Community Collections Spotlight: the Goodricke and Pigott astronomical archive

Forecasts for this Friday’s partial solar eclipse may be disappointingly cloudy, but did you know that you can still get your astronomy fix in the archives at York Explore?

As you may have seen in a recent article by the York Press our Goodricke & Pigott astronomy collection (collection code: GPP; 1760-1815) is now available. It is full of  measurements, drawings and descriptions of astronomical phenomena inclduing wonderfully detailed observations of solar (and lunar) eclipses seen from the UK and Europe. So even if you don’t get the chance to see the partial eclipse on Friday, this collection might just make up for it!

The collection contains of the journals of York astronomers, and neighbours, John Goodricke (1764-1786) and Nathaniel Pigott (1725–1804) who together famously observed the strange flickering of a star named Algol. It was Goodricke who later became the first astronomer to describe what may have been going on – that Algol was being eclipsed by ‘a large body’. He wasn’t far off – we now know that Algol is in fact made up of three stars orbiting around each other. This creates an effect of regular brightening and dimming that happens each time one passes in front of the other.

Pigott wrote about how the clouds often hindered his observations of eclipses

His discovery was so important that it was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and he was also awarded their Copley Medal. We not only have some of those original letters sent to the Society here in our collection but we also have the very journal where he first wrote down his observations of Algol.

Goodricke’s contribution to astronomy is an extraordinary feat considering he made many of his observations from a modest telescope at his family home in Treasurer’s House, York. It becomes even more impressive when you discover that he did all this before his death from pneumonia at the age of 21 and that from a young age he lived with being profoundly deaf. The John Goodricke collection is an important one. Pigott himself described Goodricke’s death as “a loss to astronomy” and it is not hard to imagine just what else he might have gone on to discover had he lived longer.

York Explore is home to the original letters written by John Goodricke and Nathaniel Pigott to the Royal Society

As well as containing the astronomical papers of Nathaniel Pigott, the collection also includes those of his son Edward (1753 – 1825), both of whom studied the night sky from their purpose-built garden observatory in Bootham. In his early life, Nathaniel moved around Europe with his wife and children before returning to England and at one point became settled in Caen, France, where he made many of his observations.

Nathaniel was especially noted for his observations of the transits of Venus and Mercury, as well as that of eclipses and comets. The latter of which also interested his son Edward who discovered a comet in 1793 and was subsequently named after him. Interestingly, Edward even wrote in his journals about seeing the northern lights (from London!).

As you can see from some more highlights of their collections below, the archive is as much a work of art as it is a record of their scientific achievements.

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Search our online catalogue to discover more from the collection or pop in and see it for yourself at York Explore Library during our usual archive service opening hours.

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