2019 – Newbury Meeting

The 2019 Historical Section meeting was held at the Newbury Mencap Centre, the meeting place of Newbury Astronomical Society, whose members were excellent hosts for our event on 8 June. The meeting was chaired by the Deputy Historical Section Director, Dr Lee Macdonald, who explained that Director Mike Frost had to be in the United States for work reasons.

Our speakers:

Dr Stuart Eves – William Herschel and the Rings of Uranus

In the first talk of the day, Dr Stuart Eves described how in a paper presented to the Royal Society in 1798, he claimed to have discovered several additional moons orbiting Uranus, which have since been shown not to exist. He also claimed to have seen, both in 1789 and 1792, a ring around the planet, thus anticipating the eventual discovery of the rings of Uranus by nearly two centuries. Given the faintness of the rings, a visual observation of them might seem improbable, but Stuart presented compelling evidence that Herschel’s observations cannot simply be ruled out. For example, modern observations have shown that the density and distribution of material in the rings has changed even since the Voyager 2 flyby of the planet in 1986, suggesting that the rings, or parts of them, might have been bright enough to be seen visually when Herschel reported his observations.

Eddie Carpenter – The History of Visual Aids in Astronomy since 1800

Eddie Carpenter gave a live demonstration of a magic lantern that he had found in a junk shop thirty-five years earlier. The magic lantern was an early form of slide projector that projected glass slides and was used in the nineteenth century by itinerant astronomy lecturers demonstrating the appearance and movements of celestial objects to public audiences. Eddie showed lantern slides of early planetary photographs, before taking us back earlier in the nineteenth century to demonstrate mechanical slides. These showed hand-painted images on glass and could be wound to demonstrate phenomena such as eclipses and the movements of planets in their orbits.

Bill Barton – Mandolins and Meteors

In this intriguingly-titled talk, Bill Barton presented the life story of Fiammetta Wilson, a leading light in the early decades of the BAA and one of the first women to be elected Fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1916. In her youth she trained as a musician, and she later taught the mandolin at the Guildhall School of Music in London. She joined the BAA in 1910 and became particularly well known for her observations of meteors. Her observations of meteors at the same time as other observers allowed the meteors’ true paths to be calculated using trigonometry. Along with Alice Grace Cook, Fiammetta Wilson ran the BAA Meteor Section during the last half of the First World War. She also served on the BAA Council from 1916 to 1918 and again from 1919 to 1920.

Sian Prosser – Researching astronomical history at the RAS Library and beyond

Dr Sian Prosser, Librarian of the Royal Astronomical Society, gave a practical talk on resources available to the researcher in the history of astronomy. The RAS has had a library ever since it was founded in 1820. Today, the library at Burlington House has some 25,000 bound volumes and more than 1,000 boxes of archival material. The library’s early printed book collection contains 4,300 books published before 1900. Sian described the library’s web pages, which include useful links to obituaries of past Fellows. She also talked about other online resources for the researcher in astronomical history – including a guide to the newly-revamped Astrophysics Data System (ADS), a treasure trove of literature from past issues of publications such as the BAA Journal.

Bob Mizon – The History of the Dark Sky Movement

In the last talk of the day, Bob Mizon spoke about how increasing concerns about the spread of light pollution in the 1980s led to the founding of the US-based International Dark Sky Association (IDA) in 1988 and then the BAA’s Commission (until recently Campaign) for Dark Skies the following year. Bob spoke about the dark sky movement’s many achievements, not least instilling an awareness of light pollution issues among the non-astronomical public. Much, however, remains to be done. For example, there is still no law in the United Kingdom specifically to protect the night sky.

Lee Macdonald thanked all the speakers for five great talks. He also thanked the members of the Newbury Astronomical Society, whose help with running the meeting made it such a success. In particular, he thanked Newbury AS member Nicky Fleet for her wonderful job of catering, including a fine buffet lunch.

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