The history of
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One of the most prominent figures in amateur astronomy in Wales a century ago was Arthur Mee. He achieved his reputation as the result of his efforts to coordinate astronomical activities, especially the work of amateur astronomers. He was known as an active observer, author and populariser of astronomy, as well as a journalist, amateur astronomer, amateur historian, author and educator. He had a pivotal role in Welsh amateur astronomy for three decades from the end of the 19th century. He instigated the foundation of the Astronomical Society of Wales in 1895 and edited its journal.
At the outset, it must be made clear that he is not the Arthur Mee (1875-1943) who edited the Children's Encyclopaedia: by coincidence, the two authors shared the same name.
This page is an extended version of an article prepared for the forthcoming Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers and of an article that appeared in the Newsletter of the Cardiff Astronomical Society in 2002.
Arthur Butler Phillips Mee was born in Aberdeen on 21st October, 1860. His father, George S. Mee, was for some time a pastor in the Baptist Church. His mother, Elizabeth Mee (nee Phillips), came originally from Pembrokeshire. However, the father left the ministry and became a journalist, initially in Bradford, but later in Llanelli. Arthur Mee therefore spent part of his childhood in the West Wales town. He followed his father into journalism and worked on a newspaper based in Llanelli. It was there that he married Claudia Thomas in 1888.
Arthur Mee moved to Cardiff in 1892 to take up a job working for the Western Mail, a major regional newspaper which then served South and Mid Wales. He became an assistant editor and wrote a regular column under the pseudonym "Idris". He continued working for the newspaper until his death.
An Amateur Astronomer
Arthur Mee developed an early interest in astronomy. He was an active observer from the age of seventeen. He acquired an 8 1/2-inch Calver reflector, using it firstly in Llanelli, and later from an observatory with a run-off roof at his Cardiff home. He specialised in observations of Solar System objects, particularly of the Moon and Mars. This was a time when well-equipped amateurs could contribute productively to science by charting and monitoring the surfaces of Solar System objects. The distinguished French astronomer Cammille Flammarion used examples of Mee's drawings of Mars in his two-volume book La Planète Mars, a detailed review of the state of knowledge of the planet a century ago. Mee regularly contributed his observations to amateur scientific journals, such as the magazines Knowledge and The English Mechanic, and to the publications of the British Astronomical Association. These included descriptions of sunspots, meteors and eclipses.
Organising Astronomical Activities
Interesting though his observing activities might have been, Arthur Mee's major contribution to astronomy was probably his role in organising and encouraging amateur astronomers. When he moved to Cardiff in 1892, he made contact with some local amateur astronomers. He was aware of the importance of astronomical societies in coordinating activities: Mee had been a founder member of the British Astronomical Association in 1890. There was no local astronomical society in Cardiff at that time; indeed there were few anywhere in Britain. Neither was there any such organisation on a Wales-wide basis. Wales had produced many amateur astronomers through the years, but they had usually carried out their studies in isolation with very little coordination of their work. There had been little opportunity to exchange ideas or experience.
Mee therefore took action to fill this gap: he encouraged a group of amateurs to call a meeting to propose the formation of an all-Wales astronomical society. This would be a parallel in Wales of the B.A.A. at a British level. The meeting took place in Neville Street, Cardiff, on 14th December, 1894, and as a result the Astronomical Society of Wales was born. Arthur Mee, the force behind its creation, became both the first President and the editor of its journal.
He produced the Journal on an monthly basis for two years, which would have represented a major commitment of his time. The Journal was replaced in 1898 with a magazine called the Cambrian Natural Observer. This was intended to carry news of the activities of the Society and its members, but also to carry articles about natural sciences in Wales, such as meteorology and botany. This was clearly an attempt to find more material and readers to support a regular journal than astronomy alone would allow, although astronomy regularly dominated the publication. Mee continued to edit the magazine. It sometimes appeared monthly, at other times quarterly or annually, until it was replaced by a return to the Journal of the Astronomical Society of Wales in 1911. He also edited annual almanacs for the Society, summarising interesting events in the night sky over the course of a year. Mee's efforts to convey articles and reports about astronomy to a wide audience through the Society's publications continued until the Society was disbanded during the First World War. Even then he published articles in local newspapers as a substitute for the lapsed journal.
Arthur Mee wrote a book Observational Astronomy as an introduction to amateur observing. It ran to two editions (1893 and 1897). He produced a booklet The Story of the Telescope (1909).
In the 1890's and 1900's Mee had a role in coordinating the setting up of the Cardiff City Observatory, a publicly owned 12-inch reflector in Penylan. He negotiated the donation of the telescope by a local doctor, Franklen Evans (1826-1904), to the city council, and the siting of the telescope on public land. In a parallel act of generosity some years later, Arthur Mee himself donated his 8 1/2-inch telescope to the Barry Astronomical Society, allowing the society to set up an observatory. He then continued to observe using a six-inch telescope.
In these Web pages devoted to the history of astronomy in Wales, it is essential to acknowledge Arthur Mee's contribution to the subject. Mee supplied much historical information to Silas Evans for the chapter about Welsh astronomy in Seryddiaeth a Seryddwyr. Indeed, the book was dedicated to him.
Mee had a wide range of interests besides astronomy. These ranged from literature to languages to local history to current affairs. He published in a number of these fields. He was the editor of the book Who's Who in Wales, First Edition, published by the Western Mail in 1921. The book demanded coordinating biographical information about several thousand prominent Welsh people. Very unusually for an astronomer, he took some interest in astrology later in his life. This indicates that his commitment to the strong rigour of modern science might not have extended through all of his activities.
Accounts from friends and colleagues described Mee as being diffident, having a strong sense of humour, always being keen to help others, and being short in physical height. His humour and self-deprecation is clear from his writing. In his own entry in Who's Who in Wales, he wrote that early in life he intended to study medicine, but "saved many lives by becoming a journalist".
Mee has often been confused with the English author Arthur Henry Mee (1875-1943), writer of many books including the King's England series of county guides. Indeed in his own Who's Who in Wales article, Mee the astronomer joked that "at present his leisure is mostly occupied in explaining to enquirers that he is not Arthur Mee of the `Children's Encyclopaedia.'"
Mee was suddenly taken ill on 15th January, 1926, on returning to his home in Llanishen after working at the offices of the Western Mail. He passed away that evening from heart failure at the age of 65. He was survived by his wife.
Mee's legacy was to have encouraged scores of amateur astronomers in their activities. Without his inspiration many would not have turned their gaze skyward. However, not all of his achievements were to last. The Astronomical Society of Wales did not outlive him and the Cardiff City Observatory has not survived to the present day. It is perhaps regrettable that we have not had more people with Arthur Mee's vision and energy to continue his work. However, one permanent memorial of this remarkable man remains: the crater Mee in the southern uplands of the near side of the Moon has been named after him.
Some of the reference materials can be found on the companion page here.
This page was created and is maintained by Bryn Jones. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org .
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 5th January, 2009.
URL of this page: http://www.jonesbryn.plus.com/wastronhist/people/amee/p_amee.html .
This page replaced in August 2008 the old page http://brynjones.members.beeb.net/wastronhist/p_amee.html . An archived copy of the old page is available here.