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Astronomy Lectures in Coventry

Astronomy has always been a scientific topic which readily engages the public, and astronomy outreach forms an important element of Warwick University's science communication efforts. However, records show that this is by no means a recent phenomenon.

Astronomical lecture advertised on 14th May 1830 in the Coventry HeraldIn the 1820s and 1830s, the Coventry Herald newspaper advertised a series of astronomical exhibitions and lectures, typically occurring in the Draper's Hall or St Mary's Hall, and almost always accompanied by the exhibition of a "grand orrery". These appear to have been impressive devices - advertisements suggest that diameters of 40 or more feet were not unusual, and they are described as transparent, suggesting some form of sphere illustrating the fixed stars, within which the orrery mechanism shows the motions of solar system bodies. As the advertisement for Mr Walker's lecture of 1830 proclaims: "The Learned will be gratified, the unlearned instructed and delighted!"

As the nineteenth century progressed and the movements for self-improvement and wider education developed, the nature of public astronomy events (or at least their advertised highlights) appear to have shifted from the spectacle of the grand orrery to more educational lectures accompanied by simple magic lantern slides - at first as occasional events by peripatetic lecturers and then in association with more formal educational institutions. Examples include Mr Mackintosh's lecture at the Mechanics Institute (16th Nov 1849), astronomy lectures at the "Religious and Useful Knowledge Society" reported in 1852, Mr John Lea's lectures to the "Working Men's Self-Improvement Society" in 1861, the Rev. J W Kiddle's lecture to the "Mutual Improvement Society" in 1874, and the lecture series of 1888 hosted by the Coventry University Extension Society.

While many such societies foundered as universal education improved and formal studies became more accessible but astronomy lectures went on into the twentieth century, now often with expert speakers travelling from a considerable distance. In 1931 and 1935, Professor Selig Brodesky visited the city, while in 1937, the Technical College hosted a lecture by Sir James Jeans - a well known astronomer, astronomy popularising author and broadcaster.

In the second half of the twentieth century, Coventry's centres for further and higher education, along with the growing Coventry Astronomical Society became the dominant venues and sponsors of astronomy lectures. Both came to the fore in turn in the 1950s when first the Technical College Astronomical Society (1952) and then the Coventry Engineering Society at the Technical Institute (1955) hosted the then Astronomer Royal, Sir Harold Spencer-Jones, for popular science talks.

Moving into the twenty-first century, both the University of Warwick and the Coventry and Warwickshire Astronomical Society routinely host public outreach events including lectures, child-friendly Christmas Lectures and even Astronomy on Tap.

Lectures advertised in the Coventry Herald newspaper:

10th Dec 1912 - Report of a notice published in 1812: "The Dioastrodoxon or Grand Transparent Orrery" to explain the comet of 1811. By Mr Lloyd at St Mary's Hall on Friday 20th November.

9th Nov 1827 - "The Eidouranion or Grand Transparent Orrery" at Draper's Hall. By Mr R Franklin. Front seats 2s/Back seats 1s (reported again 4th Nov 1927

19th June 1829 - Astronomical Exhibition with a grand transparent orrery, "D S Whitehead".

14th May 1830 - Mr Walker delivering a lecture at St Mary's Hall, with a grand concave orrery, 42 feet in diameter.

27th Sept 1833 - Mr Franklin, showing a 40ft orrery at St Mary's.

29th May 1835 - Mr Whitehead will deliver a course of lectures on astronomy at St Mary's Hall. illustrated by a number of diagrams and a transparent orrery.

[Coventry Standard] 11th October 1839 - Messrs Keevil at St Mary's hall on Oct 15 and 16. "2 lectures on astronomy. After each lecture, Messrs Keevil will exhibit their diorama or dissolving views, consisting of upwards of 5,000 square feet of canvas illuminated by hydro-oxygen gas."

4th November 1842 - Mr R Children at St Mary's Hall, two lectures on astronomy. "an extensive variety of splendid transparent scenery, a large quantity of ingeniously constructed mechanical apparatus and a most superbly grand orrery"

[Coventry Standard] 9th August 1861 - Coventry Working Men's Self-Improvement Society: "The lecture was highly creditable to a working man, and must have cost him great labour."

[Coventry Standard] 27th March 1874 - Mutual Improvement Society

4th November 1902 - Mr Richard Kerr on The Moon, at the Corn Exchange.

14th October 1910 - Sir Oliver Lodge on the history of astronomy at Stevens' Memorial Hall

17th Feb 1920 - "The Popular Lecture Society" - Mr Joseph McCabe on "the birth and death of worlds"

18 Mar 1927 - Allesley Women's Institute, lecture by Mr Marshall on astronomy

15th Nov 1931 - Coventry library lecture at St Mary's Hall by Prof S Brodetsky

6th Nov 1935 - Prof Brodetsky again

23rd January 1937 - Lecture at Technical College by sir James Jeans

21st Sept 1942 - Twelve lectures at the technical college.