AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXVII , No. 2, Fall 2005

  The Norman Lockyer Observatory and its Archives
by George A. Wilkins

Norman Lockyer, born in 1836, became an amateur astrono-
mer and science journalist during the 1860s while serving as a clerk in the War Office. In 1868 he devised a spectroscopic method of observing solar prominences. This led to an academic career at what is now the Imperial College in South Kensington, London, where he set up and directed the Solar Physics Observatory. He was the editor of Nature from its founding in 1869 until 1919 and wrote 17 astronomical books. He was knighted in 1897 and received many national and international honors.

Sir Norman retired as professor of astronomical physics in 1901, and two years later he married a widow who had inherited land at Sidmouth in Devon. They built a retirement home there, and starting in 1912 the Hill Observatory was built on the ridge above the house. Sir Norman died in August 1920 and the observatory was renamed the "Norman Lockyer Observatory" (NLO). His son W.J.S. Lockyer, himself an astronomer, had been assistant director and now became director until his sudden death in 1936. The two main telescopes, known as the Kensington and McClean Telescopes, were twin refractors used mainly for stellar spectroscopy.

In 1948 the University College at Exeter (now the University of Exeter) gave additional funding and, in effect, took control of the NLO. Astronomical observing ceased in 1961 and the site was then used for geophysical observations. In 1986 the NLO site was sold to East Devon District Council and the library and archives were transferred to the University of Exeter. The Observatory is now operated by the NLO Society, an educational charity, and is regularly opened to the public and school groups.

The archives of the Observatory may be consulted in the reading room for the Special Collections section of the University's library. Full collection-level descriptions of the material are available on the University's Web site and more detailed lists are in preparation.

The archives are held in three principal classes: (1) EUL MS110: Lockyer Research Papers, ca. 1860-1920. The most important part is the residue of the correspondence between Lockyer and over 900 correspondents. Unfortunately, it consists almost entirely of the letters received by Lockyer. (The author would be glad to receive information about letters by Lockyer in the archives of other observatories and institutions.) This class also includes eclipse notebooks; notes on lectures and addresses; papers relating to the Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction, of which he was secretary in 1871-1877, etc. (2) EUL MS72: Norman Lockyer Observatory Papers, ca. 1913-1989. This class includes correspondence, reports and memoranda, photographs and other items of an administrative and historical character, as well as "research files" — boxes of assorted working papers whose value, if any, could only be assessed by someone familiar with the field, such as the observation of variable stars. (3) EUL MS 114: Papers of Norman Lockyer (Royal Astronomical Society) ca.1876-ca.1969. These are papers relating to the Observatory that are held by NLO Corporation, on long-term loan from the Royal Astronomical Society. There are also some smaller collections.

Other archival materials relating to Norman Lockyer and the NLO are held by the Imperial College at South Kensington, the University of Leicester, the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, and the archives of the Royal Greenwich Observatory (Cambridge University Library). The AIP's International Catalog of Sources and the Web site of the UK's National Register of Archives show further materials. The NLO Society itself has recently recovered nearly 8,000 glass negatives from the Science Museum, of which over 6,000 are of stellar spectra.

For more detailed information and references see G. A. Wilkins, "The Archives of the Norman Lockyer Observatory," Journal of Astronomical Data, vol.10, part 7, 2004, issued as the book Astronomical Heritages: Astronomical Archives and Historic Transits of Venus, ed. C. Sterken & H. W. Duerbeck (Brussels: Vrije Universiteit Brussel, 2005). For the Lockyer Observatory, contact George A. Wilkins, Mathematics Department, University of Exeter, North Park Road, Exeter EX4 4QE, United Kingdom, or e-mail The contact at the University of Exeter is the Archivist, Special Collections, Old Library, University of Exeter, Prince of Wales Road, Exeter EX4 4PX, UK, Web site

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