The Royal Astronomocal Society of London
(Quelle: © RAS +


The Freemasons Tavern (©Guildhall Library, London): birthplace of the Society

The `Astronomical Society of London' was conceived on 1820 January 12 when 14 gentlemen sat down to dinner at the Freemason's Tavern, in Lincoln's Inn Fields, London. After an unusually short gestation the new Society was born on 1820 March 10 with the first meeting of the Council and the Society as a whole. An early setback, when Sir Joseph Banks induced the Duke of Somerset to withdraw his agreement to be the first President, was overcome when Sir William Herschel agreed to be the titular first President, though he never actually took the Chair at a meeting.

Sir William Herschel, the first President of RAS, phrased the motto: "Quicquid nitet notandum"
 - " whatever shines should be observed "

The original objectives were simply the promotion of Astronomy; the newer subject of Geophysics, which had been steadily gaining ground in the interests of the Fellows, was added later. After much negotiation a Royal Charter was signed by William IV on 1831 March 7, and the Society assumed the name it has used ever since. Since this time a set of bye- laws have been established which govern the running of the Society .

From the early years meetings were held where astronomical research and discussion could be aired. The Society at first met in various locations, including the rooms of the Geological Society, then in Bedford St, Covent Garden. Rooms were subsequently rented, for 50 guineas, from the Medical and Chirurgical (i.e., surgical) Society at 57 Lincolns Inn Fields, which sufficed until 1834, when the government provided accommodation in Somerset House, in the Strand: 7 (later 8) rooms were made available for the Society. In 1874 the Society moved to specially built premises in part of Burlington House, Piccadilly, which it has occupied ever since. The first meeting in this new home was held on 1874 November 13.

Burlington House (© RAS & )

From its earliest days the Society had started to accumulate books, manuscripts, instruments and other memorabilia, and these formed the basis of the Library and Archives which are maintained today. Some items were later disposed of, mainly to save space, and the Instrument collection was severely rationalized in the 1970s, many items being donated or lent to Museums; but a small number were retained for display on the Burlington House premises. The current Library collection includes about 35,000 bound items, including about 14,000 open-shelf books published after 1850, about 3,500 before that date, and the remainder bound Journals, together with a large collection of unbound Pamphlets.

The Archives include a range of observational and other material dating mainly from eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with some older; much the most important group being the Herschel Archives As well as private donations such as the magnificent Grove Hills collection, bequeathed in 1923, a major accession to the Library took place in 1846 when the RAS absorbed the Spitalfields Mathematical Society, started in 1717 by the Huguenot silk-weavers in Spitalfields, east London.

Publications formed a central activity from the very beginning, the Memoirs of the RAS starting in 1822 (though this series was discontinued in 1978). The Monthly Notices started in 1829, and this series continues to this day as the Society's flagship astronomy journal; it is currently published three times a month (and, to belie its title further, no longer contains Society notices). 


Geophysical publication has been a major success story of the RAS, starting with a `Geophysical Supplement to MN' which was published from 1922 to 1957, becoming the fully fledged 'Geophysical Journal' in 1958. This has subsequently merged with two European journals to become 'Geophysical Journal International'.

The `Quarterly Journal was started in 1960 and was published until 1996, providing a home for more general articles, speculative researches, obituaries and historical articles; this was replaced by the new title, 'Astronomy & Geophysics', in 1997, providing a full-colour 'glossy', but still refereed, journal of news and reviews to the Fellowship.

The Society's 150th anniversary was marked with the issue of a commemorative postage stamp.

When the Society was started there were very few professional astronomers, but by the end of the nineteenth century there were many more. To cater for the growing enthusiasm for amateur astronomy the British Astronomical Association was started in 1890 and now has only a slightly smaller membership than the RAS. Entering the twenty-first century the Society continues to carry out its three main functions of maintaining a Library, organizing scientific meetings, and publishing journals, but now performs many other functions in pursuit of its goals of the encouragement and promotion of astronomy and geophysics.

Members of the RAS are styled fellows, elected by the Council of the Society as laid down in its Bye-Laws and may use the postnominals FRAS. (Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society)

A Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society has to sign the Universal Ethical Code for Scientists:

• Act with skill and care in all scientific work. Maintain up-to-date skills and assist their development in others.
• Take steps to prevent corrupt practices and professional misconduct. Declare conflicts of interest.
• Be alert to the ways in which research derives from and affects the work of other people, and respect the rights and reputations of others.
• Ensure that my work is lawful and justified.
• Minimise and justify any adverse effect my work may have on people, animals and the natural environment.
• Seek to discuss the issues that science raises for society. Listen to the aspirations and concerns of others.
• Not knowingly mislead, or allow others to be misled, about scientific matters. Present and review scientific evidence, theory or  interpretation honestly and accurately.

The society acts as the professional body for astronomers and geophysicists in the UK and fellows may apply for the Science Council's Chartered Scientist status through the society.

Click on the door to enter RAS

Following some pictures of my visit at Burlingtonhouse 19.03.2010

Mr. Ronald Wiltshire, membersecretary of RAS, guided us through the venerable rooms of the society.

Sitting on the historic "Chair of Presidents" in the councilroom

My wife and Mr. Wiltshire in the "Fellow-Room"

If you are more interested in the Royal Astronomical Society, newly you can become a friend of RAS (click below picture).


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