Catalogue number: WP1/2/28
Letter from Wallace to his daughter Violet describing amusing answers to exam papers he has marked and his proposed lecture for a Land Nationalisation Society meeting, dated June 1892.
In this letter Wallace tells his daughter Violet that he has just finished marking 1,120 exam papers. Surprisingly, there were 'no real good ones'. The examiners met annually in London to compare marking. Many would describe their most amusing answers, making the otherwise serious meetings a little more light-hearted.
Wallace shares an amusing answer with Violet in this letter. Question: 'What is sideral and what is mean time?' Answer: 'mean time is when all the years have elapsed we count up all the number of days and divide by the number of weeks'. The poor student has wrongly focused on the word 'mean' and has given an answer about averages. 'Sideral time' is the time taken to orbit the sun relative to the stars and 'mean time' relates to Greenwich Mean Time.
If you think the questions seem difficult, you can probably understand why some of the students' answers were so wrong! Despite his humour, Wallace was quite concerned that students were being entered for exams in subjects of which they were 'disgracefully ignorant'.
Wallace was encouraged to become an assistant examiner by his old friend Henry Walter Bates, with whom he first travelled to the Amazon. Bates was an assistant examiner for physical geography. Wallace began similar work in 1871 and among others examined for the Royal Geographical Society. This was an extremely well paid job at the time, offering around £60 for three weeks' work.
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View high resolution scans and transcripts of Alfred Russel Wallace's correspondence, including all surviving letters between him and Charles Darwin.