Scanning old comet photos, films and plates

The Comet Section physical archive contains a very large number of photographic prints and slides dating back to the 1950s, some of which haven’t seen the light of day for 50 years or more. To this collection we have recently added a large number of glass plates and films from observers such as Reggie Waterfield, Harold Ridley and Mike Hendrie some of which date back to the 1930s. One of my objectives as Director is to get this material scanned and added to our huge archive of comet images.

Martin Mobberley has been doing a fantastic job scanning prints and many of these are now in the archive. We now have a wonderful array of historic images online. A good place to start is the page for C/1956 R1 (Arend-Roland). Large-scale photography in those days was very different to now and it is instructive to see how impressive the results were.

Scanning plates and films is more difficult than prints and so getting these into the archive is more of a challenge. It will be worth it though. The attached pictures show an example of one plate, photographed on a light-table using a mobile phone, of C/1969 Y1 (Bennett). This plate was taken by Mike Hendrie on 1970 April 7.2 from Waterfield’s observatory near Yeovil, Somerset using a 0.15m, f/4.5 Cooke triplet OG. We have a box of 11 large-format plates exposed between 1970 April 1 and May 4 all of which show spectacular views of this comet. Looking at these plates with a high power loupe I am in awe of the skills of the observers of those days. The focussing and offset guiding are perfect.

Bennett was a particularly nice comet but there are many more examples in the boxes. The plates are currently stored at Denis Buczynski’s observatory in Highland Scotland and scans will gradually be added to the archive over the coming year.

The BAA probably has one of the best collections of historic comet photographic material in the world and I am proud that much of this will go online over the next year or so. Many thanks to Martin and Denis who have been key in getting this project moving. There is still a long way to go but I hope you enjoy the efforts so far.

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