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The history of
Astronomy in
Wales:
Introduction



Published
Summaries
of the Subject



People


Publications:
Books and
Journals



Astronomical
Societies in
Wales



Astronomical
Observatories
in Wales



Universities
in Wales



Historic
Observations



Eclipses in
Wales



Meteorite
Falls in Wales



Names of
astronomical
objects



Odds and
ends



Commentary


Web
Links



  

A COMMENTARY

ON THE
HISTORY OF ASTRONOMY IN WALES

BY BRYN JONES



Introduction

While other pages on this web site describe past astronomical activities in Wales, it may now be of interest to discuss the context behind the subject, allowing the author to voice some personal opinions. These opinions are necessarily subjective.



Past accomplishments

It is clear that before the middle of the twentieth century, astronomical activity in Wales was mostly pursued by amateur astronomers. There are remarkable stories of the work of amateurs in studying and observing the Universe, sometimes achieving personal success in spite of adversity.

An obvious conclusion is that many amateur astronomers in Wales tended to work in relative isolation up to the close of the nineteenth century. Some did have frequent contact with collaborators, locally and further afield, allowing them to achieve considerable success in their fields, such as Sir William Lower and John Prydderch in their early use of the telescope around 1610, or Nathaniel and Edward Pigott near Llantwit Major in the 1780s, or John Dillwyn Llewelyn's early success in photographing the Moon in the middle of the nineteenth cenutry. However, the majority did not belong to larger scientific networks.

This isolation largely ended with the establishment of the Astronomical Society of Wales in 1894, and its limited replacement by local astronomical societies in the 1910s and 1920s.

High-level academic research began with the activities of Thomas George Cowling, first in Swansea and later in Bangor in the 1930s and 1940s. His activities in the University of Wales were, however, within the context of mathematics departments, relatively isolated from other astronomers. Only with the establishment of research groups in astronomy in Aberystwyth and Cardiff in the last three decades of the twentieth century did a strong research base emerge in astronomy, achieving prominence on an international basis.



Weaknesses

Despite this, research activities were limited before the 1960s: it should be remembered that the real significance of of astronomical activities must be judged by cutting-edge research, involving the discovery of new principles and explaining for the first time how the Universe operates.

Universities came relatively late to Wales, in particular as far as science was concerned. Science was very important in the University of Wales from the start in the second half of the nineteenth century, but astronomy was slow to develop. It is important to remember that teaching at a level broadly equivalent to that of universities was established in the colleges of various religious denominations in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. These colleges, however, existed to train people for their religious ministries alone and therefore concentrated their teaching on theology and the humanities. The first institution formally associated with the word university (though not actually a university in its own right) was St. David's College, founded in Lampeter in 1827 to train candidates for the Anglican priesthood, and which received the power to award its own Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1852. Like the nonconformist academies, it was fundamentally a theological institution and had scant involvement with science. The university colleges at Aberystwyth (founded 1872), Cardiff (1883), Bangor (1884) and Swansea (1920) were strongly committed to scholarship and research across the sciences and humanities, but did not include astronomy in their early years.

It is regrettable that there was not more university activity in Wales before the nineteenth century, as was the case in England at Oxford and Cambridge or in Scotland at St. Andrews, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Had there been we could expect that scientific research would have included astronomy. Equally people trained in them might have pursued scientific research aided by the formal education that universities provide. Figures born in Wales such as Robert Recorde, Joseph Harris, William Jones and Rev. Lewis Evans relocated to England to pursue their careers. The presence of universities in Wales might have acted to retain some of these individuals closer to the communities from which they came. There were many proposals to establish universities in Wales before the mid-19th century, most famously in the years following 1400. Had any of these succeeded we might well have more historical astronomical activities to record in these pages.

The isolation of amateur astronomers up to the late nineteenth century was overcome by the Astronomical Society of Wales between 1894 and 1914, and by local astronomical societies after this. Relatively little information survives of the activities of the local societies in the first half of the twentieth century, making it difficult to assess their success if any. Participation in Britain-wide organisations, particularly the British Astronomical Association after its foundation in 1890 was moderately strong, although these tended to be rather remote geographically from amateur astronomers in Wales. The ending of the Astronomical Society of Wales around 1914 was a major set back to amateur astronomy in Wales.

Had the Astronomical Society of Wales continued it could have offered a focus to the activities of amateur astronomers through the period up to the later twentieth century when local societies became numerous.



Lessons for the present and future

Academic astronomical research is healthy in Wales today through activities in Cardiff and Aberystwyth. This is likely to continue.

Amateur astronomy is very active, and some integration has been achieved in South Wales through joint meetings of local astronomical societies. Some areas, particularly mid, southwest and northeast Wales are poorly served by local astronomical societies.






   
This page was created and is maintained by Bryn Jones.   E-mail: bryn.jones.email@gmail.com .
WWW home page: http://www.jonesbryn.plus.com/ .
This page was first created in January 2000   (at a different address).
It was last modified on 3rd March, 2009.
URL of this page: http://www.jonesbryn.plus.com/wastronhist/commentary.html .
This page replaced in August 2008 the old page http://brynjones.members.beeb.net/wastronhist/commenty.html .   An archived copy of the old page is available here.