His “popularity” may have last peaked during the middle of the 1990s, but does anyone this day and age still remember John Bevis – probably England’s greatest amateur astronomer?
By: Ringo Bones
Amateur astronomers who had spent enough time in the library doing old school style research will probably associate amateur astronomer John Bevis with the discovery of the Crab Nebula in 1731 and his observations on an occultation by the planet Venus of Mercury back in May 28, 1737. But does his name still register in the overall consciousness of today’s amateur astronomical community?
Though he probably gained a “brief” peak in popularity during the mid 1990s in lieu of Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-Head on the MTV Channel, John Bevis would have been both forgotten and relegated into the dustbin of history had it been for the “old school” researcher repeatedly uncovering his “Ghost Book of Manchester” since the 1980s. Born in old Sarum Witshire back in November 10, 1695, John Bevis was more well-known as a doctor in his hometown than as an accomplished astronomer before passing away back in November 6, 1771.
And given the mainstream press attention of the dramatic Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet impact on the surface of the planet Jupiter back in July 16, 1994 and the subsequent Hollywood’s interest in the possibility of comets and gigantic asteroids hitting the planet earth causing an extinction level event – it made two box office grossing movies during the latter half of the 1990s as in Deep Impact and Armageddon – and not to mention that the mainstream press recently found out there are more people manning America’s fast food industry than looking at the skies for comets and asteroids that might wreck havoc on earth, it has become a cause célèbre back then to “empower” the amateur astronomer so they might become joint partners of NASA’s Spaceguard Survey given the results of the 1992 Spaceguard Report and the 1995 Shoemaker Committee Report.
London physician John Bevis would only had been remembered as a good doctor – instead of an accomplished amateur astronomer – had his plans to publish a very extensive star atlas more detailed than anything ever published before had destined to failure. In 1738, Bevis erected a private observatory at Stoke Newington on the outskirts of London where he began an ambitious project – the compilation of a star atlas that was to contain many more stars than Johann Bayer’s Uranometria of 1603 and to have greater exactness. The final product was to be Bevis’ Uranographia Britannica, an atlas of 51 charts to be accompanied by a catalog of star positions.
Given the high cost of publishing at the time, John Bevis started to look for patrons and subscribers to cover the cost of publishing his Uranographia Britannica. Bevis collected more than 180 subscriptions and the plates are beautifully engraved each having a dedication to the particular individual or learned society in the United Kingdom and across Europe that had subscribed to the work. The first mention of the Uranographia is in a letter Bevis sent to Nicolas Louis de Lacaille in 1748, promising to send him a copy as a present. Despite of famous royal patrons at the time – like Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales – Bevis’ Uranographia Britannica wind up being proverbially called as a “Ghost Book of Manchester” and might sent Bevis to ignominious historical obscurity.
John Bevis was rescued from ultimate “historical obscurity” back in 1981 when William B. Ashworth Jr. of the University of Missouri in Kansas City published a paper entitled “John Bevis and his Uranographia (ca. 1750).” The paper which appeared in the February 1981 Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society contained both a description and a critique of the work, which seems to describe the very atlas. Until William B. Ashworth Jr. published his paper in 1981, Bevis’ star atlas had been largely forgotten by the scientific community. And thanks to the November 1997 research by the Manchester Astronomical Society for mid to late 18th Century “ghost books”, Kevin Kilburn, Michael Oates and Anthony Cross finally unearthed a filed copy of Bevis’ atlas in the Manchester Astronomical Society’s library back in November 12, 1997. The atlas consists of the elaborate frontispiece, 51 star charts, the advertising broadsheet and an index. Thus the Manchester copy is one of the most complete and best preserved of the 1786 “ghost book”.