The British Journal for the History of Science

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The British Journal for the History of Science (2009), 42:345-380 Cambridge University Press
Copyright © 2009 British Society for the History of Science

Research Article

Arthur Cowper Ranyard, Knowledge and the reproduction of astronomical photographs in the late nineteenth-century periodical press


a1 Department of English, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2TT, UK. Email:
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The development of photographic reproduction in the late nineteenth century permitted images in a range of visual media to be published in the press. Focusing on the popular scientific monthly Knowledge, this paper explores the evidentiary status of reproductions of astronomical photographs. After succeeding its founder Richard Anthony Proctor in 1889, the new editor of Knowledge, Arthur Cowper Ranyard, introduced high-quality collotype reproductions into each number of the magazine. One of Ranyard's main interests was the structure of the Milky Way, evidence for which was only available through astronomical photographs. As Ranyard reproduced photographs in support of his arguments, he blurred the boundaries between the published collotype, the source negative and the astronomical phenomena themselves. Since each of these carried different evidentiary value, the confusion as to what, exactly, was under discussion did not go unremarked. While eminent astronomers disputed both Ranyard's arguments and the way in which they were presented, Knowledge disseminated both striking astronomical images and also a broader debate over how they should be interpreted.

(Online publication April 15 2009)


This paper has been long in preparation and has benefited from feedback from colleagues at various seminars and conferences, including Places of Exchange in Glasgow in 2002, the annual conference of the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals in 2004, and seminars at the University of Manchester, the Royal Observatory and Imperial College in 2003, 2004 and 2005 respectively. I am grateful for the help provided by Peter Hingley at the library of the Royal Astronomical Society and for permission to quote from the Ranyard manuscripts. Lastly, I would like to record my thanks for the pertinent remarks offered by the anonymous referees on behalf of the BJHS, and the patience of all involved.