The 'Astronomical Society of London' was conceived over dinner on 12 January 1820. The 14 men who met that day included Charles Babbage and John Herschel; they shared an interest in astronomy and were concerned about its future. The new Society and Council first gathered on 10 March 1820. Sir William Herschel was the titular first President, though he never actually took the Chair at a meeting. A Royal Charter was signed by William IV on 7 March 1831. Since then we have been known as the Royal Astronomical Society, and the reigning monarch has been our Patron.
The objectives of the Society were the promotion of astronomy in the form of accurate calculations and observations, but also in practical applications such as navigation. Geophysics, which had always been among the interests of the members, came into its own later on. The Society was established as an independent body, run by its members – Fellows – through the elected Council, working within a set of governing bye-laws. Women were not initially included in the Society. In 1835 Council awarded Honorary Membership to two highly distinguished women of science, Caroline Herschel and Mary Somerville, and conferred this honour upon a handful of women subsequently. It was not until 1916 that women could be elected as Fellows.
When the Society was started there were very few professional astronomers; most Fellows had the means to pursue their interest independently. They met to discuss astronomical research at the regular RAS meetings. The Society at first met in various locations, moving to specially built premises in Burlington House, Piccadilly, in 1874, which it has occupied ever since.
To learn more about the history of the Society, see our bicentenary timeline.
Publication of research formed a central activity from the very beginning of the RAS. The Memoirs of the RAS started in 1822 (and was discontinued in 1978). Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS) began in 1827 and continues to this day as the Society's flagship astronomy journal. Richard Sheepshanks, a prominent early Fellow, was the first editor. In 1970 an editorial board was established to handle submissions, taking over from the RAS Council. MNRAS has expanded significantly over the years and is now one of the world's leading peer-reviewed astronomy journals, publishing research from authors in over 80 different countries in many astronomical subject areas.
Geophysical Journal International (GJI) is one of the world’s leading primary research journals in geophysics. Geophysical publication has been a major success story of the RAS, initiated by H.H. Turner, a prominent astronomer and seismologist. Initially, geophysical papers were published in MNRAS, expanding into a Geophysical Supplement to MNRAS from 1922 to 1957. We launched a separate journal, Geophysical Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, in 1958. This subsequently merged with two European journals: Journal of Geophysics and Annales Geophysicae to become Geophysical Journal International. The journal is truly international, with a Board of Editors based at institutions around the globe and 95% of submissions from outside the UK.
Until 1965, the journals were published in-house by the Society; from 1965 to 2012 they were published by Blackwell Publishing (later part of Wiley-Blackwell). From 2013 the journals have been published by Oxford University Press.
The Society published Occasional Notes intermittently from 1938-1959, providing Fellows with topical articles about science and society activities. The Quarterly Journal continued this theme from 1960 and was replaced in 1997 by our membership magazine A&G (Astronomy & Geophysics), which combines news and research reviews.
From its earliest days the Society had collected books, manuscripts, instruments and other memorabilia, and these formed the basis of the Library and Archives which are maintained today. The Archives include a range of observational and other material dating mainly from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, with some older; much the most important group is the Herschel Archive. As well as major donations such as the Grove-Hills collection, bequeathed in 1923, a significant 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.
The instruments originally formed a loaning collection for Fellows to borrow for use in observations. Many instruments have been donated or are on loan to museums such as the History of Science Museum, the Science Museum, and Royal Museums Greenwich; a few instruments remain in Burlington House.
- To mark our bicentenary in 2020, we have created a visual timeline.
- The Society's history is recorded in detail in two volumes. Volume 1 covers 1820 to 1920, and is available on the Internet Archive. Volume 2 covers 1920 to 1980. Please contact us if you would like to purchase a copy.
- A list of past Presidents is here.
- An index of obituaries of RAS Fellows and Associates is available online.
- Further historical information on Burlington House is provided by the Royal Academy, who now occupy the north wing of the courtyard. In addition there is an entry on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burlington_House.
RAS Dining Club
In common with many scientific societies originating in the nineteenth century, the Royal Astronomical Society was conceived over dinner. Now the RAS Dining Club meets after RAS scientific meetings. Since their beginnings the Dining Club and the Society have enjoyed completely separate financial and organisational existences, though Fellowship of the latter is a condition for membership of the former. The Club has a membership of about 60, most of whom dine regularly, plus about 30 'Honorary Members'. For further information about the Dining Club please contact the Club Secretary, Margaret Penston firstname.lastname@example.org