Jump to content


* - - - -

Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy: A History of Visual Observing from Harriot to Moore by Neil English

Discuss this article in our forums

Review of Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy:  A History of Visual Observing from Harriot to Moore by Neil English (Springer Nature, ISBN: 978-331997706)

Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy:  A History of Visual Observing from Harriot to Moore is a good-read for “we stargazers” and telescopists of a mellowed age.  As winter approaches, I can imagine myself re-reading the hard cover version of this book, sitting in my soft recliner, snuggled into a warm throw with my dog on my lap and a steaming cup of hot chocolate or tea on the lamp stand alongside, as the snow drifts down or as the bright stars of the winter constellatory asterism appear outside my window.  Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy by Neil English is right up-there with the likes of Ed Ting’s Scope Reviews, articles and threads in Cloudy Nights, Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters, Ronald Florence’s The Perfect Machine.

Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy is a 650-page tour-de-force.  It tells of those persons who, over a four-hundred-year period beginning in the late A.D. 1500s, developed and imagined and designed and built and used refractors and reflectors to observe and unveil, step by step, the mysteries of the universe.  Chronicling introduces us to the historic instruments of that era; the Dorpat refractor, the Leviathan of Parsonstown, the Meudon Refractor, the Naval Observatory and Mount Wilson, the reflectors of Dobson, and so many more besides.  The book displays the major astronomical and astrophysical accomplishments realized by these profound instruments and dedicated efforts of observing:  the use of parallax, the application of spectral analysis, cepheid variables as a standard yard stick, red shift unveiling to the human mind the dazzling size of the cosmos, et alia.

Neil holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry and a B.S.C.-Honours in physics and astronomy.  In addition to being a scientist, Neil is a skilled writer.  His writing style reveals a unique lyrical prose.  Well-turned phrases and bon mots and aphorisms, current and ancestral, are found on nearly every page.  Chapters often begin with a quote which immediately creates a sense of the milieu within which the subject of that chapter’s essay was historically ensconced.  Such is the case of the quote introducing the chapter on Frederich Bessel and his use of parallax:  “Measurement is the heart of science…measurement enables humans to have a sense of perspective….There is a soulful longing…to know through measurement where we “fit” in the scheme of things, wistful desires that have given birth to the global civilization we enjoy today.”  As one reads Chronicling, it is as if one can feel the fog rolling in over Parsons gazing through the eyepiece of his 72 inch speculum reflector, one can hear Caroline Herschel describing the appearance of her comet, one can smell the compounds used by Nasmyth as he ground his mirrors. 

Neil’s sense of good composition draws attention to others who write well.  As one of many examples, he quotes Walter Scott Houston; ”[Planetaries] float on the foam of the Milky Way like the balloons of our childhood dreams.  If you want to stop the world and get off, the lovely planetaries sail by to welcome you home” and "…NGC 5053…a little gem of fairy fire”.  To this end of allowing others their own voice, the author substantially reviews and quotes Telescopic Work for Starlight Evenings by William Frederich Denning, Mars as the Abode of Life by Percival Lowell, The Binary Stars by R. G. Aitken, and again, Deep Sky Wonders by Walter Scott Houston.  Chronicling is a library within a book.

The pages of Chronicling unabashedly state the author’s informed opinions about a number of current issues.  He states his distaste for the marketing of apochromatic refractors to an amateur audience.  He quotes Dr. Mike Palermiti who states that ED and apochromat telescopes, “represent[s] gross "over kill" for the marketplace that they are introduced into”.  Similarly, Neil brings his extensive background in biochemistry to bear in his denunciations of darwinistic evolution and doctrines of social eugenics originating from the same.  As to the idea of the existence of extra-terrestrial life, Neil states; “…life as we know it could be far rarer than any previously envisaged, or even unique.”  I and others can disagree with the author’s assertions, but we should not let these differences stand in the way of obtaining and reading this wonderful tome.

Chronicling is like walking through an old-world city bazaar and discovering some new and unexpected charm at each turn.  This book is full of illustrations and pictures which are well matched to the content of the page on which or near which they appear.  One finds pages presenting the mathematics of binary star calculations.  Or one might be introduced to the wonder of fashioning telescope mirrors.  As a TN myself,  I appreciate the many references Neil makes in his book to those who also ground glass in favor of purchasing class-glass; whether for reasons aesthetic or financial.  He quotes James Nasmyth (A.D. 1807 to 1890) “I know of no mechanical pursuit in connection with science that offers such an opportunity for practicing the technical arts as that of constructing, from first to last, a complete…reflecting telescope…Buy nothing but raw material, and work your way to possession of a telescope by means of your own individual labor and skill…you will find a glorious reward in the enchanted enjoyment of a night with the heavens.” 

Related to telescope making, I regret the book did not include a presentation of the work of R.W. Porter, Albert Ingalls, the Springfield Telescope Makers of Vermont, and the history of Stellafane at Breezy Hill.  However, it is hard to quibble over a morsel when presented with the buffet banquet found in this book.  As encyclopedic as Chronicling is, it could not cover everything. 

Being of the aforementioned mellowed age, I appreciate Chronicling’s references to the stargazers and telescopists who gave up observing due to decreased optical acuity as they aged.  But even more, I appreciated Neil sharing with us the statement of Walter Houston, “growing old need not inevitably lead to reduced observing activity.”  I also appreciated the assessment given by this book of the impact of conspicuous over-consumption upon the future of amateur astronomy.  A disturbing similarity is presented between “[T]he “forum culture” of the post-modern amateur…blinded by…materialism” and the social blindness of the wealthy amateur-gentlemen of the Victorian era for whom “the sheer gulf between haves and have-nots of the day” and ”the squalor of the slum w[ere] a distant and unthinkable possibility”.   The book creates a powerful montage of Percival Lowell’s glowing cartesian sentiment “…the time is coming when the earth will bear his [man’s] imprint and his alone” and Leslie Peltier’s warning, “…children will never know the blessed dark of night.”  Many of us would agree with Neil when he writes; “things have deteriorated…light pollution“.   Nevertheless, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy leaves the reader with a hopeful optimism.  “The telescope is a wondrous invention, and the heavens contain all manner of marvels that can astound the imaginative mind, no matter what the smog density might be”, writes Walter Scott Houston.  To this Neil adds, “Times have…changed…for the better.”  “We live at the best possible time and in the best possible place in the entire cosmos.”

  • Ken Sturrock, BoldAxis1967, TOMDEY and 4 others like this


I too enjoy Neil's writings,  I have several of his books.


And you ain't too bad yourself.



    • Otto Piechowski likes this

Thanks for the excellent review! I ordered it yesterday and it arrives here tomorrow!    Tom

    • Otto Piechowski likes this
Feb 03 2019 12:19 PM

Wonderful review, well communicated. 


At over $200 at Barnes and Noble, Amazon and AbeBooks I will have to wait until some used ones become available.



Just ordered my copy! 


I also recommend The Victorian Amateur Astronomer...

You can buy at a very reasonable price on abebooksdotcom

    • BFaucett likes this

$200?  Why so much?



Otto Piechowski
Feb 14 2019 11:43 AM

I was informed the cost was necessitated by the publisher's choice to prepare and promote this book within the publishing area assigned to academicians and scientists.  Though this might sacrifice some of the amateur audience, an unfortunate loss, it was hoped by this decision that this book would come to the attention and reach the professional audience with a work of sound research articulated in high quality prose.

About 1/2 way through and I am enjoying the book with one exception. I am tired of the constant attacks not only on refractors but those amateurs who today would choose a smaller refractor over a larger aperture reflector and he gets downright personal in his attacks. This is totally unnecessary and a distraction to an otherwise excellent book.


He has no problem with agreeing with Denning that 8-10" Reflectors might outperform much larger aperture Reflectors but does not seem to be willing to say that an 8-10" Refractor might just be able to perform better than a much larger aperture Reflector. No, it's always a comparison of 8-10" reflectors to 4" refractors. No fool would suggest a 4" refractor will outperform an 8-10" anything. The author is "hung up" on cost to the point that he is only capable of comparing what can be purchased for equal dollars and not comparing equal aperture scopes. I have been observing since September 1965, have owned all types of telescopes up to 20" aperture (Reflector), and now am very satisfied with my decision to own 5", 6", 8" and 10" aperture triplet refractors.


Given the amount of money individuals like Lassell spent, not only on building his large aperture Reflectors, but the cost of dismantling them and shipping them to Malta to observe from there, one might not criticise the amount of money an individual would spend to own a very high quality triplet refractor. Think of the cost of the 36" and 72" Reflectors of Lord Oxmantown! People spend what they can afford. I think spending what one can afford to spend to own and use a medium aperture triplet refractor need not be looked down upon.




Otherwise, as I said, I am about half way through (although I did skip forward to the review of W. F. Denning's fine book) and am vey pleased with it. Expensive? Yes. But, much like a refractor, worth the expense.

    • BFaucett, 25585 and Jason_J like this

Like to have it on Kindle. Still too expensive at present.

Rich (RLTYS)
Feb 26 2019 11:39 AM

Even a Kindle version on Amazon is $200.00. And used copies aren't much cheaper and in some cases more expensive. Would love to read it but way too expensive for me.

    • Vesper818, Sarkikos and BFaucett like this
I am going to request it through our library program.
    • BFaucett likes this

I would agree with JimP about the authors focus on long f-ratio achromats. To be this suggests the author has lost the plot at some point. The book could also have done with a lot more proof reading and checking of images.. I found that the vignettes for early people are quite good, although most could be got from Wikipedia. The later people are covered downright poorly and the research? Shows up badly when he covers  the collection of Walter Scott Houstons columns in Deep Sky Wonders. He does nto seem to realise that a lot of this is Stephen O'Meara's work in concatenating the material from the orginal columns. I get the impression the author thinks he is up there with Scottly as an observer because they both used classical achromats. For the money I found it very disappointing. I must confess that I thought English's book on Dobsonians was also very poor so I am not sure why he is rated so highly as a writer.

I have spent several weeks reading through Dr. English’s latest tome. I’ve been a fan of his writing style for some years now and he’s obviously a highly experienced observer in his own right judging by the insights he brings to his writings.  I think that this work is, by some considerable margin, his greatest. He writes reverentially about a great many visual observers over the centuries. All the greats are covered in this book in extraordinary detail and the amount of research he put into it really shines through. I especially loved his work on William F. Denning who was relatively unknown to the modern reader until English brought his life to the fore on his website, as well as in the book. His essay on the long non-achromatic telescopes is excellent, as well as those covering the Herschels, Percival Lowell, W.R. Dawes, Asaph Hall, E.E. Barnard, the double star observers, Aitken and S.W. Burnham, A. Dolfus and the astronomers at Meudon Observatory, Stanley Williams, Charles Grover and many more.  It is beautifully written and a real page turner. English is undoubtedly a controversial figure but that makes him all the more interesting to read. This book is right up there with Dr. Allan Chapman’s the Victorian Amateur Astronomer and I would unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in the history of both amateur and professional astronomy. 


Cloudy Nights LLC
Cloudy Nights Sponsor: Astronomics