Monday, 29 February 2016

Sir William Lower and Astronomy (Welsh History)

Knowing my interest in Welsh history my husband passed on to me something he stumbled across about astronomy. The famous names in astronomy are Copernicus and Galileo. But a contemporary of Galileo in England was Thomas Harriot, and his friend and pupil Sir William Lower in Wales.

Lower gained an estate called Traventi or Treventy in Carmarthenshire through his marriage. On the night of 17 September 1607 he was on a ship in the Bristol Channel on his way to Kidwelly to go to his estate, when he saw a comet. He recorded his observations then, and every night until 6 October and sent them to Harriot. Next time it returned it was recognised as Halley's Comet.

Halley's Comet
These observations were made with the naked eye. The telescope was invented in 1608 and within a year it was in the hands of Galileo and Harriot. Harriot sent one to Lower, who set up an observatory on high ground. Together with his friend John Prydderch (or Protheroe) they recorded amazingly accurate observations of the moon, amongst other things.

According to Allan Chapman, 'In the light of the above, and the information contained in Lower's letters to Harriot, two historical claims might be advanced. Firstly, Sir William Lower may have been the first to have received a telescope as a Christmas, or maybe a New Year's gift (having been observing for over a month by 6 February 1610). Secondly, “We Traventine [Trefenti] Philosophers”, who met at Lower's house to discuss Kepler and look at the moon through a telescope, might qualify as the earliest amateur astronomical society to meet in the British Isles.' (Stargazers: Copernicus, Galileo, the Telescope and the Church, p.270)

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