Birmingham, John

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Birmingham, John

(b. probably at Millbrook, near Tuam, Ireland, ca. 1816; d. Millbrook, 7 September 1884)


Birmingham was a country gentleman and amateur astronomer who first became prominent when, on 12 May 1866, while walking home from a friend’s house, he noticed in Corona Borealis a new star of the second magnitude, later termed T Coronae. This nova was the brightest since that of 1604 and the first to be identified with an existing star: it had been listed in the Bonn Durchmusterung as of magnitude 9.5, and by the beginning of June 1866 it had returned to the ninth magnitude. It was also the first nova to be subjected to spectroscopic examination, and William Huggins’ visual and spectroscopic observations showed that it consisted of a star surrounded by a shell of hydrogen. T Coronae is remarkable for the fluctuations in the decline of its brightness and for its recurrence in 1946.

In 1872, at the suggestion of T. W. Webb, Birmingham undertook the revision of the catalog of red stars assembled in 1866 by H. C. F. C. Schjellerup. This task occupied him for four years. His catalog of 658 red stars, supplemented by numerous spectroscopic observations, was presented to the Royal Irish Academy on 26 June 1876, and was recognized by the award of the Academy’s Cunningham Medal in 1884. On his deathbed Birmingham requested that Webb produce a revision of the catalog, but the task was undertaken by T. E. Espin and completed by him in 1888.

In the 1870’s Birmingham published a number of papers on the members of the solar system, especially on features of the moon and of Jupiter. He was also a man of many parts: musician, linguist, antiquarian, poet, and the author of several geological papers. At the time of his death he was an inspector of applications for loans under the Land Law (Ireland) Act. He never married.


I. Original Works. Birmingham’s most substantial publication is “Catalogue of Red Stars,” in Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, 26 (1879), 249–354: rev. by T. E. Espin, in Royal Irish Academy’s Cunningham Memoirs, no. 5 (Dublin, 1890). Minor astronomical papers published by Birmingham between 1869 and his death are scattered among a number of English-language astronomical and scientific Journals. For details see the Royal Society’s Catalogue of Scientific Papers, I (1867), 388; VII (1877), 178; IX (1891), 246–247; XIII (1914), 567; J. C. Houzeau and A. Lancaster, Bibliographie générale de l’astronomie jusqu’en 1880, new ed., II (London, 1964); and Poggendorff, III (1898), 133. Details of his discovery of T Coronae are given in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 26 , no.8 (1866), 310.

II. Secondary Literature. Birmingham has attracted almost no attention. The main sources are two unsatisfactory items in the (now extinct) Tuam News (12 Sept. 1884). More accessible are the biographical sketch by Agnes Clerke in Dictionary of National Biography, V, 85–86; and the obituary notice in Astronomische Nach-richten, 110 , no.2632 (1885), 255.

M. A. Hoskin