British University Observatories 1772–1939: 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

British University Observatories 1772–1939

1st Edition

By Roger Hutchins


568 pages

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British University Observatories fills a gap in the historiography of British astronomy by offering the histories of observatories identified as a group by their shared characteristics. The first full histories of the Oxford and Cambridge observatories are here central to an explanatory history of each of the six that undertook research before World War II - Oxford, Dunsink, Cambridge, Durham, Glasgow and London. Each struggled to evolve in the middle ground between the royal observatories and those of the 'Grand Amateurs' in the nineteenth century. Fundamental issues are how and why astronomy came into the universities, how research was reconciled with teaching, lack of endowment, and response to the challenge of astrophysics. One organizing theme is the central importance of the individual professor-directors in determining the fortunes of these observatories, the community of assistants, and their role in institutional politics sometimes of the murkiest kind, patronage networks and discipline shaping coteries. The use of many primary sources illustrates personal motivations and experience. This book will intrigue anyone interested in the history of astronomy, of telescopes, of scientific institutions, and of the history of universities. The history of each individual observatory can easily be followed from foundation to 1939, or compared to experience elsewhere across the period. Astronomy is competitive and international, and the British experience is contextualised by comparison for the first time to those in Germany, France, Italy and the USA.


'The development of research and teaching astronomy in British Universities hinged on the foundation, equipping, and staffing of observatories. This book provides the first detailed study of these institutions across a century and a half. (It) is both a social and a scientific history… a major contribution to our knowledge of the development of scientific institutions in Great Britain… It is a masterpiece of rigorous scholarship, and its style and lack of jargon will make it accessible to a wide range of readers.' Allan Chapman, Wadham College, Oxford, UK 'An encyclopaedic work… it includes material which is extremely difficult to find anywhere else and subjects it to a penetrating analysis… an invaluable resource.' Derek Jones, Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge, UK 'This book is a primary source for the history of these observatories. The account of the Neptune incident is splendid; it is historical, and avoids the polemic that has muddled the subject.' David Dewhirst, Cambridge Observatories, UK ’This book lays down a new baseline in the field, much as Allan Chapman's The Victorian Amateur Astronomer did.’ Peter Hingley, Librarian, Royal Astronomical Society 'This encyclopedic work based on extensive scholarship is accessible to the general reader and will be valuable for historians of science… Highly recommended.' Choice '… a masterly piece of work… an absorbing read, dealing not just with astronomy but also with the politics and finance of the science, the social place of the professional astronomer, and his, and occasionally her, relation to the changing amateur establishment. It is hard to see how anyone in the forseeable future will supersede British University Observatories for it is authoritative, well illustrated and readable.’ Astronomy Now ’The book is thoroughly researched and plentiful in detail, reflecting extensive background work with a range of primary sources. The abundance of factual information might discourage reader

Table of Contents

Contents: Preface; Introduction; Making niches, founding the observatories; Academic astronomers in the age of the 'grand amateurs', 1820-1881; Working the university observatories, 1820-1881; 'Encumbered with lectures': developing research and providing for graduates, 1820-1939; University observatories and the opportunities in astrophysics, c.1880-1939; Problems of proximity: Oxford's observatories, 1901-1930; British university observatories and the wider world, 1919-1939; Concluding thoughts on how astronomical knowledge advances; Bibliography; Index.

About the Author

Roger Hutchins, FRAS, as a member of Magdalen College received his B.A. in Modern History from the University of Oxford in 1992, and his D.Phil. in 1999. He was also a Research Associate with and contributor to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

About the Series

Science, Technology and Culture, 1700-1945

Science, Technology and Culture, 1700-1945 focuses on the social, cultural, industrial and economic contexts of science and technology from the ‘scientific revolution’ up to the Second World War. Publishing lively, original, innovative research across a broad spectrum of subjects and genres by an international list of authors, the series has a global compass that concerns the development of modern science in all regions of the world. Subjects may range from close studies of particular sciences and problems to cultural and social histories of science, technology and biomedicine; accounts of scientific travel and exploration; transnational histories of scientific and technological change; monographs examining instruments, their makers and users; the material and visual cultures of science; contextual studies of institutions and of individual scientists, engineers and popularizers of science; and well-edited volumes of essays on themes in the field.

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Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
HISTORY / General