From atoms to the stars above, Irish scientists went stratospheric

IRISH men and women have made huge contributions to science over the centuries — in engineering, astronomy, exploration, and medicine among other fields. Many Irish innovations have had an immense impact on the world and how we view it today.

In the 19th century, many of the world’s great scientists were from Ireland. In fact, three of the most senior scientists in the Eng­lish-speaking world in the late 1800s were from Ireland.

Modern science is said to have be­gun in 1662 with the creation of the Royal Society in London. One of its founders was Robert Boyle — son of an English father and Anglo-Irish mother. Most of those scientists, engineers, and explorers who left Ireland often did so willingly and as part of their profession — unlike most Irish migrants who were much less fortunate. The Irish were active in everything from splitting the atom, to traversing the Antarctic, to making discoveries about the stars above.

Irish explorers have travelled from the Antarctic to the Caribbean and many places in between. Ernest Shackleton, from Athy, Co Kildare, led an expedition to Antarctica in 1914 on the ship Endurance — his third trip to the South Pole. Tom Crean from Co Kerry was also a member of his team. Shackleton’s expeditions to Antarctica and the South Atlantic are legendary to this day.

Hans Sloane, a physician from Killyleagh, Co Down, worked with the British Navy in the Caribbean in the 17th century. He was also an avid collector, exploring new territories and collecting previ­ously unknown plants and living specimens. Upon his death, he left his entire collection to the British nation — thus helping to found the British Museum. As if that wasn’t enough, he also invented a recipe for milk chocolate and gave his name to the first brand of chocolate. Watch our museum curator Jessica Traynor to learn more about him (below).

Thanks to Guglielmo Marconi, Ireland played an important role in the development and commer­cialisation of radio as we know it. Being close to busy ship­ping lanes, Ireland’s location was ideal for his work and for years trans-Atlantic communications were channelled through Clifden, Co Galway.

Marconi has very strong ties with Ireland. He was born in 1874 in Italy, to Giuseppe and Annie Jameson, one of four daughters of Andrew Jameson (of Jameson Irish Whiskey​ fame).

By the age of 20 Marconi had successfully tested his wireless communication system, and moved to England to seek investment and help to develop it further. His Jameson family connections helped pave the way, and Marconi received the patent for his invention in 1897.

In 1898 Marconi’s invention was subjected to it’s greatest test. It was to be used by the Dublin Daily Express to report live from the Kingstown Regatta (now Dun Laoghaire) on the 20th-22nd July. Covering a range of up to 40km, Marconi’s system sent over 700 messages over the two days, helping the Daily Express report on the regatta much quicker than it’s rivals. It’s believed to be the first ever live transmission of a sporting event.

The first successful modern sub­marine design is attributed to the Irish-American Robert Fulton, who designed the Nautilus for Napoleon Bonaparte around 1800, which was immortalised in the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. He is also credited with having invented the world’s earliest naval torpedoes for the British Navy, as well as the first successful US steamboats in 1777.

John Philip Holland, from Lis­cannor, Co Clare, developed the first submarine for both the US and British navies.

Several Irish women have been credited with scientific discover­ies. They lived varied and exciting lives, and ended up in all corners of the world. Some were active in astronomy — as astronomers, astro­physicists, or writers. Several Irish astronomers have been honoured for their contributions by having craters on the moon named after them, including three women — Agnes Clerke, Annie Maunder, and Margaret Huggins — who ‘shares’ a crater with her husband.

EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum contains 20 interactive galleries that