Thomas James Henderson

Thomas James Henderson

Thomas James Henderson (28 December 1798 – 23 November 1844) was a Scottish astronomer noted for being the first person to measure the distance to Alpha Centauri, the major component of the nearest stellar system to Earth, and for being the first Astronomer Royal for Scotland.

Early life

Born in Dundee, Scotland, he was educated at the High School of Dundee, after which he trained as a lawyer, working his way up through the profession as an assistant to a variety of nobles. However, his major hobbies were astronomy and mathematics, and after coming up with a new method for using lunar occultation to measure longitude he came to the attention of Thomas Young, superintendent of the Royal Navy's "Nautical Almanac". Young helped Henderson enter the larger world of astronomical science, and on his death a posthumous letter recommended to the Admiralty that Henderson take his place.



Henderson was passed over for that position, but the recommendation was enough to get him a position as the British observatory at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. There he made a considerable number of stellar observations between April 1832 and May 1833, including those for which he is remembered today. It was pointed out to him that the bright southern star Alpha Centauri had a large proper motion, and Henderson concluded that it might be a close star.

The 1830s version of the "space race" was to be the first person to measure the distance to a star using parallax, a task which is easier the closer the star. Henderson was thus in a good position to be this person. After retiring back to the United Kingdom due to bad health, he began analysing his measurements and eventually came to the conclusion that Alpha Centauri was just slightly less that one parsec away, 3.25 light years. This figure is reasonably accurate, being 33.7% too small.

Doubts about the accuracy of his instruments kept him from publishing, however (there had been previous, discredited attempts to claim a measurement of stellar parallax), and eventually he was beaten to the punch by Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel, who published a parallax of 10.4 light years (9.6% too small) for 61 Cygni in 1838. Henderson published his results in 1839, but was relegated to second place because of his lack of confidence.


In the meantime, his measurement work at the Cape had led him to be appointed the first Astronomer Royal for Scotland in 1834. The vacant chair of astronomy at the University of Edinburgh was given to him on the advice of Prime Minister Lord Melbourne.

From 1834 he worked at the City Observatory, Edinburgh until his death. He is buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard. He also claimed a right to different types of astronomy.


# [ Astronomical Society of Edinburgh - journal 38]

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Thomas James Henderson — (* 28. Dezember 1798 in Dundee, Schottland; † 23. November 1844) war ein schottischer Astronom. Er war dafür bekannt, dass er als Erster die Distanz von Alpha Centauri zur Erde berechnete und dafür, dass er der erste Astronomer Royal for Scotland …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Thomas J. Henderson — may mean:*Thomas James Henderson (1798 1844), first astronomer royal of Scotland *Thomas J. Henderson (politician) (fl. 1880s), United States Congressman from Illinois *Thomas J. Henderson (activist) (1931 2005), American activist and… …   Wikipedia

  • James Henderson Duff — James H. Duff James Henderson Duff (* 21. Januar 1883 in Mansfield, heute Carnegie, Pennsylvania; † 20. Dezember 1969 in Washington) war ein US amerikanischer Politiker der Republikanischen Partei. Er vertrat den Staat Pennsylvan …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • James Henderson Blount — (* 12. September 1837 bei Clinton, Jones County, Georgia; † 8. März 1903 in Macon, Georgia) war ein US amerikanischer Politiker. Zwischen 1873 und 1893 vertrat er den …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • James Henderson Berry — Infobox Governor name = James Henderson Berry order = 14th office = Governor of Arkansas term start = 1883 term end = 1885 lieutenant = predecessor = Thomas James Churchill successor = Simon Pollard Hughes, Jr. birth date = May 15, 1841 birth… …   Wikipedia

  • Thomas James Churchill — Infobox Governor name = Thomas James Churchill order = 13th office = Governor of Arkansas term start = 1881 term end = 1883 lieutenant = predecessor = William Read Miller successor = James Henderson Berry birth date = March 10, 1824 birth place …   Wikipedia

  • Sir James Henderson-Stewart, 1st Baronet — Sir James Henderson Stewart, 1st Baronet, (originally James Henderson Stewart, 6 December 1897 ndash; 3 September 1961) was a British banker, Army officer and politician. He was a National Liberal Member of Parliament for East Fife from 1933… …   Wikipedia

  • Henderson (surname) — Henderson is a common surname.The surname Henderson is of Scottish origin and means son of Henry . The name is derived from the Scots Gaelic clan MacEanruig of Glencoe which was later anglified to Henderson and McKendrick. Other areas of Scotland …   Wikipedia

  • Henderson (Familienname) — Henderson ist ein schottischer Familienname. Herkunft und Bedeutung Henderson bedeutet „Sohn des Henry“ und entspricht damit deutschen Patronymen wie Hinrichs und Heinsohn. Varianten Henson Bekannte Namensträger Inhaltsverzeichnis A B C …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Thomas Henderson — may refer to:;Politicians * Thomas Henderson (New Jersey) (1743 ndash;1821), American politician * Thomas Henderson (New Zealand) (fl. 1850s), politician * Thomas J. Henderson (politician) (fl. 1880s), United States Congressman from Illinois *… …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.