Our History

By Irene Rogers

Welcome to the Coventry and Warwickshire Astronomical Society (CAWAS)
(Affiliated to the British Astronomical Association)

CAWAS is an association of people of all ages and from all walks of life who are interested in any aspect of astronomy. It covers a wide range of experience, from those able to pass on their knowledge and information on the subject to those who are just starting to learn about astronomy. Help is on hand for beginners, if requested and encouragement to young astronomers is an important feature within the society and in recent years, two of our young members received the Patrick Moore Achievement Award, presented annually by the British Astronomical Association.

November 2019 saw the celebration of two major birthdays for the Coventry and Warwickshire Astronomical Society (CAWAS); the 80th of the Coventry AS and the 60th of the Warwickshire AS. Their merger in 1974 formed the society we enjoy today.

Early Coventry Astronomical Society

The Coventry AS started In November 1939 at Coventry Technical College at The Butts just after the outbreak of WWII; hardly an auspicious start but probably reflected the popular belief at the time; that the war “would be over by Christmas.” Air raids on the city obliged suspension of meetings in 1940 until the war ended but they resumed on 8th November 1945 and have continued – with the merger with the Warwickshire AS – ever since.

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Warwickshire Astronomical Society.

The Warwickshire AS began as the Coventry Astro-telescope Society In November 1959 for people particularly interested in the construction of astronomical telescopes for the study of Astronomy in all Its aspects. A workshop was rented at the rear of 27 Ford Street; but had no heating, water supply or tollets; the nearest being in Pool Meadow bus Station, or the local pub, that allowed members to continue their discussions over a “nightcap pint on the way home”. It is stated that, at the time;”notwithstanding the shortcomings of the premises and the need to wear heavy overcoats, gloves and mufflers, the enthuslasm was tremendous and there were many happy memories of lively debates and a growing warmth of friendship”.

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Recognition of a founder member

Howard George Miles, 1922 – 2016.

At the age of 17, Howard started as one of the founder members in 1939 of the Coventry Technical College’s Astronomical and Meteorological Society and remained active in it, and CAWAS, serving as assistant secretary from 26th May 1948, then secretary and lecture contributor for many years until he moved to Cornwall on retirement. After obtaining his BSc, he was employed as a lecturer in mathematics first at the College, and then at the Coventry (Lanchester) Polytechnic, (now Coventry University). At a CAWAS meeting after he retired from his work in 1983, he was presented with an engraved tankard by the then President of the BAA, Dr Patrick Moore. Our own meetings secretary, Geoffrey Johnstone, features in the account of this event, having produced some photographs of the then recent comet, IRAS–Araki–Alcock.

Howard was also a long-time member of the British Astronomical Association (BAA) and eventually, up to his death just before his 94th birthday, had been a member and had served it in many capacities for some 56 years. In his obituary, in the Journal of the BAA, and on-line at http://adsabs.harvard.edu/full/1983JBAA…93..230. his contribution to the Association and to astronomy is noted as well as his interest and expertise in mathematics, astronomy, geology, meteorology and megalithic archaeology. 

Remembering Lectures of Note

CAWAS meetings usually start with an introduction by the chairman of the evening, followed by a presentation of Sky Notes (currently by Mark Edwards who first became a member in the 1970s), then an interval for tea/coffee and biscuits. After the interval, there is a lecture presented by a visiting guest speaker with an expertise in an aspect of astronomy, or a member with a similar expertise or interest in it.

The very first lecture, on 18th December 1939, was “The Solar System” given by the Rev. Ivo-Carr Gregg FRAS and since then subjects and speakers have been as diverse as astronomy and the knowledge at the time allowed.

Subjects have ranged from “The origins of the Universe” through “Constructing Simple Reflectors” to “Flying Saucers” and some of the very notable, early guest lectures are detailed below.

1949. Mr J.V. Thompson of the firm of telescope makers, Hargreaves and Thomson spoke of his involvement in 1947 in the construction of the Palomar Observatory’s Hale reflector telescope’s 200” mirror that involved grinding a 20 tons disc of Pyrex glass down to a 14 3⁄4 tons disc, a process involving the use of 31 tons of abrasive and 180,000 man-hours. (Although dedicated in 1948, the Hale reflector is still “a work horse of modern astronomy. It is still used every night thanks to thecontinual development of state-of-the-art support instrumentation”.) (“source” Caltech’s Palomar web site.)

December 1950. “Astronautics” given by a Mr A.C Clarke of the British Interplanetary Society. (Now better known as Sir Arthur C. Clarke of science fiction and fact fame who published his factual book “Interplanetary Flight” in 1950.) His detailed lecture discussed, among other items, the use of atomic energy as a viable alternative to rocket fuel as, for example, the weight of a 7 tons rocket would include 6 tons of fuel.

1952 Professor A.C.B Lovell of the Jodrell Bank Experimental Station spoke on “Radio Astronomy” and how this was increasingly used in discovering objects not visible to optical telescopes. (Now better known as Sir Bernard Lovell who constructed the “then-largest steerable radio telescope in the world that now bears his name and is operated as part of the MERLIN and European VLBI network of interferomatic arrays of radio telescopes”) (“source” Wikipedia.)

The Astronomer Royal (as during 1952), Sir Harold Spencer Jones, in his “The Bounds of Space”, carefully outlined of how the astronomical horizon had been “pushed back“ from the pre- Copernican conception of it to then, and how the radio telescope was pushing it back even further

The bounds have space have expanded very many times since that lecture, with the manned landing on the moon, the development of satellites, the construction of international space stations and the continuing journey out of our solar system of the two Voyager spacecrafts and, with the rapid advances in robotic exploration and other technology, subjects have ranged from sometimes quite in-depth astrophysical analyses of the physical and chemical compositions of space and the bodies within it through the complexities of producing the best astrophotographic images to the future of human space exploration.

Recent guest lectures have included a talk and demonstration of the Crayford focuser from John Wall (1932 – 2018) who actually designed and built it. He revealed that he never patented this simple, accurate eyepiece mount that is now a part of most amateur astronomers’ telescopes preferring to make it widely available to the keen observer. He also designed the dialyte-based refracting telescope.

Another recent guest lecture was presented by Martin Braddock who outlined some of the physiological factors that had to be considered before sending humans through space to colonise Mars and, also asked his audience to send him five challenges to colonising Mars.

CAWAS is not short of members with interests to share, for example; Mike Frost, Director of the historical Section of the BAA and also a self-proclaimed, serial “eclipser” has a prodigious supply of entertaining and informative lectures, and meetings secretary, Geoffrey Johnstone is not far behind with a variety of associated topics and other members are encouraged to “step up to the plate” where they will meet a supportive audience.