The date of 18 August is observed in Thailand as National Science Day (Wan Witthayasat Haeng Chat — วันวิทยาศาสตร์แห่งชาติ). This commemorates the anniversary of a total solar eclipse on that date in 1868 that was predicted by King Mongkut (Rama IV) two years earlier. In 1982, this king was proclaimed to be the “Father of Science and Technology” in Thailand and the annual celebration of National Science Day set for 18 August.
King Mongkut was the fourth monarch of Siam under the House of Chakri, ruling from 1851 to 1868 and is quite highly regarded (perhaps third after the current king and King Chulalongkorn). His full name is Phra Bat Somdet Phra Poramenthra Maha Mongkut Phra Chom Klao Chao Yu Hua (พระบาทสมเด็จพระปรเมนทรมหามงกุฎ พระจอมเกล้าเจ้าอยู่หัว), Before he assumed the throne, he had been a monk during which time he studied astrology, astronomy and mathematics. These developed his skills in astronomical measurement, that later helped him to change the old official — but miscalculated — Buddhist calendar, proving that times for auspicious moments were incorrect.
During Mongkut’s reign, he embraced Western innovations and initiated the modernization of his country, both in technology and culture. He was noted for his excellent command of English, although it is said that his younger brother, Vice-King Pinklao, could speak it even better. Outside of Thailand, he is best known as the King in the 1951 musical and 1956 film The King and I, based on the 1946 film Anna and the King of Siam – in turn based on a 1944 novel by an American missionary about Anna Leonowens’ years at his court, from 1862 to 1867. The book has long been banned in Thailand, as have the adaptations.
Among his innovations, Mongkut hired Western mercenaries to train Siamese troops in Western styles of fighting and he ordered court nobles to wear upper garments. Previously, Siamese nobles had been forbidden to wear any shirts to prevent them from hiding any weapons and met the king bare-chested, a practice that was criticized by Westerners. Mongkut also pioneered the rehabilitation of various temples and began the the celebration of Magha Puja (มาฆบูชา) at the full moon of the third lunar month in order to mark Buddha’s announcement of his main principles.
Mongkut also improved women’s rights in Siam. He released a large number of royal concubines to find their own husbands and banned forced marriages of all kinds, plus the selling of one’s wife to pay off a debt.
In 1855, King Mongkut signed the Bowring Treaty between Siam and Great Britain. The treaty allowed free trade by foreigners in Bangkok, as foreign trade had previously been subject to heavy royal taxes. The treaty also allowed the establishment of a British consulate in Bangkok and guaranteed its full extraterritorial powers, allowing Englishmen to own land in Siam. This proved to be the economic and social revolution of Siam.
Mongkut’s reign saw immense commercial activities in Siam for the first time, which led to the introduction of coinage in 1860. The first industries in Siam were rice milling and sugar production. Infrastructure was improved; there was a great deal of paving of roads and canal digging – for transport and water reservoirs for plantations.
According to legend, King Mongkut offered to send a herd of war elephants to Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War for use against the Confederacy. The actual letter was dated 14 February 1861 (prior to the start of the war) and was addressed to President James Buchanan, offering to send some domesticated elephants for use as beasts of burden and means of transportation. By the time it reached its destination, President Buchanan was no longer in office. In his reply dated 3 February 1862, President Lincoln politely declined to accept the proposal, explaining to the King that the American climate might not be suitable for elephants and that American steam engines could also be used as beasts of burden and means of transportation. During a speech to the U.S. Congress on 29 June 1960, His Majesty King Bhumiphol Adulyadej (Rama IX) explained that his great grandfather’s “offer was made with no other objective than to provide a friend with what he lacks.”
In 1868, Mongkut invited high-ranking European and Siamese officials to accompany him to Wa Kor, a small village in Prachuap Khiri Khan province, about 190 miles (300 kilometers) south of Bangkok, to view a solar eclipse. He had predicated this would occur at 12:13 p.m. on 18 August, the location in the king’s own words as “East Greenwich longitude 99 degrees 42′ and latitude North 11 degrees 39′.” King Mongkut’s calculations proved accurate. When he made calculations, he used the Thai system of measuring time (mong and baht), but he implemented the Western method of longitude and latitude when he determined where on earth the eclipse would best be viewed. He stated that the total phase of the eclipse would last six minutes and 46 seconds. The king’s calculations were better — by about two seconds — than those of the French astronomers, who acknowledged his accuracy.
Sadly, King Mongkut and Prince Chulalongkorn were infected with malaria during the expedition to view the eclipse. He developed chills and fever, dying six weeks later in the capital on 18 October 1868. Mongkut was succeeded by his son, who survived the illness. According to the Thai Astronomical Society, the international astronomical community calls the eclipse “the King of Siam’s eclipse”. In 1989, the King Mongkut Memorial Park of Science and Technology was established to to honor the king. It’s located about 10 miles (16 km) from Prachuap Khiri Khan with the entrance at the 334 km marker of Highway 4.
Most schools in Thailand mark National Science Day by holding science fairs and other activities.
The observance has been marked by a Thai stamp issue only once — in 1985. Oddly, King Mongkut himself has appeared on relatively few Thai stamps (I counted just three, including this one, in an admittedly quick search through my 2009 edition of the Scott catalogue). Today’s stamp is Scott #1118, issued on 18 August 1985. The 2 baht stamp features King Mongkut along with a depiction of a solar eclipse and a telescope. It’s perforated on a gauge of 12, printed by lithography on paper watermarked with a geometric design of squares and rectangles. This past Sunday evening, I happened to notice that I didn’t have this particular stamp in my collection and immediately placed an order with a stamp dealer I knew in Bangkok. It arrived yesterday (Wednesday), just in time to scan for this article…