THIS year the Royal Astronomical Society will be 200 years old and to mark its bicentennial it has established a £1million fund to support a variety of outreach and engagement projects in astronomy and geophysics across the country.

It seeks to promote understanding, discussion and dialogue about science in diverse sections of the community, from Cornwall to Ireland, from girl guiding to the Welsh Eisteddfod.

Here in West Cumbria, astronomy was a subject that fascinated several early "gentleman astronomers", including Isaac Fletcher from Greysouthen and his cousin, John Fletcher Miller of Whitehaven.

Both men became Fellows of the Society which was founded in London in 1820 as the Astronomical Society, later gaining its ‘Royal’ title when it received the charter from William IV.

John Fletcher Miller, of High Street, Whitehaven, was the son of William Miller who had the Whitehaven Tannery at Scotch Street. He suffered with poor health and was only 40 when he died. But he was a keen astronomer and in 1849 built his own small observatory with its rotating conical roof at Wellington Row, behind the family home.

He was also the first to record rainfall in the Lake District and was a founder of the British (now Royal) Meteorological Society. A good communicator, he often gave lectures in Whitehaven on scientific subjects and welcomed visitors to his observatory.

His cousin Isaac Fletcher also had his own observatory and had a high regard for Miller’s measurements and used them to compare with his own observations.

Miller’s mother Anne, and Fletcher’s father John, were brother and sister and the two cousins had the highest respect for each other’s work.

As an enthusiastic amateur astronomer, Isaac, a former MP of Cockermouth, had applied the advancing technology of the later Industrial Revolution to produce a type of telescope that was widely used in many observatories over a period of 30 years: ‘the English Mount’.

He determined the orbits of three double stars, and measured many others. By the time he was 30 he would become an astronomer of national repute and throughout his studies, until 1864, would forward his readings and observations to the Greenwich Observatory over a period of three decades.

His purpose was to re-observe Smyth’s Bedford Catalogue, and produce a new edition. Admiral W H Smyth was Isaac’s advisor, and the man who greatly inspired him. (Smyth had served under Nelson and one of his sons would become the Astronomer Royal for Scotland and a daughter would marry Baden Powell.)

Isaac Fletcher’s ‘English Mounting’ has of course long been superseded by computerised control but it played a significant part in 200 years of astronomy. Its development was in no small way due to the ingenuity of his brother Henry, who ran the Lowca iron foundry. In his improved version of the cross axis, which gave greater stability, Fletcher had a polar axis cast in iron, superseding the previous design, which was made of wood.

Like many Quakers of the time, Isaac was interested in science and the natural world and would study the stars making many observations, and contributing 16 papers to the monthly notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, on subjects such as star positions, double stars, Jupiter, Saturn and the sun.

Isaac’s grandfather had tutored John Dalton (atomic theory) at the Pardshaw Meeting House, when Dalton, born into a Quaker family at Eaglesfield, was a boy.

Isaac himself became a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1849 and then became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1855.

After Isaac’s death in 1879 his telescope was bequeathed to the Greenwich Royal Observatory and subsequently acquired by S Chatwood of Manchester and by 1902 had found its way across the world to an observatory in New Zealand.

It was bought by Joseph T Ward for £450 for the newly-formed Wanganui Astronomical Society on North Island. Ward used it to discover new southern double stars and it would also feature in regular lectures and public viewing nights held there.

Its educational function continues today and after almost 180 years the Fletcher telescope remains New Zealand’s largest operational refractor, maintained in good mechanical and optical condition.

n To learn more about the RAS bicentennial events contact Sheila Kanani on 02072923962 or visit the RAS website.