Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers

2014 Edition
| Editors: Thomas Hockey, Virginia Trimble, Thomas R. Williams, Katherine Bracher, Richard A. Jarrell, Jordan D. MarchéII, JoAnn Palmeri, Daniel W. E. Green

da Rocha, José Monteiro

Reference work entry

Alternate Name

 Monteiro da Rocha, José

BornCanaveses(Amarante), Portugal, 25 June 1734

DiedLisbon, Portugal, 11 December 1819

José Monteiro da Rocha was a mathematician and a Portuguese astronomer of the late eighteenth century. He was born in the small town of Canaveses in the north of Portugal. Very little is known about the first years of his life. He joined the Jesuits in his youth (1752) and left Portugal to go to Brazil where he studied at the Jesuit school of Salvador da Bahia (1752–1759). After the expulsion of the Jesuits (1759) from Portugal by King José I (1714–1777), as well as his Prime Minister Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo (Marquis of Pombal; 1699–1782), da Rocha left the Society of Jesus and returned to Portugal (1766).

In 1770, Monteiro da Rocha obtained a bachelor’s degree in canon law at Coimbra University. In the same year the Marquis of Pombal started educational reforms at the University of Coimbra (1770–1772). The establishment of scientific education at the university was one of the most important features of those reforms, among which was the creation of the Faculty of Mathematics and the Astronomical Observatory.

Monteiro da Rocha was one of the principal designers of the new curriculum for mathematics and astronomy in the scope of Pombal’s reforms. They were promulgated by King José I in 1772, and in October of that year, classes began. Monteiro da Rocha also played a central role in all subsequent teaching, scientific, and administrative activities of university life. He was the lecturer in charge of the courses of physics and applied mathematics (1772–1783) and astronomy (1783–1804). Monteiro da Rocha’s abilities in mathematical science and astronomy were particularly appreciated, and he was appointed director of the Royal Astronomical Observatory of Coimbra University (1795), which was yet under construction.

Monteiro da Rocha also was appointed to other important academic positions. In 1780 he was elected full member of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Lisbon (created in 1779) and in 1795 was elected dean and permanent director of the faculty. He was also vice principal of the university (1786–1804). In 1800 Monteiro da Rocha became a member of the royal council of Prince Regent João VI (1767–1826), and in 1804 he became tutor of Prince Pedro (1798–1834, the future Emperor of Brazil and King of Portugal) and moved to Lisbon, where he died in 1819.

Monteiro da Rocha was a key figure in eighteenth-century Portuguese science. His scientific work covered very diverse mathematical and astronomical domains. At a mathematical level his studies on integral and numerical calculus are the most relevant. He proposed a method to accelerate the convergence of numerical series, similar to the one that would be formulated by Lewis Richardson in the beginning of the twentieth century. Da Rocha was responsible too for the translations into Portuguese (carried out between 1773 and 1775) of a set of fundamental French textbooks (Bézout, Marie and Bossut) to be used at lessons.

However Monteiro da Rocha’s main scientific work was in the field of astronomy. This work spans from theoretical to practical astronomy, the most significant elements being the following: a work on the determination of comets’ orbits; several papers on the calculation of eclipses; a work on longitudes; astronomical tables of the Sun, Moon, and planets and charts of Jupiter’s satellites; a work on the use of the small rhomboidal net; and a work on the use and calibration of the transit instrument.

Monteiro da Rocha’s work on the determination of comet orbits (1799) is frequently cited by Portuguese historians of science as one of his greatest scientific contributions (Leite 1915; Teixeira 1934; Carvalho 1985). This is justified for two main reasons: first, because in his paper Monteiro da Rocha presents a simple method for calculating the parabolic orbit of a comet from three observations; and the second reason, and perhaps the more relevant, is that his work dates from 1780 to 1782, before   Wilhelm Olbers ’s publication (1797), but unfortunately it was eventually published in Portuguese only in 1799. (The two methods are very similar.)

The contribution of Monteiro da Rocha becomes very important for the future of the scientific activity of the Royal Astronomical Observatory of the University of Coimbra. He was not only responsible for the design and instrumentation of the Observatory (the first Portuguese university-based astronomical observatory, although with aspects of a national observatory), but he was also the scientific mentor behind the applied mathematical and astronomical methods, algorithms, and tables that allowed the Observatory to establish and publish its most important and significant scientific production: the Ephemerides Astronomicas do Observatório Astronómico da Universidade de Coimbra(Astronomical Ephemeris of Coimbra’s Astronomical Observatory) – the first volume, with the astronomical data (12 pages for each month) for the year 1804, was published by the university’s press in 1803. (They continued to be published up to the year 2000.)

Since the first volume, the Astronomical Ephemeris of Coimbra adopted some peculiarities: They were calculated in reference to the mean Sun and not to the true Sun like the foreign ephemerides; they used the 360° measure and not the widely used sign unit; and they adopted a particular interpolation method to calculate the Moon’s positions. (Some of these would be adopted by the Nautical Almanacfor the year 1834.)

Similarly to the Connaissance des Tempsor to the Nautical Almanac, various scientific articles on a wide range of astronomical subjects (both theoretical and practical) were written by Monteiro da Rocha and published within them. In 1808, Manuel Pedro de Melo (1765–1833), a former student of Monteiro da Rocha who worked with   Jean-Baptiste Delambre at the Paris Observatory, translated and published some of his articles into French and published them in the Memoires sur LAstronomie Pratique(Paris, 1808). The ephemeris of Coimbra earned very favorable book reviews by Delambre in Connaissance des Temps for1808 and 1809.

In 1813 Monteiro da Rocha published the astronomical tables that were the theoretical basis of the Coimbra ephemeris calculations until the middle of the nineteenth century. Da Rocha was responsible too for the design of a measuring device for the triangulation and measurement of the geodesic works carried out in Portugal at the end of the eighteenth century (firstly in the geodesic works of 1790–1794 and again in 1835).

Selected References

  1. Carvalho, Rómulo de (1985). “A Astronomia em Portugal no séc. XVIII”. Lisboa: Biblioteca Breve.Google Scholar
  2. Figueiredo, Fernando B. (2005). “A contribuição de José Monteiro da Rocha para o cálculo da órbita de cometas”. Ma. diss. University of Lisbon (Portugal).Google Scholar
  3. Figueiredo, Fernando B. (2011). “José Monteiro da Rocha e a actividade cientÚfica da ‘Faculdade de Mathematica’ e do ‘Real Observatório da Universidade de Coimbra’: 1772–1820”. PhD. diss. University of Coimbra (Portugal).Google Scholar
  4. Figueiredo, Fernando B.; Fernandes, João M. (2006). “Comparison between Monteiro da Rocha and Wilhelm Olbers’ Methods for the determination of the orbits of comets”. 2005: Past Meets Present in Astronomy and Astrophysics. Proceedings of the 15th Portuguese National Meeting. Editor: 85–89. Singapura: World Scientific Publishing Co.Google Scholar
  5. Leite, Duarte (1915). “Pour l’Histoire de la Détermination des Orbites Cométaires”, Anais da Academia Politécnica do PortoX.2:65–73.MATHGoogle Scholar
  6. Rocha, José Monteiro (1799). “Determinação das órbitas dos Cometas”, Memórias de Mathematica e Physica da Academia Real das Sciencias de Lisboa2:402–479.Google Scholar
  7. Rocha, José Monteiro (1807). “Exposição dos Methodos Particulares de que se faz uso no cálculo das Ephemerides de Coimbra”. Coimbra: Real Imprensa da Universidade.Google Scholar
  8. Rocha, José Monteiro (1808). “Mémoires sur lAstronomie Pratique par M. J. Monteiro da Rocha”. Paris: Courcier.Google Scholar
  9. Rocha, José Monteiro (1813). “Taboas Astronomicas ordenadas a facilitar o cálculo das Ephemerides da Universidade de Coimbra”. Coimbra: Imprensa da Universidade.Google Scholar
  10. Teixeira, Francisco Gomes (1934). “História das Matemáticas em Portugal”. Lisboa: Academia das Ciências de Lisboa.MATHGoogle Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.DMUC/OAUCUniversity of CoimbraCoimbraPortugal