Robinson, Thomas Romney (1793–1882), astronomer and mathematical physicist, was born 23 April 1793 in St Anne's parish, Dublin, eldest son of Thomas Robinson, an English portrait painter, and Ruth Robinson (née Buck). He was named after his father's painting master, George Romney. The family moved to Ireland, living first in Dublin, before moving to the north of Ireland, where they lived near Dromore under the patronage of Bishop Thomas Percy (qv). They then moved to Lisburn and later Belfast, where Thomas attended the Belfast Academy and took a great interest in physics and shipbuilding. He is often mentioned in the letters of William Drennan (qv) and Martha McTier (qv): apparently he injured his pet dog in experiments with gunpowder before he was 12 years old. He showed early intellectual promise, and his childhood poems appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine from 1801 and as a collection in Juvenile poems (1806). The subscriptions enabled him to enter TCD in 1806 at the age of 13, although it is said he afterwards tried to suppress the poems when at college. He later obtained a scholarship (1808), graduated BA (1810) and MA (1817), and was elected FTCD (1814) at the age of 21.
As deputy professor of natural philosophy in TCD, he provided courses of lectures which he brought together as a textbook, A system of mechanics (1820). He became close friends with Bartholomew Lloyd (qv), Erasmus Smith's professor of natural and experimental philosophy, and John Brinkley (qv), professor of astronomy and director of Dunsink observatory. Access to the laboratories of the Apothecaries Hall and the RDS inspired additional interests in chemistry and natural history. He was elected MRIA (1816), and acted as librarian of the RIA for five years (1817–22). However, he was not satisfied with his conditions in TCD, and pushed for reform in the regulations for junior fellows, complaining that teaching hours left little time for original research. After marrying (1821) he resigned his fellowship to accept a college living at Enniskillen in 1822, the same year he received his BD. In 1823 he was appointed astronomer of Armagh observatory and the following year became rector of Carrickmacross, Co. Monaghan, which was nearer the observatory. He retained both positions for the next fifty-nine years, a world record for an observatory director. As director he succeeded in bringing the observatory to international prominence despite its limited resources, isolated location, and poor observing conditions.
The observatory was a Church of Ireland institution founded by Richard Robinson (qv), archbishop of Armagh, in 1793, but due to his death the following year astronomical equipment was inadequate. With the purchase of new instruments funded by John George Beresford (qv), archbishop of Armagh, an active observation programme on the accurate positions of stars was initiated with the help of a series of assistants. This was an essential requirement for navigation at the time and, when combined with records from other observatories around the world, provided a framework against which the movement of planets could be measured. Robinson also commissioned the newly established instrument maker Thomas Grubb (qv) of Dublin to make a 15-in. (38 cm) reflecting telescope, of revolutionary design at the time. He was a great promoter of Grubb, whose company became one of the most important telescope builders in the world. Robinson's friendship with William Parsons (qv), 3rd earl of Rosse, led to his involvement in the construction of the great telescope at Birr Castle. The three men, Robinson, Parsons, and Grubb, were closely involved in the innovative design of the ‘Great southern telescope’ built by Grubb in Dublin for the Australian observatory in Melbourne (1869).
Robinson was convinced of the importance of systematically recording all astronomical observations, and the first publication Armagh observations, 1828–30 was brought out in three parts. In 1859 the eight-volume Places of 5,345 stars observed from 1828 to 1854 at the Armagh observatory was published with the aid of a government grant. This enormous body of work was the result of twenty-five years of rigorous and tedious observations, many of them made by Robinson himself, and it is largely for this catalogue that he was awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Society (1862). ‘On the places of 1,000 stars observed at the Armagh observatory’ was published in Transactions of the Royal Dublin Society (1879). Further observations (1859–83) were published after his death in the Second Armagh catalogue of 3,300 stars (1886).
Meteorological records were kept at the Armagh observatory, and Robinson's particular interest in this subject led him to develop what he is best remembered for and what is now known as the Robinson cup-anemometer (1846). This instrument measures wind speed and direction and has been used worldwide. A first description appeared in the RIA's Transactions (1855). He also contributed many papers on astronomy and a range of topics in physics to the journals of several societies, of some of which he was an active member: the RIA (president 1851–6), the Royal Society, the Royal Astronomical Society, and the British Association (president 1849). He was also a founding member of the Armagh Natural History and Philosophical Society. In recognition of his contribution to science he received many honours, including honorary degrees from TCD (LLD 1863) and from Oxford and Cambridge universities. However, despite these accolades, some say he never quite fulfilled the promise of his early precocity, becoming over-involved in the routine work of the observatory rather than producing original research.
A flamboyant and impetuous man, he sometimes created controversy among his peers and was regarded as one of the ‘hotheads’ of the British Association. His friend Samuel Ferguson (qv) called him ‘the old giant’, referring to his large size. He enjoyed his popularity as a public figure and was a brilliant conversationalist and speaker, impressing all by his breadth of interest and extraordinary memory. According to his granddaughter he read Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, and Italian. Politically he was conservative and was actively opposed to catholic emancipation and the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, as well as being an opponent of advanced geological and evolutionary theories.
He married twice: first (1 August 1821) Elizabeth Isabelle Rambaut (d. 1839), daughter of a French emigré, Jean Rambaut, in a joint ceremony in Dublin with her brother William Rambaut and his wife. The Robinsons had two sons and a daughter. Her nephew the Rev. William Hautenville Rambaut (1822–1911) was an assistant observer at the Armagh observatory and at Birr Castle, and her great-nephew Arthur Alcock Rambaut (qv) was an assistant at the Dunsink observatory before becoming director of the Radcliffe observatory at Oxford. Robinson married secondly (1843) Lucy Jane Edgeworth, half-sister of Maria Edgeworth (qv), but they had no children. His daughter Mary Susannah married the mathematician and physicist George Gabriel Stokes (qv). Stokes and Robinson corresponded extensively on science and mathematics during the 1870s. Robinson died suddenly 28 February 1882 at his home near the observatory. His collection of rare and antiquarian books and all his papers are in the archives of Armagh observatory library. His portrait, by Maud Humphrey, hangs in the RIA. The white matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri) which his botanist friend Thomas Coulter (qv) brought back from California is named after both men. It first flowered in Ireland in the Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, in the 1870s.