The Bedford Catalogue
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The Bedford Catalogue
From A Cycle Of Celestial Objects. By Admiral William H Smyth.
FROM GEORGE LOVI's FOREWORD
Admiral William Henry Smyth's Cycle of Celestial Objects has long been regarded as the patriarch of celestial observing guides, particularly the second volume, here offered, which was named The Bedford Catalogue after the site of Smyth's private observatory. What makes it so special is that it is the first true celestial Baedeker and not just another "cold" catalogue of mere numbers and data. Like the original Baedeker travel guidebooks of the last century, this work is full of colorful commentary on the highlights of the heavenly scene and heavily influenced several subsequent works of its type, even to the present day.
Smyth had an interesting career. He lived from 1788 to 1865 and, although born in England, had a father who was a colonial resident of New Jersey and emigrated to England as a Loyalist after the Revolutionary War; he was also a descendant of Captain John Smith, the principal founder of the first permanent English colony in North America at Jamestown, Virginia.
The early part of Smyth's career was with the Royal Navy, with which he served in the Mediterranean during the Napoleonic conflicts. During this period he visited the noted Sicilian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi, famous for his discovery in 1801 of the first asteroid ever found -Ceres. Smyth's visit to Piazzi's Palermo Observatory was decisive in turning his interests to astronomy, and after retiring from the Royal Navy in 1825, he settled in Bedford, England, and started building what was then the finest private observatory in that country. It was equipped with a 6-inch refractor, a substantial instrument back then for an astronomical hobbyist.
During the 1830's Smyth put this instrument to good use, observing a huge variety of deep- sky objects, including clusters, nebulae, double stars, and much else. He kept detailed systematic notes of these observations, and was particularly interested in double stars.
These notes were the basis of his Cycle of Celestial Objects which appeared in 1844 and was so well received that the Royal Astronomical Society awarded Smyth its gold medal and made him its president for one term.
The second and most famous volume of his "Cycle," The Bedford Catalogue, is one of those true astronomical classics whose value has not disappeared with time. Granted, much of its data must be approached with caution not only because of its age, but also because some of it-particularly double-star position values-were the result of relatively inaccurate measurements by Smyth. But such information can today be readily gleaned from any of several modern listings and catalogues.
It is in the descriptive material that Smyth is a delight. He not only describes what the user of a small telescope will see, but also includes much fascinating astronomical, mythological, and historical lore. Many of these descriptions are especially valuable for the novice and user of small telescopes of a size similar to Smyth's. All too often such people see lavish photographs of celestial objects in astronomy books which were taken with huge observatory instruments and time exposures of several hours, and are then disappointed that their modest telescope won't offer them similar views. But back in Smyth's day such lavish photographic observations were a number of decades in the future and he described what the eye sees through a telescope. Incidentally, the human eye has here some real advantages over a photograph, particularly in its ability to discern fine delicate details and contrasts over a great range of brightness, as can be found in objects such as the Orion Nebula (M42).
Note particularly his lengthy discussions of certain objects, such as the Andromeda "nebula" on pages 14-17. No one knew its true nature as an enormous aggregation of stars at the time and no one yet observed or photographed it in a manner that revealed its true form, spiral arms and all. It was merely one of the most prominent "nebulae" -and that was the term then applied to virtually all non-stellar celestial smudges.
Also, look at Smyth's discussion of the famous double star Gamma Virginis on pages 275- 281. Here is the first such star to have its orbit computed, done at the time he lived, and we feel his excitement in describing this major astronomical advance which represented the first application of the law of gravitation outside the solar system. Such material retains permanent historical value. A few other cautions: Smyth lists some now-obsolete constellations such as Anse, Antinous, Argo Navis, and Taurus Poniatowskii, which are, respectively, the Goose, Young Boy Antinous, Ship, and Bull of Poniatowskii. Other groups are listed differently than they would be today, such as Clypeus Sobieskii, Piscis Australis, Pyxis Nautica, and Scorpio; today they are Scutum,
Piscis Austrinus, Pyxis, and Scorpius. The constellation Argo Navis is now broken up into Puppis, the Stern; Vela, the Sails; Carina, the Keel; and Pyxis, the Mariner's Compass. Smyth also lists the Pleiades star cluster as if it were a separate constellation, whereas it is part of Taurus, the Bull. Also, certain stellar and deep-sky object names and designations are given differently from how we would encounter them today. Finally, he only includes those constellations he could see from England, omitting a large sky area in the southern hemisphere around its celestial pole.
Part of this work's charm is its classic 19th-century style, which also found expression in some of those "talky" novels of the period. But we must watch out for a few obsolete terms here and there, such as the word "comes" for the fainter component of a double star. But such instances occur relatively infrequently. But, most of all, we can enjoy Smyth as not only a true astronomical classic which more than a few observers over the years and decades have yearned to get their hands on, but also as a warm, friendly guide to the splendors of the sky which can be appreciated equally well in the armchair as well as at the eyepiece.
George Lovi January 1986
From Cycle of Celestial Objects , by Admiral William Smyth with Foreword by George Lovi, 8.50" by 5.75", 600 pages, softbound, 1986 re-publication of the original 1844 edition.
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