Richard Tanner

RASC Gold Medal winner (1948) and Dominion Observatory astronomer.

RASC member Richard Tanner, who died in April of this year, was for 20 years “lucky enough to be paid for what I’d do for free.” As a scientist at the Dominion Observatory when it was still located at the edge of the Experimental Farm, he started observing with the 16-inch telescope [note: this is usually referred to as a 15-inch telescope].

His love of astronomy dated back to his childhood in Regina. A departing Trail Rangers leader distributed his books to the boys, and Dick inherited some valuable 19th century classics by Herschel and Newcombe. He and his friend Morley Morris graduated from Meccano sets to building a telescope in Morley’s basement. Aunt Ada never suspected that one of her sterling spoons disappeared in aid of silvering the 6-inch f/8 mirror.

The depression delayed his university education. He spent the early 1930s teaching school in districts so poor that in lieu of payment he boarded with the families of the children. He also rode the rails, working in mining camps and as a hired farm hand until he made enough money to enter the University of Saskatchewan in 1940.

One blessing of World War II was that Dick’s veteran benefits allowed him to complete a B.A . in Math and Physics and then an M.A . in Astronomy at the University of Toronto, winning the 1949 RASC Gold Medal. Shortly afterward he joined the staff of the Dominion Observatory and married fellow science graduate Winnifred Russell.

Recalls Malcolm Thomson, “Dick’s work was aimed at improving the positions of stars in the catalogues by comparing them with the positions of a group of reference stars. Mine was directed to using a selected group of stars as a means of maintaining the official time. Dick’s work had to do with stars that were located from the pole to south of the equator. So he and his group had to use the visual method of observing.

“The work of the Meridian Circle was drawn up with international agreement. Its aim was to improve the positions of a group of stars suited to the latitude of the in strument. The work involved a knowledge of spherical trigonometry in order to appreciate the [proper] motions of the stars. Dick was a good mathematician, as well as a good reader and careful observer.” Later, he used the photographic zenith tube to measure slight wobbles of the earth’s axis.

After retiring in 1972, Dick translated an astronomical work from French to English, counted moon craters with C.S. Beals to settle whether they could be volcanic or meteoric, and guided tours of the 16-inch telescope, now moved to the Museum of Science and Technology. Lately he had become interested in predicting the movements of satellites such as Mir. He preferred hand calculations and graphical techniques, although he did consent to get updated elements from the Internet.

In late March of this year, he was just well enough to walk outside for a look at Comet Hyakutake through the telescope he bought with his son-in-law Richard Taylor. Dick Tanner died the day after April’s lunar eclipse.

—Frances Tanner and Richard Taylor,
Astronotes, June/July 1996

Tanner, Richard