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Schwabe, Samuel

 

HISTORY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

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Sir Joseph Norman Lockyer (1836 - 1920)

Joseph Norman Lockyer was born in Rugby, England and, after he completed his schooling, he continued his education in Switzerland and in France. He joined the British War Office in 1857, working as a civil servant. At the same time he pursued his interests in science, particularly in astronomy. Lockyer bought his first refracting telescope in 1861 from Thomas Cooke. He built an observatory in his house in West London and began is observations by turning his telescope on Mars. Lockyer gave his first paper to the Royal Astronomical Society in 1863.

In 1864 Lockyer started using a spectroscope with his telescope and began his observations of the Sun. At that time, the observations of the solar prominences could only be made during a solar eclipse and many astronomers travelled the world to make their observations in the right place at the right time! In 1868, Lockyer proved that, with the right equipment, the spectra produced by solar prominences could be recorded without having to wait for a solar eclipse.

 

solar prominences

© NASA

 

Another astronomer, Pierre Jansenn, working in France, had reached the same conclusion as Lockyer and credit for the discovery was given to Lockyer and Janssen. By 1869, the two scientists were collaborating in their attempt to identify a new element that showed itself on the Sun's spectrographs. Janssen had noticed the presence of this new element in 1868 when he had observed a total eclipse from India. Lockyer compared the spectrum of this element to those of all known elements and, just like trying to match fingerprints, concluded that this was, indeed, an element that had not been discovered on the Earth. The new element was given the name helium, after the ancient Greek god of the Sun, Helios. It is now known that helium is, in fact, the second most common element in the solar system!

 

Joseph Norman Lockyer

Public Domain Image

 

Lockyer founded the scientific journal Nature in 1869 and, in the same year, he became a fellow of the Royal Society (FRS). In 1870 he became the secretary to a five-year project, the Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction. The final report of this commission resulted in the construction of a solar physics laboratory in Kensington, London. In 1875, the year the project came to an end, Lockyer was knighted. He was appointed as the first professor of Astronomical Physics at the Royal College of Science, (now Imperial College), by the British Prime Minister. He was also the Director of the solar physics laboratory in Kensington.

Lockyer retired in 1913 when the solar physics laboratory was relocated to Cambridge. The London building became part of the Science Museum. Lockyer moved to Sidmouth in Devon where he established a solar observatory, at first called Hill Observatory, but now known as the Norman Lockyer Observatory.

 

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