John Bonnycastle’s Planetarium in his Introduction to Astronomy (1811)


John Bonnycastle's Planetarium

John Bonnycastle's Planetarium

Contributor: Caroline Bertonèche

Location: London

Description: In 1781, when William Herschel, the British astronomer and musician who died in Hanover, Germany, in 1822 just a year after Keats’s death in Italy, discovered the new planet Uranus, Keats was not yet born. However, after his birth in 1795, it only took Keats a few years, around a decade or so, to discover the world of astronomy. In his Recollections of Keats by an Old School-Fellow, dated January 1861, his friend Charles Cowden Clarke recalls how Keats had learned about planetary movement and the architecture of the skies in boyhood. His teacher, John Rylands, used to introduce his students to the solar system by inventing games, a creative way of seeing the school playground as a place of experimentation and imagination where the boys could picture the heavens and build their own human orrery. Biographers are still unsure as to why exactly Keats was given John Bonnycastle’s work of popular science, An Introduction to Astronomy. In a Series of Letters from a Preceptor to his Pupil, originally published in 1786, and whether it was awarded to him in 1811 as a prize for one of his early essays or as a reward for his English translation of Virgil’s Aeneid – an epic project which he never quite finished. In the end, Keats only translated half of the poem, which for a young schoolboy was still a rather admirable accomplishment. From Latin poetry to Romantic astronomy, this example of Keatsian scholarship therefore makes for an interesting connection between Keats’s first translation of Virgil and George Chapman’s first translation of Homer (Keats had studied Latin but not Greek), which inspired the poet to write his now famous sonnet, ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’, published in The Examiner, on December 1st, 1816. By the end of the poem, the Romantic traveller will have paid tribute to many different European figures, both ancient and modern, including William Herschel, ‘the watcher of the skies’.

Continue reading “John Bonnycastle’s Planetarium in his Introduction to Astronomy (1811)”

Herschel’s Grand Forty-Feet Telescope

Herschel's Telescope

Contributor: Elsa Cazeneuve

Location: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Description: This document is a hand-coloured illustration of Herschel’s Grand Forty-Feet Reflecting Telescope, engraved by J. Pass for the 1819 edition of the Encyclopedia Londinensis (or Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature), and featured in the chapter related to “Optics”. At the time, Herschel’s Forty-Feet Telescope was the largest in the world and cost over 4000 pounds, paid for by King George III. Its construction began in 1786, and was completed in 1789; the telescope was erected at Herschel’s home, near Slough. It soon became a touristic attraction and a scientific curiosity: people would travel all the way from Paris to admire this new wonder and some even likened it to the Colossus of Rhodes. Later on, the telescope was marked on the 1830 Ordinance survey map of the area. Unfortunately, Herschel’s last telescope would take years to demonstrate its worth, as it had to rotate very slowly to show various aspects of the heavens. William Herschel and his sister Caroline, who worked together, found that the telescope was difficult to set up and maintain and William’s son eventually had it dismantled in 1840. Interestingly enough, the dates of construction and demise of the forty-footer cannot but recall those of the Romantic era: Herschel’s grand telescope came to serve as a symbol of the unbounded Romantic imagination.

Continue reading “Herschel’s Grand Forty-Feet Telescope”