Isaac Roberts (1829 - 1904)

by Philip Joseph Pennington BA, MSc

Isaac Roberts was born in Denbigh, North Wales. When he was seven years old the family moved to Liverpool. The City was experiencing rapid growth and in this atmosphere Roberts became apprenticed to a local building firm in 1814. Working his way up through the ranks, he became owner of the building firm himself. During this period he moved to 26 Rock Park, Rock Ferry, Cheshire, a house once owned by Nathaniel Hawthorne, when the latter was U.S. Consul in Liverpool.

Whilst living in Rock Park, Roberts become interested in Astronomy and on moving to Maghull, Lancashire in 1878 pursued his interest even further. By 1885 he had built an observatory with a 20 inch reflector.

Using this instrument Roberts was to make considerable progress in the newly developing science of Astro-photography. He photographed numerous celestial objects including Orion Nebula and Pleiades but undoubtedly his finest work was a photograph of the Great Nebula in Andromeda, M31 on December 29th 1888.

In addition to his contribution to Astro-photography Roberts also devised a machine to be used to engrave stellar positions on copper plates, known as Stellar Pantograver. He was also a geologist of some considerable note. Roberts was a frequent contributor to the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society and served on numerous scientific committees. He was a life member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 1890 he moved to Crowborough, Sussex and in 1901 married the Paris based American Astronomer Dorethea Klumpke. Dorethea (1861 to 1942) who was a well known astronomer in her own right and is regarded as an important pioneer of the involvement of women in science. Despite his age, in his seventies, Roberts continued his astronomical work. On the day of his death, July 17th 1904, he had spent the early morning examining negatives.

In his will, Roberts left money to assist students at the University of Liverpool and the University of Wales. His memorial, erected by his wife, is in Flaybrick Cemetery, Birkenhead, Merseyside.

After he husband's death, Dorethea went to live with her sister Anna in France. Where she continued her astronomical work. In 1929, to commemorate the centenary of her husband's birth, Dorethea published an astronomical atlas based on his work. Dorethea's firm views about the importance of women's role in astronomy remained firm and she wrote and lectured on the subject in order to encourage much greater female participation in the science. During the 1920's and 1930's she spent her time in France and San Francisco and received many honours for her astronomical work. She finally moved back to her native city San Francisco in 1930 where, despite ill health, she continued to take an active part in astronomy. Her house became a gathering place for scientists, artists and musicians. She endowed several prizes at the University of California - she was a life long believer in the value of education. Dorethea Klumpke Roberts died on October 5th , 1942.


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