The Nautical Almanac & Its Superintendents

1910: P. H. Cowell, Superintendent 1910-1930

Philip Herbert Cowell
Philip Herbert Cowell

© The Royal Society

Philip Herbert Cowell (1870-1949), was born in Calcutta, studied at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge on a scholarship where he graduated Senior Wrangler in 1892 and was awarded the Isaac Newton Studentship in 1894. In 1896 he was appointed to the newly created post of a second chief assistant at the Royal Observatory [9].

His interests were confined to mathematical astronomy, and his earliest research dealt with the motion of the Moon by the method introduced by G.W. Hill. He met E.W. Brown in 1894, when Brown was visiting Cambridge, and assisted in the proof-reading of Brown's volume on Lunar Theory. He continued this work in several papers published in Monthly Notices, which includes a discussion of the long-term motion of the Moon compared with data supplied by ancient eclipse records. For this work he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1906. In 1911 he won a Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society. He also discovered asteroid 4385 Lynn, and minor planet (asteroid) number (1898) Cowell, is named after him.

Cowell, however, is best remembered [9] for his work with A.C.D. Crommelin on the calculation of the orbit of Halley's Comet by numerical integration, in preparation for its return in 1910. This involved tracking back to 241 BC, through some 28 revolutions and reconciling the elements of the orbit with the observations. In 1911 he won a Gold Medal from the RAS, and was given an honorary D.Sc. of Oxford. He was honoured by the naming of minor planet number1898 Cowell.

In 1910 Cowell was appointed Superintendent of HMNAO. At that time the Office were at 3 Verulam Buildings, Gray's Inn, but in 1917 it was relocated to 86 Lee Road, Lee, London SE3, where it remained until 1922; then moving to the Royal Naval College, just down the hill from the Royal Observatory.

Cowell reorganised the work and effected considerable savings in the cost of carrying out the calculations. This was achieved by a substantial reduction in the established complement of (graduate) assistants, principally through retirement. The work being done by a number of young computers recruited straight from school. This development naturally required the introduction of considerably more detailed instructions for each stage of a calculation. Most of these precepts were written in full detail in Cowell's own hand. To assist with this he introduced the use of printed blank forms requiring the insertion of little more than the appropriate figures from the tables.

At that time Cowell was the outstanding expert in dynamical astronomy, and it was hoped that his work would lead to a revival of study of that subject in this country. He gave lectures at Cambridge and it was confidently expected by his friends that he would be elected to a professorship. However, he was frustrated by the refusal of the Admiralty of his request for additional staff for research in celestial dynamics (mechanics) and by his failure to obtain a professorship at Cambridge. From then on he was content to oversee the day-to-day work but made no further attempt to continue his research [11].

It is said that he never used a calculating machine, but used to carry out mentally accurate multiplications of three-figure numbers faster than his assistants could check them using tables.

On his 60th birthday he is said to have cleared his desk and left, without saying a word, at precisely the hour of his birth.


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