By Matthew McMahon, Observatory Museum Assistant
“History is essential to science as roots to a tree. Modern Astronomy may be likened to a great city built on foundations dating back so far as to almost as old as the human race.”Basil J. W. Brown
The study of astronomy has never been limited to the professional sphere, for as long as we’ve been craning our necks to take a look at the stars, we’ve been studying them. Basil J. W. Brown was born in England in 1888 to a farming family. He began an interest in astronomy by studying his grandfather’s old books when he was five. Though he left school at twelve, he was a lifelong learner, who was rarely not on the roll of some evening class, or distance learning program. By nineteen he had been awarded diplomas in Astronomy and other sciences through a correspondence college.
Today he is best remembered for his work as an archeologist, and his defining work as the discoverer and excavator on the Sutton Hoo ship have recently been made into a film by Netflix; The Dig (2021). His other passion however was astronomy, and in 1918 he joined the British Astronomical Association, though his membership would later lapse because of financial strain. He owned a two-inch aperture telescope and made a slew of observations throughout the 1920’s and beyond. His first published work appeared in The English Mechanic and would later publish his first historical articles in the British Astronomical Associations journal.
It was in the combination of these twin loves of history and astronomy that led Basil Brown to publish his book ‘Astronomical Atlases, Maps and Charts’ in 1932. He had been working on the book for four years when he published it and it would receive a second publishing in the 1960’s. Basil’s book was a continuation of his research into historical astronomy. He paid particular attention to other amateur astronomers throughout history, such as James Ferguson, born in Scotland in 1710. Ferguson was the son of a laborer and much like Basil, developed a love of astronomy early on in life.
His book also references several other works held by Armagh Observatory, such as the catalogues of observations made John Pond at Greenwich Observatory. And of course, he refences the New General Catalogue compiled by the fourth director of the Observatory John Louis Emil Dreyer, a catalogue still in use by astronomers today. Here at Armagh Observatory and Planetarium we hold two copies of the first edition, one given as gift to our seventh Director Dr. Lindsey in 1958 which is held in our library for reference by our students. The other was part of the personal library of Mervyn Ellison, son of the sixth Director, Reverend William F. A. Ellison, and is now held in the Ellison historic collection.
Basil Brown was a keen amateur astronomer who combined his passion for history with an appreciation for the night sky and a dedication to his work. He would go on to be better remembered for his work as an archeologist, but his work on the history of astronomy was no less important to its field.