The Great Geordie Space Race : Astronomers

Last updated : 29-Feb-24

Astronomers : Introduction

The North East of England has a rich tradition of working at the cutting edge of astronomical research. What follows is a brief summary of the contributions made by some of the region's most remarkable astronomers. The entries appear in roughly chronological order. If someone is missing and you feel they should be included then let me know.

There are one or two rather obvious ommissions, most notably Professor Keith Runcorn and David Sinden, which I'll rectify as quickly as I can. I'm also working on a list of Honarary Geordie astronomers, which might include the likes of Paul Davies, Carlos Frenke and possibly Richard Carrington. We'll see.

Actually, Carrington's life was so scandalous that I am morally required to include all of the juicy gossip I can find because this web site has to pay for itself. Smut sells. Simple.

Obviously, these individual summaries are rather limited. If you want to know more about some of these remarkable figures then I strongly recommend that you come along to one or more of my talks. I think they're quite good but then I'm biased.

That's a joke, by the way.


Astronomers : The Venerable Bede

The Venerable Bede was an Anglo-Saxon monk of the early Middle Ages, who left an indelible mark on the fields of astronomy and the calculation of Easter dates. Born around 672 AD in the Kingdom of Northumbria - we don't actually know when he was born - Bede dedicated his life to scholarship within the confines of the monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow.

Bede's interest in astronomy was deeply intertwined with his theological studies. He recognized the importance of understanding the movements of celestial bodies for both practical and spiritual reasons. Bede's astronomical treatises, notably "De temporum ratione" (The Reckoning of Time), became foundational texts in medieval European astronomy.

In "De temporum ratione," Bede meticulously documented methods for calculating the date of Easter, a crucial task for Christian communities. He introduced the concept of the "computus," a set of calculations used to determine the date of Easter based on lunar and solar cycles. Bede's approach improved upon earlier methods, providing a more accurate and consistent means of determining this important religious festival.

Bede's contributions to astronomy extended beyond the calculation of Easter. He studied the movements of the sun, moon, and stars, recognizing patterns and cycles that influenced agricultural practices, navigation, and timekeeping. His observations and calculations laid the groundwork for future advancements in astronomy and the development of medieval calendars.

Moreover, Bede's works served as bridges between the classical learning of antiquity and the intellectual traditions of the early Middle Ages. His synthesis of Christian theology with scientific inquiry paved the way for a deeper understanding of the natural world within a religious framework.

Bede's influence persisted long after his death, shaping the course of medieval scholarship and scientific thought. His astronomical treatises continued to be studied and referenced by scholars throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, leaving an enduring legacy that highlights the intersection of faith and reason in the pursuit of knowledge.

Astronomers : Thomas Wright

Thomas Wright, an influential astronomer of the 18th century, made significant contributions to the understanding of the cosmos through his innovative ideas and insightful observations. Born in 1711 in County Durham, England, Wright displayed an early fascination with the stars and the mysteries of the universe. Despite limited formal education, his keen intellect and passion for astronomy propelled him into the forefront of scientific inquiry.

Wright's most notable contribution to astronomy came through his seminal work, "An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe," published in 1750. In this groundbreaking treatise, Wright proposed a revolutionary model of the universe that departed from prevailing cosmological theories of the time. Unlike the geocentric model advocated by Ptolemy or the heliocentric model proposed by Copernicus, Wright envisioned the universe as a vast system of stars organized into a flattened disk, with the Milky Way serving as its central plane.

Drawing upon observations of the Milky Way's appearance and structure, Wright hypothesized that our galaxy was but one among countless others scattered throughout space. He speculated on the existence of other planetary systems orbiting distant stars, anticipating later discoveries of exoplanets by centuries. Wright's vision of a dynamic and expansive cosmos challenged conventional notions of a static and Earth-centered universe, laying the groundwork for modern cosmology.

In addition to his theoretical contributions, Wright's practical observations also advanced the field of astronomy. He meticulously documented the positions and motions of celestial objects, contributing valuable data to the study of stellar phenomena and the measurement of astronomical distances.

Despite facing skepticism and criticism from some of his contemporaries, Thomas Wright's ideas left an enduring impact on the development of astronomy. His insights into the structure of the universe and the nature of galaxies foreshadowed discoveries made centuries later by astronomers using advanced telescopes and technologies. Wright's pioneering spirit and imaginative vision continue to inspire astronomers and enthusiasts alike, underscoring the importance of daring to explore the unknown realms of the cosmos.

Astronomers : Jeremiah Dixon

Jeremiah Dixon was a renowned surveyor of the 18th century, who played a pivotal role in mapping the boundary line between the American colonies of Pennsylvania and Maryland, famously known as the Mason-Dixon Line. Born in 1733 in Cockfield, County Durham, England, Dixon demonstrated an early aptitude for mathematics and surveying, which would shape his future career.

Dixon's journey to prominence began when he was hired by the Penn and Calvert families to resolve a long-standing boundary dispute between their respective colonies. Alongside fellow surveyor Charles Mason, Dixon embarked on the ambitious task of surveying and marking the boundary line between Pennsylvania and Maryland. Over the course of several years, despite facing challenging terrain and logistical hurdles, Dixon and Mason meticulously measured and plotted the line, employing advanced surveying techniques for the time.

One of Dixon's significant contributions to astronomy stemmed from his involvement in the expedition to observe the transit of Venus in 1761. Recognizing the scientific importance of this rare celestial event, Dixon joined an international effort to observe and record the transit, which provided valuable data for calculating the size of the solar system. Dixon's precise measurements and observations during the transit expedition showcased his proficiency in astronomy and his dedication to advancing scientific knowledge.

While Dixon is primarily remembered for his role in surveying the Mason-Dixon Line, his contributions to astronomy extended beyond this monumental undertaking. His involvement in astronomical observations, coupled with his expertise in surveying, underscored his interdisciplinary approach to scientific inquiry and his commitment to accuracy and precision.

Jeremiah Dixon's legacy endures not only in the geographical landmark that bears his name but also in his contributions to the fields of surveying and astronomy. His work exemplifies the intersection of science and exploration, demonstrating how individuals like Dixon played a crucial role in shaping our understanding of the world and the universe beyond.

* Please note : there are no known pictures of Jeremiah Dixon and the above image may not be Jeremiah at all. The closest we have is a self-portrait by his elder brother, Geordie Dixon, who was an excellent draftsmen. George's self portrait bears an uncanny resemblance to the above image and one theory suggests that the above image is a later re-working of a sketch by George of Jeremiah.

Astronomers : George Biddell Airy

George Biddell Airy was born in 1801 in Alnwick, Northumberland. Airy's tenure as Astronomer Royal of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, a position he held from 1835 to 1881, marked a period of remarkable advancements in astronomy under his leadership. One of his most notable achievements was the reform of the British Nautical Almanac, where he introduced rigorous methods for calculating the positions of celestial bodies, essential for navigation and astronomical observation.

Airy's contributions to celestial mechanics were exemplified by his work on the theory of planetary motion and the determination of the moon's orbit. He refined mathematical models to account for perturbations in the motions of the planets, contributing to a more accurate understanding of their movements within the solar system. Additionally, Airy's meticulous observations of the moon's position and gravitational influence facilitated the development of precise lunar tables, crucial for navigation and lunar distance measurements.

In the field of geodesy, Airy's investigations into the Earth's shape and dimensions yielded important insights into the planet's gravitational field and its effect on terrestrial measurements. His establishment of a network of geodetic survey stations across Britain enabled the accurate mapping of the country's topography and the determination of fundamental geodetic parameters.

Furthermore, Airy's innovative designs for astronomical instruments, such as the transit circle and the altazimuth telescope, revolutionized observational techniques and facilitated more precise measurements of celestial coordinates.

Airy's prolific contributions to astronomy and geodesy cemented his reputation as one of the leading figures in 19th-century science. His dedication to precision, his methodical approach to research, and a legacy of innovation continue to inspire astronomers and scientists to this day.

Astronomers : T. H. E. C. Espin

Thomas Henry Espinell Compton Espin, known as T. H. E. C. Espin, was a multifaceted figure whose life was characterized by a passion for astronomy, scientific exploration, and dedicated service to his community. Born in Birmingham on May 28, 1858, Espin's early years were marked by a deep interest in astronomy, which blossomed into a lifelong pursuit after witnessing Coggia’s Comet in 1874.

Espin's scholarly pursuits extended beyond astronomy; he excelled academically, contributing articles to esteemed scientific publications while still a pupil at Haileybury School. His talent and intellect caught the attention of renowned astronomer T.W. Webb, who invited him to collaborate on the writing of "Webb’s Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes."

After completing his education at Exeter College, Oxford, Espin embarked on a career in the clergy, serving as curate and vicar in various parishes. Despite his clerical duties, he remained deeply engaged in scientific endeavors, constructing observatories and conducting astronomical observations. His pioneering work with x-rays, following Rontgen's discovery, provided valuable diagnostic and therapeutic benefits to his community.

Espin's contributions to astronomy were significant and varied. He meticulously documented and cataloged red stars, making important discoveries in the field. Later in his career, he focused on the study of double stars, personally discovering and mapping over 2,500 pairs. His dedication to astronomical research earned him recognition from prestigious scientific societies worldwide.

Beyond his scientific achievements, Espin was a devoted community leader, supporting organizations such as the Scouts and Church Lads’ Brigade. He subsidized uniforms for those in need and provided therapeutic treatments for various ailments using his scientific equipment.

Espin's legacy endures through his contributions to science, his impact on his community, and the preservation of his astronomical instruments. His passion for exploration and discovery serves as an inspiration to future generations of astronomers and scientists, while his dedication to serving others exemplifies the highest ideals of public service and scholarship.

Astronomers : Thomas Backhouse

Thomas William Backhouse was born in 1813 and made significant contributions to our understanding of celestial phenomena, particularly through his discovery and study of noctilucent clouds and the gegenschein. Backhouse's passion for astronomy led him to meticulously observe the night sky, where he made several groundbreaking discoveries that enriched our knowledge of atmospheric and astronomical phenomena.

One of Backhouse's notable achievements was his discovery of noctilucent clouds, which are rare, luminous clouds that form in the upper atmosphere during twilight hours. In 1885, Backhouse observed these ethereal clouds during the summer months, documenting their appearance and behavior. His observations provided valuable insights into the composition and dynamics of Earth's upper atmosphere, contributing to our understanding of atmospheric science.

Additionally, Backhouse is credited with the discovery and study of the gegenschein, a faint glow that appears opposite the Sun in the night sky. This enigmatic phenomenon, also known as the counterglow, is caused by the scattering of sunlight off interplanetary dust particles. Backhouse's observations of the gegenschein helped astronomers unravel the mysteries of cosmic dust distribution and its impact on celestial phenomena.

Beyond his groundbreaking discoveries, Backhouse was a dedicated astronomer and educator who actively promoted the study of astronomy among the public. He was deeply involved in public outreach efforts, delivering lectures, organizing stargazing events, and sharing his knowledge with schools and communities. Backhouse's commitment to astronomy education helped inspire future generations of astronomers and enthusiasts, fostering a greater appreciation for the wonders of the universe.

Throughout his life, Thomas William Backhouse remained a steadfast advocate for scientific inquiry and exploration. His discoveries of noctilucent clouds and the gegenschein, along with his efforts to engage the public in astronomy, solidified his legacy as a respected figure in the astronomical community. Backhouse's contributions continue to influence our understanding of the cosmos, reminding us of the enduring importance of curiosity and discovery in the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

Astronomers : Temple Chevallier

Temple Chevallier was a distinguished British astronomer and clergyman of the 19th century. He was born in 1794 in Aspall, Suffolk, and his early interest in astronomy led him to pursue a career that combined his passion for science with his commitment to the clergy.

Chevallier's academic pursuits took him to Cambridge University, where he excelled in his studies and graduated with honors. He was ordained as a clergyman in 1817 and subsequently became a fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge. Throughout his career, Chevallier maintained a dual focus on both his clerical duties and his scientific research, finding harmony between his religious vocation and his intellectual pursuits.

In the realm of astronomy, Chevallier made significant contributions to the study of celestial phenomena, particularly through his observations of solar and lunar eclipses. He meticulously recorded the timings and characteristics of these astronomical events, contributing valuable data to the understanding of celestial mechanics and the behavior of celestial bodies.

Chevallier's interests extended beyond astronomy to include meteorology, where he conducted pioneering research on atmospheric phenomena and weather patterns. He established meteorological observatories and networks of weather stations, collecting data on temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure. His efforts helped advance the science of meteorology and laid the foundation for modern weather forecasting techniques.

In addition to his scientific endeavors, Chevallier was deeply committed to education and scholarship. He served as a professor of astronomy at Durham University and later as the vice-chancellor of the University of Durham. He played a key role in shaping the curriculum and direction of these institutions, fostering a culture of academic excellence and intellectual inquiry.

Temple Chevallier's life and works exemplify the fruitful intersection of science, religion, and education. His dedication to advancing knowledge and understanding in astronomy and meteorology, coupled with his commitment to academic leadership, left a lasting impact on the scientific community and the field of higher education. Chevallier's legacy continues to inspire scientists, educators, and scholars to pursue excellence in their respective fields, guided by a spirit of curiosity, inquiry, and service.

Astronomers : Robert Stirling Newall

Robert Stirling Newall was born in 1812 in Dundee, Scotland. His early interests in science and engineering paved the way for a remarkable career marked by significant contributions to astronomy and public service.

Newall's passion for astronomy led him to make pioneering advancements in astronomical instrumentation. He devoted himself to improving telescope design and construction, ultimately creating innovative instruments that greatly enhanced observational capabilities. Among his notable achievements was the design and construction of a large equatorial telescope with a 25-inch aperture, which facilitated groundbreaking observations of celestial objects such as stars, planets, and nebulae.

In addition to his astronomical pursuits, Newall was a skilled engineer who played a pivotal role in the development of telegraphy and submarine cable technology. His expertise in engineering and materials science proved instrumental in the laying of transatlantic telegraph cables, revolutionizing global communication.

Despite his professional achievements, Newall also found time for civic engagement and public service. He was twice elected as the mayor of Gateshead, demonstrating his commitment to serving his community beyond his scientific endeavors. In this role, Newall worked to improve infrastructure, promote economic development, and enhance the quality of life for residents of Gateshead.

Throughout his life, Robert Stirling Newall exemplified the qualities of a dedicated scholar, innovative engineer, and conscientious public servant. His contributions to astronomy and engineering advanced human knowledge and technological progress, while his service to the community of Gateshead left a lasting legacy of leadership and civic engagement. Newall's multifaceted legacy continues to inspire individuals to pursue excellence in both intellectual pursuits and civic responsibilities, underscoring the importance of using one's talents for the betterment of society.

Astronomers : Alexander Herschel

Alexander Herschel, a prominent British astronomer of the 19th century, made significant contributions to the fields of astronomy and meteorology, following in the footsteps of his renowned family. Born in 1836 in Slough, England, Herschel was the son of John Herschel, grandson of William Herschel, and great-nephew of Caroline Herschel, all esteemed astronomers.

Herschel's interest in astronomy was cultivated from a young age, inspired by the rich legacy of scientific inquiry within his family. He pursued formal education in mathematics and physics, laying the groundwork for his future contributions to the field.

One of Herschel's significant achievements was his work in meteorology, where he conducted pioneering research on atmospheric phenomena and weather patterns. He established meteorological observatories and networks of weather stations, collecting data on temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure. His efforts helped advance the science of meteorology and laid the foundation for modern weather forecasting techniques.

In addition to his meteorological studies, Herschel made noteworthy contributions to observational astronomy. He conducted observations of celestial objects, including stars, planets, and comets, utilizing advanced telescopes and instruments. Herschel's meticulous observations provided valuable insights into the properties and behavior of these celestial bodies, contributing to our understanding of the universe.

Furthermore, Herschel played a crucial role in the popularization of science and astronomy, engaging in public outreach and education efforts. He delivered lectures, wrote articles, and participated in public demonstrations, sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm for astronomy with audiences of all ages.

Throughout his life, Alexander Herschel remained dedicated to advancing knowledge and understanding in astronomy and meteorology. His contributions to these fields, coupled with his efforts to promote scientific literacy and education, solidified his reputation as a respected figure in the scientific community.

In recognition of his achievements, Herschel received numerous honors and awards, including fellowships in prestigious scientific societies. His legacy continues to inspire astronomers, meteorologists, and science enthusiasts, reminding us of the enduring importance of curiosity, exploration, and discovery in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Herschel's life and works stand as a testament to the power of scientific inquiry and the impact of dedicated individuals in advancing our understanding of the natural world.

Astronomers : Grubb Parsons

The origins of Grubb Parsons can be traced back to Thomas Grubb, an Irish telescope maker who established his workshop in Dublin in the mid-19th century. Grubb quickly gained recognition for his high-quality telescopes and innovative designs, earning commissions from prominent observatories and astronomers.

Grubb's reputation continued to grow, and in 1878, he relocated his workshop to Newcastle upon Tyne, England, where he established the firm Thomas Grubb & Sons. This move allowed Grubb to expand his operations and tap into the burgeoning demand for precision astronomical instruments. Under his leadership, the company continued to produce cutting-edge telescopes, including refractors and reflectors, renowned for their optical quality and performance.

In 1925, Thomas Grubb & Sons merged with Sir Howard Grubb, Parsons and Co., another esteemed telescope-making company, to form Grubb Parsons. The merger brought together the expertise and resources of two leading firms, solidifying Grubb Parsons' position as a premier manufacturer of astronomical instruments. The company's headquarters remained in Newcastle upon Tyne, where it continued to produce a wide range of telescopes for observatories, universities, and research institutions around the world.

Grubb Parsons became synonymous with innovation and excellence in telescope design and construction. The company's telescopes were prized for their precision optics, mechanical stability, and reliability, making them indispensable tools for astronomers and researchers. Grubb Parsons' telescopes were used in some of the most significant astronomical discoveries of the 20th century, including the exploration of distant galaxies, the mapping of the solar system, and the study of celestial phenomena.

One of the most notable products of Grubb Parsons was the 98-inch Isaac Newton Telescope, commissioned by the Royal Greenwich Observatory and installed at Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex, England, in 1967. This state-of-the-art reflector telescope was the largest of its kind in the world at the time and played a crucial role in advancing our understanding of the universe.

Grubb Parsons' legacy extends beyond its groundbreaking telescopes to include contributions to space exploration and defense technology. The company's expertise in precision engineering and optics made it a trusted supplier for government agencies and aerospace companies, leading to collaborations on projects such as satellite imaging systems and missile guidance systems.

Despite changes in ownership and the eventual closure of its manufacturing facilities in the late 20th century, Grubb Parsons' impact on the field of astronomy remains profound. The company's telescopes continue to be cherished by astronomers and collectors alike, serving as a testament to the ingenuity and craftsmanship of its founders and engineers.

Due to the tight deadlines associated with this project, the above text was produced with the aid of ChatGPT 3.5 and a large pot of strong coffee. Prompts were generated by the author, and later fact-checked against a number of reliable sources. We'll edit the information into more poetic, human-friendly text over the next couple of weeks.