Astronomy in Scotland, 1745-1900

Gavine, David Myles (1982). Astronomy in Scotland, 1745-1900. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.00010107

Abstract

Despite advances in applied sciences in Scotland from the late eighteenth century, no significant astronomical discoveries were made. Nevertheless it was taught in every university, in at least half of the burgh academies and in many smaller schools. Instruction in celestial navigation ranged from universities to remote coastal communities, while private teachers proliferated in the towns, especially in Edinburgh around 1815. There followed a gradual concentration of the subject into specialised institutions, but popular astronomy attracted large middleclass audiences between 1815 and 1850, notably through itinerant
showman-lecturers.

Astronomy was regarded as a necessary part of general culture and education, encouraged by the Presbyterian ethos, and was until the 1880s taught to all undergraduates as part of natural philosophy; but the superficial mathematics courses were, until mid-century, heavily biased towards geometry. The immaturity of the undergraduates, the wide curriculum dominated by moral philosophy, college penury and a self-perpetuating professoriate all ensured that although astronomical knowledge was widespread among educated men - indicated by many and varied publications - refined techniques of observation and analysis were lacking for advanced celestial mechanics. The university observatories were inadequately used for instruction, and the most efficient, Glasgow, suffered from a deteriorating environment.

Amateur astronomy was, until the late nineteenth century, practised predominantly by wealthy landowners and confined to the determination of time, latitude and longitude. Few such observatories survived beyond a decade. Four capitalist "astronomical societies" built observatories between 1810 and 1830 but apathy and financial insecurity rendered them ineffective. The Scottish telescope makers were of local significance only. Notable contributors to astronomy - Ferguson, Gill, Henderson, Nasmyth, Short and Smyth - attained their reputations away from Scotland's restricted resources, but at home, owing to low ecliptic altitude and climate, observations were limited to routine positional work and some solar investigation. Only Dunecht, with German-trained staff, became an observatory of world rank.

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