Thursday 18 July 2019

Many moons ago ...

Is it ambitious to attempt to celebrate the anniversary of the Moon landing using Cheshire’s collections? Not with Chester’s Bishop John Wilkins as inspiration.

A Discovery of a New World, or, a Discourse Tending to Prove, That 'tis Probable that There May be Another Habitable World in the Moon was written in 1638 when he was 24. In it he speculated that man in a ‘flying chariot’, perhaps propelled by gunpowder, could arrive at the moon, where he may discover a new world where the earth is perceived by any inhabitants up there as a moon. He would go on to propose a universal language and standard unit of measure over 100 years before the metric system, and was a founding member of the Royal Society while at Oxford. He became Bishop of Chester in 1668. By then his understanding of the gravitational pull of the earth had already been disproved, but the copy we hold of his book speculating on a space mission was reprinted in 1684 so clearly still had its attractions.

Povah family of Upton, Macclesfield collection D 4562

Two hundred years later, in Macclesfield, Charles and Frances Mary Povah are photographed in their observatory at Sunny Bank, with the equipment that helped them take a photograph of the moon that survives in their family papers. Charles Povah’s career was in insurance, he was also prominent in the North Western branch of the British Astronomical Society and spoke on a range of subjects to a variety of audiences, including to novices and children on the solar system.

Leicester-Warren family of Tabley collection DLT/B29

Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank, Cheshire Image Bank c06227

The Povahs were keeping up a tradition of fascination with astronomy on the east of the county. The prolific scholar Peter Leicester compiled a volume of knowledge about the universe at Tabley near Knutsford in the seventeenth century. And of course Jodrell Bank, also near Knutsford, was chosen as the site for the University of Manchester’s observatory and the radio telescope that played its part in monitoring the Luna and Apollo missions in the race to the moon.

What about the impact of the moon landing locally? Cheshire newspapers reported on the role of a Chester sub-postmaster, one of 12 amateur astronomers in the country tasked with keeping the moon under observation from the telescope mounted in his garden. In response to an urgent request from the astronauts for any information about unusual brightness they had seen, Mr Baum was able to telegram the Lunar International Network of Observers HQ with details of the transient lunar phenomenon that he had witnessed from Boughton on 20th July.  Meanwhile Cheshire Life magazine reflects on the moon landing in September and it is clear that ‘if we can get a man to the moon why can we not …?’ is already a common complaint. We also checked magazines in our school collections for 1969 expecting to find plenty of space inspired creative writing. In fact stories and poems are deeply reflective, trying to make sense of human achievements on the moon at a time when the scale of human misery inflicted by the famine in Biafra and the Vietnam war are teenagers’ main preoccupations. One impact of the space race on education would come later – Cheshire County Council supported Cheshire from Space an education pack complete with slides of satellite imagery of the county in the early 1980s.

One final Cheshire connection? When the points of a crescent moon are upwards … that’s a ‘Cheshire moon’!

Lewis Carroll collection LC3/ALI/7 1981

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