William Lassell

William Lassell
William Lassell
Photo copyright © Liverpool Astronomical Society.

A good head for business

"Waste not, want not" seems to have been William Lassell's motto. He left 80,000 when he died in 1880 -- equivalent to several million in today's money -- yet even when he'd made his fortune, he clearly valued frugality.

It is probably no coincidence that the brewer Lassell built his 24-inch telescope at a time when the Albert Dock was being dug: this was a boom time for suppliers of beer due to the influx of thirsty navvies.

It was estimated that blasting out the sandstone with gunpowder put the navvies at a higher risk of being killed than British soldiers at Waterloo. How much the effects of drink added to the accident rate no one can say for certain: it was common for a navvy to have eight to 12 pints at work, not counting what he drank in his own time. Beer was supplied on-site to prevent them slipping off to the pub to keep their thirst at bay.

Boom time or not, Lassell was not a man to waste his pennies, as the surviving written evidence confirms. His astronomical observations were recorded on homemade notebooks or ones originally meant for other purposes: some have business accounts, sermon notes and memoranda at one end and astronomical material at the other.

The home-made examples, containing many of his observations using the 24-inch telescope, consisted of large sheets of paper folded and cut into pages, then stitched inside brown-paper covers. Fragments of addresses and stamps on these covers show that the brown paper was second-hand to start with.

On the other hand, Lassell also liked to show style. The earliest portrait of him, an 1845 Daguerrotype, shows him in a flashy chequered waistcoat, while in the later Royal Astronomical Society presidential portrait he rejects the formal frock coat for the height of fashion, a short jacket with braided collar.


Alfred and Joseph King, two up-and-coming Liverpool entrepreneurs, were among amateur astronomers who attended "star parties" at which Lassell and his friends would stay up until the early hours testing each other's telescopes and observing planets and stars. It is almost certainly through this connection that Lassell met Maria King, sister of Alfred and Joseph, who became his wife.

Other lifelong friendships made through astronomy included William R. Dawes, the Ormskirk physician, astronomer and Nonconformist minister, and the Manchester engineer James Nasmyth.

It was Nasmyth who build the steam-driven grinding machine designed by Lassell to make the 24-inch mirrors and who almost certainly made the famous telescope's heavy iron parts in his foundry at Patricroft.

Lassell's notebooks record the exact position, in angles of time, of friends' homes, such as Mr Roskell the watch-manufacturer in Church Street, and Mr Findlow and Miss Harrison in Bootle.

In 1851 Lassell and another friend, a Mr Stannistreet, travelled to Sweden to observe a total eclipse of the sun. But Lassell came dose to blinding himself -- the solar heat focused through his powerful refracting telescope shattered the dark glass in the eyelens. It is not an observing procedure modern astronomers would follow or recommend.

A star among stars

Lassell was on familiar terms with all the leading astronomers of his age. In 1850 Russo-German astronomer Otto Struve, of St Petersburg, stayed with Lassell at "Starfield", in West Derby Road. He left a shirt behind, which Lassell resumed to its owner in London via his next guest, Sir George Biddell Airy, who was on his way from Glasgow to Greenwich. Sir George was not be in the habit of acting as messenger for just anyone, being Astronomer Royal.

When Queen Victoria visited Liverpool in 1851 Lassell was the only local notable whom she specifically asked to meet, and it was said that she rose and advanced to meet the astronomer as he entered the room. This was something at the time which was almost unheard of and was an indication of Her Majesty's regard for him and his work.

William Lassell: key dates

1799 Born on 18 June at family home in Moor Lane, Bolton. Father was a timber merchant. Educated at Bolton Day School, then from age of eight or nine at the Rochdale Academy, a "Dissenting Academy"; the Lassells were Congregationalists.

1815 Family moved to Liverpool, first to Toxteth Park, then to 18 Norton St. William apprenticed to a merchant's office, believed to be in the drink trade.

1821 Observing with a 7-and-a-half inch Gregorian reflector, which he constructed himself.

1824 Began business as a brewer, two years after finishing apprenticeship.

1827 Married Maria King. Lassell met his future wife through friendship with her brothers, who were also keen amateur astronomers.

1836 Strongly advised Borough of Liverpool establish an observatory. This was opened near the present Pier Head in 1844.

1836-1838 Moved home to "Starfield", in West Derby, Liverpool. Exact date unknown. Observatory added to it in summer 1839.

1833 Made a 9-inch speculum mirror for a telescope. This was his first successful experiment in mounting a large reflecting telescope in the Equatorial plane.

1845 Built the famous 24-inch telescope.

1846 Discovered Triton, moon of Neptune.

1848 Co-discovered Hyperion, eighth moon of Saturn.

1851 Discovered two moons around Uranus, Ariel and Umbriel.

1851-52 Observing from the clear skies of Malta: even in those days pollution hampered observations from Liverpool.

1858 Built his 48-inch telescope, also used in Malta.

1880 Died in Maidenhead, where he had moved in the mid-1860s in search of clearer British skies.

William Lassell (1799-1880) and the discovery of Triton, 1846 by Allan Chapman.
The Lassell Telescope Project.
The Lassell Telescope.

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Last modified October 4, 2005