Episode 1 Supplement

Samuel Clare

Andrew Elvins

James Hughes

Charles Potter

Robert Ridgeway

Eight people attended the organizing meeting on 1868 December 1 of what became the Toronto Astronomical Club, which was renamed the Toronto Astronomical Society on 1869 May 4, and, which lead in time to the present Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. The notion of a "club" being a "society", and a "society" a "club" are present in the minutes of the first meeting:

...that a society be formed under the name of "The Toronto Astronomical Club" having for its object the aiding of each other in the pursuit of astronomical knowledge...

The minutes do survive, and can be read from the original manuscript, or transcribed from that document.

The gist of the Rev'd Professor William Hincks' letter of discouragement can be found in Peter Broughton's Looking Up (at p. 19), while a complete facsimile and transcription of G.T. Kingston's letter in the same vein can be found here. Peter's book is the authoritative account of our founding (and refounding, or revival, and renewal, and...).

Not mentioned in the podcast is the notice of the establishment of the Toronto Astronomical Club in a brief congratulatory piece in the British periodical The Astronomical Register VII 74 (1869, February), 51 (we thank Clark Muir for this reference). This was the earliest of the Victorian astronomical periodicals for amateurs; it lasted from 1863-1886. That notice counted for something in the Imperial world of amateur astronomy. For more on the Astronomical Register, see Peter Johnson, "The Astronomical Register 1863-86", JBAA 100, 2 (1990 April), 62-66, and Richard Baum, "Gems from the Astronomical Register", JBAA 122, 2 (2012 April), 125-126.

The degree of completeness of the information on the lives and astronomical pursuits of the eight founders varies widely. None of them have independent entries in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography (James Hughes' brother, the notorious Sir Sam Hughes, does merit his own entry). Only one has an entry in the Encyclopedia Uranica;  Elvins. Looking Up has a biographical entry for Elvins, but not for any of the other founders (p. 20—it's the basis for the Encyclopedia Uranica entry). For that matter, the majority of the founders (Brunt, Clare, Hughes, Potter, and Ridgeway) don't even figure in the index to Looking Up. They are now difficult to discern with any fullness against the urban background of 1860s Toronto.

Elvins left two versions of a brief autobiography, and there are comments on him and most of the other eight in the Society's Presidential Address for 1917; Albert D. Watson, "Astronomy in Canada", JRASC 11, 2 (1917, February), 46-78, at pp. 51-57. Fortunately, there are separate studies of:


J.A. Smith, "Potter, Charles - Optician and Instrument Maker", JRASC 87, 1 (1993 February), 14-33


R.A. Rosenfeld, "A Transit of Venus Dream Unfulfilled: Mungo Turnbull and Sir John A. Macdonald", JRASC 106, 1 (2012 February), 27-33


R.A. Rosenfeld & Tom Luton, "Further Light on Mungo Turnbull and the 1882 Transit of Venus Reflected in Press Reports from Toronto and Environs", JRASC 106, 2 (2012 April), 77-82

and Winder:

Peter Broughton, "Daniel Knode Winder (1828-97), the First President of the Toronto Astronomical Club", JRASC 102, 6 (2008 December), 238-241

A digital facsimile and transcription of the nicely photogenic artifact referred to in the podcast, the draft of the original bylaws, is available. Here we offer details of the effects of what is probably gallo-tannate ink on the paper (note the capitals in the first line), ink bleed through on the verso (back of the document), quality of the paper, with its faded lines, contemporary additions in a different medium (pencil), use of the verso  for calculations, and how the document was marked up for reproduction in 1941. The figures on the verso are clearly for the total solar eclipse of 1869 August 7. This was the major celestial event of the year for the Society, and the members accordingly organized themselves into an observing team, with the assignation of duties reported at their meeting of August 3 (p. 40 in the MS)—mere days away from the eclipse!1 Some of the figures on the verso of the bylaws are similar, but not identical to the observed timings of the stages and phenomena of the eclipse recorded in the Society's minutes for August 7 (p. 43-47 in the MS). Many will now be struck by the seeming casualness with which a document—an official document at that—could be pressed into service to record observations, calculations, or drafts by our Victorian predecessors. This was not an unusual occurrence at the time (see figure 2). The documents in question may have already served their primary purposes for creation, and were then eligible scrap paper for astronomical uses.

Click to see full-size image.

Click to see full-size image.

Click to see full-size image.

Click to see full-size image.

Click to see full-size image.

Click to see full-size image.

What we don't know with absolute certainty is whether this is in fact the original draft of the bylaws from late 1868, or early 1869. It could be a second or later working draft from the period. The pencil corrections and additions appear to be in the hand of the original scribe. We also don't know with certainty who that scribe was. It has traditionally been thought to have been Robert Ridgeway. The committee to draft the bylaws was constituted at the first meeting of the Society:

Moved by Mr. Winder and seconded by Mr. Hughes that Messrs Ridgway, Elvins, Clare & Turnbull be a committee to draft a set of Bye-Laws for the government of the club. Carried.

Samuel Clare, the writing master at the Toronto Normal School, was part of that committee. The question which naturally arises is why wouldn't they have assigned the writing of the document to the professional writing master? Is the scribe not more likely to have been Samuel Clare?2

Finally, there is the matter of the RASC's continuity from 1868. Much depends on how one reads the evidence. The chief informant (to use an anthropological term) from the early days who continued to play an active role into the early 20th century was Andrew Elvins. He left three accounts, and they differ somewhat.

In the first version of his autobiography (p. 9) one can read:

TAS Meeting 1880s

TAS Meeting 1880s

The society had but a short existence as such. Mr Clare's death and Mr Winder's removal to the United States were deeply felt. But weekly meetings were held at my house by a few who felt interested in Astronomy or scientific subjects. We embraced other subjects, and found it useful as far as attendance was concerned. Natural History was a favorite study among some of the members...Natural History found more enthusiasts than the Astronomical part, and it was at last decided to join the Natural History Society of Toronto which had already obtained a charter. Several of our members became its members but yet kept up interest in Astronomy, and with the assistance of Mr Roberts, and Mr A.F. Miller, Astronomy was always a favorite study.

The second version (pp. 15-16) offers:

For a time we existed in a very precarious way. Mr. Miller and I used to get together, and occasionally some others. Mr. Winder returned to the U.S.A., and business interests had so overweighted the rest of us that the work languished. Finally, Mr. Lumsden (with Mr. Ross at his back), recommended us to get incorporated [ca. 1890]...

and Watson in his 1917 Presidential Address (p. 58) remarks of Elvins that:

There were times when the Toronto Astronomical Society was not a very vigorous institution...Mr. Elvins assures me, however, and his accuracy is confirmed by others who have knowledge of the facts in the case, that the meetings of [the Society] have never been discontinued at any time since their inception in 1868.

Make of this what you will.

—R.A. Rosenfeld


  1. Aspects of their preparation could be generously termed enthusiastically incompetent, doubtless partly attributable to inexperience. Peter Broughton is gentle with them; Looking up, p. 22.  
  2. Peter Broughton came to this sensible conclusion as well; Looking Up, p.  22.  

corrigendum: at 10:24 in the podcast, I (Randall) mention "the British Astronomical Society" - this should of course be "the British Astronomical Association". Yes, I was tripped up by having to pronounce the names of too many astronomical groups with similar sounding names at one point. The mild irony is that I'm a BAA member!

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Friday, February 9, 2018 - 10:14pm