Astronomy at Radley

Transits of Venus

The transit of Venus occurs when the orbit of the planet Venus takes it between the Earth and the Sun. Transits cannot be seen with the naked eye; only the invention of the telescope in 1608 made it possible for us to see the transit of Venus, and then only on seven occasions in the last four hundred years. Transits recur in pairs eight years apart at intervals of 130.5 and 113.5 years, and are only possible during early December and early June. Their occurrence was first predicted by Johannes Kepler in a series of tables published in 1623, jointly credited to himself and his teacher, Tycho Brahe. Kepler’s tables predicted that transits would occur in December in 1631 and 1639, in June in 1761 and 1769, in December in 1874 and 1882, and in June in 2004 and 6 June 2012.  The next transits of Venus will be on 11 December 2117 and 8 December 2125.

Tycho Brahe was a follower of Nikolaus Copernicus and instrumental in proving Copernicus’ mathematical theory of the heliocentric solar system.  Kepler, Brahe’s student, introduced the theory of the elliptical, rather than circular, orbit of the planets. Their observations on planetary orbits and the associated mathematics, enabled Kepler to calculate that a transit of Venus would occur on 6 December, 1631. Kepler died in 1630, and there is no record of anyone seeing the 1631 event. Using Kepler’s tables, Jeremiah Horrocks, a young English astronomer discovered (just a month earlier) that a transit of Venus would occur on 24 November, 1639. Horrocks observed part of the transit from his home at Much Hoole, near Preston, Lancashire. His friend William Crabtree also saw it from Manchester, having been alerted by Horrocks. As far as is known, they were the only people to witness the transit. Tragically, Horrocks’s promising scientific career was cut short when he died in 1641, aged about 22.

Accurate mapping based on astronomical observation was vital for accurate navigation, itself vital to the global expansion of the European empires in the eighteenth century. The astronomer Edmund Halley realised that observations of transits of Venus could be used to determine the distance between the Earth and the Sun, which would allow for much more accurate mapping of the Earth. The method involves observing and timing a transit from widely spaced latitudes, which show small differences in Venus’s track across the Sun. Halley died in 1742, but the transits of 1761 and 1769 were observed by government-sponsored expeditions based in many places around the world – the farthest-reaching being James Cook’s voyage to Tahiti in 1769. However, results on the Sun–Earth distance were disappointingly inaccurate, as the observations were plagued by many technical difficulties.
Nevertheless, optimistic astronomers tried again with the 1874 transit a century later. Unfortunately, the results were again disappointing. Even so, there was enormous public interest in the 1882 transit, and it was mentioned on the front pages of most newspapers.

In America:

‘Elaborate preparations are being made in various parts of America to observe the transit of Venus next Wednesday.  The Western Union Telegraph, to facilitate observations, has arranged to transmit Washington time, wherever desired, in order to secure accuracy in recording results.  Some enthusiastic astronomers propose general prayer in the churches on Sunday next for clear weather.’

In London:

‘The President of the Royal Society, Mr W Spottiswoode, DCL, LLD … gave the following account of the arrangements made for observing the approaching transit of Venus: – … the parties have now all started for their stations … an adequate supply of instruments has been secured at moderate cost …’ The Times, Saturday, December 2, 1882

And on the day itself?  In America:

‘Special observations were made at the Observatory of the Central High School of Philadelphia by Professors Snyder and Ritter … All four contacts were observed … The planet was seen off the disc at first, and in the fourth with a ring of light frequently visible…’.  The Times, Thursday December 7, 1882

In London it was cloudy.  It Newcastle it was cloudy. In Norwich the sun shone brilliantly till 2.15 when it became hopelessly obscured.  At the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford:

‘Mr E.J. Stone had made considerable preparations for observation, but the sun was only visible for about five seconds, when the planet was seen on the solar disc, well separated from the limb.’ The Times Thursday, December 7, 1882

And at Radley?  In 1874, the transit of Venus was celebrated with a lecture given by the maths master, James Magnus Johnson, on 25th January, 1875.  James Johnson arrived at Radley, newly graduated from St John’s College, Cambridge, in 1873.  He left in 1877 to teach at Haileybury, and afterwards at Fettes. He died in 1882.  There is no further record of his lecture other than a belated notice that it was ‘interesting.’ Nor is there any indication that the transit in 1882 was observed or remarked upon. However, Johnson’s successor as maths master at Radley was Rev. John Henry Kirkby, graduate of University College, Oxford, a keen amateur astronomer. It seems highly unlikely that so enthusiastic a scientist as John Kirkby would have allowed such a widely advertised event to pass him, or his pupils, without notice.  However, there is no surviving record of astronomy at Radley in 1882. Possibly, the clouds that frustrated Mr Stone in Oxford extended across Radley’s sky five miles away as well. It is also possible that John Kirkby and his pupils were on hand in the Radcliffe Observatory and shared in the excitement of those fleeting five seconds.

Astronomy at Radley

Astronomy is a romantic subject.  It involves advanced mathematics, yet is an empirical science based on extensive and accurate observation and recording.  It is embraced worldwide by amateurs, who regularly contribute to learned publications.  It may be the only remaining science which has room for both scholar and amateur, and treats the work of both with equal respect.  It has rarely been a formal part of the school curriculum, yet the idea of it is integral to schools in fantasy literature – remember that Hogwarts has an Astronomy Tower, and that Prince Caspian learns the truth about himself under the pretense of studying the conjunction of two stars – only possible in the romantic world of boarding school education or a private tutor.  It was integral to the ideal school created at Radley by Sewell and Singleton in 1847:

Mr Henry Sewell came to spend tomorrow here. Told us that for £40 we could get a fine telescope, which belonged to Dalton the philosopher, and which is said to have cost £200. I believe an effort is to be made somehow or other to get possession of it, though where so large an affair can be put I know not.Singleton’s diary entry, 23rd September, 1848.

This was the telescope formerly owned by John Dalton, the chemist, whose primary contribution to science was the theory of atomic weights. It is unclear whether the telescope was actually bought, but it is not listed in the inventories of the College’s goods drawn up in 1856 and 1862. However, there was certainly continuing interest in astronomy.  Edwin Monk, the first Precentor and one of the original four fellows of Radley, was described as one who ‘took a deep interest in astronomy’, in his obituary in The Radleian in 1900; whilst Gaudy in 1859 included an ‘astronomy lecture on the terrace’, as described in William Wood’s diary.
In 1884 one of the longest-running and most influential of the academic societies was founded at Radley: the Natural History Society. It was inaugurated at a mass meeting of the school, presided over by the Warden, Robert Wilson.  Wilson’s main achievement as Warden at Radley was to modernise the curriculum by making Science a serious subject.  Two teachers were appointed specifically as Science masters, John Leighton in 1882 and James Hichens in 1883; the laboratory was re-fitted; and scientific equipment was bought. The level of their success may be gauged by the fact that of sixteen University Scholarships and Exhibitions gained during Wilson’s eight years as Warden, five were for Science. The Natural History Society was a visible stimulus to promote and support this modernising with an active and vibrant extra-curricular academic society.  Its mantra was a quotation from Ruskin:

‘If, as Mr Ruskin is never tired of aserting, the object of our education is to teach people how to see, and not how to say, a Society, the chief object of which is intelligent seeing, whose lessons are all ‘object lessons’, must be desirable.’ The Radleian, 1884

James Hichens was appointed curator of an incipient museum and President of the Entomological, Geological and Ornithological sections; John Kirkby was initially President of the Meteorological Section, but at the second meeting of the Society, he gave paper on the history of astronomy, and the Astronomical Section was born. In April 1884, the minutes record:

‘The Astronomical Section has held two meetings at the second of which certain facts with regard to our yearly progress round the sun were explained and illustrated by diagrams. Besides these two regular and well-attended meetings, several smaller parties have been out on fine nights for the purpose of noting planets and constellations visible at this time of the year.’

‘Mr Kirkby proposed that a portion of the Natural History money should be devoted to a new telescope; this was unanimously agreed to by the members who were present.’ Radley College NHS minutes book.

The Radleian records what they saw:

‘Beginning at the west the zodiacal light might be observed as soon as it was dark. This year its effect was rather diminished by the brightness of Venus whose size and brilliancy must have dazzled every one. A little further towards the south Saturn might be seen between the Pleiades and Hyades. Still further on the brightness of Jupiter was unmistakable, and close to him might be seen the orange light of Mars.’

In May 1884, they were again outside ‘for practical instruction in the constellations.’ But it likely that these observations were all done by eye, or with an inadequate or antiquated telescope, since the NHS minutes of Summer Term 1888 record:
By 1889, lectures on astronomy were being given to the Society by boys: Ernest Stanier spoke on the solar system and ‘went on to explain La Place’s Nebular Theory.’ Also in 1889 the problem of equipment was solved: Rev. H.E. Lowe ‘the well-known astronomer’ of Wilmncote near Stratford-on-Avon:

‘… has presented us with an excellent four-inch telescope, with all necessary appliances for its use, as well as with a spectroscope.  These instruments, which are really of considerable value, will soon be in their places; and when the clear winter nights invite us to gaze at the stars and learn their secrets under the guidance of Mr Kirkby, we must not be unmindful of the debt of gratitude which is due to our kind and generous friend, who has provided us with so admirable an equipment for the study of the wonders of God’s heaven.’ The Radleian, October 15, 1889

‘Where so large an affair can be put I know not’ – the Observatory at Radley

Back in 1847, Singleton had been concerned that Dalton’s telescope would need a home.  Forty-two years later, Lowe’s gift also needed permanent installation in a place where it could be stable, relatively secure, and which would enable accurate observations to be made from a fixed point.  A new building now arrived on the Radley scene:

‘What is the meaning of the humble and unpretending building (to use no harsher expression) which has just sprung up near the cricket pavilion?  Many will have asked this question.  It is the new Observatory, and is intended to contain a very handsome and costly gift. [The telescope and spectroscope.]’ The Radleian, October 15, 1889

The humble and unpretentious building was to have a relatively long-life at Radley.  It is commemorated today in the shape of the New Pavilion, built in the 2000s, which is circular not only because it is the best shape for viewing the pitches, but to honour the memory of the observatory, which stood on that location from 1889 until the 1920s.  It was bought for £8, and its construction caused some confusion at Radley.  For much of its life it was described as ‘a hut’, and as ‘a hut’ it suffered from decay, from vandalism, and from ignorance of its original function. But it is clear that it was bought specifically as an observatory, and must have working parts which enabled it to revolve in some way so that the mounted telescope could track a star across the heavens whilst remaining fixed in place.  The spectroscope allowed the spectrum of individual stars to be recorded, including some photography, and required assured darkness for the viewer.  The observatory was bought from an unidentified man in Birmingham.  ‘Portable’  observatories for both professional and amateur astronomers had been in development since the 1860s.  The Royal Observatory at Greenwich had developed observatories based on tents covering a revolving wooden platform to study the transit of Venus in 1874, whilst in 1890 the Romsey observatory, based on a design developed in 1863 by Edward Berthon, was a wooden structure with a rotating canvas dome.

1874 Observatory in Greenwich Park - Copyright National Maritime Museum

1874 Observatory in Greenwich Park – Copyright National Maritime Museum

Romsey observatory design. Historical artwork of the ‘Romsey’ observatory at Austwick Hall, Yorkshire, UK. This design was developed around 1863 by the Reverend Edward Lyon Berthon (1813-1899), of Romsey, Hampshire,

It is very probable that Radley’s observatory was similar to these.  Sadly, no photographs survive, but a poem published in the Radleian in November 1889 gives an impression of it:

‘All nature was hushed in slumber,
And on that November night,
I noticed Orion was shining
With wonderful brightness of light.

For lo! From a little portal,
Dark figures began to pour,
And one taller shape came after,
Then turned and locked the door.

On, on to an open meadow,
As flat as College beer,
Till to a little round hovel,
The darksome troop drew near.

Lo(we)! What is that black funnel?
Egad! Sir, it’s turning round!
And overcome with a feeling of terror,
I fell senseless to the ground.’  The Radleian November 15, 1889

The Astronomical Section flourished as the most active part of the Natural History Society throughout the 1890s and 1900s.  They heard regular lectures on topics at the forefront of research: in 1892, JLS Hatton of the Clarendon Laboratory on ‘Light and the spectroscope’; in 1899, Mr Kirkby described the orbit of the newly described planet or asteroid, DQ (Eros) – which allowed a new and more accurate method of estimating the sun’s distance than did the transit of Venus; in 1906 he spoke Romer’s new work on the speed of light, demonstrating wave-lengths by experiment; in 1898 Mr Kirkby showed slides of photographs recently taken at the Lick Observatory on sun-spots.  The same report records what can currently be seen from the Observatory:

‘…the great nebulae in Orion and Andromeda, and some of the finest double stars, while Mars is becoming a conspicuous object at about 10 o’clock.  Venus is visible near the sun, the most delicate crescent of light.’ The Radleian, December 16, 1898

Even the most mundane of Radley publications, the calendar, recorded the phases of the moon in 1899:

‘The same humorous little work is careful to inform us that the moon is in apogee on the 2nd of this month, will be in perigee on the 18th, and again relegated to apogee on the 29th.  What member of the Astronomical Section, that most praiseworthy and energetic section of the NHS, will explain this dark statement to our readers?’  The Radleian, March 15, 1899

But in 1914 John Kirkby retired from Radley, and there are signs that enthusiasm for astronomy had begun to wane.  In 1913 the suggestions in the Radleian included: ‘That a new and more durable observatory be built.’  By November 1915, the OTC (the cadet corps) were practicing building a system of trenches ‘with fire, communication and support trenches being dug on the ground where the Observatory used to stand.’  And in 1922, John Kirkby’s obituary recorded:

‘…many and many a party of boys he has taken out on fine nights to study the stars with him in the old Observatory which used to stand in the corner of the cricket ground.’  The Radleian, March 28, 1922

The 1890s Observatory and the Astronomical Section were victims jointly of the loss of a single enthusiast and of the stress of the First World War, but the interest in astronomy itself did not, in fact, vanish entirely.  Throughout the 1920s there was a constant stream of lecturers, including the Astronomer Royal, Sir Frank Dyson, and increasing pressure to restore the telescope and replace the observatory.  This took some time to achieve: in 1925 there was a promise that ‘the astronomical telescope presented to the school by the Rev HE Lowe is to be removed from its present resting place and installed in an observatory which is about to be set up;’ in 1933, the cricketers objected to a new site:

‘We understand that an observatory is to be built in the space which has been cleared just the other side of the fence by the Colts’ Ground. No doubt what seems an unsuitable site, owing to the proximity of cricket balls and footballs, is astronomically convenient for its erection.’ The Radleian November 19, 1933

In 1934, the new observatory made its debut, 150 yards from the site of its predecessor. There was still a mystery surrounding the telescope, and the fate of the old observatory:

‘At some time between 1914 and 1918 the old hut was taken down and the telescope dismounted, and for some years repeated enquiries failed to discover its whereabouts, till about a year ago, Mr Hedgcock found it thrown away among a lot of rubbish and bereft of some of its most important parts, and otherwise somewhat damaged.  The missing parts were eventually recovered from London, and the whole telescope has been put into working order by Messrs Wray of Croydon and a new dwelling made for it by Messrs Duncan, Tucker & Co of Tottenham.’ The Radleian, March 4, 1934

But a greater difficulty in the 1930s was the place of non-curricular academic activities and how they could fit into an increasingly restricted curriculum:

‘It has been suggested that the present curriculum at Radley is so inflexible both for boys and masters that a telescope perforce will be little used, but there is some educational value even in ‘stargazing’ and astronomy is very much in the air, so to speak, just now, and astrology may come into its own again for after the ‘wireless’ nothing seems impossible or improbable…’ The Radleian, March 4, 1934

There is no further mention of the new observatory throughout the 1930s.  The Science Society and the Physics Society occasionally heard lectures on astronomical topics. The site of the old observatory was commemorated in the planting and naming of a clump of beech trees, ‘Observatory Clump’ – already described as an obsolete term in Boyd’s history of the school published in 1947.

In 1957 the Geographical Society erected a weather station next to the observatory, which indicates that it was not yet defunct, but it was not until 1959 that astronomy began to reappear as a vibrant activity at Radley.  The impetus was a new society, working in an entirely new medium, and, for the first time, in collaboration with other schools: the Radio Club planned to construct a radio telescope:

‘The chief item of interest for the coming term is the construction of a radio telescope, in conjunction with the Scientific Society.  Mr Barrow will be in charge of the project.  Crawley Technical College and a school in Liverpool will be cooperating in the experiment. The scheme is to determine the electron density of the Sun’s corona by measurement of the attenuation of the radiation from the Crab Nebula as it passes through the Corona. An interferometer aerial system will be used with government surplus receivers.  The apparatus will be operating on approximately eleven metres.’ The Radleian, February 8, 1959.

By the end of the year, the Astronomical Society was also undertaking collaborative work.  Under the direction of Patrick Moore, Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Association, the Society made observations to date the dichotomy of Venus.  They received congratulations from Patrick Moore on the quality of their work.  By the end of 1959, the Astronomical Society had become a member of the British Astronomical Association.  But by the mid-1960s impetus was once again failing under the pressure of the curriculum.  In October 1964 the Secretary of the Astronomical Society had to report ‘with anxious sincerity’ that though there is no sign of activity, there is a great deal of thinking going on. The fate of the observatory was the sticking point:

‘The observatory has, for many years, been besieged by local youths, javelins and rugger balls; recently it has been betrayed by dry rot, and hence its disappearance.  Apparently a new observatory is to be erected on top of the labs, but the project is nebulous and at least several council-years away.’ The Radleian, October 1964

This lack of the observatory was overcome by October 1965, when the Society was using the roof of Memorial Arch, armed with a 4-in. refractor and an 8.5 in. Newtonian reflector. By 1966, they could talk about ‘resurrection.’  And at this point the most distinguished astronomer ever to teach at Radley took up his post as Head of Physics. This was Jeremy B. Tatum, fresh from a senior post in Astrophysics at Victoria University in Canada.  Jeremy Tatum came to Radley in September 1966 and left in 1969.  During his time at Radley he was allotted a room and computer access at the Culham laboratory, and published a number of original papers, giving ‘Radley College’ as his academic address.  In 1969 he took up a Chair as Professor of Astronomy at Victoria – a Chair he still holds.  He is undoubtedly the only Radley Don to have an asteroid named after him:  3748 Tatum (1981 JQ) a main-belt asteroid discovered on May 3, 1981 by E Bowell at Flagstaff Observatory.

Jeremy B Tatum (centre)

In 1968, Jeremy Tatum summarized the activities of the Astronomical Society under his guidance.  Lowe’s original telescope was still in use, but he lamented the continuing lack of an observatory.  Observations had been made of the craters of the moon, the satellites of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn and the phases of Venus.  Even Neptune had been seen.  But the major contribution to global science was the Asteroid Project.  A major acquisition, still in the school library, were two Czechoslovakian star atlases.

Tatum’s pupils were contributing to world science, most particularly in a paper published by David O M Jones, who left Radley in 1967 to attend Downing College, Cambridge.  In 1968 Jones co-published ‘Photographic photometry of stars in NGC 457’ with AA Hoag, in Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, vol. 80, no. 476.

Since 2005, new opportunities have been presented to schools via the Faulkes Telescope Project. Boys in the Remove can access high-power telescopes in Hawaii and Australia via the internet. They have photographed galaxies and individual stars. However, one elusive event is still to be captured. It has already been celebrated in 2012 with a performance of Souza’s Transit of Venus march, written to celebrate the transit in 1882. But at 4.30am on 6 June 2012, the astronomers will once again be out on the cricket pitch, with Lowe’s telescope.

NGC891 photographed in 2007

Faulkes Telescope photographed in 2007

Eagle Nebula photographed in 2007

Dumbell Nebula photographed in 2007

Clare Sargent 31st May 2012.

Read More At The Royal Astronomical Society.

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