Author Archives: societyforthehistoryofastronomy

20th Anniversary of the SHA : 29th June 2022

Today marks the 20th Anniversary of the formation of the Society for the History of Astronomy on 29th June 2002.

One of the core activities of the Society is to collect details of lesser-known figures in astronomy and their related organisations, buildings/structures/sites, known as ‘The Survey’. The information gathered can be found on the website constructed for this purpose.

A celebration Book has been written to commemorate the anniversary.

Details of how to purchase a copy of this book can be obtain from the chair, Gerard Gilligan, at

Details of the Society can be found on

2022 SPRING CONFERENCE : Sat 12 Mar 2022

at The Birmingham & Midland Institute, 9 Margaret St, Birmingham, B3 3BS.

Emily Winterburn : Tracking down the lost & forgotten astronomical women of Empire
Daniel Belteki : James Glaisher and the Editor-ship of Illustrated London Almanack
Lee Macdonald : Proposals to move Greenwich Observatory
Hilary Forbes : Aristarchus
Allan Chapman : From Hershel’s 48inch to the JWST in 200 years. Where next?

Conference Poster

Conference Flier

Speaker Information

Booking Form WORD

Booking Form PDF


Dear Members and friends of the SHA.

The Society will suspend all meetings and BMI Library openings until further notice. This is  due to the current situation and the need for containment of the C-19 virus outbreak. We will keep members informed and council officers will be in contact with those members, in the next few days, who have paid for meetings attendance and associated refreshments already. Venues, Invited speakers and visitors are being contacted separately by members of council.

While we realise that the cancellation and postponement of events and meetings will cause some inconvenience and disappointment, the health and wellbeing of our society members, venue staff and visitors is our highest priority.

We hope to re-arrange some events/meetings later in the year.

I wish you good health at this time, and please follow the official advice:

NHS/Public Health Service advice.

Gerard Gilligan

Chairman The Society for the History of Astronomy.

14th March 2020.

THE 2019 AUTUMN CONFERENCE/AGM : 26th October 2019

The Society for the History of Astronomy AGM and Moon themed conference was held on a wet and windy day the 26th October 2019 at the Birmingham Midland Institute in Birmingham. We wish to thank all the attendees and speakers for who had to battle through less than ideal travel conditions to reach the conference.

Lecture Theatre filling up at the start of the day

Gerard Gilligan opened the conference with the AGM with a touching speech about Stuart Williams who had sadly passed away on the 15th October. Stuart had been a cornerstone of the early society and had been very influential in getting the society started. He will be greatly missed by many of the members.

Carolyn Bedwell with Gerard

The AGM passed, all returning officers were reinstated and Gerard gave his thanks for another successful year, particularly highlighting the Oxford conference which had been a highlight for many of the members. Prizes were awarded as follows: The Peter Hingley award was presented to Carolyn Bedwell for all her hard work with the library and The Roger Jones award for survey contributions went to Bill Barton for his continued submissions to the survey. The next AGM will be held at the BMI Birmingham on the 24th October 2020.

Kevin Johnson with Bill Barton

Mike Frost, the BAA Historical Section Director, told the members that they have a new orbituary section of BAA members that is now on the BAA website which can be found here I am sure many of our members will find this an excellent resource. The venue for the BAA 2020 Historical Section meeting will to be confirmed soon but is likely be at the BMI in Birmingham. The final news from Mike is that Lee McDonald is stepping down as deputy director and Bill Barton is assuming the role.

During a short interlude, Eddie Carpenter showed the delegates several lunar themed items he had brought with him. Firstly there was ‘The First Moon Atlas’ by William Henry Pickering which can be viewed online here This book was published in 1902 and all the images included were taken in the late 1800’s. The second book was ‘The Moon’ by Richard A. Proctor. Eddie’s edition was very special as his was one of the first ten printed, which included three real and not printed photographs of the Moon taken by Rutherford in 1856. Eddie finally brought some lantern slides of the Moon plus some glass plates of the moon and some stereographic images and stereo glasses with which to view them. These interesting contributions can be seen in the image below right.

Eddie Carpenter

Heather Sebire

Our first speaker was Heather Sebire, an archaeologist and the Senior Property Curator at Stonehenge Heather opened with a talk titled ‘Stonehenge, Archaeoastronomy and the Moon’. She told us how prehistory and astronomy is a very interesting subject, Stonehenge has played a huge part in the discipline of archaeoastronomy. William Stukeley was the first to see the alignment with the Sun between the circle and the Heel stone at Stonehenge, observing the Summer Solstice in 1724. Norman Lockyer then publishes his work on astronomy and the circle in 1909. Later work was undertaken by Alexander Thom, Fred Hoyle (1977), Gerard Hawkins and most recently Prof Clive Ruggles. The circle sits in a wide and complex landscape from which monumental remains date through a highly complex timeline which extends millennia. The Curses and long barrows are from the early Neolithic when the first farmer came in the UK. Whereas the circle and avenue come from a slightly later period. In the final stage several barrows were added by an even later population who brought metal working with them. The circle is made from a ring of blue stones which were transported from Wales and the large dense sandstone Sarsens. 3D scanning has shown that every stone has been worked to a high standard and the it certainly was a Temple to the people who used the site. Acoustic work has shown that the Blue stones ring when stuck. It seems that the mid-winter sight line was the most important and we were shown several images of this in practice and told that the Heel stone may have had a partner which together would have framed the rising Sun. There are four station stones which are in the ring ditch and predate the circle, these form a rectangle and create sight lines for the lunar standstill positions, there are a number of cremated remains on one of the lunar standstill sightlines which may have been placed while a period of standstill was in action. All the astronomy sight lines including the lunar ones are now protected. Stonehenge has a new skyscape feature, which you can view the sky at Stonehenge all year round. You can try the feature here:

The second talk by Alexandra Loske and Robert Massey was on the theme of their recent book ‘Moon: Art, Science, Culture’. We were treated to a wonderful visual history of the Moon and what it meant to artists and how this work overlapped with science. The Moon has been depicted from the earliest history, with lunar phases being drawn on the walls of the Lascaux caves.

Robert Massey and Alexandra Loske

The Bronze Age Nebra Sky disc was shown next, this wonderful object from the German Halle Museum will be making a trip to the UK for the British Museum Bronze Age exhibition in 2021. It has a UK connection as all the tin and gold in the object stems from Cornwall. Jan Van Eyck’s painting of the crucifixion shows perhaps one of the first real depictions of the lunar surface in a correct phase. William Gilbert produced the first Moon map in 1603 just before the use of the telescope. The telescope transformed our relationship with the Moon with work by both Thomas Harriot and Galileo Galilei both drawing very early sketches of the Moon. By the 18th century the Lunar Society was formed, and people travelled to meetings under the Full Moon. Caspar David Friedrich regularly uses the Moon as a centre piece for his images in the 19th century. Steeped in symbolism he sets his paintings in a Sublime landscape with human figures often with their backs turned and off to one side, drawing the eye in to the Moon itself. By the late 19th Century photography started to transform our relationship with the Moon and new accounts of journeys into space were written by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. They introduced the spacecraft as a believable object. It was only one year later after H.G. Wells book that there was the first moving image of the Moon by George Méliès. Another influential film ‘Frau im Mond’ (Women in the Moon) was one of the final silent films on the cinema. The film premiered on 15th October 1929 and features wonderful ideas such as multistage rockets and invented the countdown to liftoff. Finally, Robert and Alexandra spoke at length about the Apollo missions, talking about how science has come on to change the space program and how the visits to the Moon gave us a greater understanding of the formation of the Solar System. The book on which this talk is based can be found here: Moon

Bill Leatherbarrow

After the lunch break Bill Leatherbarrow introduced us to his topic Patrick Moore and our Volcanic Moon. He reminisced with fondness, how Patrick would always say ‘once a moon man – always a moon man’ even at the most inappropriate moments. Patrick first love was the Moon and he wrote over 100 books on the subject. He was one of the BBC’s reporters covering the Apollo missions. His first and his last submissions to the British Astronomical Association were also about the Moon. The first was published in 1946 and was about craters on the Moon. Nearly all his life he felt that the craters on the Moon were to do with volcanic activity, rather than bombardment from outer space. He clung to the theory for much of his life, even though Ralph Baldwin published with his correct meteor theory in 1949.  Patrick was convinced he was correct and that through a telescope he could see evidence of volcanism. The first piece of evidence was that the craters were all round. (this has been debunked as astronomical impacts are an explosive event which involves a high amount of kinetic energy and leave a single point of explosion, creating a round crater.) Patrick claimed the distribution showed chains of volcanos. (this is due to objects fragmenting much in the way Shoemaker Levy 9 did when it hit Jupiter.) He also said that small peaks had craters on the top and this showed volcanic vents, he felt that this was too obvious a target and should not happen all the time. (This is due to lighting and the position of the Sun and these craters when imaged were not there). Finally, he claimed that you could not expect all the big impacts to come first and the smaller ones second. (This is what you can expect as them larger space debris hit the moon first and then only smaller debris was left to hit the moon at a later period). Patrick was a great friend with his BAA Lunar Section Director predecessor, H P Wilkins who was also a great advocate of the crater/volcano theory. He was probably heavily influenced by this man in this instance in his early career. Patrick would be passionate about transient lunar events all his life and volcanism offers something which is exciting as events could still happen, whereas the impact crater theory is talking about something which is historical and possibly of less interest to an active observer of the Moon. The Moon has witnessed volcanism in the past, it would not have lasted for a long period of its history due to the loss of its internal heat because of the size of the Moon. The bright areas of lunar highlands are the original crust of the Moon from 4.4 Billion years ago and the seas come from a later process of volcanism where magma filled basins just 2.5 billion years ago. There are also a couple of volcanic craters, but these have no rims and they are surrounded by dark ejecta. This can be seen on the Hyginus crater. Bill’s 2018 book called ‘The Moon’, can be found here

Next, Melanie Vandenbrouck and Louise Devoy spoke about the current Moon exhibition being held at the Royal Museum Greenwich. The exhibition explores humanities relationship with the Moon through Science, Humanities and Arts. They looked at collections within the UK and the Smithsonian and from 700 objects they selected 180 to feature in the four-room exhibit. The whole exhibition was five years in the making.

Louise Devoy and Melanie Vandenbrouck

The exhibition opens with a tiny etching by William Blake which shows a figure who is going to climb a ladder to the Moon. This, they felt, mirrored our dreams and aspirations of our relationship with the Moon which has been a constant companion, timekeeper and often spiritual object. The Moon has permeated all cultures, at all times through history. The first area looks at how we have observed the Moon through history, it houses everything from a Babylonian tablet discussing a lunar eclipse to an astrolabe which has been dismantled to show its interior workings which has a lunar section demonstrating the phases on the Moon. The astrolabe has one of the oldest geared system in the world. The room also shows how we have connected to the moon through religions such as the Hindu god Chandra. The second area looks at how humans’ idea of the Moon transformed once they could see through a lens. It includes a 20inch telescope which is so large it had to be placed in the room and then the rest of the exhibition was built around it. The collection includes how important developments were made through photography and how lantern slides brought this to the masses. Area three is called Destination Moon this looks at both fictional and actual travel to the Moon, they explore how Science and the Arts work together such as through the film ‘Frau im Mond’. This room also shows how popular culture gets in on the act with clothes and designs which include lunar themes. The number of people who were involved with the space race and the launch of the Moon missions are commemorated with several images. The power of images has been recognized as the US program took over 32,000 whereas the less well remembered Russian missions took very few. The final sector is ‘For all mankind?’ It reflects on what’s happened since Atlas program was cancelled. Topics such as ‘who owns the Moon’ are explored, it also looks at when we are going back and what science may be able to learn from a return to the Moon. The final object in the exhibition is the iconic photograph of Earthrise taken on Christmas 1968, which acts as a mirror and reflects our dreams, passions and desires. More about the exhibit and how to see it can be found here:  

The final talk of the day was by the SHA President Allan Chapman. His talk was entitled ‘The Moon, the Telescope and the Transformation of Astronomy after 1609’. Allan opened his talk with his condolences over the sad loss of Stuart Williams and remembered his great contribution to the Society in its early years.

SHA President : Dr Allan Chapman

Allan’s talk opened with an image drawn by Thomas Harriot of the Moon, which is dated 1609 July 26th at 9pm. The image is very special as it not only is the first sketch of the Moon through a telescope, but it unusually has a time on it. The Moon it shows is just five days old and it totally overthrows all earlier ideas of the moon. The Moon up to then had been smooth a celestial body and demonstrates perfection. Harriet finds a jagged terminator rough not smooth. Why did he not publish, Allan explained there are several reasons. Harriot was a rich man he was a mathematician and astronomer. The political situation was volatile. Just four years before his friend Lord Percy had been in the tower, he was not looking for fame as had also been taken to the tower, he had lands in Ireland, in the north of the UK and an annual income of £200. His papers were not discovered until 1784 in the Petworth house archives. They showed that Galileo was not the first to draw the Moon as his drawing came on November 30th, 1609. Galileo publishes quickly in 1610, he wanted money and fame, but in doing so he struggled to adjust to the higher society circles and rubbed a lot of important people up the wrong way, which gets him into trouble. This use of the telescope was the first time that a one of our five senses became enhanced. The Polish Astronomer, Johannes Hevelius, was also a rich man (from the brewery industry) but he was interested in astronomy and he draws the phases of the Moon in 1640, the craters in 1645 and this develops the into the first lunar atlas. Allan then moved onto the work of Rev Dr John Wilkins who was from Wadham College Oxford and thought that we might soon be able to fly to the Moon and what’s more, it may be inhabited. The telescope was allowing people to see objects in the sky as worlds for the first time. Robert Hooke would work with Wilkins and they would build mini flying machines with spring motors, these are most likely the first flying machine ever built. They thought that they just needed to upscale the model and they could then travel to the Moon. By 1672 Wilkins knew it was impossible to travel to the Moon as Boyle had shown space would not be breathable by making a vacuum. (air pressure at altitude). Hooke also devised an idea about a telescope with a ½ mile focal length from which he felt you could observe the surface of the Moon as clearly as you could see sheep on Salisbury plain. By 1665 he starts to talk about structure of lunar surface in his book ‘Micrographia’. Allan then spoke about the Great Lunar Hoax which is attributed to Richard Adams Locke. This showed that people were still not looking at the Moon in any detail. This would come later with a great chart of the Moon by Dr John Lee and early photography. More about the Lunar Hoax can be read in Bulletin 32 written by Carolyn Bedwell.

Thank you to all our speakers

This brought us to the end of a very interesting day of talks both formal and informal. We wish to extend our thanks to all the speakers for an interesting and varied day all about the Moon. Thanks also to James Dawson and his helpers for the always fascinating book stall. We also wish to thank all the attendees for battling through the inclement weather to make it to the BMI that day.

Carolyn Kennett

Autumn conference and AGM 2018

The Society’s Annual General Meeting was held on the 27th October 2018 at our adopted home, the BMI Birmingham. It was a cold start to the day but nevertheless the event was still well attended with over 75 members and guests arriving to hear the proceedings and speaker line-up of the day. Bob Bower opened the event as Chair, this was his last event in this position as he had decided to stand aside after a number of years in the role. He was instrumental in increasing the membership to its current high levels. Bob was thanked for all his hard work and we will continue to see him at meetings as he is one of the organisers and speakers of the two day Oxford Conference in April 2019. The minutes were approved and the council welcomed the new Chair Gerard Gilligan to his post. Gerard is well known to members as his prior role was membership secretary. The vacant position of membership secretary has been filled by Graham Jones, and we welcome him to the council for the first time. Graham is an experienced astronomer who is also on the council of The Society for Popular Astronomy.

The annual awards were presented as follows; The Roger Jones award for 2018 was awarded to Brian Jones, who unfortunately could not make it on the day, but was being recognised for his fantastic work on the SHA Facebook page, where he posts interesting historical facts on a daily basis. The Madeline Cox award was given by the Bulletin Editors to Graham Mcloughlin for his article on the 1927 Solar Eclipse and all the research that he has done on the subject. Mike Leggett was awarded the Peter Hingley award for all his work on the council and within the society. Mike is a founding member of the society and a long term member of the council. He most recently held the post of Publicity Officer, due to work commitments he has had to step down from the council but will still be a regular attendee of the society’s meetings. Well done all.

Andrew Stephens, the first speaker of the day took us on a journey to our neighbouring galaxy Andromeda. His talk “Observing the Andromeda Galaxy, Dec 1612 to date-a warps and all story!” introduced us to a research project which he has been undertaking since September 2015. It was during the night of the supermoon total eclipse when Andrew observed Andromeda in what he felt were exceptionally transparent conditions. Through binoculars he was surprised to see large, unfamiliar, areas of nebulosity at the galaxy’s extremities. He noticed these areas were off-axis with respect to the major axis of central bulge and at the southern end showed signs of having a three-dimensional structure. Researching these features has proved fascinating, as many excellent observers throughout history make no reference to them.  The observations can be explained by reference to professional findings concerning the tidal warping of the galaxy. Although Andromeda is usually reported as visually symmetrical Andrew believes it is not. During the talk he demonstrated warping can easily be seen on any photograph if it is turned so the major axis of the galaxy lies on the horizontal. He finished with a request that anyone finding references to visual observations of the warping, or observing it for themselves, please get in touch, as it will add to his ongoing research. After introducing us all to this riveting mystery I am sure many of us will be observing the galaxy in a whole new way.

Rob Peeling took the floor to guide us on a story through the life of Admiral William Henry Smyth, with a talk entitled “William Henry Smyth, his life, placing his astronomical work in the wider context of his participation in British intellectual life in the 19th Century.” His early life was marred by his father finding himself on the losing side of the American War of Independence. This meant that the family found themselves in a reduced state in the UK and his father’s later return to America to try and reclaim some of the family fortune ended with his tragic death. He would never meet his son, who was born in the UK just months after he died. Smyth at the age of 14 took matters into his own hands and joined the Navy, against his families wishes. His life was adventurous and he travelled to many far off places and was involved in a number of conflicts. Best known for his 1844 book “A Cycle of Celestial Objects”, he was also an excellent self-taught cartographer. Many of his observations were made in his observatory at No 6 The Crescent in Bedford, there is now a Blue Plaque on the property. We thank Rob for this wonderful synopsis on Admiral William Henry Smyth life, he certainly led an exciting life.

After lunch we had a new feature to our proceedings, we held our first short talk hour, this hour was split between three twenty minute talks. We hope this will allow people to present smaller areas of research without feeling the need to have to present for an hour. Bob Bower opened this section of the meeting with a talk entitled “ The artistic skills of Lord Rosse – His hitherto unpublished drawings”. The slides gave us an opportunity to see some of the wonderful sketches that Lord Rosse peppered throughout his notebooks, many which have not been seen before outside of Birr Castle. Lord Rosse’s drawing skills were excellent and his humour abound throughout the sketches. We also got to see images of Bob’s visit to Birr Castle, along with the huge Leviathan telescope, this is a replica telescope which can still be seen by visitors to the castle. After hearing Bob’s wonderful talk I am sure many of us will be inspired to visit this amazing location.

John Chuter and Eddie Carpenter then spoke about “Sir Robert Stawell Ball”. Many of the attendees will have made the link to the BMI and Ball, with the SHA library being called after this foremost communicator of popular astronomy. John began with a brief summary of Sir Robert’s life, and then went on to explain how he had made extensive use of lantern slides. Sir Robert had kept detailed notes of his lectures which included lists of slides he had used. John, as Co-archivist of the BAA had come across the remnants of their once large lantern slide collection they loaned out to members. His research shows that Sir Robert had left his lantern slides to the BAA. The BAA had decided to dismantle the collection in the 1980s. Eddie has purchased a large number of them at that time. There is still a lot of work to do on this, but it is possible that a number of Sir Robert’s slides are still in the BAA’s or Eddie’s collections. Eddie and John have made some educated guesses on which they are. We were then treated to a lantern slide show by Eddie showing possible slides owned by Sir Robert. Over 1 million people saw Ball lecture in his life. He never changed the slides himself, always relying on paid Lanternists to do this, to ensure the smooth running of the show, without the encumbrance of slides being put into the machine upside down or the wrong way around. Ball gave his last lecture around 1910 using lantern slides, maybe some of which we saw today. It is always wonderful to see the old lantern slide machines in action, and we thank John and Eddie for the talk and accompanying presentation.

The following full-length talk was given by Graham Mcloughlin on “The 1927 Solar Eclipse.” This eclipse was on 29th June and had a central line through Lancashire and North Yorkshire. Graham described how it was the first full eclipse in the UK for 203 years and was highly anticipated by astronomers and the general public alike. Graham showed a large amount of material from that year which demonstrated how people would be travelling to the eclipse region. With an eclipse area of just 30 miles width and totality being only seconds, people had to choose their observing location with care. Unfortunately June 1927 was befallen with poor weather, demonstrated with the outfits people wore in the images, many being in overcoats with hats and scarfs. Witnessing totality was a lottery with people located just miles apart being clouded out or under clear skies. Graham brought many photographic slides of the event which gave us a real feel for the excitement of the build-up and the event itself. Thank you Graham for showing us that eclipse chasing is nothing new and giving a wonderful talk about a very interesting event here on UK soil.

After the final break and a last look around the library and book stall, delegates were treated to the exuberant Allan Chapman and his talk “The Wonderful Century; From Atoms to Island Universes. Astronomy in the 20th Century.” Allan is the societies honorary president and is always very supportive, regularly speaking at the October AGM. This year we were treated to a journey through the 20th century. Starting with Sir Norman Lockyer and his discoveries of Helium, we journeyed through the fastest developing period in astronomical history. Allan covered everything from Williams Huggins spectroscopy and how this had opened up new fields at the start of the century, to Albert Einstein’s development of a whole new physics with his work on relativity. We also heard about the work of Henrietta Swan Leavitt and the classification of stars and Edwin Hubble and the realisation that galaxies were redshifting and moving away from each other. We were brought right up to the end of the twentieth century with Allan sharing wonderful stories about his meetings with Patrick Moore and Barnard Lovell. This lecture was a real treat and it was wonderful to hear all about the lives of these trailblasers.

We thank all the members and guests for attending the meeting and hope you enjoyed the day. See you all April 2019 at our Spring Conference in Oxford.

Text: Carolyn Kennet, Andy Stephens, John Chuter

Pictures: Carolyn Kennet , David Sellars