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Getting started in the history of astronomy

I’m sure many of the readers of this tutorial are dedicated observers. But what can you do when the weather is cloudy, or raining, or snowing, or cloudy (again)?

Or put it another way. On a cold, wet day, where would you sooner be? Outside, shivering, at the eye of a telescope? Or in a nice warm library, snuggled up with a book?

Yes, I know. Most of you would prefer observing. But let me try again. Have you ever wondered about your fellow observers from time past; the people you look up to; the pioneers of your discipline? Do you know their stories? How they came to study the same objects as you; what difficulties they had to overcome; what tales they had to tell.

 Participants at the unveiling of the plaque to Rev Dr William Pearson, co-founder of the Royal Astronomical Society, 2020 Jan 16th at South Kilworth Leics (image courtesy Leicestershire County Council)

I am an observer like the rest of you – many of you will have bumped into me on eclipse trips, or observing aurorae or meteors around the world. I even have a Master’s degree in astronomy from Sussex University. But these days my main area of research is into the history of the subject. In this guide I’d like to show you how easy it is to research the history of our wonderful subject, and how rewarding this research can be.

I can vividly remember how it was that I came to take up historical research. It was 1985, just after I had graduated, and I had just started a job “in the real world”, and joined my local astronomy society, Coventry & Warwickshire AS. Halley’s Comet was about to return, and to celebrate, my society had invited Dr Allan Chapman of Oxford University to speak on Edmond Halley.

I was captivated. Allan’s talk effectively brought Halley off the pages of the history books and to life as an engaging human being – a convivial soul who once pushed Peter the Great through a hedge in a wheelbarrow (both were drunk). I realized two things – first, how rich and deep the history of our subject is; and second, that here was an aspect of our subject where I could continue to do research, without the need for world-class telescopes or supercomputers.

Initially my researches concentrated on subjects that I had already studied – the development of understanding of the law of gravity, for example. I also developed an interest in sky phenomena - rainbows, glories, parhelia, setting sun phenomena – where there is a rich and rewarding history, mixing fascinating mythology and outrageous legends with accessible and interesting physics. But whilst this led to a series of popular lectures which I have given to astronomical societies around the country, I wasn’t doing very much original research.

The next step in my commitment to astronomical history occurred in 1997, when one of my friends in Coventry asked how much I knew about the life of Sir Norman Lockyer. I was aware that Lockyer was a solar astronomer who had discovered helium in the Sun’s spectrum. I was surprised to discover that he had been born in Rugby, where I live, and astonished to find out that I had been walking past his birthplace for twelve years, without ever noticing the plaque on the wall commemorating him.

I resolved to find out more about him. Lockyer is well-known for his solar work; and as the founder of the journal Nature; for his pioneering researches into archaeo-astronomy, and for the observatories he founded, in central London (now the site of Imperial College) and in Sidmouth (still thriving). There are two biographies of Lockyer; one published after his death by his family, another more recent by Jack Meadows of Leicester University. Yet neither covers Lockyer’s early life in Warwickshire in any detail.

Over the next few years I worked quite closely with friends from Rugby local history research group to find out more about Lockyer’s childhood, school days, and early adulthood. The result was a paper on “J.Norman Lockyer – the early years” which appeared in “The Antiquarian Astronomer”, the journal of the Society for the History of Astronomy. I became a founder member of the SHA when it was formed in 2002, and they have been an invaluable support to my researches.

When researching local figures, there are an impressive number of resources which can be utilized. Local libraries are invaluable; for example to consult newspapers or directories for years gone by. For example, Lockyer moved in with an uncle in Kenilworth when his mother died, and I was able to find out his uncle’s address and the school Lockyer attended from a contemporary directory. Local history groups are also well worth getting in with – quite often they will have the facts, but not the technical skills to interpret them (a local historian will probably be aware that your subject was interested in astronomy, but may not understand what he studied or what instruments she used).

Another vital resource is the city and county archives, who will often have civic or family collections dating back centuries. For example, the Warwickshire county archives, at Priory Park, Warwick, have been of great use to me over the years. Curiously, in the case of Lockyer the county archives were not very helpful; they held one letter signed by him, apologizing for being unable to attend a speaking engagement. That day, instead of leaving in disgust, I looked up “astronomy” in the card index, and within minutes came across a chart entitled “The Sun’s eclipse, delineated for Coventry, Feb 18 1736-37”, prepared by Henry Beighton FRS. Finding out about Beighton, a polymath who played a vital role in the development of the Warwickshire coalfields, has been an ongoing project ever since.

A stained-glass-window in St Michael's Church Much Hoole, Lancashire, commemorates Jeremiah Horrocks and his observation of the 1639 transit of Venus (image by Mike Frost)This illustrates one of the delights of historical research – the serendipitous discoveries which often seem to drop into the researcher’s lap. Around the time of the 2004 transit of Venus, I was engaged in research into transits past, which resulted in an article called “Transit Tales” which appeared in the Journal in 2004. One of my transit tales was about Jeremiah Horrocks, the first observer of a transit in 1639. Once again, Horrocks has been the subject of much research, and is the subject of a very readable biography by Peter Aughton; I have uncovered one or two snippets about his life, but nothing very much new., who will often have civic or family collections dating back centuries. 

On the other hand, there is still much to be found out about his contemporaries. A single line from Horrocks’s biography set me off on another detective story. In the letter he wrote to William Crabtree in Manchester, alerting him to the possibility of a transit, Horrocks wrote ‘If this letter should arrive sufficiently early, I beg you will apprise Mr. Foster of the conjunction [Transit of Venus], as, in doing so, I am sure you would afford him the greatest pleasure’. Who was “Mr. Foster”? I found out easily that he was Samuel Foster, Gresham Professor of Astronomy in London. To my complete surprise I found out that Foster was from Coventry, on my doorstep, and that in 1638 he had observed from Coventry with his friends John Palmer and John Twysden. 

All three were accomplished observers who left behind detailed records of their observations, and finding out about their lives in the Midlands and beyond has been a continued source of satisfaction to me ever since.

Foster Road, Radford, Coventry, was named for Samuel Foster, Gresham Professor of Astronomy in the 17th century, who observed from the area in the 1630s (image by Mike Frost)

Once you become known as an astronomical historian, new lines of enquiry sometimes arrive from nowhere. One day in 2005, a friend at work informed me that some friends of his were converting an old observatory into a house. Was I interested in finding out more? Of course, I was, and before long I was finding out about Revd Doctor William Pearson, co-founder of the Royal Astronomical Society, whose portrait hangs in Burlington House. Pearson spent many decades observing from two observatories in South Kilworth, Leicestershire, where he was the Rector. The owners of the two houses he observed from were more than happy for me to add interest to the histories of their dwellings, by detailing the life and achievements of the Rector of South Kilworth. Fifteen years of research into Pearson came to a glorious culmination on Jan 16th 2020, four days after the 200th birthday of the RAS, when we unveiled a plaque to Pearson in South Kilworth.

What I would like to convey to you is what an extraordinarily rich astronomical heritage surrounds us in Britain. All the astronomers I have told you about so far (with the exception of Jeremiah Horrocks) lived or were active within 15 miles of my home. And I know of perhaps half-a-dozen other astronomers within that radius, who I have simply not had time to investigate.

Close up of the Pearson plaque (image courtesy Leicestershire County Council)

Something else I hope to get across to you is the connectivity of astronomical history. Astronomers interact with each other, and the studies of these interactions can be immensely fruitful. Foster and his circle, for example, were observing during the course of the English civil war. Which side were they on? John Twysden came from a Royalist family, but ended up with living with parliamentarian in-laws in Northamptonshire. What did they talk about over breakfast? Even non-interaction offers clues. In the course of my researches into Samuel Foster I came across another Coventry astronomer, called Nathaniel Nye, who lived at the same time and in the same location as Foster, yet never mentioned or was mentioned by Foster or his friends. And yet Nathaniel Nye, in 1642, claimed, in an almanac for the city of Birmicham [Birmingham], to have seen the 1639 transit of Venus. I don’t believe him (his account is inaccurate, incomplete and garbled) and I suspect he had come across Horrocks’s unpublished account and was trying to pass it off as his own. But how did he find out? And was Nye’s distance from Foster connected to his career as a gunner in the civil war? I started off by studying astronomy but was rapidly drawn into the tumultuous politics of the age.

Looking back on what I’ve written so far, I realise that my attempts to explain how to study astronomical history have a very personal slant to them. But I think this is one of the attractions of the subject. You do get a close connection to “your astronomers”. That’s not to say they weren’t flawed human beings like the rest of us – Lockyer was famously cantankerous and argumentative; Pearson had a splendid row with (of all people) William Wordsworth, over a boathouse Pearson owned on Grasmere.  But when for example John Palmer, rector of Ecton, Northamptonshire, tells us that he observed the deep partial solar eclipse of 1652 “in the company of ministers and friends”, I can’t help wishing I had been observing with him. And who would not have wanted to join the party, which included Palmer, John Wilkins and Robert Hooke, when in 1654 they visited St Paul’s cathedral, hung a 14 lb weight onto a 200ft rope attached to the roof, and timed the oscillations of the pendulum. [In my original article, I said that the rope was attached to the dome – the eagle-eyed Lisa Budd then pointed out that, before the great fire of London, St Paul’s had a spire, not a dome.]

So I would absolutely commend to you the study of astronomical history. Here are some hints as to how to go about doing it:

  • Mike Frost (3rd from right) with the speakers from the 2014 Historical Section meeting, York. (L to R - Dr Emily Winterburn, David Sellers, Gerard Gilligan, Mike Frost, Mike Maunder, Prof Tom McLeish - image courtesy Lee Macdonald)Pick a subject that interests you – some people might go for astronomers in their field of interest.
  • Pick a subject convenient for you to study
  • Lesser-known characters can often be more rewarding than well-known figures
  • Be prepared for your research to head off in unexpected directions

The resources available to you are many:

  • Local libraries
  • City and county archives
  • University libraries
  • Specialist collections
  • The RAS library and BAA book collections
  • Online resources

People who can help you:

  • The BAA Historical Section (of course!)
  • The Society for the History of Astronomy
  • Local history groups
  • A number of universities offer remote study courses in the history of astronomy. I took the University of Central Lancashire’s “Great Astronomers of History” course and can recommend it.

And finally – if you do find out something interesting, share it! A paper in the Journal will secure the record of your researches for the benefit of the current BAA membership and for future generations. Even the smallest of snippets can be presented to the historical section membership through its bi-annual newsletter (contact me through the historical section website if you would like to be added to the mailing list). And we are always on the lookout for interesting and engaged speakers for our annual section meetings (as are the SHA).

Good luck with your studies. I look forward to hearing from you!

 Mike Frost, Historical Section Director

This tutorial originally appeared in the Observing Basics series in the BAA Journal in 2013

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