval surgeon, zoologist and palaeontologist, and he nominated Charles Darwin for membership in the Royal Society in 1864. He was the responsible of bringing to England the Gibraltar skull, the first known adult Neanderthal skull, even though identification of the skull as belonging to a Neanderthal was not made until the 20th century.

Joseph Hooker 

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, English Botanist and a director of Kew Gardens for twenty years, an explorer and discoverer of new species, and a great friend of Charles Darwin. With George Bentham, he is the co-author of The Handbook of the British Flora, still considered a standard text by botanists and taxonomists. He was the first of the three X-Clubbers in succession to become President of the Royal Society.

In my Steampunk novel, we meet with Hooker, and he though he is open minded about evolution, he is still something of an old fogey when it comes to women academics and their rights to Kew Garden.

John Tyndall

John Tyndall, physicist, covered a broad range of research in his lifetime. Among his discoveries was the scattering of light by particulate impurities in air and in liquids, still known today as the Tyndall Effect or Tyndall Scattering. He was a science teacher and supporter for the cause of science. As a science popularizer and communicator, Tyndall lectured on the benefits of a clear separation between science and religion.

William Spottiswoode

William H. Spottiswoode was a mathematician and physicist,. He was President of the Royal Society from 1878 to 1883. He published mountains of original mathematical work and, in 1871, he began to turn his attention to experimental physics. He researched the polarization of light and the electrical discharge in rarefied gases.

Edward Frankland – around 1860

Sir Edward Frankland was a research chemist, applied chemist, and something of a prodigy.  Frankland engaged in original research with great success, and he was only about twenty-five years of age when an investigation yielded the discovery of organometallic compounds. I consider his work on water pollution and lobbying for the creation of a clean water supply to be the highpoint of his career.

Sir John Lubbock

The Right Honourable John Lubbock, 1st Baron Avebury, also known as Sir John Lubbock, was a banker, Liberal politician, philanthropist, scientist and polymath, and one of Darwin’s neighbours and friends. His day job was as a banker but Lubbock also made significant contributions in archaeology, ethnography, and several branches of biology.  I consider his greatest achievement the introduction of the first law on the protection of Britain’s archaeological and architectural heritage.

Thomas Hirst

Thomas Archer Hirst was a mathematician, specialising in geometry, and a supporter of science education for everyone. He was awarded the Royal Society’s Royal Medal in 1883. He was an active member of the governing councils of the Royal Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and the London Mathematical Society. He was the founding president of an association to reform school mathematics curricula and also worked to promote the education of women.

Herbert Spencer when 38

Herbert Spencer was a philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, and prominent classical liberal political theorist of the Victorian era. Spencer is best known for coining the expression “survival of the fittest”, after reading Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Spencer was “the single most famous European intellectual in the closing decades of the nineteenth century” but his influence declined sharply after 1900. The low point of his career was the concept of Social Darwinism.


Filed under Historical Personage, History, Science, Setting, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Themes, The X Club, Uncategorized, writing