Astronomical Society of Edinburgh
Journal 43

Dr Harry Ford

[ The oration given by Dr William Samson on the occasion of Harry Ford being awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Science at the University of Abertay, Dundee on 7th July 2000. ]

Chancellor, I have the honour to present to you for the award of the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science Harry Stewart Ford, lecturer at the Caird Planetarium at the Old Royal Observatory, Greenwich. I present Harry Ford to you for this award in the light of his outstanding record in actively promoting astronomy to the public, especially to young people.

Harry Ford was born in Dundee in 1938 and educated at Rockwell Central School. He left school at the age of fifteen and became a medical technician at Queen's College, Dundee - now Dundee University; receiving part of his training at 'Bell Street Tech' - now the University of Abertay Dundee.

In 1956 Harry was one of the founders of Dundee Astronomical Society in which he held, over the years, every office with distinction, and is now an Honorary Member. From 1963 he assisted Dr Jaroslav Cisar, part-time Curator of Mills Observatory. Dundee and member of the Department of Astronomy in the University of St Andrews, and then succeeded him. At first, this was a part-time post but in 1970 it became full-time.

The Mills Observatory was transformed under Harry's leadership from a dusty outpost of the Parks and Cemeteries department into an active centre for amateur astronomy, and for bringing Astronomy to the public, which was the founder's intention. The idea of siting a public observatory in Dundee was originally conceived by the Reverend Dr Thomas Dick, a director of the Watt Institution - a precursor of the present-day University of Abertay Dundee - and implemented thanks to the philanthropy of John Mills in the 1930s. Dick's idea did not reach fruition until the 1970s, when Harry Ford put the Mills Observatory on the map as the UK's foremost public observatory and a place of pilgrimage for amateur astronomers from throughout the UK and beyond. It became the venue for astronomical meetings and conferences, with Patrick Moore being a frequent visitor. The 10 inch Cooke telescope at the Mills was used mainly for studies of the Moon, prior to the lunar landings and in 1976-78 Harry became director of the Lunar Section of the British Astronomical Association. He also made notable contributions to observations of Aurora, Noctilucent Clouds and Meteors.

Harry Ford, equipped with practical and communications skills, filled the observatory with models, visual aids and even built a small planetarium - one of the first miniature projection planetaria in Scotland. His first planetarium was made from a copper cistern ball, acquired from a certain university in Dundee. This was expertly perforated with tiny holes corresponding to the positions of the stars, and set on a rotating mounting made from an old bicycle. The end result was superior to many 'store-bought' planetaria in terms of its precision, its functionality and its flexibility. Harry also makes spectroscopes, sundials and telescopes from the most unlikely junk, to give away to interested youngsters. I myself had the privilege of being on the receiving end of Harry's generosity in the early 1960s, when he made this beautiful little telescope for me. It still sees active service in my back garden.

During his time as Curator of the Mills Observatory, Harry encouraged many young people and trained them in the use of astronomical instruments. Some went on to become distinguished astronomers - for example Robert McNaught, now at Siding Spring Observatory, Australia, who has discovered several asteroids, comets and supernovae; and Neill Reid, now at Mount Palomar Observatory, USA, discoverer of the smallest known star. Indeed, not a few of our students at Abertay, over the years, were given their first introduction to the wonders of science through the good offices of Harry Ford.

In 1982, for family reasons, Harry resigned as director of the Mills Observatory and moved with his wife Lynne to Southend. Harry and Lynne set up a workshop and built a larger planetarium in the Central Museum, Southend. This excellent planetarium is still there, and is run by the museum.

In 1986, Harry Ford was appointed Planetarium Lecturer at the Caird Planetarium - another Dundee connection - at the Old Royal Observatory, Greenwich. He is also responsible for the care and use of historic astronomical instruments, and continues to make instruments - most recently the Viking Sun-Compass - and models; some of them for other planetaria and institutions. His enthusiastic and highly personal presentations are well known especially for their sound scientific content, at a time when many planetaria are reduced to eye-catching visual effects and pre-recorded commentaries. He gives lectures to astronomical societies and has taught astronomy classes.

Harry Ford is the author of two children's books "100 Questions and Answers on Astronomy and Space Travel", in 1994, and "The Young Astronomer" in 1998, which has been translated into all the major European languages. He has published many articles, including some in the Scots Magazine about local historical figures of scientific interest.

In 1985 Harry received the Lorimer Medal of the Astronomical Society of Edinburgh, in recognition of his work in popularising Astronomy. This award has been presented only 10 times since its inception in 1938. In 1996 Harry Ford was presented with the Callendar Award of the National Maritime Museum.

It is for all these reasons that it is appropriate that this University should seek to honour Harry Ford today.

Sir, it gives me great pleasure to present to you Harry Stewart Ford, for the award of Honorary degree of Doctor of Science of the University of Abertay Dundee.

[ Acknowledgements to the University of Abertay and to Dr Samson. - Ed ]