On this day … 2 March 1881

Demonstration of an orrery
A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery by Joseph Wright of Derby: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Philosopher_Lecturing_on_the_Orrery

The Preston Guardian carried an advertisement for the sale, by H. C. Walton, auctioneers, of books, souvenirs and astronomical equipment formerly belonging to the late Moses Holden, following the death of his daughter. The equipment included ‘the Orrery and apparatus, with portable Organ, as used in Mr Moses Holden’s Astronomical Lectures’. An orrery is a mechanical model, usually clockwork, of the solar system, showing how the planets revolve around the sun.

Moses Holden (1777–1864) was one of the many autodidacts in Victorian Preston who, in spite of a lack of formal education, became self-taught experts in their chosen fields. Last month, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography updated the entry for him by Anita McConnell, on which this item is based.

His parents moved to Preston from Bolton when he was aged five, and later he started work in the town as a handloom weaver before the family returned to Bolton. There he worked as a foundry labourer, was disabled by an accident and came back to the Preston area to work as a landscape gardener.

His new occupation left him time to develop his interest in science and particularly astronomy, and soon he was giving talks on the subject and spending time teaching astronomy to the daughters of the town’s MP, Samuel Horrocks.

In 1814 Holden began work on the ‘grand orrery’, which is probably the one put up for sale following the death of his daughter. Within a year, he was using it in a lecture he gave at the Theatre Royal on Fishergate, before taking it on a lecture tour around northern towns. The success of these established him on the national lecture circuit for the next eleven years.

His other achievements included the publication of a celestial atlas and an almanac, which he issued annually for several years (copies at Lancashire Archives). He was also a skilful mechanic; a telescope he made for the vicar of Preston was judged superior to the one the vicar bought from one of the most renowned professional instrument makers of the day.

Reports of his lectures suggest he was a natural entertainer, who lightened his serious scientific subject matter with a sprinkling of humorous asides, delivered in a broad Lancashire accent. Yet, despite the theatricality of his own performances, his firm commitment to Methodism would not allow him to attend stage plays. When his son, possibly the one who he named William Archimedes Holden, was appearing in a production of Hamlet, Holden’s friends could not persuade him to forsake his principles to attend.

He died at his home in Jordan Street on 3 June 1864.

A telescope at UCLan’s Jeremiah Horrocks Observatory is named for Moses Holden.

Source (available on line to anyone with a Lancashire Library membership): https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/13494

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