Astronomers: Bedfordshire

Dall, Horace Edward Stafford (1901-1986), born Chelmsford, but raised by relatives due death of mother in 1903. Having received a basic education he left school aged 14, taking various technical jobs and continuing his tution at his local technical college in Luton.  It was through his tutor’s recommentations that he was recruited by George Kent Ltd., with whom he stayed until retirement. He is best remembered for his technical and optical skill in the manifacture of telescopes and the camera obscura.  The latter was featured in the later editions of Amateur Telescope Maker, vol.2 (see Obit., JBAA, 97 (1987), 76-80).

Elger, Thomas Gwyn Empy  (1836-97), an engineer born in Bedford and continuing to live there. Member Liverpool A.s. First Director of the BAA Lunar Section 1892-97. A cartographer and draughtsman of the highest order. He observed with a 8.5″ (21cm) reflector, and published an 18-inch chart in 1895 (see: Leatherbarrow 2013).

Simmons, Hugh  (1891-1962), of ‘Solaris’, Edlesborough, Dunstable, Beds. He worked at Whipsnade Zoo. He used a 10cm refractor for solar work, mostly drawing sunspots and prominences. A member of ‘Mr Barker’s Circle’, an observing group of eight men active from April 1934 to December 1938 and May 1946 to May 1948. See: Hertfordshire, Robert Barker, and for an excellent article (McKim 2013).

Smyth, William Henry (1788-1865), born in Westminster, Middlesex. After a naval career which included surveying in the Mediterranean, and befriending Giuseppe Piazzi, director of the Royal Observatory at Palermo with whom he undertook some observing, Smyth retired as a Captain on half-pay and gradually rose up the retired list to the rank of Admiral.

After 1830, with his powerful Tully, Smyth observed double stars and nebulae which became the Bedford Catalogue of 1844, forming volume 2 of his book Cycle of Celestial Objects. His book described how to economically build an observatory for a good 4″ to 6″ refractor, good observing practice, and how to do useful work. Given the difficult and very high cost of larger glass blanks, in the 1840s to 1850s, those were good size telescopes. Since John Herschel’s and James South’s RAS Gold Medal in 1826, interested gentlemen saw work on double stars and searching for minor planets yield international recognition and awards. However, because South stopped his early work, then fell out with Troughton, Smyth’s Observatory was in 1830 the second most important after John Herschel’s at Slough, but, unlike John Herschel, Smyth adapted Herschel’s objectives and method by applying precision micrometer measurements, and repeated observations. In this way Smyth brought a new precision to the new English speciality of observing double stars, and this was the basis of his astronomical reputation.

In his book Smyth drew a plan and described his observatory as being ‘a plan on as small and economical a scale as was consistent with the required efficiency’ (Cycle I, p. 326); he encouraged ‘the Uranian aspirant’ with a 5-foot [i.e. 3¾-inch object glass] that he had ’11 [square] inches of [light collecting] area’ (p. 370); the English climate required ‘moral courage’, so he addressed not ‘a dabbler’ but ‘the amateur’, ‘the true Uranian’ (pp. 378 and 383); similarly he differentiated ‘mechanicians like Troughton’ (p.380) from ‘indifferent workmen’ (p. 384). This was powerful persuasion. Hence the book, combined with Smyth’s activity and influence within the RAS, was very influential. It was the inspiration for at least half a dozen observatories, including Bidston, and the Yorkshire Philosophical Society.

Smyth’s son-in-law was Professor Baden Powell of Oxford. His son Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900) was a brilliant but eccentric and somewhat controversial Astronomer Royal for Scotland 1844-1900 (See Smyth’s Observatory below; Chapman 1997ODNB)