Organised Astronomy in Malta

In 2004, our Society celebrated the 20th anniversary of the merger between the Students’ Astronomical Circle and the Astronomical Association to form the Astronomical Society. It is worth noting, however, that the popularisation of astronomy in Malta started more than half a century ago and continued on and off until the late 1970s when several astronomy groups were set up. This article will focus on the initiatives taken in the 1950s and the 1960s.

The first astronomy group in Malta was the brainchild of Professor Gaston Tonna Barthet, who taught French first in secondary schools in Malta and France ,and eventually lectured on the language at the University of Malta from 1945 until his retirement in 1966. Tonna Barthet was a man of many parts as shown by the many articles and books on various subjects which he published in French, Italian, English and Maltese. He showed a particular interest in science and technology.

Between 1931 and 1936, Tonna Barthet (left) published the Science Magazine, the first Maltese serial publication devoted entirely to science and technology. He set up several laboratories and an observatory equipped with telescopes and meteorological instruments. What is probably his most notable scientific achievement came in 1930 when he managed to receive a picture by radio, and later when collaborated with Sir Edward Victor Appleton F.R.S. on research on the reflection of radio waves by ionised gases  hundreds of kilometres above the Earth’s atmosphere.

Toward the end of 1949, Tonna Barthet decided to set up the Malta Cultural Institute (MCI) and published its programme of cultural activities for the first four weeks of the 1949-50 session. Besides music performances and talks on art and poetry, the activities included an observation of the Moon with a telescope magnifying 100times. This was scheduled for October 28, 1949 at the Royal University of Malta building at Valletta. Similar activities followed in the nest three months. On November 30, members of the MCI were invited to observe the Moon again, on December 13 they observed Jupiter and its moons, and at the beginning of January 1950 about sixty members used a 127-mm refractor of 180cm focal length to observe the Orion Nebula. Encouraged by the attendance at the observation sessions, Tonna Barthet offered to give a series of talks on popular astronomy if members showed enough interest.

A preliminary talk on ‘The mysteries of the universe’ took place on January 14, 1950. The audience was impressed both by the content and the presentation, which included a picture drawn by Tonna Barthet himself and other relevant drawings. At the end of the talk those present were invited to join the Astronomical Circle as a section of the MCI. The first meeting of the Circle was to be held on January 31, 1950. The next meeting was held at the beginning of March 1950 at the Hotel Phoenicia in Floriana. The secretary of the Circle, Mr. Schembri gave a talk on the expansion of the Universe and the president. Mr Gerald Gambin spoke about an imaginary journey to the Moon. At the end of this meeting Professor Tonna Barthet announced the beginning of the course of lectures in April at the University building in Valletta and the arrangement for meetings of the Astronomical Circle to be held at the Hotel Phoenicia. The course actually started on April 12, and lectures were held twice a month between April and June, while the Circle organised activities in between the talks.

After a summer break, the 1950-51 session was inaugurated on October 16,1950 by a talk on the history of astronomy by architect William Micallef. In the other monthly meetings of the Circle, members attended for talks followed by observations. In the November meeting, there were talks on the Sun and on Jupiter. followed by observations of the planet and its four moons with a 75mm refractor and magnification 200 built by Gambin himself. 

In the following months, Micallef gave talks on ‘Travelling in the universe’ and ‘Theories of the evolution of ht solar system’, while Rene Tonna Barthet spoke about supernovae and the evolution of stars. Observations were also carried out with a 127mm refractor. These activities who that the members of the Circle were well acquainted with developments in astronomy in the first half of the 20th Century and were keen to make first hand observations. 

Similar activities with a mix of theory and observation continued in subsequent years as recorded in several issues of the Bulletin of the Malta Cultural Institute and notices that appeared in The Times of Malta at that time.

In 1952 the name of the section was changed to the Astronomical and Meteorological Circle but meetings on astronomy continued for the next few years while observations were made from Tonna Barthet’s residence in Filippo Sciberras Square, Floriana. However, by 1954 interest in astronomy had decreased and activities became scarce. In an effort to renew this interest, the Bulletin of the MCI of January, April and June/July 1956 carried three articles on astronomy in Italian and in 1958 and 1962 there were unsuccessful attempts to launch courses on popular astronomy for the general public.

Although the Astronomical Circle had come to a natural end, interest in astronomy started germinating in the minds of young students whose imagination must have been fired by the successful launch of the first spacecraft Sputnik by he Soviet Union on October 4, 1957, and the subsequent space race between Russian and American scientists and engineers. In the scholastic year 1960-61, Victor Sammut still a secondary school student at St Aloysius College organised discussions and talks on astronomy during lunch breaks for his classmates. However, what had to become the Aloysian Astronomical Association never really took off and all activities stopped at the end of the scholastic year and were not resumed.

In the next scholastic year. 1961-62, a group of about eight ex-students of the old Lyceum at Hamrun formed the Malta Amateur Astronomical Society (MAAS) and used to meet to discuss the astronomical observations they used to make. They also made arrangements with the headmaster of the old Lyceum to give talks to students during lunch breaks. Over thirty students used to attend these talks and many of them joined the MAAS. The group then started to publish a Bulletin in which various authors wrote short articles about the winter constellations, the Mon, making a simple refracting telescope, observing the sun, and observations without a telescope.

The main emphasis was on observation and this encouraged several members to build their own telescopes, which they managed to do using lenses and eyepieces for ex-services’ equipment which was available at that time. 

Members were asked to keep a record of their observations and these were kept in what was called the MAAS File. Gradually. the file grew with observations of sunspots, drawings of Moon craters, Saturn and its rings, Jupiter and its moons, and maps of star clusters such as the Pleiades and Praesepe (Beehive). Some observation of meteor showers were also made.

The historical aspect of astronomy was not forgotten . A short article on William Lassell’s telescope in Malta appeared in the Bulletin of March 1962, and on being informed that there had been an astronomical group some years previously, members of the MAAS got into contact with Professor Tonna Barthel, who invited them to visit his observatory in Floriana. The visit took place on March 23, 1962, and the four or five members present took the opportunity to observe Venus with the professor’s 60-mm refractor. Two other visits were made to an amateur astronomer in Birkirkara who had a 110mm reflector, which he had purchased from the USA. The views of the Moon through the reflector were excellent and two members took the opportunity to photograph the first quarter Moon.

Despite the good start and the enthusiasm generated, the members of the group terminated their activities when they found that their studies left them precious little free time. However, individual members still found time to learn more about astronomy and to use the instruments they had constructed to make interesting observations over the years.

Professor Frank Ventura