The SHA’s Annual General Meeting and Autumn Conference

The Society for The History of Astronomy’s Annual General Meeting and Autumn Conference was held on Saturday 28th October at the Birmingham and Midland Institute in Birmingham. It was a full packed day with delegates having the opportunity to listen to five talks alongside the AGM. It was to prove a busy meeting with over sixty members attending and eleven guests.

The day commenced with the opportunity to buy books from the bookstall, get refreshments or browse the SHA library which has one of the largest collection of historic astronomy books in the UK.

Bob Bower, Gerard Gilligan



Paul Haley

Bill Barton





Bob Bower, Chairperson, started the formal proceedings with his usual vigour and humour, thanking the many members of the society who have helped with the running of the Society during the past year. This hard work has resulted in a large increase in membership for the Society. The Societies’ prizes were awarded, firstly Paul Haley got the Madeline Cox award for his contributions to the Bulletin magazine, Bill Barton was awarded the Roger Jones award for his work on the survey and Gerard Gilligan was given the Peter Hingley award for his significant contribution towards the increase in membership during the past year. The SHA has indeed seen a record breaking influx of new members for the year, which after Saturday is now 50. Well over 200 in total.

The first talk of the day was by Roger Salt, he spoke about “The Antikythera mechanism”. This talk took the audience on a journey of the history of the mechanisms discovery. It considered the early work of Derek Price and later detections by Michael Wright. This fascinating object has had a significant amount of research on it leading to the latest discoveries. These show that the object was an advanced astronomical mechanism which was made by an expert in astronomy from Ancient Greece. Names such as Archimedes, Hipparchus or Posidonius were considered as possible makers of this device. We thank Roger Salt for his talk on what is a fascinating object, which has enthralled the world since its discovery.

Following this talk, we had a short interlude while Eddie Carpenter set up his Lantern Slide projector. Eddie arrived with an excellent array of lantern slides dating back as far as the early 19th century. He started his talk with a crowd-pleasing q and a which asked the members of the audience to identify astronomers and observatories from around the world. The highlight of his talk was him showing the mechanical magic lantern slides which date from 1840’s. An issue with the solar system slide was that it had been produced before the discovery of Neptune. When the outermost planet was discovered in 1846 they quickly painted the planet onto the slide but in the same orbit but on the opposing side to Uranus.

After the break for lunch, Dr Lee MacDonald gave a very interesting and topical talk on the history of the Isaac Newton Telescope. It is a telescope which is celebrating 50 years since it was situated at Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex. As Lee explained the telescope has a much longer history as the idea had been formulated in 1944 by the Royal Society. The whole project was beset by delay and disasters, including an inferior mirror which made the scope an f/3 focal ratio. This in time would become the scopes greatest strength. In 1984 the scope was moved to the Canary Islands. The f/3 focal ratio made it an excellent scope for wide angle imaging with CCD cameras, this allowed for large-scale supernovae hunting. It was a project led by Saul Perlmutter on this scope which would discover the presence of dark energy in the Universe. Lee’s topic was called “Cracked Mirror to Nobel Prize” which is a very fitting way to describe the changing fortunes of this once lamentable scope.

From Left: Don Kurtz, Lee McDonald, Allan Chapman, Eddie Carpenter

Professor Don Kurtz gave a very engaging talk about the meaning of time and how time has been understood, divided up and recognised through history. He took us around the world with different ideas about how time should be measured from different cultures. From the Babylonians early 12-hour day and the Roman 8-day week. We considered questions such as what makes a year? what is an Astronomical unit? and how is it measured? Why do we use a seven-day week? and how the calendar we use currently exists in its current form. Altogether this was a fascinating and thought-provoking talk.

The final talk of the day was from our Societies President Dr Allan Chapman. His talk was about the enigmatic Joseph Norman Lockyer. Born to a well to do family Lockyer at first was a grand amateur astronomer. He soon was commissioning equipment which allowed him to make great discoveries within his own back garden. This was mainly in the field of solar spectrography. This, in turn, allowed him to become one of the leading people in this field at that time. He spent the next part of his life in the academic community within London but later returned to his amateur roots. He set up and ran the Norman Locker Observatory located in Sidmouth in Devon. Allan gave a wonderful talk to end a great day which was enjoyed by all. We wish to thank all the members and guests for coming and hope to see them at the SHA spring conference which is on April 21st 2018 at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge.

Summer Picnic : Liverpool July 2017

The annual summer picnic for the Society for the History of Astronomy this year was held in Liverpool, on Saturday 1st July 2017.

The picnic is an annual feature in the Society’s calendar and aims to combine an opportunity to socialise with other SHA members a chance to visit somewhere pertinent to the history of astronomy.

This year the meeting was organised by the SHA’s Membership Secretary, Gerard Gilligan, who arranged for the picnic attendees to get a unique behind the scenes look at two of Liverpool’s iconic institutions, the newly rebuilt Central Library and its archives, and the internationally renowned World Museum.

The day commenced in the museum’s planetarium which was opened especially for the SHA. Patrick Kiernan, the planetarium’s educational demonstrator and SHA member, gave a fascinating talk on the history of globes and planetaria using the dome to project his slides onto. Following this, he played an educational video on astronomy so we all had an opportunity to observe the night sky and in all its glory above our heads; a really spectacular feeling. The party was then divided into two much smaller groups for unique tours behind the scenes of both the World Museum and the Central Library.

Wendy Simkiss, Assistant Curator of Earth and Physical Sciences, took us into the bowels of the museum, well away from public areas, and showed us various items she had prepared for us. Amongst these was a model of William Lassell’s observatory (the actual observatory was erected in 1840 and a report appears in the MNRAS), and the finder scope of his original 24″ speculum mirror telescope. The museum also had the 24″ mirror on loan and we had an opportunity to marvel at this. Wendy took us to see how other artefacts are stored and catalogued and talked to us about restoration and preservation of artefacts.

The second behind the scenes tour was undertaken on the third floor of Liverpool’s Central Library, the neighbouring building to the museum. There we met Helena Smart, Senior Archivist for Liverpool City Council, who showed us the public areas where records and archives are accessed and described the types of materials within the library’s archives. Helena then took us into behind the scenes. The first stop was into the restoration and preservation laboratory; climate controlled, clinically clean with machines and devices to allow staff to rebuild torn pages, crumbling paper, and even to fumigate infested materials. Next, we went into one of the stores, with rows and rows of electronically moving shelves and a much cooler ambient temperature; Helena talked about how the types of materials being submitted to the archives are changing and not uncommonly hard drives are handed over which poses a myriad of issues for the archiving staff. The next stop was back to the reading room where Helena had pulled out various astronomical treats from the archives relating to Liverpool Astronomical Society, and to the wider field of astronomy in general. The library tour finished with a look at the older parts of the building, and the circular Picton Reading Room, in particular, appealed to me, though the acoustics amplify even the slightest of sounds which shatter the otherwise silence amongst the readers.

Liverpool isn’t a place I’ve explored before but this day out has whetted my appetite to go back. A wonderfully educational and inspiring day and great to catch up with old friends.

James Dawson FRAS
SHA Librarian

The Spring Conference: Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge Sat 22 April 2017

A warm spring day greeted the attendees of the Society for the History of Astronomy annual spring conference at The Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge on the 22nd April 2017. Attendees were given a warm greeting by the SHA meetings organiser Dennis Osborne and members were presented with their new SHA lapel badge.

After a brief welcoming talk by Bob Bower the societies Chairperson, the first talk of the day was given by Howard Carlton. Titled John Pringle Nichol, the Nebula Hypotheses, and Nineteenth Century Cosmogony. Howard explained how Nichol a Scottish professor of astronomy at Glasgow university was one of the first people to support the nebula hypothesis. He was an accomplished speaker and his enthusiasm for the theory was evident in the lectures he held as well as the books he wrote on the subject. This was a theory that was in its development and objections and alternate ideas were being fronted by people such as theologian Thomas Chalmers. Chalmers had argued that the universe was born fully formed. Critics also came in the form of observational evidence. This was particularly evident by the observations made from the Leviathan telescope at Birr castle in Ireland. This was the largest scope and it was hoped that observations here would give a definitive answer on the theories involved. Observations were and made and it was concluded that nebula could be resolved into individual stars. Robinson working with Lord Rosse declared that M1 could be resolved and that M42 was also resolvable. They invited Nichol to see the evidence for himself, which he did in 1845. The resolvability of the Orion nebula was a problem for the hypothesis, but Nichol refused to give up the nebula hypothesis and he gradually challenged the observations made. We thank Howard Carlton for a fascinating talk.

The second talk was given by Dr James Hannam titled “Dancing to the Music of the Spheres: Medieval Visions of the Heavens. Hannam’s enthusiasm for this period was evident. He announced that he was to put right to rest the misconceptions that no astronomical advances were made during the medieval period in western Europe. The ideas being formed in that period were not just a rehashing of ideas from the ancient Greeks. Important advances included the design and manufacture of the Astrolabes, although these are difficult to date a number of these were made and the design perfected in this period. The escapement and mechanical clock were also invented in the thirteen century. Astronomical tables were calculated, these were used not only for the determination of the calendar, but also for use in astrology and medical fields. Hannam went on to discuss the position of astronomy within the curriculum at universities, the earliest examples being from Oxford, Bologna and Paris. This was a wonderful introductory look at the role astronomy played in the medieval period. If interested more information can be found within his book God’s Philosophers.

During the break for lunch, we were lucky enough to be given a guided tour by Mark Hurn the Institutes librarian of the grounds and the historic Northumberland and Thorrowgood telescopes. Mark took the time to regale us with stories from the history of the scopes including the infamous search for the planet Neptune through the Northumberland scope conducted by Challis in 1846. The lunch break held a well received raffle in which a number of books and prizes were on offer.

The afternoon talks started with Dr Simon Mitton who spoke about the “History of Planetary Science – Discovering the Dynamic Planet Beneath our Feet”. This story was focused on the Earth, with many of the discoveries in this field made by geologists and Earth scientists. Simon’s fascinating talk took us on a journey of discovery with the important historic characters of this field. He spoke about the accomplishments of William Gilbert, Robert Hooke and Adam Sedgwick to name a few. It only being the latter of the 20th century that planetary science has seen significant developments. Many of the processed found on the earth are starting to be seen replicated throughout the solar system. Simon’s current research is within this field.

Following this was Dr Stewart Moore well researched and highly topical look at the life and achievements of Charles Messier. Messier was never considered an academic astronomer, which makes his achievements all the more impressive. Born in Batonvillier on the 26th June 1730, his move to Paris came with the need to search for work. He originally worked as a clerk, but had been inspired at a young age by the impressive Comet de Chéseaux in 1744. He became an astronomer working at the Paris observatory of Joseph Nicolas Delisle. He discovered 43 of the items from the Messier catalogue, along with a number of comets during his lifetime. Particularly enjoyable were all the photographs that Stewart had taken in France showing us where Messier had been born and had lived during his working life.

The afternoon break gave the attendees their final opportunity to look around the book sale that James Dawson the librarian had organised. There were a large number of books for sale, all from the field of astronomy, with many of them about the history of astronomy. This was a well received and great addition to the spring conference.

The final talk of the day was by Mark Robinson, this was a talk which looked at the life of George Henry With, mirror maker. Marks depth of knowledge in the topic shone through, with the discussion of With’s life, his mirror making abilities and friendships made within the astronomical community all discussed. We were also fortunate that Mark brought along with him many diagrams of the processes involved and an example of a George Henry With mirror. The SHA would like to thank all the speakers for their informative and extremely enjoyable talks.

It was lovely to catch up with lots of familiar faces and also to welcome 4 new members who signed up on the day. We look forward to seeing you all again at the summer picnic on the 1st July in Liverpool.



Text Courtesy: Carolyn Kennett

Pictures Courtesy: Carolyn Kennett, Mark Hurn and Len Adam.

Summer Picnic : Hanwell Castle


IMG 2The 2016 summer picnic was held on Saturday 2nd July at the Hanwell Community Observatory, just north of Banbury in Oxfordshire. Christopher and Rowena Taylor kindly hosted the society in the delightful surroundings of Hanwell Castle where the observatory is located. The picnic took place in the beautiful grounds of this 16th century castle, where Christopher and Rowena were very kind to share sparkling wine with the attendees. Thirty eight SHA attendees and members of the observatory ate their picnic in the garden, sheltering from the occasional downpour under an awning. The food and drink was followed by a guided tour to the telescopes. There are three telescopes which are located a short walk from the castle.

The Hanwell 30’’ Newtonian reflector is an impressive instrument. The 30’’ primary mirror has a focal length of 180 inches and an f/6 ratio. It is one of the largest astronomical telescopes available for public use in the UK. The Newtonian telescope has been designed and built by the community observatory with the public in mind. The John Wall refractor is a 30’’ f/12 refractor and is one of the largest refractors constructed by a single individual. John Wall designed and built this zerochromat dialyte telescope in a back garden workshop. Today it is the 5thlargest refractor in the world and the largest within the UK. The final scope we saw was the McIvor Paton scope which when operating is a 12.5’’ f/7 Newtonian refractor. The optics are kept indoors, but it can be set up and in use within a short amount of time.

After the tour Christopher gave us an excellent talk about his recent trip around the Paris observatory. The Paris observatory was founded in 1667 and it has a long and impressive history. The Paris site was once central to one of the largest astronomical institutions in the world. Images from his visit included the Meridian room, where you can see the Paris Meridian line, the interior of the remaining dome and many of the old telescopes which had been used at the site.  There is much to see here and is SHA is putting together a visit to the Paris observatory in spring 2017 where people will be able to pay a visit to this site and maybe the sister site at Meudon as well.

There is also a pdf showing more pictures taken on the day by M Leggett that can be seen by clicking the link below.

Summer Picnic Hanwell

Text and picture top left courtesy of C Kennett.

National Heritage Open Day at the BMI

On Saturday 10th September 2016, as part of the national Heritage Open Day programme, The Birmingham & Midland Institute will be opening its doors to the public and the SHA’s Library will also be open and SHA members will on hand to talk about the Society and the Library. We also hope to have some books on sale which we no longer need. For further information on the event following this link:…/the-birmingham-midlan…


Today is the 216th Birthday of William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse

William_Parsons,_3rd_Earl_of_Rosse_photoThe 3rd Earl is credited with the discovery of the spiral nature of galaxies by observing and drawing the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51), amongst others, using the giant 72 inch diameter reflector he had built in the grounds of Birr Castle, his ancestral home. Construction began in 1842 of the ‘Leviathan of Parsonstown’, as it came to be called. It was completed in 1845.

For 70 years it was the largest telescope in the world.

More information can be found at,_3rd_Earl_of_Rosse

The SHA library have several books about William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse and his telescope in the library. Please contact the librarian for further details. The email address can be found by clicking here



SHA Spring Conference : Bath 2nd April

2016 Spring Conference in Bath

Text: Carolyn Kennet

Pictures: Len Adam and James Dawson


The 2016 Spring Conference was held on Saturday 2nd April at the Royal Literary and Scientific Institute in Bath.    It was a joint meeting between the William Herschel Society and the Society for the History of Astronomy.

This was the second joint meeting we have held with the William Herschel Society and Chairman Bob Bower expressed how privileged we were to make a return to Bath, the city which William HerschBobBowerel made his home. The surroundings were magnificent especially since it was a beautifully warm spring day.  The conference was extremely well attended by both societies, with over 35 members of the SHA and about 75 people in total attending.  These included a number of guests which were warmly welcomed by both chairmen, Roger Moses from the WHS and Bob Bower from the SHA. Initial introductions for the talks were made by the respective chairmen.  Three of the five talks had a local theme in keeping with Bath and its surrounding area. The morning’s event had three talks scheduled, with two talks to follow in the afternoon. Finally, there was a reception at the William Herschel museum located a few streets away in Bath.

The talks commenced with the SHA chairman Bob Bower welcoming John Chuter, the SHA Somerset survey representative and SHA’s webmaster.  John gave a fascinating talk about the research he had conducted intoJohnChuter Somerset and astronomy for the SHA survey.  The talk ran through some of the more notable local historic astronomers these included Roger Bacon and John Pond.   Next John explained how the local records office hold a treasure trove of documentation in the form of letters to Sir John Hippisley (1804-1898).  These letters include a substantial number from William Lassell, as well as letters from Warren de la Rue, James Nasmyth and William Dawes. The letters are filled with wonderful astronomical detail as well as diagrams. John said that a trip to the Somerset records office for any Lassell fan is a must.  Places to visit in Somerset were Wells cathedral famous astronomical clock and a Somerset Spacewalk near Bridgwater.  Observatories included the Charterhouse observatory, which is home to the Wells and Mendip astronomical society and houses an 18 1/4-inch reflector by Dudley Fuller of Broadhurst Clarkson and Fuller. Finally, a visit over the border in Wiltshire to Wilton house where he discovered a modern observatory in the grounds and would love to learn more about its history and use in the past.  A fuller description of this survey can be found on the Somerset Survey webpage:

Richard Mansfield followed with an enjoyable and interesting talk about the Past, Present and Future of the Bristol Astronomical Society, of which he is current chairman.  The Bristol Astronomical Society is a long standing group that had their first meeting during world war two.   Gordon Taylor held the first membRichardMansfieldership card dated 1943.  Notable members have included William Denning and Leonard Abington Vessey.  The initial fee to be a member was 1 shilling a month.   Richard explained that they were lucky to get the patronage of Sir Bernard Lovell as their first president, although he only acted in the capacity of figurehead as he never did get to travel to any of the Society meetings. The society has strong links to the BAA holding occasional joint meetings.  In 1972 the society established its observatory, the building was opened by Patrick Moore, Steve Pine and Alan Quirk it still houses the Cyril Swindin 12 1/2 inch telescope. This site has now expanded and also houses an 18 ½ inch reflector within a roll off observatory.  Since 1992 they have also produced a magazine called Eclipse.  Professor David Southwood is the current society president. Richard went on to explain that with regular events and a strong membership attendance the Bristol Astronomical Society has a bright future.  More about the Bristol Astronomical Society can be found here:

The final talk during the morning session was from Dr Roger Moses, the William Herschel’s Society’s president.   His wonderful talk was one of recent struggles to understand more about cosmic rays.   The talk was titled ‘A thin RogerMoseshard rain from outer space: 100 years of cosmic ray astronomy’.  Roger explained about the initial discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel in 1896 and how this lead to experiments by Father Theodor Wulf who developed the gold leaf electroscope.  By 1912 Victor Hess took one of Wulf’s electroscopes onboard a hot air balloon.   These balloon trips could last hours and would reach nearly 6 kilometres and all of this was undertaken in a tweed suit and professors hat!   These experiments lead to many questions about radioactivity within Earth’s atmosphere. Roger went on to explain how in 1933 Carl Anderson discovered the first antiparticle the positron using a cloud chamber.  It would take another thirty years for scientists to reach a greater understanding of the processes these particles go through. Work at higher altitudes within the 1970’s became very expensive and there was no guarantee of success and sometimes the high altitude balloons were lost. This cost was negated by putting the experiments into the satellite Ariel 6, launched in 1979, with experiment HEAO C onboard.  Roger moved on to discuss the current understanding of cosmic rays.  He then explained that on contact with the magnetic field they create the auroral lights.  Interestingly it only takes one particle to boil a cup of coffee!  We were finally shown some amazing photographs of active galaxies from which these particles originate from such as M87.  This talk gave a fascinating insight the recent understanding of cosmic rays and we thank Roger for sharing his expertise in this subject.

After lunch Professor Francis Ring, a founding member of the William Herschel Society, its current vice Chairman, editor of WHS publication The Speculum spoke about William Herschel and his links with The Bath Philosophical Society.  It was especially gratifying to have a talk about William Herschel within historic Bath. We thank Francis for giving this fascinating insight into Bath at the time of William Herschel’s residence in the city. FrancisRingFrancis explained how Bath was a crucial melting pot for science and culture in the 18th century.  There was a large amount of buildings being built and it was forming into an elegant city.  Herschel had arrived in Bath as the organist for one of these new buildings the Octagon Chapel.  As well as this Bath had a large number of coffeehouses and tea rooms in which educated people would meet.  Francis explained this encouraged an enlightenment of ideas to occur Bath, where science could be discussed freely.  In Bath 250 year ago a philosophical group formed out of the Agricultural Society.  Twenty-seven people were invited to form this new society, which would meet twice weekly.   The founding members included famous names such as Joseph Priestley, William Smith, John Bryant, Benjamin Smith, William Falconer and William Oliver. Two other members which were crucial to Professor Ring’s talk were William Watson and William Herschel.  Francis explained how William Watson had met William Herschel in River Street in Bath.  Herschel had been observing through his 7ft telescope in the street outside his house.  From this they would form a friendship which would be very fortuitous to Herschel. Francis argued it would be the well-connected Watson who would be responsible for Herschel rapid rise in fortunes.  Unfortunately, The Bath Philosophical Society collapsed at as similar time to the departure of William Herschel from Bath.  We thank Francis for his fascinating contribution to the day’s talks.

Introduced by Bob Bower, the final talk of the day was by David Love about his DavidLoveresearch into the life of Johannes Kepler.  David Love has recently had his expertly researched book on Johannes Kepler published by Prometheus Press.  He gave an infectious talk on Kepler who was one of his heroes.  The talk started by looking at Kepler’s early life, how he had been educated in the Greek teachings of Plato and Aristotle, with the Earth at the centre of solar system.  David explained that Kepler had been introduced to Coperincism at university and he liked the idea of the heliocentric solar system, although many did not.  David moved on to his time in Graz Austria where he was a maths teacher.  It was here in Graz that Kepler came to his first two theories.  David explained how Kepler had to flee Graz in 1600 due to religious persecution.  This would actually become a common theme in his life.  He worked briefly under Tycho Brahe, until Tycho’s death in 1601.  He was then able to take on Tycho’s position as imperial mathematician to the Holy Roman Emperor. It was here that he found his first two laws of planetary motion. Up to now David explained previous theories had all used circles so Kepler’s use of an ellipse was a massive leap forward in understanding.  Kepler was now using maths to accurately predict the motion of the planets.  These laws took 5 years to reach and were published in the 1609 book Astronomica Nova.  Once again Kepler would have to move, this time to Linz, where he would spend the next 15 years. David explained that it was in Linz that he would devise his third law of planetary motion.  Kepler died in 1630, unfortunately there is no grave as this was destroyed in the 30-year war.  David explained that Kepler’s greatest legacy was that he used mathematical concepts to accurately predict the location and motion of objects in the night sky.  David Love’s book is called Kepler and the Universe: How one man revolutionized astronomy.

ThAllanChapmanere were a large number of questions from the audience of which David and Allan Chapman were generous enough to give full and clear answers to. This part of the conference ended with the chairman thanking all five speakers for their enjoyable contributions to the day’s events.   Also thanked were Mike Leggett and his wife Pat who had worked tirelessly to get this event off the ground and for their work on the day welcoming members and guests alike.  The meeting was closed and excited delegates were invited to make a short trip to the local Herschel Museum.


The museum is located at 19 New King Street in Bath and was the lounnamed (3)cation of the discovery of Uranus by William Herschel on the 13th March 1781.  The museum houses three floors of exhibitions relating to William unnamed (8)and Caroline Herschel.  Particularly fascinating is the workroom.   It contained a number of objects including the smelting oven and the famous cracked flagstone floor.  On hand during our visit were a number of museum staff who were happy to answer any questions we had about the Herschel’s. The visit to the museum and the reception that followed was a perfect way in which to complete a fascinating day in Bath.

Posted by John Chuter