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The Astronomical Broadside

Astronomical broadsides concentrated on notable phenomena such as eclipses, comets, meteors and aimed to inform about the solar system or predict or discuss forthcoming events rather than the doom-laden predictions of the more established astrological broadsides.

The public appetite for these broadsides is evident from the fact the publishers such as John Senex produced them over a long period of time, in the case of Senex, producing twelve astronomical prints, in addition to maps of stars, the sun and moon, over the period 1712-1740. The copperplate engravings were expensive to produce, necessitating a reasonable circulation. The audience for astronomical broadsheets in particular would have been broader than for other areas of science such as mechanics or chemistry. Astronomy was accessible to all, without the need of paying to attend a lecture or buy a detailed book. The moon, stars and sun were there for all to see regardless of education of wealth. This provided both an opportunity and a challenge for those scientific practitioners who engaged with public science; there was a large potential audience, but there was more opportunity for misinterpretation based on popular astrological influence and superstition.

Lorna Wetherill's study of inventories upon death reveals the changes in ownership of books and pictures, as well as the social profile of the ownership. This gives an indication of the potential audience for other printed material such as broadsides. The percentage of (urban) ownership of books increases from 18% in 1675 to 56% in 1725, and for the same time period, pictures increase from 9% to 60%. The percentage difference in ownership of books between the gentry and professionals was also one of the highest with 39% of gentry, 45% of high-class tradesmen, 24% for those of intermediate status, and 32% for those with an unknown trade owing book material. A similar pattern emerged for the ownership of pictures. This reveals a new kind of public culture not reliant on the dictates of taste from the gentry and aristocracy and with the desire to spend money on printed materials.

John Senex was one of the most dominant producers of astronomical broadsides in the eighteenth century, and the Solar Scheme broadside was one of the first he engraved and published, and at two shillings and six pence, it was also the most expensive. First published in 1712 it was a pioneering print in the public presentation of astronomy and depicted the orbits of 21 comets. It was a popular print and continued to be produced into the late eighteenth century.

The "Newtonian system of sun, planets and comets, a summary of the Solar Scheme" was published by Senex circa 1723, and priced at one shilling, demonstrates the opportunity Senex took advantage of for advertising related goods. The bottom of the plate reads 'Engraved and sold by John Senex at the Globe in Salisbury Court near Fleet Street where may be had Dr Halley's Scheme of the Total Eclipse of the Sun which will be in 1724. Also his Zodiack containing all the stars in the way of the moon and planets; useful in astronomical observatories and for finding the Longitude at sea.Â?

The solar eclipse of 1724, one of five solar eclipses during the early-mid eighteenth century (1715, 1724, 1737, 1748, and 1764), provided the opportunity to shape public understanding about eclipses and to profit commercially. Broadsides provided the ideal medium to communicate the basic information to help people engage with the eclipse without the need for a technical book on the subject.

Benjamin Martin moved between the worlds of teacher, instrument-maker and public lecturer and, following the death of Senex in 1740, dominated the market for astronomical broadsides in the second part of the eighteenth century, publishing eight of his own between 1739 and 1765.  He bemoaned the fact that much scientific publishing was 'incoherent or expensive'. The broadside provided him with the medium to promulgate scientific knowledge in a cheap and accessible manner. For example, Martin 's 1760 'Geography of the Transit ExplainedÂ?, explains the transit of Venus and shows three views of the Earth at different moments during the 1761 transit. It had a more didactic and popular purpose enabling the estimation of how much of the transit would be visible at a particular place.

Astronomical broadsides, being both commercially and intellectually accessible helped to establish a public awareness of astronomy as a science, to shape public understanding, and both reflected and enhanced interest in celestial events, particularly the more unusual phenomena such as eclipses and comets.


Stewart, L.R., The Rise of Public Science: Rhetoric, Technology, and Natural Philosophy in Newtonian Britain, 1660-1750, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992

Walters, A.N., Ephemeral Events: English Broadsides of Early Eighteenth-Century Solar Eclipses, History of Science Mar 1, 1999, 37, pp.1-43

Weatherill, L., Consumer Behaviour and Material Culture in Britain 1660-1760, London, Routledge, 1988

P. Veron and G.A. Tammann, Astronomical Broadsheet and their Scientific Significance, Endeavour, n.s., iii (1979)

ODNB entries for Benjamin Martin, John Senex and William Whiston

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