History Of The BAA Historical Section

The British Astronomical Association was founded in 1890 and from the start was organised into observing sections. However the foundation of a Historical Section had to wait 40 years.

“This section was initiated in 1930, at the suggestion of W.Alfred Parr, who was then librarian and had observed that the library contained many historical works… Mrs John Evershed was appointed Director, and at the March meeting of 1930 she spoke briefly on the aims of the section, namely, to study the history of astronomy and to co-operate in research. She suggested a systematic course of reading, and some simple ways of helping research workers and fellow students, and of interesting members in general. Fourteen members were enrolled in the first year.”
     from “The British Astronomical Association – the First Fifty Years”

The first director, Mary Acworth Evershed, a solar astronomer, was the wife of John Evershed, director of the Kodaikanal Observatory in India between 1906 and 1923. They met on the 1896 BAA expedition to a total solar eclipse in Norway. As well as being a capable solar observer, Mary Evershed was also an authority on Dante Alighieri, publishing a book on “Dante and the Early Astronomers”. She compiled the BAA’s memoir on “Who’s Who in the Moon”, which gives brief biographies of all the historical characters who lunar craters are named after.

Perhaps the finest period in the section’s early years occurred after the second world war, under the stewardship of Howard Kelly and Colin Ronan, and prompted by anniversaries such as the hundredth anniversary of the discovery of Neptune, in 1946. Colin Ronan championed the radical theories of Alexander Thom on megalithic astronomy, and a paper in the BAA Journal helped to popularise Thom’s ideas.

There has been a long tradition of historical research by BAA members. Papers on historical subjects regularly appear in the BAA Journal. However, unlike in other BAA sections, there have been few organised research programs. In 1971, it was decided that the job of the Historical Section director should be as a consultant rather than as a director of research. However the current section director and his deputy would be delighted to suggest programs of research, and offer mentoring. We’d also commend our sister organisation, the Society for the History of Astronomy, who have a long-term program to map the historical geography of British astronomy.

As far as we know, the BAA Historical Section had never held a formal section meeting until November 2010, when we held a very successful conference with the theme of “Twentieth-Century Astronomy” at the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge.  A second section meeting followed on Saturday May 5th 2012, at Soho House, Birmingham, and we have held a meeting every year since. Please come and join us for the next meeting!

Mike Frost, Director

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