Going Royal: A History of Public Service
By Denis Grey with contributions from Peter Broughton
During the great planetary conjunction of April 2002, thousands of Canadians flocked to public star parties to marvel at the five brightest planets lined up in the western sky at dusk. Countless telescopes and volunteers were on hand to show close-up views of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter, along with the crescent Moon. Children of all ages were treated to the wonders of our Universe as seen through their own eyes. From Vancouver to Halifax, those star parties were hosted by one organization — The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC). Many of our guests didn’t realize that the RASC was carrying on a tradition that began well before they were born. The same oohs and aahs that greeted their first glimpse of Saturn’s rings or Jupiter’s moons are echoes of the gasps of joy and delight that our kindred astronomers from the Edwardian era enjoyed a century ago.
How It All Began
In 1868, a group of friends began meeting and decided to form the Toronto Astronomical Club. The club persisted under various names, including the Astronomical and Physical Society of Toronto (the use of the word “physical” raising many Victorian eyebrows) and the Toronto Astronomical Society. By 1900, it was clear that limiting the society to “Toronto” wasn’t appropriate, as several other nearby communities had affiliated themselves with the group. In 1902, in the aftermath of the tour of Canada by the Duke of Cornwall and York (the future George V), “royal fever” was at its height, and the Society’s councillors seized upon the idea of “going Royal.” After some debate, it was also decided to seek the appellation “of Canada” instead of “of Toronto” or even “of Ontario.” It was a bold move to open up the Society to the whole nation. In January 1903, a petition was drawn up and forwarded to King Edward VII to use the prefix “Royal” in the name of the Society. On 1903 March 3, The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada was officially incorporated.
A Century of Progress
The history of the RASC reflects the transition of astronomy from the world of the gentleman scientist to today’s “naturalist of the night.” In the early years, many of the Society’s goals were focused on encouraging research as well as public interest in astronomy. In 1901, George Lumsden, the first Canadian-born president of the Society, looked to the future, stating: “May the President of the Society who stands in my place one hundred years from tonight be able to speak to his audience of the usefulness [of the Society to Science].” His emphasis on the “usefulness” of the Society and its activities at the turn of the last century reflected the fact that the separation between amateurs and professionals that exists today was just beginning to make itself felt at that time. A good example was the founding of North America’s first Messier Club in Montreal in the early 1940s by RASC member Isabel Williamson (S&T: November 2000, page 88). The club’s goal at the time was not to find all the Messier objects for their own sake, but to train variable-star observers in star-hopping techniques. The conflicting dual emphasis on professional and amateur work was clarified with the creation of the Canadian Astronomical Society as a professional association in 1971. The RASC then held a clearer and more focused mandate to serve the needs of amateurs and the general public. Over the years the Society grew by attracting new chapters — or Centres, as they are known — to join. The RASC quickly became as much a federation of astronomy clubs as a national organization. During World War II, many smaller Centres nearly shut down as their membership was sapped by overseas service and the war effort. Special events, such as the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1910 and 1986, helped boost membership and interest in the Society. RASC Past President, Rajiv Gupta, summed it up well when he said: "In the 100 years since the great-grandfather of the current monarch of Canada honoured the Society with its Royal Charter, the RASC has blossomed into a major player in the community of stargazers, playing a key role not only in the advancement of astronomy in Canada but also worldwide, through its well-respected publications." The best-known RASC publication is the annual Observer’s Handbook, which has been published continuously since 1911. Consisting of more than 100 authoritative articles, tables, and diagrams from more than 50 contributors, the Handbook is an indispensable field and desk reference for the active amateur and professional alike.
The Society’s official magazine is the Journal, produced bimonthly. Roughly half of its content is related to RASC activities, while the other half provides a forum for technical articles written by both professionals and amateurs. In addition, many local Centres also publish their own newsletters highlighting local activities and events. Names like Starseeker, Regulus, Polaris, Stardust, Skyward, SCOPE, and AstroNotes represent the labour of their many active contributors and members.
The RASC Today
From 120 members in 1903, the RASC has grown to about 4,000 strong, including about 500 "unattached" members from remote parts of Canada and around the world. With the addition of Charlottetown Centre in Prince Edward Island in 2000, the Mississauga Centre in 2006, and the Sunshine Coast Centre in 2008, the RASC now reaches every province of Canada. Local Centres offer a full range of astronomical activities, including star parties, regular meetings, invited talks, and other social events. Meetings are open to all and are generally free of charge whenever possible.
|Turn of the 20th century star party near Toronto.|
Neighbouring Centres frequently work together. The Calgary and Toronto Centres, for example, often sponsor solar-eclipse expeditions for open to all RASC members. The Regina and Saskatoon Centres jointly host the yearly Saskatchewan Summer Star Party, where Comet Petriew, P/2001 Q2, was discovered in August 2001. The Calgary and Edmonton Centres co-manage the Eccles Ranch dark-sky site, where the annual Alberta Star Party is held, while many Centres host annual banquets to which members from nearby Centres are invited. For many in the RASC family, the highlight of the year is the Society’s annual General Assembly. The event features guest speakers, paper sessions, and meetings of the Society’s national council and its general membership. While the focus of the RASC is Canadian, many of our members have achieved international recognition. They include astronomy popularizer, comet discoverer, and S&T contributor David Levy (Montreal and Kingston Centres), astrophotography guru Jack Newton (Winnipeg and Victoria), author and Sky and Telescope contributor Alan Dyer (Edmonton), and SkyNews editor Terence Dickinson (Toronto), to name a few. If the founders of the RASC were with us today, I think they would also be very pleased to find that their inspiration and boldness have paid off in the form of the organization that carries forward their vision and dedication to astronomy.
Acknowledgement: thanks to Timothy Humphries for improvements
RASC Headquarters, etc.
This map shows all the locations of RASC Headquarters over the years, as well as some observatories and planetaria.