The Royal Astronomical Society (London)

Founded in 1820

This article looks at the early history of the Royal Astronomical Society. The event which marks the start of the Society was a dinner held at the Freemason's Tavern on Wednesday 12 January 1820. The Minutes taken that day record (see [3]):-
On this day several gentlemen ... met together by appointment at the Freemason's Tavern, Great Queen Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, to take into consideration the propriety and expediency of establishing a Society for the encouragement and promotion of astronomy.
Fourteen attended this initial meeting including John Herschel, Charles Babbage, Henry Colebrooke, Thomas Colby, Daniel Moore, Olinthus Gregory, William Pearson, and Francis Baily. We have listed these eight since the meeting unanimously proposed these men to form a committee to draw up rules and regulations for the Society. At this first meeting Daniel Moore was elected to be Chairman, Francis Baily was elected to be the Secretary, and John Herschel was asked to draw up an address which would explain the objectives of the new Society.

Why was the Society founded at this time? The reasons given by Herschel point to the fact that it was due to the lack of progress in mathematics and the mathematical side of astronomy in Britain. De Morgan, in his Memoirs, quotes Herschel:-
The end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries were remarkable for the small amount of scientific movement going on in this country, especially in the more exact departments. ... Mathematics were at the last gasp, and astronomy nearly so -- I mean in those members of its frame which depend upon precise measurement and systematic calculation.
Of the fourteen present at the inaugural meeting, it would appear that William Pearson and Francis Baily had been pressing for the creation of an astronomical society for several years. There are records of Pearson proposing an Astronomical Society in 1812, or earlier, and certainly Baily's recommendation that such a Society be formed appears in print in a 1819 article.

There was considerable activity in the days following the initial meeting on 12 January, mainly concerning the address that Herschel was drawing up. The committee of eight met in the Geological Society Rooms on Saturday 15 January. Herschel visited Pearson on Monday 17 January, then recorded the following entry in his dairy for Tuesday 18 January:-
Spent morning at Dr Pearson's. Babbage came about 1 o'clock. Read over and arranged address for circulation with the notice of formation of the Astronomical Society. dined and returned with Dr Pearson and Babbage to the meeting of the committee in the evening.
Herschel handed the address to Baily on the evening of Wednesday 19 January and by Monday 24 January it had been printed (Baily thought the printer had taken far too long and had expected it to be ready by Saturday 22 January). The hand written copy contained a passage which Herschel had deleted, but Baily had restored. This proposed a star catalogue:-
One of the first great steps towards an accurate knowledge of the construction of the heavens is an acquaintance with the individual objects they present; in other words, the formation of a complete catalogue of stars and other bodies, upon a scale infinitely more extensive than any yet undertaken; and to be carried down to the minutest objects, not visible in any but the very best telescopes.
Clearly, although Herschel had seen the great benefits of such an undertaking, on reflection he had realised that it was something too major for the new Astronomical Society (or any other body at that time) to undertake. However it was reinstated by Baily and appeared in the address. Other aims of the Society which were listed in Herschel's address were [3]:-
... the collation and publication of observations already made or to be made; the education of observers; the determinations of position on our earth; the improvement of lunar tables; the establishment of relations with foreign astronomers, who may be elected as associates; the diffusion of information; the computation of orbits; the formation of a library; and the proposal of prize questions.
The first general meeting of the Astronomical Society took place on Tuesday 8 February in the Geological Society Rooms in Bedford Street, Covent Garden. The King had died just over a week before this meeting so only essential business was carried out and the next meeting set for 29 February. By the 8 February the new Society had 47 members of whom 21 attended the meeting. This had risen to 83 by the meeting of 29 February, of whom 28 attended. Officers were elected at this meeing including the Duke of Somerset as President, Colebrooke and William Herschel as Vice-Presidents, Pearson as Treasure, Babbage and Baily as Secretaries, and John Herschel as Foreign Secretary.

The Society suffered its first set back when on 9 March the Duke of Somerset wrote to the Council resigning the Presidency which he had only held for a week. He explained in the letter that the President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks, thought that the new Astronomical Society would damage the Royal Society and had persuaded the Duke of Somerset, who was a personal friend, to not only resign the Presidency but to resign as a member of the Astronomical Society. The Society, after considering a number of options for its President, decided not to appoint one until the end of the year. At that time William Herschel accepted the Presidency and, on his death, Colbrooke took over as President.

We mentioned above that the preliminary meeting of the Society was held in the Freemason's Tavern and that the first full meeting of the Society took place in the Geological Society Rooms. It was during the first year of the Society's existance, in November, that they began to hold their meetings in rooms belonging to the Medical and Chirurgical Society in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Attempts to find permanent accommodation for the Society proved difficult, and even an advertisement placed in The Times failed to find a suitable place. In June 1831 the possibility of rooms in Somerset House in the Strand was suggested. However this was not finalised until April 1834 and the first meeting of the Society in Somerset House took place in February 1835. The Society occupied these rooms until 1875.

The first foreign member was Peter Slawinski, a Pole who was in England and attended the first meetings of the Society, while the next was Jean-Baptiste Biot who was proposed at the meeting on 9 June 1820. Seven further associate members were proposed in the first year and elected in January 1821. They include Bouvard from Paris, Delambre from Paris, Gauss from Göttingen, and Olbers from Bremen. Members of the Society read papers at the meetings and by 1821 the Memoirs of the Astronomical Society had been proposed which published these papers beginning in 1822. The Monthly Notices began publication in 1827 but prior to this there had been reports of meetings of the Philosophical Magazine. In fact the Monthly Notices continued its connection with the Philosophical Magazine and at first it was only consisted of a reprint of the pages concerning the Astronomical Society.

It was ten years after the founding of the Society, in February 1830, that it first sought a Charter. In May the President Sir James South petitioned the King and, on 15 December 1830 the King signed the book as Patron of the Society. From this time on the Astronomical Society became the Royal Astronomical Society.

A charter was eventually agreed and signed by the King in March 1831.

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References (show)

  1. J L E Dreyer and H H Turner (eds.), History of the Royal Astronomical Society (London, 1923).
  2. J L E Dreyer, The decade 1830-1840, in J L E Dreyer and H H Turner (eds.), History of the Royal Astronomical Society (London, 1923), 50-81.
  3. H H Turner, The decade 1820-1830, in J L E Dreyer and H H Turner (eds.), History of the Royal Astronomical Society (London, 1923), 1-49.

Last Updated May 2017