The RASC is celebrating its 150th birthday! Join us in congratulating them on this memorable milestone.
The first meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, or RASC (pronounced ræsk), took place on December 1, 1868, at the Mechanics’ Institute on the corner of Adelaide St. and Church St. in Toronto. Eight gentlemen convened that evening. The minutes from that first meeting do not state exactly at what time they met, but Randall Rosenfeld, RASC’s historian and archivist, speculates it must have been evening because none of the attendees were men of leisure, and therefore probably worked during daytime hours. In addition, the minutes of that first meeting invite everyone to reconvene on the first Tuesday of January at 7 p.m. Article II of the minutes also decreed that henceforth they would meet monthly to “spend the evening somewhat as follows:
- Reading extracts from papers or publications, of anything new or otherwise interesting bearing on the subject of Astronomy;
- Reading original papers connected with any department of Astronomy;
- Examining anything new in Astronomical Science;
- Observing celestial objects if circumstances should favor our doing so;
- Conversation &c.”
What was remarkable about those eight gentlemen — Mungo Turnbull, Andrew Elvins, Daniel K. Winder, James L. Hughes, Samuel Clare, Robert Ridgway, Charles Potter, and George Brunt — was that they were all members of the working or middle classes. They were not men of leisure, with time on their hands to contemplate fun hobbies and the like. In addition, not one of them was a person of science, let alone an experienced astronomer. There were professional astronomers in the Canadian Confederation, but they were out and about in the vast lands that were to become Canada, using their astronomical skills to survey and divide the lands for the Crown.
Lost to history is how these eight men were lured to that first meeting. It may have been a circular of some kind, for other nascent societies of the time were using that format. It is also not known how the circular (or notice or letter) was distributed, nor the audience it targeted. Was it sent out to all 50,000 inhabitants of Toronto? Or only a select few?
In any case, on that December evening, this spirited group of men initially bestowed upon themselves the name “The Toronto Astronomical Club,” but within 5 months of that first meeting the club had transformed into “The Toronto Astronomical Society.” For a while, the ardent members corresponded with astronomers and researchers and held monthly meetings during which they discussed current astronomical events (as per Article II), and often had guests in attendance.
Enthusiasm eventually sputtered, and the activities of the society continued under more informal conditions, but never ceased entirely. In 1884, the club was revived as the “The Astronomical and Physical Society of Toronto,” and received its legal charter in 1890. Women were welcomed into the fold of the Society during the 1890s, and in 1903 it became “Royal,” apparently via a verbal nod from King Edward VII rather than through more official channels, and thence the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada came into being.
Following this it was deemed that the Society should evolve into a national endeavor, and in 1906 they established a second Centre (as the RASC’s national branches are called) in Ottawa, the site of the newly established Dominion Observatory. Thereafter, the Society spread nationwide. Today there are 28 Centres from coast to coast counting more than 5,000 members. The Society’s activities continue to honor the wishes of those eight valiant founding members, in addition to incorporating significant education and public outreach into their program, and organizing numerous star parties.
The RASC also publishes a very important annual tome, the Observer’s Handbook. At Sky & Telescope, we cannot imagine going about our daily activities without turning to this precious volume.
Read more about the RASC's year of celebrations here.
I hope you will all join us in raising a toast to the RASC — Happy Sesquicentennial! And may there be many more! Cheers!