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