A: Observatories within the University
B: College observatories:
Wadham, Merton, Corpus, Magdalen, Keble
C: Private observatories:
Shirburn, Blenheim, Norman Pogson, John Phillips.
Other 18th century amateurs: Rev. Edward Stone, George Margetts.
D: Principal office holders:
The Savilian chairs
Savilian professors, Radcliffe Observers.
The Benson Observatory, 1913; Gordon Dobson
F: Other Oxfordshire notables:
The Rollright Stones; Burford Priory
Sources for the History of the
Societies and organizations
Roger Bacon (1210-1294), a Franciscan friar, had rooms in the old watch tower upon
The significant early astronomy in the county has been associated with the colleges, especially Merton in the 14th and 15th centuries. Then, after the founding of the Savilian chairs of astronomy and geometry in 1619, the unusually enlightened terms of their endowment brought a succession of the most able men in the country to
Much remains to be done, and all help will be welcome, but a start is made by recording the principal observatories.
 Henry C. King, The History of the Telescope (Dover, New York, 1955), 27-28.
 King (1955), 28-29.
Sir Henry Saville, Warden of Merton College, in 1619 founded and endowed the Savilian chairs of Astronomy and Geometry.
1) The ‘Mathematical Tower’ of the Schools Quad, later known as the Bodleian Tower of the Bodleian Library quadrangle, in the center of Oxford, a university observatory (c.51º45'N 1º15W). This was a typical seventeenth century mathematical tower, deliberately built with five floors, to display the five orders of classical architectural columns, and to provide a high observing platform. The University made available the top room of the tower for the use of the Savilian professor of astronomy, together with the flat roof above on which he could mount his portable instruments. It was used between 1619 and 1772 by the Savilian professors Greaves, Ward, D. Gregory, Bradley and Hornsby. Initially Greaves only had an Astrolabe of 1559 made by Thomas Gemini of London for Queen Elizabeth I (now displayed in the MHS), and apparently given by her to the University, and thence passed to the first Savilian professor.
The original first suite of instruments was then:
- 1637 a 78" radius mural quadrant by Elias Allen of
- c.1640 a mural sextant of 73" radius, maker unknown, also in the MHS.
- c.1697 a clock
- c.1769 a transit instrument of 43 inch focal length on a 2 feet axis, by John Bird of
2) The Savilian Professor’s House, in
In about 1730 James Bradley is known to have used a portable transit instrument from the lower half landing on the principal staircase, with a view south over the city.
4) The City Wall (off
From about 1740 to 1760 Nathaniel Bliss sometimes used fixed instruments mounted on the massive section of the old city wall immediately adjacent to the two houses of the Savilian professors of Astronomy and of Geometry.
5) Corpus Christi College Observatory, private, the Savilian Professor’s.
From about 1763 to 1773 Hornsby used his new portable mural quadrant of 32" radius by John Bird with a 1¼" object glass by Dollond, from the window of his room. He took this instrument with him to the new Radcliffe Observatory which he founded in 1772, and installed it in the Students’ Observatory there. The instrument is now in the MHS.
6) Radcliffe Observatory, private trust, 1772 to 1935, used by the Savilian professor until 1839 (51º46'N 1º15'W); used by Professors Hornsby, Robertson, S.P. Rigaud.
1772 mural quadrant 32"R/1¼"OG by Bird/Dollond in 1767; Hornsby’s, from Corpus (now MHS).
1772-1838 mural quadrant, south 8 feet R/3"OG by Bird/Dollond (now Science
1773 mural quadrant, north 8 feet/3"OG by Bird/Dollond (now MHS).
1773 transit instrument 4"OG/8 feet FL by Bird/Dollond, adapted by Simms in 1843 (now MHS).
1773 transit instrument 43" FL by Bird (c.1769) from
1773 zenith sector 11'8"FL/3½" OG by Bird (now MHS).
1774 equatorial sector 2½"OG/5 feet FL by Bird (now MHS).
1774 4½" refractor of 10 feet FL by Dollond 1774 (now MHS)
1774 3½" Dollond refractor on portable mount (now MHS).
1812 8" Herschel Newtonian reflector of 7 feet FL, c.1795, given by Duke of Marlborough (now MHS).
1836 mural circle 4.1"OG/6 feet FL by Thomas Jones of
1849 heliometer 7½"OG by Merz & Repsold (‘The Oxford Heliometer’
dismounted 1907, now SML).
1861 5" transit circle of 1854 ‘the Carrington’ by Troughton & Simms (MHS).
1887 10" Barclay refractor by Cooke & Sons (of 1862 – since 1935 at
1903 24" photo/18"visual Grubb Double Equatorial (now at Mill Hill Obs.).
In 1930 the Radcliffe Trustees accepted the offer of Lord Nuffield for the Observatory site, urgently needed for expansion of the city’s hospital, and decided to relocate the Radcliffe Observatory to
In 1934 the Trustees offered the Double Equatorial to the University, but the University would or could only consider accepting it if on a “temporary mount”. Knox-Shaw told Professor Harry Plaskett that he objected strongly to this proposal to save £10,000; it was not practical, and amounted to frittering away the resource. At the intervention of Astronomer Royal Frank Dyson the Double Equatorial was given to
7) The University Museum Observatory, teaching observatory 1860-75 (demolished 1885); the first observatory purpose built by the University. The fate of the instruments is not known:
- Donkin’s 4" transit instrument
- Small brass altazimuth instrument.
- 1849 clock.
- 12¼" Grubb refractor, 1875 (now at
- 13" De La Rue photographic reflector of 1849 (now in MHS store)
- 1887 the 4" Barclay meridian circle (of 1862, by Troughton & Simms).
- 1897 13" Grubb astrograph (coaxial with the refractor, fate unknown).
- 1935 Vertical Solar Telescope, a Cassegrain reflector with 12½" primary mirror
and 6" convex with 16" coelostat, by Grubb Parsons.
Adam Hilger Ltd supplied three 6" flint glass prisms (£585) for a 30' Littrow Spectroscope, and a 6" achromatic object glass (£120). Professor Plaskett believed that the prisms were unique as regards their large size and their high optical quality. In 2008 the telescope is still in situ, on top of the brick De la Rue pier in what is now the
- The 35m Solar Telescope of 1955, by Grubb Parsons. A Cassegrain reflector with a 51cm/20¼" primary mirror figured on fused silica, and a coudé focus. £16,300 (including a gift from professor D.A. Jackson) was made available by the University in 1948 for the telescope, its building, and high dispersion spectroscope.
 The primary reference is Howse, pp. 78-80 with input from Gerard L’E. Turner and Tony Simcock; then A.V. Simcock, The
 H. E. Bell, ‘The Savilian Professors' Houses and Halley’s Observatory at
 Working draft catalogue of fixed stars made by Thomas Hornsby for use at
 Roger Hutchins,
 The instrument is owned by the Physics Department, and mounted in their hilltop observatory. They consider the instrument priceless, and it is extensively used. The optics are in first-class condition and the only major modification has been replacement of the weight drive by a variable speed synchronous motor operating through the original gear train. Dr Ron Maddison,
 Henry C. King, The History of the Telescope (Dover, New York, 1979) pp.388-390.
 Plaskett to H.M. lodge, Clerk of Accounts, University Chest, letter
 H.H. Plaskett, ‘The
B. Other college observatories:
The first significant astronomy at
John Ashindon or Ashinden, also called Eastwood (in one reference of 1338) was according to Anthony Wood the greatest mathematician and astronomer ever produced by
At that time the best astronomical tables predicting the positions of the Sun, Moon and planets for astrologers and navigators, were the Alphonsine Tables produced at
There is a tradition that Christopher Wren observed from the window above the main entrance. Certainly from 1649 onwards as a Gentleman Commoner he dined at high table, and was encouraged by the Warden, John Wilkins, who had a special interest in telescopes. In 1655 they built an instrument of 80 feet focal length to observe the Moon, and Wren observed Saturn. Wren experimented with grinding lenses, designing a micrometer, and devising various improvements for telescopes.
Has been noted above, Thomas Hornsby observing from his room there. There is a splendid and unusual combination of sundial surmounting a perpetual calendar pillar, in the front quad.
In 1855 Charles Daubeny, Professor of Botany, influenced by John Phillips, gave to the College a 5½" Cooke refractor. It was mounted upon the roof of an especially designed and strengthened ‘Telescope Room’ (then detached, but now part of the enlarged
In January 1889 the College received ‘An Equitorial (sic) from a Mr Lowe’, and shortly afterwards the College voted £25 to house it. Elsewhere a Dallmeyer telescope was mentioned, without noting its size. Unfortunately the records for the next decade are missing, and nothing is known of whether the telescope was used, where it was located, or its fate. The donor may have been Hubert Foster Lowe (1861-1938), mathematician and chemist, who obtained a First in 1882 and stayed on in
 George C. Brodrick, Memorials of
 Robert T. Gunther, Early Science in
 Robert T. Gunther, ‘The Merton
 Gunther, 2 (1923), pp. 81, 82; Henry C. King, The History of the Telescope (Dover, new York, 1955), pp. 74, 99.
 R. Hutchins, ‘Magdalen’s Astronomy Observatory’,
 Gifts & Benefactions register (ref. KC/BEN 1/1), and minutes of College Trustees Meeting 18 January 1889. I am very grateful to Mr Rob Petre, College Archivist, for this information.
 Robert Fox (ed), Physics in
Even more elusive than a search for amateur observatories, it has been very difficult to find note of any amateur observers.
The Earl of Macclesfield’s Observatory, private (51º39'N 0º58'W)
George Parker (c.1697–1764), second Earl of Macclesfield, inherited the mostly brick-built castle of 1377 with four corner towers and a gate tower. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1722, and remained friends with and was influenced by William Jones (1675–1749) who had taught him mathematics and with whom the earl continued his studies at Shirburn.
The Earl was also a friend of James Bradley who in 1739 helped him erect an observatory in the grounds. Its location is not now known, but it had three rooms including a bedroom for the earl when he wished to rest after observing late. It was equipped with what was probably then the finest suite of instruments anywhere:
- 1740-87 a transit instrument of 5 feet focal length by Sisson of London.
- 1741 a mural quadrant of 5 feet radius by Sisson of London.
- c.1740 two clocks by Tompion and by Graham, both of
- 1748 a Huygens object glass of about 120 feet focal length, loaned by the Royal Society.
- 3'6", 6 feet and 14 feet focal length refractors, the latter with a micrometer. These instruments would have had non-achromatic object glasses of only about 1" to about 2¼" diameter.
The Earl observed personally from June 1740 almost until his death. His assistants continued the transit observations until 1787, and the quadrant observations from 1743 to 1793. In 1742 his constant influence achieved for Bradley, his frequent guest and occasional assistant, the post of Astronomer Royal. At about this time he trained two estate workers. Thomas Phelps had started his life as a stable-boy, while his colleague, John Bartlett, had been a shepherd. Later the earl ‘had their portraits engraved as part of a picture of the interior of his observatory. The now elderly ex-peasant boys are shown elegantly dressed and wigged, holding a discussion at the eyepiece …’. Thomas Phelps discovered the Great Comet of 1743. In 1769 the Observatory’s three refractors were used to observe the transit of Venus.
The Shirburn Castle Observatory was very significant. An observatory is only as useful as its capable observers and the number and continuity of trained assistants. Before 1773 the University had nothing to match its instruments. Bradley, Bliss and Hornsby were anxious to work there, did so, and good work was achieved and reputations made. The Earl ensured that two assistants were adequately trained and maintained. In parliament the earl jointly led the move for
Extensive alterations were effected to the castle and grounds in the eighteenth century, and later no trace of the observatory remained.
Blenheim Palace Observatory, private (51º50'N 1º21'W) active c.1772–1800. George Spencer (1739–1817), the fourth Duke of Marlborough, had many interests but his chief scientific interest was astronomy for which he had a passion. He had given land to the University to make possible the building of the Radcliffe Observatory. There he learned from Thomas Hornsby the techniques for using Bird’s instruments. Unlike Shirburn where the Oxford astronomers went to observe, Hornsby only went to Blenheim to teach the Duke how to observe, and he did not employ anybody capable of directing the observatory and rendering it scientifically useful, nor is he known to have had any trained assistant.
The Duke built an observatory on the south-east tower of his palace in about 1780, perhaps in anticipation of the Venus transit, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1786, and in 1789 began erecting another observatory on the south-west tower, but there is no mention of either after 1840. His equipment, the finest available and purchased at enormous cost, was:
- 1771 a 6 feet focal length transit instrument by Jesse Ramsden of
- c.1786 a 6 feet radius rotatable pillar quadrant on vertical axis by Ramsden of London. This was a novel design, greatly admired, and led to Ramsden’s commission for a similar instrument for the Palermo Observatory.
- 1795 a Gregorian reflector with 18" mirror of
- a small reflector by Tully (now MHS)
- a mahogany tube on pillars, formerly part of a coudé telescope (now MHS).
The first recorded observations with the transit instrument were made in 1781. The divisions on the scale of the quadrant were tested to an accuracy of one arc second or less, while Bird’s quadrant at the Radcliffe Observatory had an error of several arc seconds since it had not been subjected to a similar innovative and rigorous test as that devised by Ramsden.
I have found no details of the observatory staff employed by the duke at Blenheim. Some found him remote in public, but a warmer personality at home. At Blenheim distinguished tourists were sometimes received by the family, but in 1802 the by then reclusive duke deeply offended Admiral Nelson by sending out refreshments to him in the park. The duke also had an observatory at Sion Hill, as well as keeping the Great Reflector at Marlborough House for occasional viewing when he was in
Sir James South gave a splendid 3¼" achromatic refractor of 4 feet focal length by Tully c.1840 to Sir John Winston Spencer-Churchill (1822–83) the seventh duke, and his widow in 1884 gave it in his memory to the Radcliffe Observatory so that it is now in the MHS. His successor George (1844–92) the eighth duke had some interest in astronomy but more in physics and chemistry, and owned several sophisticated spectroscopes.
 Howse, p. 80.
 Clarke, A.M., revised by Owen Gingerich, ‘Parker, George, second earl Macclesfield’, ODNB, 42 (2004), 670- 71.
 Allan Chapman, The Victorian Amateur Astronomer: Independent Astronomical Research in
 Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, vol. lix, cited by Gunther, 2 (1923), p. 93.
 An important point made by Tony Simcock to RH, personal communication (e-mail)
 ‘Oxfordshire’, 8, The
 Source, Derek Howse and Tony Simcock, from Derek Howse, ‘The Greenwich List of Observatories’, Journal for the History of Astronomy, 17, 4 (Nov. 1986) 100 pages, p. 66.
 Anita McConnell, Jesse Ramsden (1735–1800):
 Tony Simcock to RH, personal communication (e-mail)
 The location in the south-east tower, i.e. at the back of the palace, above the Duchess's cabinet, noted inThe
 The location of the reflector in
 McConnell, Jesse Ramsden, p. 92.
 R.T. Gunther, Early Science in
 I am grateful for this information from Tony Simcock, ‘Physics Beyond the Colleges’, in Robert Fox and Graeme Gooday (eds.), Physics in Oxford 1839–1939 (OUP, 2005), 163-4.
Other 18th Century amateurs:
The only Oxfordshire amateur of the eighteenth century that we know of is the Revd. Edward Stone, a graduate of
George Margetts (1748–1808) was a native of
 Allan Chapman to RH, letter
 The only surviving link between him and
Other 19th Century amateurs:
Norman Pogson’s Garden,
Norman Robert Pogson (1829–1891) learned astronomy while working from 1845 as a voluntary assistant to John Hind at George Bishop’s Regent Park Observatory. In the summer of 1850 Bishop appointed him with a small salary in order to help make ecliptic charts. Newly married and with a baby to support, Pogson in October 1851 joined the Radcliffe Observatory as Manuel Johnson’s second assistant. Soon afterwards he rented rooms in
Further, motivated by the necessity to build his reputation and seek advancement, probably upon Admiral William Smyth’s recommendation he borrowed from John Lee of Hartwell House one of the Admiral’s old instruments, now unused there. This was a rather unwieldy 3¾" wooden tube refractor of c.1821. Using this instrument from the garden of his home, between 1852 and 1858 Pogson constructed seven charts extending to magnitude 12. He published a catalogue of 53 variable stars, with notes on each, and these enabled him to discover altogether ten variable stars. Hence the discoveries that made his reputation as an astronomer were a result solely of his private observations during this time. One of the earliest systematic observers of variable stars, he had noticed the relative brightness of the stars in the magnitude scale proposed by Hipparchus. Pogson estimated the relative brightness of a star in decimal tenths of a magnitude. He then needed a ratio between the apparent magnitude of the star and the next above or below, and believed that it was logarithmically proportional to the brightness. Needing a precise scale extending to faint stars, in 1856 he proposed that a difference of five magnitudes should correspond exactly to a brightness ratio of 100 to 1. This Pogson Ratio was in 1906 adopted as the standard photometric method of designating a star’s magnitude.
Allan Chapman reproduces a plate of an observer he believes to be Norman Pogson standing at Dr Lee’s Hartwell House Observatory with a refractor on a portable ‘Varley-type’ mount. It is likely that this is the 3½" instrument loaned by John Lee and used by Pogson in his own time from his garden in
Professor John Phillips’s Observatory, (1862-74) private, beside the Keeper’s House at the
John Phillips (1800-1874) achieved a considerable reputation as a geologist, became Professor at King’s College London, and FRS (1834), professor in Dublin (1844) and from 1832-59 was Secretary of the BAAS. In 1853 he came to
From an early interest in astronomy, Phillips became very interested in what is today comparative planetology. He sought to compare features, especially ‘walled plains’, craters or cusps, possibly volcanic, on the Moon and then on Mars, with those on Earth, and to observe any visible changes. In 1852 he proposed to the BAAS a new method for co-operative observing and mapping the Moon, Mars, and sunspots, by observers with telescopes of about the same power, and this was adopted. His friend Thomas Cooke of
After removing to
Meanwhile, still regularly observing the Moon, Phillips turned to the favourable opportunities to observe Mars at its close oppositions in 1862 and 1864. His original 1865 water-colour map of Mars was an equatorial projection, designed by him (as stated on the original) to be folded on the zero meridian of longitude. It is thus, along with the Dutch observer Friedrich Kaiser’s map of 1864, one of the first two Mercator maps of Mars. The black and white engravings reproduced in several works do not do it justice. The colour original is better in many ways than those by Green and Schiaparelli in 1877. Phillips then took 14 of his drawings made in the autumn of 1862 ‘in order of meridian line’ [of longitude] and constructed a globe of Mars and mounted it on a wooden frame. This made it possible for the first time to determine the principal features drawn by different observers.
In 1873 Phillips offered his telescope to the new Savilian professor Charles Pritchard. In swiftly changing circumstances, this offer became the catalyst for a new University Observatory. Phillips used his experience of the University and his status on committees to gain University support, immediately amended for completed in 1875 to incorporate the gift of Warren De la Rue’s famed photographic reflector, the contents of his observatory, and, crucially, the salary of an assistant.
 For his using the Radcliffe’s equatorial, see MNRAS XIII (1853), p. 54, and Radcliffe Observatory, Results of Astronomical Observations (1863). Seven of Pogson’s personal observing Notebooks survive, Museum of the History of Science, MS Radcliffe 57–63 (books 1 to 7); in No. 1 we find mention of his need of the transit clock for this work, and in notebooks 5 and 6 there is mention of his also using the handier Dollond 3½" refractor also with the ring micrometer.
 For an illustration which Dr Allan Chapman believes to be of Pogson with that telescope in Dr Lee’s garden, see his The Victorian Amateur Astronomer (Wiley, 1998), Plate 6, p. 61. For his observing method, see Radcliffe Observatory Observations, Vol. XV.
 See MNRAS XVI (1856), pp. 185-7.
 For the announcement of the star discovered in 1858 see MNRAS XVIII (1858), pp. 283-4.
 Roger Hutchins, ‘Pogson, Norman Robert’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, xx (2004),
 Chapman, Victorian Amateur, p. 61, Plate 6. `
 The second original photo, together with Phillips letter of
 See plan of the
 R. Hutchins, ‘Professor John Phillips at
D. Principal Office Holders
The Savilian professorships at Oxford: The excellence and utility of the early work at Merton College inspired a Warden (head of the College), Sir Henry Saville, to endow in 1619 two new mathematical chairs in the university, the Savilian chair of Astronomy, and the Savilian chair of Geometry. Unusually, his inspiration was to stipulate a condition that appointment to these chairs was open to anyone, provided that they did not hold a clerical office. This innovation made the chairs unusually useful, for they attracted applicants on merit. Several men first held the chair of Geometry and then achieved transfer to the chair of Astronomy when it became available (i.e. Halley, Rigaud), and incumbents of either chair sought the readership in experimental philosophy which was lucrative because the attendees at lectures paid a fee. From 1772 to 1839 the professor of Astronomy was also the observer at the Radcliffe Observatory which had been built for the use of the University’s professor, with the additional benefit of free accommodation in an excellent house on that site. The holders of the Savilian chair of Astronomy are.
The Savilian Professors of Astronomy
(the Assistants at the
1619 John Bainbridge
1643 John Greaves
1649 Seth Ward
1661 Christopher Wren
1673 Edward Bernard
1691 David Gregory
1708 John Caswell
1712 John Keill
1721 James Bradley
1763 Thomas Hornsby
1810 Abraham Robertson
1827 Stephen Peter Rigaud
1839 George Henry Sacheverell Johnson
1842 William Fishburn Donkin
1870 Charles Pritchard
1893 Herbert Hall Turner
1932 Harry Hemley Plaskett
1960 Donald Eustace Blackwell
1988 George Petros Efstathiou
1999 Joseph Ivor Silk
(ii) The Radcliffe Observers
(the Assistants and Computers, with their dates of service, are listed in Guest (1991), Appendix B).
Thomas Hornsby (1733-1810) 1771-1810
Abraham (or Abram) Robertson (1751-1826) 1810-1826
Stephen Peter Rigaud (1774-1839) 1827-1839
Manuel John Johnson (1805-1859) 1839-1859
Robert Main (1808-1878) 1860-1878
Edward James Stone (1831-1897) 1879-1897
Arthur Alcock Rambaut (1859-1923) 1897-1923
Harold Knox-Shaw (1885-1970) 1924-1950
Andrew David Thackeray (1910-1978) 1950-1974 (post abolished)
It may seem errant to include here two observatories which were not astronomical, but they are justified by the significance of their work, and perhaps by the close association between the sciences of meteorology and astronomy.
It may be argued that the most enduringly useful work of the Radcliffe Observatory is its very long continuity of meteorological records made at the same site. These were complemented by the work at the Benson Observatory which became one of five in the
Dobson’s Laboratories on Boar’s and Shotover hills, 1924-73
Gordon Miller Bourne Dobson (1889–1976) was a physicist and ingenious experimentalist who became a pioneer of atmospheric physics. His life-long study of atmospheric ozone led to an understanding of the structure and circulation of the stratosphere. In 1920 he was recruited to
Early experiments led in 1924 to his building a laboratory shed at his home on Boar’s Hill, by 1925 making and calibrating several spectrographs. In 1928 and 1929 he extended his experiments world wide, the photographic plates with their spectra being returned to
During a long university career of lecturing and demonstrating, Dobson became a Professor and received many honours, but his attachment to the Clarendon Laboratory was nominal; ‘his fundamental advances in the study of the upper atmosphere, including the discovery of the ozone layer, were made at meteorological stations he set up at his own expense’ at his private laboratories, where all his principal research was undertaken and benefited from Royal Society and DSIR grants for apparatus and assistance. Dobson did much to establish
The Meterological Observatory, Benson, 1913
The home of William Henry Dines F.R.S. (1857–1927). Widely known as “The Benson Observatory”, it was established by William Henry Dines. Dines was independently wealthy, and inherited from his father and passed to both his sons a love of meteorology. Although unsalaried, so an ‘amateur’, he held an official position as Director of Experiments on the Upper Air from 1905 to 1922, was President of the Royal Meteorological Society 1901–02, and elected FRS in 1905. A colleague described him as having the extremely rare combination of research insight, ability to design the necessary instrument, to make it himself, to use it to advantage, and then to analyse the results, so that he was ‘the last and the greatest of the amateurs who built up the science’.
The stratosphere had been discovered in 1893, and Dines began upper air research in 1901. From 1906 to 1913 he worked from beside his home Pyrton Hill House, near Watlington, Oxfordshire, flying meteorographs from a box kite with winding gear off that hill. Dines was the first British observer, with
Dines needed to fly his instruments higher and frequently, using sounding balloons. This led him to design a cheap and sturdy instrument weighing only two ounces, and an ingenious calibration device. He built a simple, reliable, and cheap pressure tube anemometer. In 1913 Dines moved to Benson, purchased a house, and a portable building from Boulton and Paul at a cost of £459-15s-3d., the latter met by the Meteorological Office. Dines thus established the Benson Observatory, and began daily reports to the Meteorological Office now at
After 1918 Benson Observatory became a center of notable scientific activity. Dines had been addressing the nature of cyclonic and anti-cyclonic movement in the upper atmosphere. He now also investigated solar radiation from the atmosphere, and radiative heating rates from the ground to 16 kilometers height, including the effect of clouds. His most important contribution was an instrument to measure night-time radiation. Benson is a well-known frost-pocket, sometimes recording the lowest night-time temperatures in the
 Tony Simcock, ‘Physics Beyond the Colleges’, in Robert Fox and Graeme Gooday (eds.), Physics in Oxford 1839–1939 (OUP, 2005), 162-3.
 Tony Simcock, ‘Physics beyond the Colleges’, in Robert Fox (ed), Physics in
 The Dines Dynasty, a family of meteorologists, Proceedings of a Royal Meteorological Society Special Group for the History opf Meteorology, at the Science Museum 23 October 1993 (Science Museum, 1995), 67 pages, copy in the MHS.
 William Pike, ‘William Henry Dines (1855-1927)’, Weather, 60, 11 (2005), 308-15.
 ‘The Dines Dynasty’ (1995), p. 29.
 ‘The Dines Dyndasty’ (1995), p. 24.
 J.F.P. Galvin and J. McGhee, ‘Meteorology at Benson, Oxfordshire’, Weather, 60, 11 (2005), 319–25.
F: Other Oxfordshire notables:
Harriot, Thomas (1560-1621) – born in Oxford and educated there at St Mary Hall. Harriot was without doubt the first person to draw the first map of the Moon, or of an astronomical object, observed through a telescope, on July 26, 1609, over four months before Galileo. A scholar and sometime tutor to Sir Walter Raleigh, he provided navigational expertise and helped design Raleigh’s ships. He accompanied his 1585 expedition to Roanoak island. There he made a vital contribution because he learned the language of the natives
On his return to England he worked for the Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, at the Earl’s Syon House, west London, and became a prolific mathematician and astronomer to whom the theory of refraction is attributed. In 1607 his view of the great comet that became Halley’s Comet turned Harriot’s attention towards astronomy. In early 1609 he bought a “Dutch trunke” (telescope), invented in 1608, and his observations from Syon House are credited as being the first use of a telescope to observe and record an astronomical object. He also observed sunspots in December 1610, and the satellites of Jupiter. A crater on the Moon was belatedly named after him in 1970; it is on the Moon's far side and hence unobservable from Earth.
Hooke, Robert (1635-1733) – born in Freshwater, Isle of Wight, educated Wadham College Oxford. There between 1655 and 1662 he built some of the earliest Gregorian telescopes, and studied the rotation of Mars and of Jupiter.
A good Wikipedia entry states that one of the more-challenging problems tackled by Hooke was the measurement of the distance to a star (other than the Sun). The star chosen was Gamma Draconis and the method to be used was parallax determination. After several months of observing, in 1669, Hooke believed that the desired result had been achieved. It is now known that Hooke's equipment was far too imprecise to allow the measurement to succeed. Gamma Draconis was the same star James Bradley used in 1725 in discovering the aberration of light.
Hooke’s Micrographia contains illustrations of the Pleiades star cluster as well as oflunar craters. He performed experiments to study how such craters might have formed. Hooke also was an early observer of the rings of Saturn,and discovered one of the first observed double-star systems, Gamma Arietis, in 1664. After 1662 he lived principally in London, and the place he observed from, and instrument, remains to be clarified here.
Milne, Edward Arthur (1896-1950) – born Hull, educated Cambridge where he was assistant director of the Solar Physics Observatory 1920-24. After professing at Manchester in 1928 he was appointed the first Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at Oxford. There he made important contributions to theoretical astrophysics by developing his theory of ‘kinematic relativity’, which for a time rivaled Einstein’s relativity. His enduring legacy is that with Professor Harry Helmsley Plaskett in 1930 he co-founded the Oxford School of Astrophysics. See: ODNB, 38 (2004), 288-90. Also H.H. Plaskett, ‘Edward Arthur Milne’,MNRAS, 111, 2 (1951), 160-172.
Plaskett, Harry Hemley (1893-1980) was born in Toronto, Canada. From the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory he was head-hunted by Harlow Shapley to join Harvard Observatory in 1928 in order to establish a graduate programme in astrophysics. An outstanding leader in modern observational astrophysics with experience of solar work, and solid contributions to stellar and nebula astronomy, at the instigation and persuasion of E. Arthur Milne, in 1928 the new Rouse Ball professor of Mathematics at Oxford, he was appointed in 1931 to succeed Turner as professor and Director of the Oxford University Observatory. Arriving in 1932 he found the obsolete observatory involved in intense controversy between the University and the Radcliffe Trustees. Plaskett adroitly side-stepped the University politics and in 1935 gained a new Grubb solar telescope, having argued that the weather at Oxford made it possible to glean sufficient first-rate observations for really useful and interesting work for students. With Milne, he established in 1935 the first formal School of Astrophysics in the country. Plasktett contributed to solar physics for some 63 years. As President of the RAS it was Plaskett who first, in 1946, suggested the Isaac Newton 100-inch reflector for Britain, which was finally completed in 1967. See: ODNB, and Hutchins (2008).
Plummer, Henry Crozier Keating (1875-1946) – born at St Giles’s Road, Oxford, the eldest son of William Plummer (1849-1928), the new senior assistant at the Oxford University Observatory. Henry Crozier obtained a first in maths finals, and a second in natural science (physics) 1898, and was appointed by Professor H.H. Turner to be the first graduate Second Assistant at the University Observatory. In 1912 he was appointed Andrews’ professor of astronomy in the University of Dublin, Royal Astronomer of Ireland, and Director of the Dunsink Observatory – thus becoming the only Oxford graduate between 1842 and 1939 to direct a British observatory. For his interesting but difficult tenure at Dunsink until 1921 see ODNB, and Hutchins (2008).
Pritchard, Charles (1808-1893) – was born in Shropshire. Educated in Cambridge, an outstanding teacher and communicator, and Copuncil member of the RAS, in 1870 at the age of 62 he was appointed Savilian professor of Astronomy in the University of Oxford, the last cleric to be appointed to a chair of natural science there. He had long been an amateur astronomer, but did not himself observe at Oxford, where at the new Observatory completed in 1875 he relied upon his First Assistant William Plummer. Unable to achieve relevance to the students due to the then lamentable state of the mathematics curriculum at Oxford, he oversaw two programmes of research that gained RAS and Royal Society medals, and undertook a portion of the Carte du Ciel project, thereby putting the new observatory on the international map and making it a worthwhile appointment for his successor, Herbert Hall Turner. For Pritchard’s achievements in Oxford, with William Plummer as his First Assistant, see ODNB, and Hutchins (2008).
The Rollright Stones
This late Neolitihic small circle of ragged limestones on a hill top two and a half miles north west of Chipping Norton, is notably almost a true circle of 38 Megalithic yards (of 2.72 feet) diameter. The circle probably dates to about 2,900 to 2,200 B.C. It also has an isolated monolith pillar, the King Stone, nearby, as well as a much older barrow burial. www.rollrightstones.co.uk/index.php/stones outlines attempts to understand the stones.
The King Stone led to speculation that it indicated a deliberate celestial alignment. However, excavations have shown that the King Stone is associated with a cairn, and no astronomical or calendar significance can be proven for the Rollrights. Instead this small regional circle, like many others, may be associated to the people manufacturing and trading in valuable stone axes, and may have been a distribution place.
 E.C. Krupp, In Search of Ancient Astronomers (London, Chatto & Windus, 1979), 41-42.
 Aubrey Burl, Prehistoric Stone Circles (Shire Publications, 2005), 19-20, 30, 32.
 See also Gunther, 2 (1923), 108-122.
Museum of the History of Science [MHS],
Keeper: Dr Jim Bennett; Enquiries: 01865 277280 email@example.com
(The MHS has a number of important telescopes on display, a website on-line catalogue with many photos, and the Archive holds a wealth of historical material relating to astronomy in
The buildings of the Oxford University Observatory (1875-1983), including two towers and domes, have not had any connection with astronomy for more than two decades, and are not accessible to the public. The exterior can best be viewed from the University Parks, or from within the Science Area (but security restrictions on access may apply) where they are almost immersed among modern buildings.
The Radcliffe Observatory
Closed and moved to
The web site www.gtc.ox.ac.uk includes a virtual tour of the College, history and images of the Observatory, and contact details for enquiries.
The University’s Physics Department currently operates one observatory on top of the Physics Building, which houses The Philip Wetton Telescope, an 0.4 meter Meade reflector (1995) for student use. The Physics Department has an outreach programme for school visits.
See www.physics.ox.ac.uk/schools/telescope.htm for further details.
Sources for History of the
Madge G. Adam, ‘The Changing Face of Astronomy in
Jeffery Birley (ed)., A History of the Radcliffe Observatory Oxford (
Robert T. Gunther, Early Science in
Ivor Guest, Dr John Radcliffe and his Trust (London: Radcliffe Trust, 1991).
A.D. Thackeray, The Radcliffe Observatory 1772-1972 (London: Radcliffe Trust, 1972).
The City of
Societies and organisations:
Abingdon Astronomical Society - www.abingdonastro.org.uk
Chipping Norton Amateur Astronomy Group: www.cnaag.com
Oxford University Space and Astronomical Society (for University members and their families): http://users.ox.ac.uk/~space
Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Didcot, Oxfordshire, participates in outreach and international meetings, see: www.scitech.ac.uk/PandS/Events/events.aspx
The Bodleian Library
Main Enquiry Desk, Bodleian Library,
(The Archive holds those of the University Observatory 1875 onwards, and various correspondence of the University’s astronomers. The Library holds the Radcliffe Trust Records with a wealth of material relating to the Radcliffe Observatory 1772-1935).
Keeper of the Archive: Mr
Oxfordshire Record Office
Oxfordshire Studies, Central Library, Westgate,
01865 815749 firstname.lastname@example.org
(A rich collection, excellent facilities, skilled staff. But there are threats of reduced days open, or merger with ORC, so essential to check before visiting).
Oxfordshire Society for Family History
Highly organised, friendly and helpful. Check: www.ofhs.org.uk
Can you add to names and places for this county?
Astronomers, observatories, and anything appertaining to the History of Astronomy? If so, please email email@example.com