How Nottingham-Born John Russell Hind Helped to Expand the Field of Astronomy

Words: Ashley Carter
Sunday 13 February 2022
reading time: min, words

We celebrate the life and work of John Russell Hind, the Nottingham-born astronomer who made huge strides in the discovery of asteroids…


When was the last time you looked into the night sky? That enormous, boundless blanket of stars that fascinates some and terrifies others. As unrecognisable as Earth in 2022 would be to our historical forefathers, the sky – save for the presence of planes – is the one constant, infinite reminder of our own relative insignificance. Mountains are moved, roads are built and entire societies rise and fall, but the moon that looks back at us when we gaze skywards in the evening is the same moon that Genghis Khan, Leonardo Da Vinci and Jane Austen all saw. The only thing that’s changed is our understanding of it. And, like all great scientific endeavours, that understanding comes in the form of building blocks of knowledge collated over millennia.

A 32,500-year-old carved ivory Mammoth tusk, found in the Alb-Danube region of Germany, shows what is thought to be the oldest surviving example of a star chart – an early attempt to make sense of the seemingly random set of celestial objects searing through the skies above. It was left behind by the Aurignacian people who we know next to nothing about, other than the fact that they made an early attempt to catalogue the stars. Astronomy formed the bedrock of religious, mythological, cosmological, calendrical and astrological understanding in countless societies from Mesopotamia and Indus Valley Civilisations through the great societies of prehistory, Classical antiquity, the Enlightenment and onwards, each adding their own basis of knowledge to the wider collection of understanding. As long as there has been recorded history, there’s been a drive to understand astronomy. 

While eighteenth century astronomy could generally be characterised by the precise measurement of position and the classification of celestial bodies, the nineteenth century went beyond cataloguing the skies to understanding their very composition and predicting what could not be seen. William Herschel’s discovery of Uranus – the first planet to be discovered since antiquity - in 1781 sparked a renewed interest in our solar system as astronomers began to look for a planet between Mars and Jupiter. Instead of a planet, they discovered a series of smaller bodies, which became known as minor planets, or asteroids. First Ceres in 1801, then Pallas the following year, before Juno and Vesta were discovered in 1804 and 1807 respectively. 

Hind became interested in astronomy at an early age, spending hours watching the stars on a clear night aged just four

Born just a generation after these discoveries was John Russell Hind, the man whose name would become synonymous with the discovery of asteroids. The son of Nottingham lace makers, Hind became interested in astronomy at an early age, spending hours watching the stars on a clear night aged just four. By six he was already reading astronomical works. After completing his studies at Nottingham Grammar School – during which he submitted weather predictions to the Nottingham Journal -  Hind was sent to London as an assistant to William Carpmael, a civil engineer at the Patent Office, following which he was hired by George Biddell Airy to fill one of the two newly created posts of Magnetic Assistant at Greenwich Royal Observatory. Airy, a famed mathematician and astronomer whose achievements included measuring the mean density of the Earth and, in his role as Astronomer Royal, establishing Greenwich as the location of the prime meridian, saw the potential in seventeen-year-old Hind, hiring him as part of a large-scale project to understand the phenomenon of magnetic declination. By simultaneously observing twenty different sites across Europe and the Russian Empire, Airy and his team aimed to determine the extent and simultaneity of the disturbances in order to better understand why and how magnetic variation occurred. 

During his time working under Airy, Hind became a talented observer with the Sheepshanks equatorial telescope and in 1844 took part in the first chronometric determination of the longitude of Valencia, Ireland. Resigning later that same year, he gained employment from George Bishop as supervisor of his private observatory at Regent’s Park in London. As well as marrying and having six children, the next nine years saw Hind’s reputation grow enormously. He discovered ten asteroids, including Iris and Flora, two comets, a variable nebula in Taurus and several variable stars. He accompanied Rev. W.R. Dawes to Sweden in 1851, where the pair observed the total eclipse of 28 July. Hind later wrote of seeing “rose-coloured flames” at the sun’s limb during the event. 

While his name might not ring out as clearly as Galileo, Hubble or Newton to modern ears, John Russell Hind made a vital contribution to our understanding of astronomy

His incomparable mixture of tenacity, skill and perseverance gained Hind a reputation as one of astronomy’s leading men, leading to payments of £100 from the Royal Bounty Fund in 1851 and an annual Civil List pension of £200 the following year (around £15,000 and £30,000 respectively in modern money). But his career was not without controversy. In 1850 Hinds discovered a minor planet about 120 km in diameter which he duly named 12 Victoria, in honour of the reigning queen. Tradition dictated that celestial bodies could not be named after living people, causing Hind to later explain that the asteroid was, in fact, named after Victoria, the Roman goddess of victory. A fierce debate over the name broke out in astronomy circles, before W.C. Bond of the Harvard College Observatory, then the highest authority on astronomy in America, weighed in to claim that Hind’s latter mythological explanation had fulfilled the necessary naming conditions, and 12 Victoria was therefore acceptable as a name. 

Having been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in June 1863 and President of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1880, Hind continued his devotion to work right up to his death from heart disease in 1895. His legacy includes three coveted Lalande Prizes, the discovery of ten asteroids and various celestial discoveries named in his honour, including the asteroid 1897 Hind, Hind’s Crimson Star, Hind’s Variable Nebula and the crater Hind on the Moon. While his name might not ring out as clearly as Galileo, Hubble or Newton to modern ears, John Russell Hind made a vital contribution to our understanding of astronomy, a contribution that started with a four-year-old boy observing the night sky from his family home in Nottingham.

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