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Royal Astronomical Society Library

Address. Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1V 0NL [Map]
Telephone. (020) 7734-4582
Fax. (020) 7494-0166
e-mail. [pdh@ras.org.uk]
Internet. http://www.ras.org.uk/ras/library/library.htm

Governing body or responsible institution. Royal Astronomical Society
Function. Research library.
Subjects. Astronomy, Geophysics.

Access. Open Monday to Friday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. to members; to others with a letter of recommendation from a Fellow or person of equivalent scientific standing.
Special facilities. Photocopying facilities.
Travel directions. Nearest underground stations: Piccadilly Circus or Green Park. - No parking.


1.1 The end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century was a lean time for serious scientific study in Great Britain, especially in the exact departments of mathematics and astronomy. It was only with the founding first of the London Institution, established ``for the advancement of Literature and the diffusion of Useful Knowledge', in 1805 and then of the Geological Society of London two years later that the first signs of a scientific awakening were discerned. However not until the beginning of 1820 was a meeting of like-minded men convened to consider the establishing of a ``Society for the cultivation of astronomy', to use the wording of the official document drawn up as a record of that meeting.

1.2 The members started with plans for the reform of the Nautical almanac, which were not effected until the edition for 1834, and with the reading of papers on refraction and micrometers. Much of their early energies was taken up with the building up of funds and a library, the arranging of the printing of their memoirs and of finding a home for their activities.

1.3 The number and solidly scientific quality of the publications of the Society during the second decade of their existence are an eloquent testimony to the rapid rise of astronomical endeavour in Great Britain. Much of this credit must go to G. B. Airy (d. 1892), who had been appointed Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge in 1828. However the increasing reputation of the Society in the 1830s also owed much to the gradual rise in the number of Fellows, which stood at 243 in February 1830 and at 307 exactly ten years later. In view of the growth of the Society's library Somerset House in the Strand was eventually procured, where the annual general meeting was held for the first time in February 1835.

1.4 The library was founded in 1820 at the inception of the Society and has been increased continuously by donation and purchase. In 1846 the Society absorbed the Society of Mathematicians of Spitalfields, whose library numbered over 2,500 books mainly on mathematics and chemistry from the 17th and 18th centuries not only by English authors (Flamsteed, Wood, Bonnycastle and Newton) but also Continental authors such as Euler, Boscovic, Bernoulli and Condorcet, many of the latter category being in Latin or French. Founded in 1717 by John Middleton, the Society of Mathematicians' membership seems to have been made up indiscriminately of professional men and tradesmen united only by an interest in mathematics and natural philosophy generally.

1.5 The Mathematicians' Society seems to have begun holding public lectures on these subjects at the end of the 18th century, if not earlier, the intellectual ambition of which can be illustrated best by those held in 1821 on mechanics, hydrostatics, pneumatics, optics, astronomy, chemistry, magnetism, electricity and galvanism. Although the proceeds from these and those held in the immediately subsequent years were substantial, some being spent on augmenting the library, the future of the Society was a matter of doubt in 1829, and although it managed to struggle on with a declining membership and income, a proposal was made in 1844 to transfer the library to the ownership of the City of London, with the right of use by the remaining members guaranteed during their lifetime. Finally negotiations were opened in May 1845 to transfer it to the Royal Astronomical Society.

1.6 In the middle of the 19th century developments in physics and the rise of a new school of mathematical physics had an influence on serious astronomical study, and astronomy's scope itself was enlarged by the invention of photography and the discovery of spectrum analysis. There were three early, successful experimenters with photography among the Society's members, Warren de la Rue (1815-1889), who devoted himself to the construction of a new telescope capable of taking photographs of the moon, stars and planets, John Hartnup (1806-1885) of the Liverpool Observatory and William Lassell (1799-1880), who in 1852 transported a reflector to Malta. The 1850s were still a period when the discovery of minor planets was of great interest to astronomers, but when it quickly became obvious that increased telescopic power was responsible for the rapid rise in the known number of these interest waned. In one respect the Society found the rapid multiplication of these known bodies an embarrassment, in that publication of their ephemerides could be achieved more regularly, earlier and more fully in the Astronomische Nachrichten, which had appeared at Altona, near Hamburg, since 1823, than in its own Monthly notices.

1.7 In the 1870s much time was devoted by members of the Society to the question of permanent national provision for the teaching of and research on astronomy. In 1868 and the years following Burlington House was enlarged by the addition of east and west wings, in order to provide suitable quarters for those learned societies which still occupied rooms in Somerset House, as that was required for other purposes. The Society moved into these new premises, which it still occupies, in the middle of 1874. In 1922 the Society had bequeathed to it over 500 vols on astronomy including 40 incunabula collected by a former President of the Society, Col. Edmund Herbert Grove-Hills (1864-1922). With the exception of 3 items all were printed before 1700.


2.1 The library holds c. 25,000 items, c. 2,000 of which are pre-1801, c. 500 were printed between 1801 and 1850. There are 55 incunabula, 14 of which are Germanica.

2.2 Although the collection is strong in historical German imprints, it cannot be compared to the Crawford Collection at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh in the vast range and depth of early materials, particularly in such a specialised genre as comet literature. However the collections are remarkable in its kind. Of the incunabula several were printed at Venice by Erhard Ratdolt, a fact which gives them a strong claim to being considered German productions. There are 13 Augsburg editions, 12 of which come from Erhard Ratdolt's press.

2.3 Examples from Ratdolt's Augsburg period are Albumasar's Introductorium in astronomiam (1489; 2 other items by him), Johann Engel's Astrolabium (1488; one other item by him) or works by Petrus de Aliacus, Guido Bonatus (2 items), Isidor of Seville or Regiomontanus (3 items). (Of the German-printed incunabula 7 come from the Grove-Hills Collection). The collection includes two editions of Nicolaus Copernicus's De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (Nuremberg 1543 and Basel 1566), as well as two works by Tycho Brahe: his Astronomiae instauratae progymnasmata (Frankfurt 1610) and Historia coelestis (Augsburg 1666). Other notable early German imprints are editions of Johann Kepler's Dioptrice (Augsburg 1611), De cometis (Augsburg 1619) and Tabulae Rudolphinae (Ulm 1627), of the polymath Jesuit Athanasius Kircher Magnes, siue de arte magnetica, opus tripartitum (Cologne 1643) and Iter exstaticum coeleste (Würzburg 1671). The most prolific author, however, is Joannes de Sacro Bosco, whose Opus sphericum is represented by two Cologne editions printed by Heinrich Quentell in 1501 and 1503, and his Sphaera by editions dating from 1545 to 1566. The contemporary obsession with (apparently) supernatural occurrences is represented by a copy of Johann Carion's Prognosticatio, und Erklerung der grossen Wesserung, auch anderer erschrockenlichen würckungen (Leipzig [c. 1522]).

2.4 As well as earlier editions of works by Leonhard Euler, Christoph Scheiner, e.g. Refractiones coelestes, sive solis elliptici phaenomenon illustratum (Ingolstadt 1617), Lazarus Schoner, e.g. Tabulae astronomicae (Nuremberg 1536), Johann Hieronymus Schröter, e.g. Beobachtungen über die Sonnenfackeln und Sonnenflecken (Erfurt 1789) and Johann Friedrich Weidler, e.g. De via curvi Mercurii sub Sole in rectam convertenda (Wittenberg 1748), the general collection is also rich in 19th-century works from German presses. Many of them are by prolific authors such as Carl Friedrich Gauss, e.g. Disquisitiones arithmeticae (Leipzig 1801), Theoria motus corporum coelestium in sectionibus conicis Solem ambientium (Hamburg 1809) or Theorematis fundamentalis in doctrina de residuis quadraticis demonstrationes, et ampliationes novae (Göttingen 1818) and Johann August Grunert, e.g. Optische Untersuchungen (Leipzig 1846-1851), Loxodromische Trigonometrie: ein Beitrag zur Nautik (Leipzig 1849) and Ueber die nautische Aufgabe (Greifswald 1850). Other examples are works by Franz von Paula Gruithuisen, e.g. Ueber die Natur der Kometen, mit Reflexionen auf ihre Bewohnbarkeit und Schicksale (Munich 1811), Bedeutungsvolle und neue Erscheinungen bei der Sonnenfinsterniss vom 8. Juli 1842 (Stuttgart 1842) and Naturgeschichte des gestirnten Himmels (Munich 1836), and by Edmund Weiss, e.g. Über die Bahn des Kometen VIII des Jahres 1858 (Vienna 1858), Ueber Fixsternsysteme: ein Vortrag (Vienna 1865) and Ueber Sternschnuppen: ein Vortrag (Vienna 1863).

2.5 The presence in the library of Grunert's nautical publications is a confirmation of the continuing interest of the Society's members in the practical application of astronomy. The library's holdings of periodicals devoted exclusively to astronomy reflect the fact that these did not begin to appear until the second decade of the 19th century, i.e. significantly later than ones devoted to medicine and botany. Three noteworthy early German examples are the Astronomische Nachrichten, which was first published in 1823 at Altona near Hamburg and continued to appear at Kiel into the 1880s, the shorter-lived Astronomisches Jahrbuch für physische und naturhistorische Himmelsforscher (Munich 1838-1851) and Analekten (Neue Analekten) für Erd- und Himmels-Kunde (Munich 1828-1836). As important a medium as periodicals for the dissemination of research findings are the publications of learned societies such as the Astronomische Gesellschaft of Leipzig, whose 17 vols of Publicationen (1865-1883) and 18 of its Vierteljahresschrift (1866-1883) are held also by the library.


3.1 General Catalogues

Card catalogue

[supersedes Catalogue of the library with supplements]

Catalogue of the Grove-Hills library of the Royal Astronomical Society. London 1924

The incunables are recorded in the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC).

3.2 Historic catalogues

The articles of the Mathematical Society meeting in Brown's Lane [with] catalogue. London 1784

A catalogue of books belonging to the Mathematical Society, Crispin Street, Spitalfields [with historical preface]. London 1804

Catalogue of the library of the Royal Astronomical Society. London 1838 [1850; 1886 (with supplements 1900, 1926)]


4.1 Archival Sources

Bennett, J. A.: Catalogue of the archives and manuscripts. In: Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society 85 (1978) pp. 1-90

4.2 Publications

History of the Royal Astronomical Society 1820-1920, ed. by J. L. E. Dreyer and H. H. Turner. London 1923, pp. 243-244

The Library of the Royal Astronomical Society. Prepared by the Library Committee. In: Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 8 (1967) pp. 299-303

See also: A directory of rare book and special collections ... 2nd ed. London 1997, pp. 324-325

June 1999

William A. Kelly

Quelle: Handbuch der historischen Buchbestände in Deutschland. Digitalisiert von Günter Kükenshöner.
Hrsg. von Bernhard Fabian. Hildesheim: Olms Neue Medien 2003.