Thomas Hughes Buffham – Uranus pioneer
2017 July 21
Thomas Hughes Buffham was born at Long Sutton in Lincolnshire on 1840 December 24. At the age of 16 he became a clerk to a business in Earith, Huntingdonshire, where he acquired an interest in astronomy as a result of his membership of the local Philosophical Society. A member of the Baptist church, he taught regularly at the local Chapel Sunday School and became a respected member of the local community. In 1864, at St Ives in Cambridgeshire, he married Caroline Walden (originally from Stepney in London). They set up home at a house in Main Street, Earith, where their two daughters Caroline and Alice were born in 1867 and 1869 respectively.
From this domestic setting in Earith Buffham submitted his twelfth ‘correspondence’, dated 1869 May 1, to the Editor of the Astronomical Register. Entitled ‘Reflectors and Refractors’, this was a very thorough like-for-like comparison of the two types of instrument. The contents of this study show that at the age of twenty-eight Buffham was an experienced and well-informed amateur astronomer, and his work was significant enough to be referenced by the Revd T.W. Webb as a footnote in Part I of his book Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes. Buffham’s main observing instrument at this time (and throughout his short life) was, as he describes, ‘a silvered-glass ‘With-Browning’ alt-azimuth Newtonian of 9 inches clear aperture and 77 inches focus’ (228mm, f8.5).
At Earith, in 1870 January, Buffham embarked on a series of observations of Uranus that were concluded in 1872 (Figure 1), and the results published in the MNRAS in 1873 under the title ‘Markings observed on Uranus’. From the publication of these observations onward, doubts have arisen about the observability of features on Uranus. Webb commented ‘Buffham (1870-’71) considered that he had succeeded in detecting… white spots’. A hundred years later A.F.O’D. Alexander (Director of the BAA Saturn Section 1946-1951), in The Planet Uranus, states that Buffham’s observations were ‘probably the first in which fairly definite disk features seem to have been repeatedly seen’.
Webb’s use of the word ‘considered’ and Alexander’s ‘seem’ represent an ambivalence towards the subject that has been repeated in a succession of popular astronomy books published over the last hundred years. Even such open-minded writers as J.B. Sidgwick have said ‘Uranus is easily enough located… It offers no scope for amateur work’ and Patrick Moore, ‘Even large telescopes will show virtually nothing on Uranus’ pale disk. In 1992 I had the chance to observe it with the 60-inch reflector at Palomar… and to me the planet was completely blank. I am unhappy about ‘details’ shown on drawings made by observers with much smaller instruments. Uranus is a very bland world…’ And the pictures from Voyager 2 seemed conclusive – Moore added, Uranus was ‘depressingly featureless’. (continued…)
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