John Goodricke

John Goodricke

Portrait of John Goodricke at age 19 or 20.

In this installment I’ll say a bit more about John Goodricke, the subject of my sabbatical research project. As an “amateur” astronomer (since he did not receive pay for his work), as a deaf scientist, and as someone who made great achievements while still in his teens, John is often written about in introductory textbooks. I’ve learned that much of the biographical data given about him is, in fact, incorrect. While I eventually plan to put his life and work into a broader perspective, it’s imperative to get the facts straight first! I’ll return to this shortly.

So what, exactly, did John Goodricke do that merited recognition in his own day and remembrance today? He studied stars whose light varies in time. The variation can happen for different reasons. Two of John’s three favorite stars are eclipsing binary stars: two stars in orbit around each other, so far away that they look like a single star from Earth, and which are aligned so that they periodically block each other’s light.

John’s first discovery (and the one that won him the Copley Medal from the Royal Society of London) was of the period of variation of Algol. This star is in the constellation of Perseus, and it is traditionally drawn on star charts as the blinking “eye” of Medusa, the horrible Gorgon with snakes for hair. In Greek mythology Perseus slew Medusa and used her head to rescue the beautiful Princess Andromeda, chained to a rock as a sacrifice to the gods


Star chart of Perseus showing Algol. The graph shows the brightness variation of Algol.

Was the “blinking” of Algol noticed earlier, causing it to be identified as a monster’s eye? While the stars’ variability had been suspected, no one had systematically observed it. What John Goodricke discovered was how long the brightness variation takes — about nine hours, every 2.867 days. His value is within 4 minutes of the modern one! He and his collaborator, Edward Pigott, correctly suggested that the dimming was caused by a “darker body,” and between themselves they suggested that it might be a planet. Other astronomers preferred to explain the variation as due to “starspots,” analogous to sunspots, and John and Edward’s explanation was not proven correct for nearly another century. The technique of detecting extrasolar planets by means of eclipses, now being used by NASA’s Kepler mission, was suggested in 1783 by Goodricke and Pigott.

This was put up in the 1950s by the York Civic Trust.

This plaque was put up in the 1950s by the York Civic Trust.

Back to some of the inaccuracies I’ve encountered: John is often described as “congenitally deaf,” or “deaf and dumb,” or a “deaf-mute.” Because his family were landed gentry (he would have been a baronet, had he lived longer), it is assumed that he and his family were quite wealthy. In the 1950s, Zdenek Kopal, a famous astronomer, went looking for John’s tomb and did not find it. He wrote that perhaps the “rather staid” Goodricke family felt that John’s deafness was a “blot on the family’s escutcheon.” He also suggested that the Goodrickes were “country squires” primarily interested in fox hunting and horse racing, and for this reason they had no use for their intellectual son. I’ll close this installment by addressing some of these allegations, and take up the others next time.

John was born in Groningen, the Netherlands, in 1764, while his father Henry was a diplomat there. John’s mother, Levina Benjamina, was the daughter of a Belgian merchant, and from her name is seems likely that she was of Jewish heritage. According to the family history, John suffered a severe illness at an early age, and this left him deaf. However, there is no reason to think he would not have been capable of speech, and my reading of his journals suggests that he probably did so. For example, in discussing his dealings with a clockmaker he writes, “I spoke with Mr. Hartley….”

Great Ribston

Great Ribston, the family estate of the Goodrickes, today. John never lived here.

All but one of John’s four younger siblings were born in Groningen, and at some point the family returned to York. While the family possessed a large estate, Great Ribston, about 15 miles west of York, John never lived there. His grandfather, the baronet, would have had right of possession, and Sir John worked for most of his life as the English Envoy Extraordinaire to Sweden. The great estate was rented out, and Henry, Levina, and their children lived in other family properties around York. Why was this? It turns out that having a title and a big house does not make one immune to money problems. I am still working through the details, but there is a long trail of loans and mortgages. Interestingly, Henry and Levina made the investment to send John to two excellent (and expensive) schools: the Braidwood Academy in Edinburgh was the first school for the deaf in the British Isles. Pupils were taught to lip read and, when possible, to speak. After leaving Braidwood’s, John attended the Warrington Academy, a “Dissenting” or “Freethinking” Academy originally founded to prepare Protestant clergymen for denominations other than the Church of England. There astronomy was part of the curriculum, and there is evidence that John was observing the sky when he was just fifteen. I discovered this on my first research trip to York two years ago; the drawing in question was made two years before any of John’s published astronomical work.

This week Ron and I are going to visit the Yorkshire Archaeological Society in Leeds to examine property records, wills, and diaries of the Goodrickes.

John lived in and observed from this house.  It was divided into several flats at this point -- eighteenth century "apartments."

John lived in and observed from this house. It was divided into several flats at this point -- 18th century "apartments."

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