RASC—Eyes on the Universe for 150 Years


Viewing the Moon Across Time



A. Materials and techniques for experimental archaeology

Guides to Observational Equipment, and Techniques

The standard amateur observing manual in 1868 was arguably that by the Rev'd Thomas William Webb, Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes, 2nd ed. (London: Longman's, Green, and Co., 1868). It's first chapter discusses instruments (pp. 1-9), and advice on observing techniques are scattered throughout (pp. 9-17, et passim). A long chapter is devoted to the Moon (pp. 54-118), and the work containes what is essentially an outline map (1st quadrant; 2nd quadrant; 3rd quadrant; 4th quadrant) based on Beer and Mädler’s famous lunar map of 1837. Beer and Mädler's map was still the authroitative lunar map for amateurs in the 1860s, although its limitations were recognized—hence the organization of the British Association for the Advancement of Sciences's Lunar Committee for Mapping the Surface of the Moon (ca. 1864-ca. 1869), to improve on Beer and Mädler, and the Selenographical Society (1878-1882) which followed it, to rally amateur efforts to improve lunar mapping.

George F. Chambers, A Handbook of Descriptive and Practical Astronomy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1867), offers a more conectedly thorough discussion of amateur equipment, and techniques than Webb (pp. 603-704, 709), but his chapter on the Moon is shorter (pp. 70-83). He also has a brief chapter on lunar eclipses (pp. 203-207).

The writings of the science popularizer Thomas Dick were immensely influential among amateurs in the generation of the Society's founders. His The Practical Astronomer (London: Seeley, Burnside, and Seeley, 1845) presented a hands-on guide to astronomy as a supplement to his more descriptive works. Information on instruments and techniques are scattered throughout the text (pp. 218-224, 254-264, 296-301, 335-347, 361-407, 443-452, 485-491, 563-567, but not limited to those pages!).

An attratctive work specificially aimed at beginners (and of the period of the Society's founding) is Mary Ward's The Telescope: a Familiar Sketch..., 3rd edition (London: Groombridge and Sons, 1869). Her lunar map is suitable for low-power viewing, either with opera or field-glasses, or telescope. She discusses the beginner's apparatus, and how to observe (pp. 1-21) . The Moon is treated (pp. 36-49), as are eclipses (pp. 50-58). 

With a bit of searching you should be able to find other relevant period guides, should you so desire.



Note: It is important to observe that the attitude frequently encountered in amateur circles today which equates mediocre telescopes of the present with good telescopes of the past has little basis in empirical reality. The majority of those who slight the performance of the best eighteenth-century catadioptrics and archromats, or nineteenth-century achromats and silver-on-glass reflectors have no experience using the older equipment. A corrective can be found in works by those with actual experience of the older technologies, such as Alan Binder, and Roger Ceragioli (Binder 2010a & 2010b; Smith, Ceragioli, & Berry 2012, 88-118). If you encounter modern statements that the non-detection of an object in the past is attributable to instrumental deficiencies, or that an observational feat exceeds the capabilities of a past technology, examine the statements carefully. If the people making them have not performed actual observational experiments with either originals or replications of historically relevant instruments, then their statements are of little value.



Sources for Recording Technolgies & Techniques

Charles Piazzi Smyth, "On Astronomical Drawing", MRAS 15 (1846), 71-82—a classic treatment

Fr. Angelo Secchi, "Extract of a Letter to George Rennie, Esq., F.R.S., from P. A. Secchi, Director of the Astronomical Observatory of the Collegio Romano, Containing Explanatory Remarks on a Drawing of the Lunar Spot 'Copernicus,' Presented by Him to the Royal Society. Dated Rome, March 13, 1856", RSPS 8 (1856-1857), 72—Fr. Secchi's remarks on his rendering of Copernicus, one of the most respected crater drawings of the 19th century (it stands up well today)

John Phillips," Notes on the Drawing of 'Copernicus,' Presented to the Royal Society by P. A. Secchi,
RSPS 8 (1856-1857), 73-75
—further commentary by a skilled selenographer on Fr. Secchi's drawing

John Phillips, "Notices of Some Parts of the Surface of the Moon", PhilTrans 158 (1868), 333-345—examples of Phillips' own work

Lady Huggins, "Astronomical Drawing", The Observatory 5, 68 (1882 December), 358-362

Nathaniel Everett Green, "How to Secure Accuracy in Astronomical Drawing and Sketching", JBAA III, 8 (1893 May), 367-368—a famous paper by one of the outstanding astronomical artists of the 19th-century, who also taught members of the royal family painting at Balmoral Castle. Contains the memorable line: "A remark has been made...that I prefer an artistic drawing to a correct one; but I know no difference between the two".

Nathaniel Everett Green, Hints on Sketching from Nature, pts. I-III (London: George Rowney and Company, undated [1872 or later])—an art manual by Green

Ladislaus Weinek, "Dessins lunaires", L'astronomie 6 (1887), 401-405—work by a virtuoso draughtsman of the lunar surface in the decades after the founding of the Society

Ladislaus Weinek, "Drawings of the Moon", PASP II, 10 (1890 September), 201-214—Weinek discusses some of the technical aspects of depicitng the Moon

Edwin Holmes, "Reproduction of Astronomical Drawings", JBAA V, 8 (1895 June), 409-410


B. Sources for cognitive archaeology

The guides to observational equipment and techniques cited above also have some material revealing how observers of the Moon tended to view the processes responsible for the lunar landscape, and how they interpreted what they saw. Extended treatises on the Moon are the best sources for that material, in works such as:

Richard A. Proctor, The Moon: Her Motions, Aspect, Scenery, and Physical Condition (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1873)

James Nasmyth & James Carpenter, The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite (London: John Murray, 1874)


Edmund  Neison, The Moon and the Condition and Configuration of Its Surface (London: Longmans,

Green, and Co., 1876)

Images are perhaps the best single source for attempting to train the eye to "see" as our Victorian predecessors saw the Moon. A selection of such images are provided here. One aspect which will be surprising to those who have thus far not seen many Victorian images of the Moon, is that some satisfy current-day standards of fidelity to the Moon we see, while others do not. What may be even more surprising is that both types of depictions can exist in the same publication! All of the publications from which these images are drawn claim scientific integrity, and that their images are 'true" to the true appearance of the Moon. Through experimenting with their vocabularly of seeing, can you account for this seeming disparity?

In 1865 the profressional astronomer and explorer Emmanuel Liais published the results of his scientific work undertaken in Brazil in a semi-popular form, as L'espace céleste et la nature tropicale... (Paris: Garnier Fréres, 1865). It includes images by Liais and colleagues of Copernicus,Theophilus, Tycho, the area around Tycho, the full Moon, a detail of the terminator and illuminated side, and a detail of the plane of Mare nubium. None of them are prortayed the way we would depict the lunar surface now. An even more interesting case is offered by the images in Amédée Guillemin's Le ciel..., 5th ed. (Paris: Librairie Hachettte et Cie, 1877). Two of his images, one of the first-quarter Moon, and another of a drawing based on one of Warren de la Rue's photographs, are not too far from modern taste, yet others, such as various representaitons of craters (a, b, c), the full Moon, lunar phases, and his lunar map (and key), seem antiquated (particularly the images of craters, which are in the style of Johann Hieronymus Schroeter's Selenotopographische Fragmente of 1791!).

In 1855, W. and A.K. Johnston, a firm which specialized in the production of atlasses (one of which received praise from Sir John Herschel for its scientific value), published Alexander Keith Johnston, Atlas of Astronomy, 1st ed. (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1855). The sheet devoted to the Moon featured a full Moon image by Bode from 1825, and details of craters, wrinkle ridges, rilles, and other features clearly taken from Schroeter's 18th-century work! A year later, the great observer Julius Schimdt issued his Der Mond... (Leipzig: Joh. Ambr. Barth, 1856), with its superb lunar drawings, drawings which could illustrate an article on the Moon today.

The latitude in the range of scientific styles of observational representation of the lunar surface in Andrew Elvins' day was considerable. Doubtless numerous factors contributed to that latitude. Some were doubtless perceptual, influenced by established ways of seeing, representation, and theoretical assumptions about what was seen. In absorbing the Victorian visual vocabularly of seeing the Moon, and employing it in observing today, what might you learn about observing 150 years ago, and observing in general? There is only one way to find out.



The controversy over whether the crater Linné had changed during 19th-century mapping of the Moon happened in the period of the Society's foundation. There are more than sufficient surviving sources to easily permit more than one investgation using the materials of experimental annd cognitive archaeology of observing to probe aspects of what may have been perceived. For an introduction to the controversy, see Joseph Ashbrook, "Linné in Fact and Legend", in The Astronomical Scrapbook: Skywatchers, Pioneers, and Seekers in Astronomy (Cambridge, and Cambridge MA: Cambridge University Press and Sky Publishing Corporation, 1984), pp, 272-278, and William P. Sheehan & Thomas A. Dobbins, Epic Moon... (Richmond VA: Willmann-Bell, 2001), pp. 155-174. A select bibliography of some of the 1860s periodical literature produced by the controversy can be found here.

A similar though less celebrated case from the period involves the crater pair Messier and Messier A. At the time volcanism was the favoured mechanism of change responsible for the visible lunar surface, and it was in that context that Webb published his "Notice of Traces of Eruptive Action in the Moon", MNRAS XIX, 7 (1859 May), 234-235, which argued for change in the appearance of the craters since Beer and Mädler's work (1837) was published. Even more prominence was given to Webb's views when he published them in his Celestial Objects (pp. 110-111; Nieson also discusses what he still considers an active case in his handbook of 1876, pp. 506-508; and Sheehan & Dobbins 2001 offer some historical remarks and a useful comparative photograph, pp. 142-143, and 244-246). What is interesting about this case of purported change is that we know it was of interest to Society members in 1868-1869. Andrew Elvins twice reports his own observations of the crater pair in relation to historical observations, first at the meeting of 1869 April 6, and subsequently at the meeting of 1869 May 4. From the standpoint of the present he displayed good sense in interpreting what he saw.



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