Sir Edward Sabine and the Earth’s Magnetic Field

Edward Sabine

Edward Sabine

On October 14, 1788, Irish astronomer, geophysicist, ornithologist,explorer, soldier and the 30th President of the Royal Society Sir Edward Sabine was born. His aim was to study the shape of the Earth and its magnetic field. He led the effort to establish a system of magnetic observatories in various parts of British territory all over the globe, and much of his life was devoted to their direction, and to analyzing their observations.

Edward Sabine was educated at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich and obtained a commission in the Royal Artillery as a 2nd lieutenant when he was only 15 years old. About ten years later, Edward Sabine became captain. During the Peninsular War, Sabine was stationed at Gibraltar and gaiined his first experience in combat in the War of 1812 against the United States. Sabine saw action several times, particularly in the Niagara Campaign. He returned to England after a hort spell of military service in Quebec and devoted the rest of his life to astronomy, terrestrial magnetism, and physical geography.

In 1818, Edward Sabine was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and he was invited to take part that year in Captain John Ross’s first Arctic expedition. Sabine was told to assist Ross “in making such observations as may tend to the improvement of geography and navigation, and the advancement of science in general.” Even though the principal purpose of the voyage was to find the Northwest Passage, several objects of scientific curiosity were deemed worthy of investigation, such as the location of the Earth’s north magnetic pole and the behaviour of pendulums in high latitudes. However, the expedition ended in controversy. A very public row broke out between the two men when they arrived home. Sabine objected when Ross claimed the credit for certain magnetic observations. He also accused Ross of stealing magnetic measurements without giving him due credit, and of refusing to allow him enough time on the expedition to take accurate readings. The results of Sabine’s magnetic researches were published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Although he viewed his work as confirming and extending the discoveries of earlier “magnetic collectors,” he stressed the need for the multiplication and repetition of observations. Sabine was a diligent and careful scientist. He generally avoided theoretical discussion in his writings, believing that a true understanding of terrestrial magnetism would only be arrived at after exhaustive observations had been made on a global scale.

Already in 1819, Sabine returned to the Arctic as members of Lieutenant William Edward Parry’s expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. The scientist intended to devote his time during the expedition to magnetic measurements, especially the possible interactions between magnetic needles, atmospheric electricity and the aurora borealis. They were also to attempt to establish the location of the Earth’s North Magnetic Pole, then believed to lie somewhere along the western shore of Baffin Bay. During the expedition, Sabine noted that changes in magnetic intensity had taken place since his previous visit. He attributed such changes to either a fluctuation in the Earth’s magnetic intensity or the shifting positions of the terrestrial magnetic poles. For his work in the Arctic Sabine received the Copley Medal from the Royal Society in 1821.

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