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Christian Carl Ludwig Rümker (1788–1862)

by G. F. J. Bergman

This article was published:

Christian Carl Ludwig Rümker (1788-1862), astronomer, was born on 18 May 1788 at Stargard, Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Germany, the son of J. F. Rümker, court-councillor. He showed a talent for mathematics, and his father sent him to the Builders' Academy at Berlin where in 1807 he passed the state examination as a master builder. He was disinclined to follow this trade and, after working for about two years as a teacher of mathematics in Hamburg, went to England in 1809. From 1809 to 1811 he served as a midshipman in the East India Co. and then entered the merchant navy, where he became a helmsman. Seized by a press-gang in July 1813, he accepted a position as teacher of sea cadets with officer's rank and served in H.M.S. Benbow, Montagu and Albion. In 1816 he took part in a punitive expedition against Algiers. During his Mediterranean service he made the acquaintance of Baron Franz-Xaver de Zach, an Austrian astronomer, who induced him to pursue the study of astronomy. His first publications about observations at Malta in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal of 1819 drew the attention of other scientists to his work, with much effect on his career.

Discharged from the navy in 1819 he returned to Hamburg, where he was employed as teacher at the school of navigation. Recommended to Sir Thomas Brisbane by Captain Peter Heywood, under whom he had served in the Montagu, Rümker was engaged as the newly appointed governor's private astronomer. He arrived in Sydney with the official party in 1821 and worked at Brisbane's private observatory at Parramatta where on 2 June 1822 he rediscovered Encke's comet. For this achievement Rümker was awarded a silver medal and £100 by the Royal Astronomical Society and a gold medal by the Institut de France. The grateful governor bestowed on Rümker a grant of 1000 acres (405 ha) at Stonequarry Creek (Picton). Disagreements with Brisbane over private and professional matters, as well as animosity towards his collaborator in the observatory, James Dunlop, led in June 1823 to Rümker's retirement to his farm which he had named Stargard after his birthplace. There, on Reservoir Hill he continued his observations and discovered two comets in the constellation Lion.

In London Captain Heywood had pleaded his case with Alexander McLeay, the new colonial secretary who, after Brisbane's departure, recalled Rümker to Parramatta where he recommenced work in May 1826 and in September discovered a new comet in the constellation Orion. On 21 December 1827 Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling appointed him government astronomer; he was the first to hold that title in Australia.

In 1828 Rümker received a second land grant of 1000 acres (405 ha) at Stargard and later acquired another 200 acres (81 ha) by deed. In February 1828 the Senate of Hamburg elected him director of its school of navigation, but Rümker did not even answer the senate's letter as he did not wish to relinquish his Australian position. In January 1829 he went to London to obtain new instruments for the Parramatta observatory and to induce the Royal Society to print his Astronomical Observations Made at the Observatory at Parramatta in New South Wales. These were published in 1829 as a supplementary volume to the Philosophical Transactions at government expense. His return to Parramatta seemed assured when he became involved in a quarrel with Sir James South, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, who used his influence to have Rümker finally dismissed from British government service in June 1830. Rümker returned to Hamburg, where in 1831 he became director of the school of navigation and in 1833 also director of the Hamburg observatory. In 1831 Rümker published in Hamburg, On the Most Effectual Means of Encouraging Scientific Undertakings, a bitter pamphlet about his dismissal, but later he became reconciled with Brisbane. He dedicated to Brisbane his Preliminary Catalogue of Fixed Stars Intended for a Prospectus of a Catalogue of the Stars of the Southern Hemisphere Included Within the Tropic of Capricorn now Reduced from the Observations Made in the Observatory at Parramatta (Hamburg, 1832).

In later years Rümker displayed great scientific activity. The Catalogue of Scientific Papers (1871), compiled by the Royal Society of London, lists 233 papers by him in various scientific journals. Many learned societies honoured him with membership and fellowship. In 1850 the King of Hanover conferred on him his gold medal for arts and science. The greatest satisfaction in his life came in 1854 when the Royal Astronomical Society gave him its gold medal. In 1857 he was granted permanent leave for health reasons. He went to Lisbon, where he continued to reduce his Parramatta observations. In Hamburg Professor George F. W. Rümker, the illegitimate son of his housekeeper, became his successor as director of the Hamburg observatory. In 1848 Rümker had married a spinster, Mary Ann Crockford of Clerkenwell, Middlesex; they had no children. He died at Lisbon on 21 December 1862 and was buried in the churchyard of the English church at Estrella.

Rümker was a man of great integrity and indefatigable diligence, but he was headstrong and of a somewhat violent character. When awarding the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society to Rümker, the astronomer royal, Sir George Biddell Airy, said that Rümker's dismissal was 'the greatest misfortune that happened to Southern Astronomy', a comment that did less than justice to James Dunlop, Rümker's associate and successor at Parramatta.

Some of Rümker's work was published over the name Charles Stargard Rümker, his land was granted to Charles Luis Rümker and the Royal Astronomical Society presented its medal to Dr P. Karl Rümker.

Select Bibliography

  • G. F. J. Bergman, ‘Christian Carl Ludwig Rümker (1788-1862), Australia's First Government Astronomer’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), 46 (1960)
  • Rümker letters, 1825-49 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • correspondence with Dr John Lee (State Library of Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

G. F. J. Bergman, 'Rümker, Christian Carl Ludwig (1788–1862)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 21 May 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]

Alternative Names
  • Rumker, Christian Carl Ludwig
  • Rümker, Charles Stargard
  • Rümker, Charles Luis
  • Rümker, Karl

18 May, 1788
Stargard, Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Germany


1862 (aged ~ 73)
Lisbon, Portugal

Cultural Heritage

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