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Isaac Roberts

1829 - 1904
Astronomer and Pioneer of Astrophotography

He was born in Y Groes, Denbighshire, North Wales and he later moved to Liverpool.  There, he became an apprentice to John Johnson & Son (which later became Johnson and Robinson), a firm of mechanical engineers.  He became a partner in 1847, and supplemented his job with night school. When Peter Robinson died in 1855, Roberts was made manager of the firm. When the other partner, John Johnson died.   He became known as one of the best engineers in the region.

In 1878, Roberts had a 7-inch refractor at his home in Rock Ferry, Birkenhead. Although at the time he used this for visual observation, he began to explore stellar photography, his forte, a few years later.  In 1883, he began experimenting with stellar photography. He first used portrait lenses and was pleased with the results, and then ordered a 20 inch reflector (silver-on-glass).   He took the pictures directly at the focal length, which measured 100 inches, in order to avoid the loss of light that would occur had he used a second mirror. By 1885, Roberts had built an observatory with a 20-inch reflector. This allowed him to make significant progress in the then-developing field of astronomical photography.  As an amateur astronomer, he became a pioneer in astrophotography.  He took photographic plates of the sky, intending to create photographic star charts. In 1886, he took the first good photographs of the Orion Nebula M42 and the Pleiades M45 from Maghull, Lancashire.

He was a member of Liverpool Astronomical Society and was a fellow of the Royal Geological Society. Roberts was also awarded Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1895.  By January 1886, Roberts was president of his local astronomical at Liverpool, and had taken 200 pictures of the stars, in addition to pictures of the Orion nebula, the Andromeda nebula and the Pleiades.

He published his photographes in three volumes of a series, Photographs of Stars, Star Clusters and Nebulae.  The first volume was published in 1893, the second in 1899, and the third one posthumously by his widow in 1928.  In addition to his considerable advancements in the field of astro-photography, Roberts also invented a machine called the Stellar Pantograver that could engrave stellar positions on copper plates.

The importance of Isaac Roberts's work was recognised internationally. He was honoured by being being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, the highly prestigious national academy of sciences of Britain.   He was awarded an honorary doctorate in Dublin (though curiously not by the University of Wales). He received the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in London.

His 20-inch reflector is now in the Science Museum in South Kensington, London (England).   Roberts died suddenly in Crowborough, Sussex, England in 1904 (he was 75 years old), widowing his then-wife Dorethea Klumpke. He was cremated soon after his death, and his ashes lay in Crowborough for about five years before he was reburied in Flaybrick Hill Cemetery, in Birkenhead.   Roberts was patriotic to his home land of Wales, and continued to use the Welsh language throughout his life. He left a substantial amount of money to Colleges of Cardiff, Bangor, and Liverpool.

His epitaph read:

    "In memory of Isaac Roberts, Fellow of the Royal Society, one of England's pioneers in the domain of Celestial Photography. Born at Groes, near Denbigh, January 27, 1829, died at Starfield, Crowboro, Sussex, July 17, 1904, who spent his whole life in the search after Truth, and the endeavour to aid the happiness of others. Heaven is within us. This stone is erected in loving devotion by his widow Dorethea Roberts née Klumpke."

Rob Ainsworth