RECORD: Anon. 1928. Obituary of Sir Horace Darwin. The Times (24 September), p. 21 and funeral (27 September), p. 15. Transcribed by Christine Chua, edited by John van Wyhe (Darwin Online,

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed by Christine Chua and edited by John van Wyhe 10.2019. RN1

NOTE: The report on Horace Darwin's estate published in The Times, (28 December 1928), p. 15, is also included here.





By the death of Sir Horace Darwin, announced on another page, Cambridge has lost one of its most attractive personalities, and one who, by his devotion throughout a long life to the invention and perfection of scientific instruments, has added largely to the debt which the world of science owes to this distinguished family.

Horace Darwin was born at Down on May 13, 1851, and was the fifth son of Charles and Emma Darwin. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, taking his degree as a senior optime in the Mathematical Tripos in 1874. The following letter written by his father after hearing that Horace had passed the Cambridge University Previous Examination, commonly known as the "Little Go," is of interest when the work of the writer and of the recipient of the letter is considered:-

6, Queen Anne-street, Friday morning.

8.30 a.m., December 15, 1871.

My dear Horace,- We are so rejoiced, for we have just had a card from that good George (later Sir George Darwin) in Cambridge saying that you are all right and safe through the accursed "Little Go." I am so glad, and now you can follow the bent of your talents and work as hard at mathematics and science as your health will permit. I have been speculating last night what makes a man a discoverer of undiscovered things; and a most perplexing problem it is. Many men who are very clever-much cleverer than the discoverers-never originate anything. As far as I can conjecture, the art consists in habitually searching for the causes and meaning of everything which occurs. This implies sharp observation, and requires as much knowledge as possible of the subject investigated, But why I write all this now I hardly- know-except out of the fullness of my heart; for I do rejoice heartily that you have passed this Charybdis.

Your affectionate father.


Immediately after lie had taken his degree, Horace went to the works of Messrs. Easton and Anderson, an engineering firm of high repute, and served his time as an apprentice. He obtained there a knowledge of pattern-making, foundry practice, and general engineering, which was invaluable to him all his life. It was then also that he learnt to look at many matters of works management from the workman's point of view, so that in after-life he was often able to foretell how the men in the shops would regard any steps taken by the management affecting their interests. It was while he was an apprentice that he designed his first scientific instrument, at klinostat, for recording the rate of growth of small plants. He built the instrument himself with the aid of the works' pattern-maker, and it was used for many years by his brother, the late Sir Francis Darwin, in the Botanical Laboratory at Cambridge.

On his return to Cambridge he became interested in the work that the late Mr. A. G. Dew-Smith was doing for the late Sir Michael Foster. Foster, who had recently been appointed to the Chair of Physiology, wished to equip the laboratory with apparatus and found that, practically without exception, all the instruments required for following up the recent work on nerves, blood pressure, &c., had to be imported from the Continent. He interested his friend Dew-Smith, a rich amateur, who invited the cooperation of Horace Darwin, and together they started to produce instruments which were at least equal, and in many cases superior to those of Continental manufacture. A little later Darwin designed for his cousin Sir Francis Galton the series of anthropometric instruments with which so much of Galton's work was performed. With his brother, Sir George Darwin, he designed the bifilar pendulum form of seismograph for recording very small seismic disturbances. All his life he was interested in seismological work, and for many years was one of the members of the Seismological Committee of the British Association. The rocking microtome, which, scientifically speaking, was the most important instrument designed by Darwin, was developed at this time. Like so many inventions, it was the outcome of the work of several men. W. H. Caldwell made a form of automatic microtome in 1883 and first suggested the ribbon method of cutting sections, employing two grades of paraffin wax - a hard one in which to embed the specimen, and a soft one to form the connecting material between the specimens. R. Threlfall (now Sir Richard Threlfall), who had been working at the subject, also made valuable suggestions. Darwin was responsible for the mechanical design of the rocking microtome, which has remained practically unaltered since 1900. It is difficult to overrate the service it has rendered to biologists in enabling them, quickly and readily, to prepare specimens for microscopical examination.

The partners, for such they had become, also turned their attention to the reproduction of illustrations required in scientific journals. The work was carried out by Edwin Wilson under the direction of Dew-Smith. It will be generally admitted that the beauty of the work carried out under their directions illustrated by the plates in the Transactions of the Royal Society

has never been surpassed. Darwin did not interest himself in this side of the work, professing to know nothing of art, yet his judgments on such matters rarely led him astray. On one occasion he said :-

When we were choosing our furniture, I made my wife responsible for its artistic merits; I took care of the mechanical design and workmanship.

The partnership with Dew-Smith lasted for ten years, and then they separated, Dew-Smith retiring, and Darwin retaining the instrument-making business. This was converted into a company in 1895 under the name of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, Limited, with Darwin the chief shareholder and chairman. Wilson took over the lithographic business, which was later absorbed by the Cambridge University Press.

About 1895 Darwin became interested in the local government of Cambridge, and was Mayor for the jubilee year 1896-97, when University and town were drawn closer to each other. At all the entertainments given by the Mayor the two bodies were treated as friends and equals. The effect was far-reaching, and the tradition of friendliness has been handed on. For some years Darwin was a director of the Cambridge Gas Company, and took a leading part in the introduction of modern equipment into the works. As a member of the University he served on several syndicates, and his policy was almost always that of the reformer. He was a member of the Board of Electors to the Professorship of Engineering and took great pride and interest in the growth of the Engineering School. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1903. In 1919 he was selected as one of the Commissioners of the Royal Commission appointed to inquire, into, the administration of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge under the chairmanship of the late Lord Oxford. In politics he was a moderate Liberal and a strong free-trader.

A few years before the outbreak of the War he was made a member of the Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, appointed to advise the Government what researches should be made to develop the science of flight. Darwin regarded it as his special province to design the instruments required to study the behaviour of an aeroplane or airship in flight. The War, although it brought him the greatest sorrow of his life in the death of his only son, Erasmus, who was killed in April, 1915, gave him a great opportunity. He devoted all his energies to designing instruments for the new conditions introduced by air warfare: height-finders and methods of locating aircraft to meet attack by the air, gun sights, &c. In 1917 he was made chairman of the Air Inventions Committee. In this capacity his innate courtesy and consideration for an inventor's feelings, his common sense, and his own inventive mechanical skill were of great service. That tact was required may be judged from his statement that only one in every thousand inventions submitted was worthy of serious study, and it is not an easy matter to tell an inventor that his invention is either valueless or impractical. For his services on this Committee he was made K.B.E. in 1918.

During the last few years of his life Darwin was much interested in the training of mentally deficient children, and with his daughter, Miss Ruth Darwin, helped to establish a home for such children at Girton. In 1923 he and Lady Darwin, in conjunction with Mrs. Pinsent, endowed a studentship in the University of Cambridge for the study of mental diseases.

Darwin's influence will be most lastingly felt in the improvements he introduced into the design and construction of scientific instruments. He insisted that the first consideration of the designer should be the undertaking of the problem which the instrument was intended to elucidate, and he spent a great deal of time absorbing the technicalities of the problem before putting any ideas on paper. As a rule, he did not read round the problem, but catechized the person who had asked him to design the instrument, believing that that individual had read up the subject and knew the previous work upon it. In general, he did not wish to know the details of instruments constructed previously for the same experiment. He preferred to outline a method of attack, and to have his suggestions criticized. In no direction was his modesty more marked than in the diffidence with which he would submit an idea for criticism. He was always ready to discard an idea of his own if he felt that the other man's design was better than his. The main outlines of a design having been settled, he threw himself with extraordinary energy into the preparation of the details, sometimes making three or four good alternative designs for a piece of mechanism in a few hours. There is no doubt that he had a unique genius in the creative design of new instruments. The number of times that he was able to suggest simple mechanisms which solved what at first appeared to be insoluble problems was surprising. He was much impressed with the principles of geometric design propounded by Maxwell and Kelvin, and always quoted Maxwell's summary of the principles underlying instrument design with admiration. A declaration of his faith was expressed in the first Wilbur Wright Memorial Lecture, delivered by him in Mav, 1913. (See Aeronautical Journal, July, 1913.)

In the early part of the 19th century I English instruments were admittedly pre-eminent, but towards the end of the century they had undoubtedly fallen below the quality of those made by many of the Continental makers both in design and originality. Darwin's influence was far-reaching, and it may be stated without fear of contradiction that the instruments now made in the British Isles compare favourably in every way with those made elsewhere. Under his chairmanship the Cambridge Instrument Company continually extended its field of activity. Although during recent years increasing ill-health made it impossible for him to visit the works regularly, yet he kept in touch with any important developments in the business, and was always ready to help with his advice. He trusted those working under him, and they in tum responded to that trust. He was always considerate to his workpeople, and anxious that they should share in the prosperity of the firm.

Consideration for the feelings of others and a broad charity were perhaps his chief characteristics. This was the more noticeable because he was an intensely conscientious man, inclined to criticize his own action with an almost over scrupulous nicety. He had a most pleasant sense of humour, though it showed itself more in a keen appreciation of other people's fun than in originating it on his own account. He was very fond of children, who in their turn found him the most delightful company, with a special glamour that belonged to no one else. He will be sadly missed by those who loved him-and they are many.

Sir Horace married in 1880 the Hon. Emma Cecilia Farrer, daughter of the first Lord Farrer, and leaves two daughters. Miss Ruth Darwin and Mrs. J. A. N. Barlow.

The funeral will be on Wednesday, the first part of the service being in Trinity College Chapel, and the interment will be in the Huntingdon-road Cemetery.


The Times, Thursday, September 27, 1928, p. 15.



The funeral of Sir Horace Darwin, F.R.S., took place at Cambridge yesterday. The first part of the service was held in Trinity College Chapel, the Dean of Chapel (the Rev. Dr. H.F. Stewart) and the Vice-Master (the Rev. Dr. St. J. Parry) officiating. The Master (Sir Joseph Thomson) read the lesson. The mourners included the Hon. Lady Darwin (widow), Miss Ruth Darwin, Mrs Alan Barlow, Mr. J.A. Barlow, Lord and Lady Farrer, the Hon. Cecil Farrer, the Hon. Mrs. Bridges, Major Leonard and Mrs. Darwin. Professor Charles Darwin, Mrs Bernard Darwin, Lady (George) Darwin, Mr. and Mrs. F.M. Cornford, Mr. G. Darwin, Colonel Frank Wedgwood,

and the Hon. Noel and Mrs. Farrer.

Those attending the service included:-

The Lord-lieutenant of Cambridgeshire and Mrs. Adeane, the Vice-Chancellor and Mrs. Weekes. the Mayor and Mayoress of Cambridge (Councillor E.W. and Mrs. Amies) the Masters of St. John's (Caius Jesus Christ's, Clare. Peterhouse and Trinity Hall: the President of Queens', the Vice-Provost of King's, the Dean of Ely. Lady Hope. Sir Walter Fletcher. Sir Humphry and Lady Rolleston, Colonel H. C. Jackson, Professor A. A. Bevan,Professor H. S. Foxwell, the Rev. Professor J. F. Bethune Baker, the Rev. Professor F. C. Burkitt, Professor A. E. Rousman. Professor E.W. Robson. Professor A. S. Eddington. Professor W.R. Sorley. Professor H. F. Newall. Professor A. V. Hill. Dr. L. Shore. Dr. Hootham, Dr. Alan Gray, Dr. Blackman, Dr. Horace Lamb (representing Cambridge Philosophical Society). 200 members or the staff of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company and representatives of the Cambridge Town and University Gas Company.


The Times, Friday, December 28, 1928, p. 15.

SIR HORACE DARWIN, K.B.E., F.R.S., of The Orchard, Huntingdon-road, Cambridge, a director of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, son of Charles Darwin, died on September 22, aged 77, leaving estate of the value of £100,919, with net personalty £91, 886.

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