Maunder, Edward Walter

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(b. London, England, 12 April 1851; d. London, 21 March 1928)


Maunder attended the school attached to University College, London, and took some additional courses at King’s College there. He then worked briefly in a London bank before taking the first examination ever given by the British Civil Service Commission for the post of photographic and spectroscopic assistant in the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. By appointing Maunder to this new post in 1873, the observatory—which had been concerned since its founding with positional astronomy—made a formal commitment to astrophysical observations. Maunder worked at Greenwich for forty years, largely under the direction of W. H. M. Christie; the primary task assigned him was the photographic observation of the sun and the subsequent measurement of sunspots.

Of Maunder’s first wife, who died in 1888. little is known. His second wife, whom he married in 1895, was Annie S. D. Russell, a competent and active astronomer. In 1889 she graduated from Girton College, Cambridge, as Senior Optime in the Mathematical Tripos, thus earning the highest mathematical honor then available to women. In 1891 she was appointed “lady computer” at Greenwich, charged with examining and measuring the sunspot photographs taken by Maunder. Thenceforth, she worked closely with Maunder.

When the Greenwich record of sunspots was begun on 17 April 1874, the periodicity, equatorial drift, and variation of rotation with latitude of sunspots had already been established. In addition to verifying these facts, Maunder’s daily photographs—taken first on wet plates, later on dry—made possible a search for other regularities. To this end Maunder tabulated various sunspot features, such as number, area, changes, position, and motion. From these data he drew conclusions concerning the relation between rotation period and latitude of sunspots, the position of the solar axis of rotation, the correlation between solar rotation and terrestrial magnetic disturbances, the variation in time of the mean spotted area of the sun, and the latitudinal distribution of sunspot centers. With a spectroscope attached to the observatory’s great equatorial, Maunder observed solar prominences, the radial motion of stars, and the spectra of planets, comets, novae, and nebulae. The results were undistinguished.

Maunder traveled outside England to observe six solar eclipses. As a member of the official British party, Maunder photographed the corona from Carriacou in the West Indies in 1886, and from Mauritius in 1901. In 1905 he went to Canada as a guest of the Canadian government. The other three expeditions, under the auspices of the British Astronomical Association, were organized for the most part by Maunder himself. In 1896 they went to Vadsö, Norway, in 1898 to India, and in 1900 to Algeria. In India, Maunder and his wife made separate observations: she, with instruments of her own devising, photographed a coronal streamer extending to six solar radii—the longest ever photographed.

After his election as fellow in 1875, Maunder took an active part in the affairs of the Royal Astronomical Society, serving as council member for many years and secretary from 1892 to 1897. Despite its many advantages, this society did not satisfy the needs of many British astronomers. Therefore, in 1890, largely through the efforts of Maunder and his brother Thomas Frid Maunder, the British Astronomical Association was founded. Its purposes were twofold: “To meet the wished and needs of those who find the subscription of the R.A.S. too high or its papers too advanced, or who are, in the case of ladies, practically excluded from becoming Fellows” and “to afford a means of direction and organization in the work of observation to amateur astronomers.” For the rest of his life Maunder supported this popular organization, serving as president in 1894–1896 and as director at various times of the Mars section, the solar section, and the colored star section. He edited the association’s Journal for about ten years; during his presidency this job was undertaken by his wife. Previously, from 1881 to 1887, he had edited Observatory, the journal founded by Christie.

The literary output of Maunder and his wife was prodigious. The results of their astronomical observations were communicated primarily to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Journal of the British Astronomical Association. For many years both Nature and Knowledge contained frequent articles by the Maunders on popular astronomy, astronomical researches, and the history of astronomy—notably astronomical records in the Bible.


I. Original Works. Maunder’s books include The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, A Glance at its History and Work (London, 1902); Astronomy Without a Telescope (London, 1903), derived largely from articles in Knowledge; Astronomy of the Bible: An Elementary Commentary on the Astronomical References of Holy Scripture (London, 1908); The Science of the Stars (London-Edinburgh, 1912); Are the Planets inhabited? (London-New York, 1913); Sir William Huggins and Spectroscopic Astronomy (London-Edinburgh, 1913); and the astronomical section of The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Chicago, 1915). See also The Heavens and Their Story (London, 1910), written with his wife. Articles by the Maunders are listed in the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, X, 749–750; XVII, 102; and the annual volumes of the International Catalogue of Scientific Literature.

II. Secondary Literature. There are obituaries of Maunder by H. P. H. in Journal of the British Astronomical Association, 38 (1927–1928), 229–233 (see also 165–168); and in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 89 (1928–1929), 313–318. The obituary of A. S. D. R. Maunder, written by M. A. Evershed, appeared in the Journal of the British Astronomical Association, 57 (1946–1947), 238.

Deborah Jean Warner

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Maunder, Edward Walter

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