Even by the standards of Victorian eccentricity,
Francis Galton was an extraordinary figure. His mother was a
daughter of Erasmus Darwin — Charles Darwin's grandfather.
Despite being a child prodigy — he was discussing Homer's
Iliad at the age of six — he did not do well at
school, and found it difficult to stick to his medical studies.
In 1840, at the age of eighteen, he dropped medicine and went to
Trinity College, Cambridge to read mathematics. He lived the
typical life of an undergraduate: after three years of drinking,
dancing, hiking and doing no work at all, he had a nervous
breakdown while preparing for his finals, and left with an
When Galton was twenty-two his father died,
leaving him a substantial fortune. He gave up
study and began to travel, in the Middle East, then
Scotland, then in South-West Africa. Back in London he
published his first book, Narrative of an Explorer
in Tropical South Africa (1853). The common thread
that was to link all of Galton's varied enthusiasms
was already apparent in this book: measurement.
During his South African travels, he wanted to determine
the precise dimensions of a Hottentot woman's buttocks;
since he did not speak her language he resorted to
surveying her from a distance, using a theodolite
(normally used to survey land); 'this being done',
he recorded, 'I boldly pulled out my measuring-tape,
and measured the distance from where I was to the place
where she stood, and having thus obtained both base and
angles, I worked out the results by trigonometry and logarithms.'