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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 27

Sir J. W. Herschel

Sir J. W. Herschel.

I would allude, now, to another subject. I have recently read about what are called practical men. When a man says "I am a practical man," and he says so continuously, it is very generally found that such a person is an ignorant man on many subjects. I read this of a man who thought himself a very good man and a very great writer. He said that "the sublime science of astronomy lifts our minds to the consideration of the entire universe, and leads us to view with contempt this little planet to which we are attached, and to despise the momentary life which we spend here." I have heard that even quoted; I have lately seen it printed. Now, I hold in my hand a letter written by the late Sir J. W. Herschel, the greatest of astronomers, who achieved not only an English but a European reputation, and a reputation which will last for centuries of time. This letter shows that when he ceased from his severe studies of astronomy he could sit down and write a letter such as this, full of suggestions for the good of this "little planet," in which we are living; full of thoughts for the happiness of his family, and never lost an opportunity to do all the good he could for every part of the world, spurring me and others to do all the good we could in the position in which we were placed. He says:—"Collingwood, December 27, 1841.—We have received and been quite delighted with your book, which is one of the most spirited and interesting things in the narrative line of moving ventures happed by land and sea,' which has come across us for many a day, and I lose no time in thanking you both in Lady Herschel's name and my own for the attention of directing a copy of it to be sent us. The publication having taken place in your page 20 absence, I must also congratulate you on your choice of an editor, who has certainly done his part well, and 'got it up' in a way that I think must be very satisfactory to you. I understand it is making quite a sensation in London, and will no doubt have the effect of directing a good deal of public attention to the line of coast and country described in it. I am quite proud of my range of mountains, as it is, I think, the first time my name has figured on a map of the world." He goes on to say: "I hope among the more interesting and responsible duties of your situation in South Australia, you will not lose sight of the preservation and identification (by some definite and systematic mode of conforming writing to pronunciation) of the aboriginal dialects. The opportunity is precious. They must speedily perish as spoken languages, and (if not so preserved) a most invaluable record in ethnology will be lost forever. Nothing can be more grievous than to see these ancient and venerable monuments all over the world (infinitely more important than all the hieroglyphics and inscriptions about which all the learned are disputing) mouldering away before our eyes, while nobody seems to regard them in their true light, or consider it worth an effort to save them, either from being utterly lost or (which, in unwritten tongue, is perhaps even worse) distorted by an erroneous and ill-concerted system of phonetic expression. A commission has been sitting for some time, of which I am a member, for reporting on the best means of replacing the lost standards of weight and and measure destroyed in the burning of the Houses of Parliament. In our report, which is nearly ready, I have taken care to have strongly insisted on the advantage, and indeed necessity, of forwarding to all the colonies authentic copies of the standards of length, weight, and capacity, to be there securely deposited, and to be thenceforward referred to as the colonial standards—together with a provision for their comparison at stated intervals with a set of itinerant standards, to be kept constantly going the round of the colonies in a certain rotation. Now, I think it would immediately tend to draw the attention of Government to this matter (which appears to me of no small future importance) if applications for such standards were made by the Colonial Governments themselves, and that, the earlier the better in their political existence, before errors and mistakes can have had time to creep in and get established. Should you agree with me in this, your position affords an opportunity which, if used, may save considerable annoyance to your successors, and to future generations of colonists, by putting straight at first, a matter which becomes more difficult as time progresses. The importance of a magnetic survey of all the colonised and colonisable parts of Australia is daily becoming more and more evident. Surveyors are too apt to work by compass, in some cases it is to be feared neglecting altogether, and of necessity in every territory page 21 where no such magnetic survey has been made, making undue and erroneous allowances for the magnetic declination, or deviation of the needle from the true meridian. Very many surveyors are ignorant of the fact that this element is continually varying, and on the direction and amount of its variation nothing but observation, purposely instituted, can give correct information. It is hardly possible to over-estimate the amount of confusion and litigation which must be caused to the next generation, when land becomes more valuable, and which may be spared them by a moderate outlay and reasonable attention at present, to determining with strict precision the 'magnetic elements' at a series of well-chosen stations along the coast, and in the interior of newly settled country. I trust you will not think it impertinent or intrusive of me if I seize this opportunity of directing your attention to this subject; the more so, as such a magnetic survey is already resolved on, if not in progress, in Canada, and provision is making for carrying a similar one into execution at the Cape. Here again, a suggestion to the Home Government from the local authorities might have an excellent effect, and as a magnetic observatory now exists in full activity in Van Diemen's Land, a centre of reference (distant it is true, but still very valuable if connected with one on the West Coast) also exists, upon which any extent of operations might be securely based. But I must not take up time so valuable as yours must necessarily be with further details of this nature."

Those who know anything of me will know that I have, throughout my life, adhered to this sage counsel regarding the preservation of languages. I have, from the earliest time to the present, done my utmost to preserve and record the languages and dialects of each of the nations amongst whom I have lived. It was in this manner that this great man stirred me up to do things which should be of benefit to these colonies. I have done my best to get these things done here, and in other colonies, especially attending to the subjects of weights and measures, believing that a uniform system of weights and measures prevailing throughout the whole Anglo-Saxon speaking race would tend greatly to extend its weight and influence in every part of the world, and would draw more closely together the bonds of amity which unite the several nations who speak that language.