A Brief History of Astronomy on Merseyside

Jeremiah Horrocks

Liverpool Observatory 19th century

The region around Liverpool has a great tradition of astronomical endeavour. This started in the early 17th century with Jeremiah Horrocks (depicted left). He was born in Toxteth and made the first telescopic observation of a transit of Venus across the Suns disk and also correctly determined the elliptical shape of the orbit of the Moon around the Earth.

This was all achieved before his untimely death at the age of 24. Horrocks' understanding of the power of the telescope and his use of specialised mathematical instruments made him a founding father of modern day observational astronomy.

In the early 19th century, the Liverpool observatory was founded to aid in navigation for the city's burgeoning sea trade.The prime function of the observatory would be to establish time for the port and test chronometers for accuracy. A site was initially found at Waterloo Dock in 1845. Later, however, the observatory transferred to the other bank of the Mersey at Bidston.

William Lassell and telescope

Bidston Observatory

Meanwhile William Lassell, a local brewer, was building the first large equatorially mounted reflecting telescopes (right) and using them to discover several of the moons of planets in the outer solar system right from the heart of Liverpool.

His elegant cast iron equatorial telescopes were a monument to nineteenth century technology and entrepreneurial spirit and his influence can still be seen in many national observatories around the world today.

Another gentleman astronomer, Isaac Roberts (a builder by trade whose company built the North Western Hotel, now a hall of residence of LJMU), was a pioneer of astronomical photography, while the physicist Oliver Lodge was the first to suggest that radio waves might be detectable from a celestial body (the Sun).

At the centre of much of the activity locally in the 19th century was the Liverpool Astronomical Society, one of the oldest such societies in the world and the forerunner of the British Astronomical Association.