SHA Spring Conference at St Anne’s College Oxford : 12th and 13th April 2019

 A Joint Event of the SHA, the Paris Observatory and the Astronomical Society of France

This was  a most successful event and the following is a summary account of the events of the two days. A more in-depth report, including more pictures etc, will appear in the next issue of the Bulletin that will be sent to all members in due course.

Friday 12th April : Walking Tour of Astronomical Oxford

Those who had booked for this were met by John Chuter outside the Museum for the History of Science at 9.30am where they were split into two groups of 15. We welcomed our French guests who had all booked to come on the walking tour.

Each group, in turn,  then went to the Museum and Library, before moving onto the Radcliffe Observatory or vice versa.

Ken Taylor and Lee McDonald were our guides at the Museum and Library and the following are from their summaries.

This is part of Ken’s summary.

“I tried to capture a good selection of objects in the museum as well as a bit of the history to give your group a glimpse of our museum. So the objects in my “top ten” were:

Entrance gallery:

The Chinese Incense clocks.

Selenographia Moon Globe by John Russell.

Mural Quadrant.

John Russell’s Moon Portrait

Herschel Reflecting Telescope.

Armillary Sphere (top floor Old Ashmolean Room)

Queen Elizabeth I astrolabe.

Geared Astrolabe

Wheatstone’s Polar Clock

Electromagnetic Clock (Basement – old chemistry laboratory)

The Marconi Collection.

The original 1898 receiver used in Marconi’s first UK demonstration.

The wooden dish transmitter and receiver used in the Salisbury Plain tests 1898

The telephone receiver used in the 1901 transatlantic tests.

The microphone used by Dame Nellie Melba in her historic 1920 transmission from Chelmsford.

A 1922 crystal set and two valve receiver.

Blackboard used by Albert Einstein, Oxford, May 16th, 1931

I added in a couple of astronomical objects I thought you group might be interested in so it’s more like a top dozen. You can search the collections database here  for more details on the objects.”

This is part of Lee McDonald’s Summary for the Library

“Participants viewed the following five items from the History of Science Museum’s Library and Archives:-

1) Kalendarium by Regiomontanus

2) Selenographia by Johannes Hevelius.

3) Mécanique Céleste by Pierre-Simon Laplace (Volume 1).

4) Hartwell House Commonplace Book (MS Gunther 10).

5) ‘Experiments on the construction of Specula. Vol 1’, original notebook of William Herschel (MS University Observatory 6).”

The Radcliffe Observatory was the second site visited in the morning where our guides were Professor Jeff Burley and Roger Hutchins.

This is the summary sent by Roger Hutchins of our visit to the Radcliffe Observatory where we had privileged access to parts not normally open to the public.

“In 1820 when reform in science was afoot, the principle observatories of Europe (there were none in North America, or of any account elsewhere) were just three royal and national – Paris (1667), Greenwich (1675), and Palermo (1790) – and three university observatories – Oxford (1772), Dublin (1783), and Konigsberg (1810).

Oxford’s Savilian Professor of Astronomy, Thomas Hornsby, persuaded the trustees of Dr John Radcliffe’s estate to begin in 1772 to build an observatory for his use. Crucially, he achieved urgency in ordering a suite of large instruments with ‘new technology’ achromatic object glasses from the finest English maker, John Bird. Already working the great 8-foot quadrants in 1773, and Bird’s transit instrument the following year, Hornsby established an institution in the international first rank.

Originally on a nine-acre green field site at the edge of Oxford, the Observatory, long acknowledged as the finest Georgian building in Oxford (or even the galaxy!)  is now at the centre of a lovely garden and is owned by Templeton Green College. A decade ago Professor Jeff Burley led the fundraising that achieved a splendid restoration, and he welcomed the SHA and our French guests by relating the design and history of the remarkable building, and of the college.

Inside, the whole of the first floor (now a common room) was once a lecture room and library. There the portraits included a rare one of Hornsby. Above, in the magnificent octagonal observing room, SHA’s Roger Hutchins told the story of the succession of observers who from 1773 to 1935 had lived in the adjacent house, born the soul wearying burden of reducing and publishing observations, the strained relationship with the university which had not paid a penny towards the magnificent observatory, and by neglect lost the use of it in 1839, and then each Radcliffe Observer’s struggle to obtain new instruments.

The architecture of the building is unique and to be savoured. Several of the important instruments were seen when visiting the nearby History of Science Museum – one of the splendid mural quadrants, a Dollond refractor, a Herschel reflector, and Hornsby’s own original 32-inch portable quadrant by Bird. Explained in sequence, the poignant stories of the Radcliffe Observers illuminate the challenges of all astronomers in the 19th century.

A private visit on a sunny day to a very beautiful observatory of considerable institutional significance, a thought-provoking impression emerged. The SHA is very grateful to Professor Burley for this highlight visit of the weekend.”

Most of the participants then made their way to Pierre Victoire where we all had a superb lunch in a private room. Christopher Taylor was one of three guides for the afternoon walking tour of Oxford. The following forms part of Christopher’s Summary of the walk:-

“Roger Hutchins, Rowena Archer (fellow of Brasenose and Tutor in Medieval History at Christ Church) and I conducted a group of 30 of the conference participants on a 3½-mile walking tour of ‘Astronomical Oxford’, with parts of the medieval city-walls and some of Wren’s earliest buildings thrown in for good measure. We started with a stroll down St. Giles past St. John’s College and Balliol, where the incomparable Bradley was a student, turned left by the ancient pre-conquest tower of St. Michael’s into Ship Street for a mention of the hidden section of the 13th–century town defences running along the north side of that little-frequented street and then back into ‘The Broad’ en route for the gatehouse-tower of the Bodleian Library. From its  construction circa 1615, the top floor of that tower was the university’s first observatory, until the Radcliffe opened for business in the 1770’s. It was here that the first Savilian Professor, John Bainbridge, taught Keplerian planetary theory as early as the 1620’s and his successor Thomas Hornsby observed the transit of Venus in 1769.

Thence to All Souls to view the splendid mural sundial said to be of Wren’s design while he was a fellow of the college, by way of a brief diversion down New College Lane for ‘The Astronomer’s House’, still sporting Halley’s observatory on its roof. From there, a walk down ‘The High’ – one of England’s grandest streets – past Halley’s college, Queens, took us to Magdalen and the Botanic Garden, where Roger told us something of astronomy at the college, of Daubeny’s teaching observatory in the mid-19th century and of William Parsons, later the third Earl of Rosse, being an undergraduate there in the early 1820’s. Turning back westwards, Rose Lane took us down to Dead Man’s Walk along the south run of the old city walls past that powerhouse of 14th-century science, Merton College, where Henry Savile, the founder of the Savilian professorships, lectured on Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus in 1570. Finally, passing Hornsby’s college, Corpus, with a nod to the curious polygonal sundial in front quad, we arrived at the back gate of Christ Church for our appointed private visit to the library. Allan Chapman joined and welcomed us.

In the magnificent Upper Library of Christ Church we were welcomed by Dr.Cristina Neagu, Curator of Special Collections, who had put on display a mouth-watering selection of the library’s astronomical treasures for our especial benefit: first editions of Brahe, Galileo, Kepler, Hevelius, Newton’s Principia, etc, etc, in addition to a beautiful 14th-century manuscript and the first edition of that ultimate ‘coffee-table’ incunabulum the Liber Chronicarum of 1493, better known as the Nuremberg Chronicle. Nor was that all, for as outrageous luck would have it our visit also coincided with the library’s current special exhibition Thinking 3D: The Mathematics of Space, in which was displayed some beautiful celestial and planetary globes, curious modern orreries, some of the astronomical mss. of David Gregory (Sav. Prof. Ast. 1691-1708) and early printed mathematical and astronomical books, including Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus of 1543 and Kepler’s Mysterium Cosmographicum 1596. Altogether, truly a feast for the historian of astronomy! Incidentally, it may surprise some to learn that Christ Church has particularly strong scientific traditions, which is reflected in the holdings of early scientific books in the library. These are especially rich because of two specific bequests, those of Charles Boyle, 4th Earl of Orrery (he of the planetary machine, and a Ch.Ch. man), in 1731 and of David Gregory (as above) via his son David Gregory, Dean of Christ Church 1756-67.

After that, dinner at St. Anne’s beckoned but a few hardy souls joined Roger and I to take in the 1875 University Observatory in the heart of the hideous modern Science Area, on the way back to the college – and so across the University Parks (where some 2000 people watched the transit of Venus in 2004) to victuals, liquid refreshment and excellent conversation.

In concluding, I’d like to give a hearty ‘thank you’ to Roger, without whom it would have been very difficult to conduct a group of this size around the town, and whose expert knowledge of Oxford’s astronomical history, especially in the period 1750-1950, added greatly to the value of the tour.”

As Christopher mentions there followed an evening meal at St Anne’s for those who had booked thereof.

Here is a picture of the Menu. It was as good as it reads! Thanks must be given to the staff at St Anne’s who went out of their way to ensure everything went very smoothly.


Saturday April 13th:  A day of lectures Held in the Tsuzuki Lecture Theatre

Gerard,  our Chairman, was ready with the welcome packs for our French guests and many members of the SHA as they arrived, completely filling the lecture theatre.

There followed a day of talks, interspersed by a fine buffet lunch. Here, in the order of play, are summaries of the talks we heard on the day.

  1. William Sheehan – The discovery of the Outer Planets

The first speaker of the day was the eminent guest speaker Dr William Sheehan from the USA. His presentation was titled “The Discovery of the Outer Planets” he opened the talk with a note about the anniversary of John Couch Adams, who was born 200 years ago. A person who excelled at mathematics, he played a large role in the important but disputed events surrounding the discovery of Neptune. Bill explained that the roots of this tale should find itself back with Newton and progress on work with the inverse square law, stating that the discovery of Neptune was the “the Zenith of Newtonian mechanics”. The French had been the most successful at taken on Newtons legacy, although the 18th century saw increased accuracy of astronomical measurements in the UK which lead in part to the discovery of Uranus. By the early 19th century mathematical teaching at Cambridge University was some of the most advanced in the world. It was rigorous and demanding. Couch Adamas excelled under the teaching, although preparation for the exams would have taken much of his time. Therefore, the search for a new planet (Neptune) would be something he undertook within the vacations and not an urgent project. After further discussion about all the players involvements within the discovery of Neptune, Bill spoke about the Kuiper belt, Pluto and the Oort cloud and how our understanding of the solar system is evolving even today.

2. Meropi Merfouli (for Suzanne Débarbat)- Le Verrier, Arago and the Bureau des Longitudes

“During the nineteenth century François Arago (1786 1853) and Urbain Le Verrier (1811-1877) held similar and enriching functions in both French astronomical Institutions, Paris Observatory and the Bureau of Longitudes. With one generation gap, both died at the same age, both sick and having suffered in their last years. They both had had descendants that Madame Débarbat had met and discussed with on several occasions.

History recognises them for their scientific achievements and the political role they played in the direction of Paris Observatory in relation with the Bureau of Longitudes. It is a fact that they have proved to be very different in their scientific and political conduct.

Arago always steered young scholars and Astronomers towards important physical or astronomical researches. He was the one that steered Le Verrier towards the research of the cause of the perturbation of Uranus’ orbital motion. That led Le Verrier to  the discovery of a new planet, Neptune, one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs. Under Arago’s direction, the Observatory depended on the Bureau of Longitudes (politically, financially etc.) and scientists and astronomers from both Institutions were working together. A characteristic example is Hervé Faye’s and Paul Auguste Ernest Laugier’s work on the improvement of Astronomical Pendulum Clocks.

Under Le Verrier’s direction this cooperation came to an end. Le Verrier offered the Observatory of Paris its complete independence. Le Verrier’s severe and authoritarian conduct towards his colleagues and peers. led to resignation of his Director duties, and he was replaced by Charles Delaunay. He resumed his duties shortly after Charles Delaunay’s sudden death.

Arago and Le Verrier, each in their own way, and in very different forms, participated in the evolution of 19th century astronomy.

3. Jean-Claude Berçu – Donati’s comet over Balliol and Trinity Colleges, Oxford, 5 October 1858

‘Donati’s comet [1858] appeared right at the dawn of modern astrophysics, when techniques like spectroscopy and astrophotography where being applied for the first time to the study of celestial objects. This was also a time of strong and widespread interest in scientific discoveries and in the popularization of science. Traces of the comet’s passage and of it’s impact on Victorian society are found in books, illustrated magazines, diaries and letters. It’s unique shape was represented in engravings, watercoulours and paintings ranging from naturalism to symbolism. Donati’s comet was not only an astronomical phenomenon of worlwide resonance but also a media event of its day and age, celebrated by journalists, artists and scientific alike.’

Comet Donati, or Donati’s Comet, formally designated C/1858 L1 and 1858 VI, is a long-period comet named after the Italian astronomer Giovanni Battista Donati who first observed it on June 2, 1858. After the Great Comet of 1811, it was the most brilliant comet that appeared in the 19th century. It was also the first comet to be photographed.

Donati (1826-1873) graduated from the university of Pisa, and afterwards joined the Observatory of Florence in 1852. He was appointed director in 1864. He was a pioneer in the spectroscopic study of the stars, the Sun, and comets. Between 1854 and 1864 he discovered six new comets, including the spectacular Comet Donati.

The definitive orbits for the comet were calculated by Friedrich Emil von Asten, German astronomer, and George William Hill, American astronomer, the latter’s based on nearly 1000 positions. Due to its long elliptical orbit, it is estimated that Donati’s Comet will not be seen passing by Earth again until the 4th millennium. Parameters of the comet C/1858 L1 can be found on JPL Small-Body Data Browser.

Comet’s Donati was painted by many artists : in France over Paris, in Great-Britain over Cambridge Observatory, Greenwich Observatory, Pegwell Bay, London, even near the Mexican border and Melbourne Observatory.

The comet over Oxford can be seen on two paintings : William Turner of Oxford (1789–1862) : Donati’s Comet, Oxford, 7:30 p.m., 5 Oct. 1858 (Yale Centre for British Art) and a Victorian transparency of Donati’s Comet over Balliol College and Trinity College, Oxford, near the Star Arcturus, 5 October 1858 (197 x 280 mm – Maas Gallery, London) by Anonymous (when holding the transparency in front of a candle, the stars twinkled thanks to pinholes).

This transparency was painted at 7:30 p.m. in front of the chapel of Balliol college in Broad Street. There is an opportunity to check its accuracy thanks to JPL Horizons ephemerides and Google Maps 3D. The discrepancy between the painting and the JPL results (at 7:30 the azimuth of the comet was 284.908° and its elevation 13.3649°) is less than a few degrees so, while the painting is not a scientific work it is still quite accurate.

At the time, a diagram was published, responding to the discovery of the comet. It made its nearest approach to Earth on 10 October 1858, just five days after this print was published. This diagram was based on observations by John Russell Hind (1823-1895), Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac Office, and Richard Farley, Chief Assistant at the NAO. The central dial can be moved round to calculate the position of the comet against the background of the principal constellations and text on the card gives instructions to the user.

The number of scientific papers is quite impressive such as Bond, G. P., Fette, H. G., & Watts, J. W. (1858). An Account of Donati’s Comet of 1858.

The first attempt known to photograph a comet was made by George Bond, an American astronomer, on 28 September 1858 at Harvard, with the 15-inch refractor. But the very first photograph of a comet was taken by an English commercial photographer, William Usherwood on Walton Commons, unfortunately the picture itself was lost (5).

It is very interesting to note that on many artistic works, the comet Donati near Arcturus is accurately depicted.

Donati’s Comet was the most-observed of the century due to its excellent visibility in dark skies for Northern Hemisphere viewers, particularly in Europe, and fine weather in September and October. William Henry Smyth, an English astronomer, recalled it as “one of the most beautiful objects that I have ever seen”. Donati himself, a relatively obscure figure, was propelled to the status of an astronomical hero, and the comet helped cultivate a general enthusiasm for astronomy among the public.’

4. Short talk by Eddie Carpenter – Isaac Roberts and Dorothea Klumpke

Eddie gave the details of the lives of Isaac Roberts and Dorothea Klumpke who had met in Norway in 1896 and married in 1902. Dorothea had worked at the Observatoire de Paris.

Eddie has acquired a book produced by Dorothea after Isaac’s death entitled “Isaac Roberts’ atlas of 52 regions: A guide to William Herschel’s fields of nebulosity : supplement to the edition commemorating Isaac Roberts’ centenary, 1829-1904 by Mrs Isaac Roberts nee Dorothea Klumpke”. This was available for participants to see in the lecture theatre.

The superb Buffet lunch then followed. The afternoon talks began with Ian Ridpath

5. Ian Ridpath – A History of Constellations.

“In the days before writing, storytellers used the sky as a picture book to illustrate their tales of gods, mythical heroes and fabulous beasts. Those pictures among the stars were the origin of our system of constellations. Today, the entire sky is divided into 88 constellations of varying shapes and sizes. This talk, which includes illustrations from some of the world’s greatest star atlases, will trace the origin of the constellation system back to Greek times and explain who filled in the gaps between the ancient Greek figures, who decided on the official boundaries between constellations, and how the names of certain stars came about.”

6. Mike Frost – Lady Pioneers of the British Astronomical Association

Mike is the BAA historical section Chair and very knowledgeable about the first ladies to join the BAA. The ladies could join the BAA before there was female membership of the RAS. One such lady was Mary Acworth Evershed (nee Orr) – Born Plymouth, Lived Surrey (when in UK), who was a member of the BAA Solar Eclipse trip to Norway in 1896. Also to go on eclipse trips was Elizabeth Brown (1830-99) who was born and lived in Cirencester. Many of the Pioneer ladies seemed to have an Irish background, this included Margaret, Lady Huggins (nee Lindsay) – Born Dublin, lived Tulse Hill, Agnes Clerke – Born Skibbereen, County Cork, lived London and Annie Scott Dill Maunder (nee Russell) – Born Strabane. Several them had worked as computers for Greenwich observatory including Annie Scott Maunder, who would marry Walter Maunder and continue working within the field including on sunspots. Many more names were mentioned, and it showed the interest in astronomy within Victorian female circles

7. David Valls-Gabaud – Hershel’s Least known Telescope

Among many other observing programmes, William Herschel sought to observe unresolved nebulae, some of which being large enough to “outvie our Milky Way in grandeur”. This required larger telescopes, and whilst the 20-ft and 40-ft telescopes are well-known, the convoluted and surprising story of Herschel’s second largest telescope is worth recalling.

David recounted the building of a replica William Herschel’s second largest telescope by the University of Madrid based on a beautiful book discovered by the University. David showed pictures of a replica copy he had managed to purchase. The telescope can now be visited at the University. John Chuter managed to track down a replica copy which he purchased. Picture shown here.

8. Short talk by Daniel Ravier – The use of Jacob’s Staff (wearing period costume)

Daniel had made a copy of Jacob’s Staff and with the help of a volunteer, Gerard, our chairman, not in costume, Daniel demonstrated its use in the measurement of distant objects.

This concluded a most interesting day and a most successful conference.  After Gerard’s final words, everyone made their farewells and departures. There is already talk of a return visit to France or even further afield.

Text: Various speakers and guides. John Chuter, Carolyn Kennett

Pictures: John Chuter, Michael White