2012 – Astronomy in the Industrial Age

Soho House, Handsworth, Birmingham
Soho House, Handsworth, Birmingham
Our second section meeting took place on Saturday May 5th 2012, at  Soho House, Handsworth, Birmingham the home of the industrialist Matthew Boulton, who you can see on the fifty pound note. Boulton lived there between 1766 and 1809. It was the meeting place of the Lunar Society, who met each month on the night of the full moon (so that they could see their way back into Birmingham after the meeting). Other members of the Lunar Society included James Watt (also on the note), Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley and Josiah Wedgwood.

The meeting had a theme of “Astronomy in the Industrial Age (1700-1900)” and we had a stellar line-up of speakers.

In the morning session there were two talks:

  • Mike Maunder spoke about “The Early Days of Astrophotography”, which needed a few “enabling technologies”, not just in the chemistry. An overlooked aspect lay in the optics, and, perhaps, in the engineering. Mike introduced us to a number of little-known characters, including Nicephore Niepce and Mary Rosse.
  • We met in the Goodison Room.
    We met in the Goodison Room.
    Mike Leggett then spoke on “Bryan Donkin, FRS: Engineer, Industrialist and Astronomer”. Beginning with a brief outline of the life and work of Bryan Donkin FRS, the presentation then focused on aspects of Donkin’s life and work of astronomical significance, including his involvement with the Royal Astronomical Society during its early years and his interests as an amateur astronomer.

During the lunch break, attendees could tour Soho House, or take lunch at the Black Eagle pub.

  • After lunch, Kevin Kilburn spoke on “The Forgotten Star Atlas: Bevis’s Uranographia Britannica, c. 1750”. In or around 1746, Dr John Bevis FRS, London medical practitioner and amateur astronomer, aimed to publish the finest, British, star atlas, Uranographia Britannica. In collaboration with his publisher and financier, James Neale, things went according to plan until in late 1750 Neale was declared bankrupt and the project ended abruptly. In November 1997 a copy of Bevis’s unpublished atlas was discovered in Manchester. It was then the 16th to have been identified, and initiated an ongoing search for other examples. There are now, in January 2012, still only 29 identified atlases, making this perhaps the rarest of the classical ‘great’ star atlases.
  • Our keynote speaker, Dr Allan Chapman, in full flow (picture courtesy Adrian Orr)
    Our keynote speaker, Dr Allan Chapman, in full flow (picture courtesy Adrian Orr)
    Stuart Williams then told us about  “William Henry Robinson: From Red Books to the Red Planet”. William Henry Robinson (1847-1926) of Walsall, Staffordshire, was a publisher, writer, editor, businessman and amateur astronomer. A prominent populariser of science and particularly astronomy, he was the power behind Walsall Literary Institute, a mighty cultural and scientific group with over 1,000 members at its peak, and was instrumental in setting up the BAA Midland Branch. 
  • Our keynote speaker was Dr Allan Chapman on “James Nasmyth: Astronomer of Fire”. Engineer James Nasmyth is best known as the inventor of the steam hammer. But he was also an eminent astronomer in the Victorian ‘grand amateur’ tradition and a pioneer of large reflecting telescopes. His Nasmyth optical design is still used on large telescopes today, notably the 4.2-metre William Herschel Telescope on La Palma.

We had a number of exhibitors:

John Armitage and Joe Jaworski brought a Cooke refractor, various instruments from the Wrottesley Observatory, and a beautiful facsimile of the Uranographica Brittanica, as featured in Kevin Kilburn’s talk.

Bill Barton brought two dipleidoscopes by Dent of London and their introductory guide; an illustrated list of telescopes and observatories by Ransomes of Ipswich; a scanned copy of G.B.Airy’s account of the Northumberland Reflector, and a scanned copy of John Weale’s Observatories of London and Vicinity from the late Ken Goward.

Heather Harris displayed samples of astronomical needlework, including a “Bayeux Tapestry”, and a star chart.

Wayne Orchiston from James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland contributed a  poster display on “Captain Cook’s Sojourn at  Nootka Sound in 1778”, and Ann Davies and David Boyd brought the BAA display stand.

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