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Joseph Henry Kay (1815–1875)

by Ronald Green

This article was published:

Joseph Henry Kay (1815-1875), naval officer and scientist, was born in London, the second son of Joseph Kay, architect, and his wife Sarah Henrietta, née Porden. He was a brother of William Kay, but broke with family tradition and entered the navy in 1827 and served in H.M.S. Fly. In 1839, with the rank of lieutenant, he left in the Terror under Commander Crozier on a magnetic observation expedition. Scientists were then taking great interest in the geomagnetic field, and the expedition had been organized to gather information on the peculiarities in the behaviour of the geomagnetic field in the southern hemisphere. The leader of the expedition, Captain James Clark Ross, had instructions to establish a chain of more than thirty magnetic observatories from Ceylon to Cape Horn and to determine if possible the existence of an Antarctic continent.

The Terror and the Erebus arrived in Hobart Town on 16 August 1840 and the members of the expedition were enthusiastically received by Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Franklin who, as an Arctic explorer, had a great interest in science and discovery and was a personal friend of both Ross and Crozier. Kay stayed with the Franklins at Government House. Franklin made all necessary preparations for the establishment of the magnetic observatory in Hobart and the building was speedily erected at Rossbank in the present Government House grounds. Ross and Kay installed the instruments on 23 September 1840 and, when the expedition left on 12 November for Antarctic waters, Kay remained in Hobart with the title of director of the magnetic observatory in Van Diemen's Land. He was responsible for the routine measurement of inclination, declination and horizontal component of the earth's magnetic field and regularly communicated his observations to the Royal Society. The Admiralty financed the observatory so Kay remained in naval service; he was promoted commander in 1849.

On 6 November 1845 in the schoolhouse at Great Swanport Kay married Maria, fourth daughter of George Meredith; their only child, Rosina Maria, was born in 1860. In 1853 when the Admiralty's support was withdrawn from the observatory, its costs were transferred to the land fund, and Kay was recalled. He went to Victoria where he was promoted captain on the retired list in 1865. He held various posts in the Victorian public service and at the time of his death was clerk to the Executive Council. He died from diabetes on 17 July 1875 at South Yarra, Melbourne, and was buried in St Kilda cemetery.

Kay was one of Australia's first geophysicists and, as well as making fundamental contributions to research, his presence in Hobart gave an impetus to interest in science in general. He was a foundation member of the Royal Society of Tasmania and published several papers in its journal, the subjects including solar radiation, the aneroid barometer, and the geology of western Tasmania. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London on 26 February 1846 for his work on geomagnetism.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Fitzpatrick, Sir John Franklin in Tasmania 1837-1843 (Melb, 1949)
  • correspondence file under J. H. Kay (Archives Office of Tasmania).

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Citation details

Ronald Green, 'Kay, Joseph Henry (1815–1875)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 23 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


London, Middlesex, England


17 July, 1875 (aged ~ 60)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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