It wasn’t until a few years ago that I found an interest in stamps. I am sure that for many of us, stamp collecting came into our lives by means of nurturing from a family member. My father had been collecting stamps for as long as I could remember but I had never taken any interest in the hobby until one Christmas when I was home for the holidays. On the coffee table sat an album of modern first day covers that I started leafing through, and I quickly realized the appeal. The pristine, clear, and crisp images bursting with color on the stamps and envelopes were transfixing. Not only were the stamps beautiful, but I was astounded at how four to six tiny little pieces of paper could tell a story.
I soon understood that collecting stamps could very quickly get out of control, especially since my father donated a rather large number of his extra first day covers to me. Thousands of stamps exist globally, so my reason for collecting would play a big part in how and why I would start my collection and which direction it would head in. Was it the perforations? The history? The rarity? No. For me, like many other philatelists, it was the theme. An astronomy theme to be precise.
The timing of my new interest in stamps (2015) happened to coincide with my achievement of a General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) in astronomy, which I had been studying in evening classes. The classes were a welcome return to studying a full decade after I achieved my university degrees, a BSc in Physical Geography and an MSc in Environmental Conservation Management. My lifelong interest in astronomy was another draw to the evening classes on the subject.
Later that year I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (FRAS) and I realized astronomy was a hobby and potentially a career I wanted to pursue. I now write for the BBC Sky at Night Magazine and the Royal Astronomical Society, and have just accepted a role on the editorial board for the Society for Popular Astronomy, one of the biggest astronomy societies in the UK. I have had over thirty articles published in the United Kingdom, and my latest article “Exploring Astronomy through Philately” has recently been published in Physics Today for the American Institute of Physics.
Writing about stamps with an astronomy theme is a great way to learn and understand not only the history and discoveries of astronomy but also the history of philately. Bringing these two hobbies together is very satisfying, and even on a cold, dull November evening, when there are no stars to observe, I can open a stamp album and gaze upon the wonders of the Universe.
Where it all began
The first stamp set that caught my eye was a set of four vibrant and colorful science fiction stamps issued in Great Britain in 1995, commemorating the British author, H.G Wells. Four of his famous books, including The War of the Worlds and The First Men in the Moon, are printed onto stamps of varying denominations and the art work is fantastic. They got me thinking about astronomy themed stamps and what was available, because of course there is a strong interrelationship between astronomy and science fiction.
This first day cover includes Great Britain Scott 1616-1619. The stamps depict four major science fiction themes: Time Travel (H.G. Wells’s Time Machine); Space Travel (The First Men on the Moon); Alien Invasion (The War of the Worlds); and Futuristic Society (Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come).
Bursting with my new-found passion, I took to the internet and searched ‘astronomy stamps.’ The results were overwhelming, and I was astounded to see how many were available. I was delighted to find a commemorative stamp issued in 1970, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Royal Astronomical Society. Pink in color, the stamp depicts William Herschel, his son John Herschel, and Francis Baily standing in front of Herschel’s 40-foot telescope. Herschel is holding a sketch of Uranus, which he discovered in 1781. This was one of the first stamps I bought for my collection.
The sesquicentennial of the Royal Astronomical Society’s founding was marked on April 1, 1970 with Great Britain Scott 616.
I exhibited my first stamp display at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff with the Cardiff Astronomical Society on July 20, 2019, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. The Society had a few stands at the museum to educate visitors on the Apollo 11 mission, including memorabilia such as newspapers and posters collected from that period. I thought this was a great opportunity to showcase part of my stamp collection, something I had not seen at the museum before. I thought carefully about how I wished to display my stamps to get the most out of them and make it attractive to visitors. I finally decided to use mini easels and photograph holders, which turned out to be a great way to show off the covers and stamps.
Author Katrin Raynor-Evans displays Apollo 11 philatelic material at the National Museum of Wales.
A brief history of astronomy and philately
Astronomy is one of the oldest natural sciences and has been studied from as far back in history as the Babylonians, Egyptians and Greeks. For thousands of years, our observations of celestial bodies and scientific discoveries have shaped our way of thinking about our place in the universe. More novel is the philatelic celebration of our astronomical knowledge and discoveries. Philately provides a unique historical assemblage of mankind’s understanding of, journeys into, and achievements in space.
The first astronomy themed stamp dates to 1887 when Brazil issued a perforated stamp, buff and blue in color, depicting the Southern Cross, a constellation seen in the southern hemisphere. The Southern Cross was a favorite to print on Brazilian stamps for almost ten years, with the color and size of the stamp evolving over that time. However, Margaret Morris mentions in “Astronomy and Philately” that through the 1800s, stamps were printed with astronomical watermarks, such as suns and stars, and early stamps issued in Egypt in 1866 were designed with a pyramid and star watermark.
The astronomical theme slowly spread to other countries. In 1921, the first stamp depicting an observatory was issued in Central Lithuania. Produced in two forms, perforate and imperforate, the image on the stamps displays the Poczobut Observatory, named after the astronomer Marcin Poczobutt (1728–1810), famous for his observational work and for computing the orbit of Mercury.
Poczobut Astronomical Observatory is depicted on Central Lithuania Scott 40. The stamp was issued in the course of Central Lithuania’s brief existence from 1920 to 1922, before it was incorporated into Poland. Stamp images courtesy of Ian Ridpath.
The observatory theme continued. In 1948, the United States printed their first astronomy themed 3-cent stamp with an image of the Palomar Mountain Observatory. The stamp was issued to commemorate the observatory’s opening. The observatory houses the Hale Telescope, a 200 inch telescope named after George Hale (1868-1938), a famous American solar astronomer well known for his work on the discovery of magnetic fields in sunspots. The reflecting telescope was the largest at the time and launched new developments in telescope design including its mount and mirror. Ground-breaking astronomical observations have been made using the telescope, including the discovery of two additional moons belonging to Uranus, the identification of clouds within Neptune’s atmosphere and more recently, the spectral observation of the ‘Oumuamua asteroid.
On June 3, 1948, the Hale Telescope was named and dedicated in George Hale’s honor at the Palomar Mountain Observatory. On August 30, U.S. Scott 966 was issued to honor the observatory’s accomplishments since George Hale’s conception of the project in the 1920s.
Famous Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) was a favourite to illustrate on stamps. He first made an appearance in 1923 on two Polish stamps, one indigo and the other rose in color, commemorating the anniversary of his birth in Poland 450 years previously. Copernicus is considered one of the most important astronomers who ever lived, famous for his heliocentric theory that the Sun is at the centre of the Solar System, not Earth. He published his book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) in 1543, not long before his death. The book was eventually banned by the Catholic Church in 1633 for heresy. He was celebrated on stamps in Poland well into the 1950s, and People’s Republica of China even commemorated him on a 1953 brown perforated stamp.
While countries all over the world from Colombia, to Nigeria, to Japan, to Russia celebrated astronomy and man’s achievements in space, the U.K. did not start commemorating astronomy and space until much later. In 1966, the Royal Mail issued a stamp depicting a radio telescope at Jodrell Bank. Bright yellow in color and costing four pennies, the stamp was issued within a set of four, each image celebrating a different aspect of British Technology.
The Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope stamp (Great Britain Scott 469) depicts the Jodrell Bank Observatory, established in 1945 by astronomer Bernard Lovell. The observatory has played a role in the discovery of the first gravitational lens and many other astronomical observations.
What would a stamp collection be without some special thematic handstamps used to cancel the stamps? Of course, the handstamps alone are of interest to some collectors, and for us astronomy philatelists there are some wonderful handstamps available.
Sky at Night stamps, Great Britain Scott 2438-2443, issued in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the BBC program The Sky at Night. The backing paper of the issues has additional information about the depicted nebulas and galaxy.
Imaginative handstamps are eye-catching and form an important part of the cover. When I am looking to buy a first day cover, not only am I interested in the set of stamps on the envelope but also the pictorial handstamp and the location where it has been stamped.
In the summer of 2019, I received a fantastic gift from a friend in the U.S. an information card with an image of Mark Polansky, a NASA astronaut who has logged more than 993 hours in space. Affixed to the card is one of the Apollo 11 Forever Stamps issued in the U.S. in 2019 to mark the moon landing anniversary. The card is hand stamped with a pictorial design at Cape Canaveral. While Polansky is not connected with the Apollo 11 mission, it is a unique and wonderful piece of philatelic material to add to my collection.
The thrill of having a first day cover signed by a famous astronomer never tires. Autographs from eminent scientists form a special part of my collection. I have autographs ranging from Dr. Allan Chapman, historian of astronomy, Sir Patrick Moore, long term presenter of The Sky at Night, Ian Ridpath, astronomy writer and philatelist, and Jim Al-Khalili, theoretical physicist.
Ian Ridpath is a prolific British astronomy writer and philatelist. His website, www.ianridpath.com has an archive of his writing and philatelic material.
The latest autograph in my collection is from Kip Thorne, famous theoretical physicist and 2017 Nobel laureate. In October 2019 he came to Cardiff University to open a brand new gravitational physics laboratory and gave a public lecture titled “My Romance with the Warped Side of the Universe.” I took along an Isle of Man first day cover celebrating 100 years of general relativity for him to sign.
Also in attendance was Professor Bernard Schutz. Kip Thorne was Schutz’s PhD supervisor many years ago, and I had the pleasure of interviewing Schutz for the Royal Astronomical Society in July of this year. The interview was timely. Schutz had just won the Eddington Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society for his work on gravitational waves. On the night of the lecture, he also signed the first day cover alongside Kip Thorne’s signature.
Over the years, scientific discoveries, inventions, observable astronomical objects, eminent scientists, and achievements have been popular themes to depict on stamps worldwide. From Herschel and Schiaparelli, to Sputnik and Apollo, Halley’s comet and the Hubble Space Telescope, the list is extensive and impressive. Over forthcoming issues of The American Philatelist, I will be investigating and writing about various interesting and colorful astronomy themed stamps ranging in topic from cosmology to animals in space.
How to start collecting astronomy stamps
So, you have an interest in astronomy stamps. It is a fascinating aspect of stamp collecting, but maybe you aren’t sure where to get started. These tips will hopefully start you off on your astronomy and philately journey.
Research on the internet — An obvious but simple and effective way of getting started. Auction websites are fantastic for acquiring astronomical philatelic material, and if you’ll excuse the pun, don’t cost the Earth. Simply searching ‘astronomy’ or ‘space’ will bring up hundreds of stamps, first day covers, booklets and sheets which will grab your attention and you may quickly realize what it is you like. Perhaps it is the broad topic of astronomy that captures your imagination, or certain subjects such as rockets, astronauts and cosmonauts, objects in space, or even just observatories that pique your interest.
Astronomy stamp societies — Joining an astronomy stamp society is the best way to develop your interest, whether that be online or by attending meetings at a local society. I joined the Astro Space Stamp Society this year, and its information and resources are invaluable, including Orbit, the quarterly publication. Members of the Society have helped me in my philatelic journey and are always on hand to point me in the right direction and answer questions. The ASSS has members from all over the world and they are dedicated to helping keep the history of astronomy and philately alive.
Books and papers — Considering that astronomy and philately is a niche aspect of stamp collecting, there are some fantastic resources out there, including a beautiful book written by Renato Dicati called Stamping Through Astronomy. An original and colorful way to learn about astronomy alongside philately, the book is a delight and I would recommend it for any serious collector. If learning about the race for space is more your style, The Race to the Moon by Umberto Cavallaro is a must-have. Margaret Morris, a long-time member of the Astro Space Stamp Society, has written some fantastic papers on the topic. Ian Ridpath’s webpage provides a brilliant timeline of astronomy stamps issued worldwide.
Other collectors — When I first became interested in astronomy and philately and I was about to embark on my writing journey, I searched for fellow philatelists who had an interest in the hobby. From my experience, philatelists are a friendly bunch and only too happy to help answer questions or point you in the right direction.
Stamping Through Astronomy by Renato Dicati
The Race to the Moon by Umberto Cavallaro
“Astronomy and Philately” (2013) by Margaret Morris
“Philately for Astronomers” A&G (2018) by Katrin Raynor-Evans
“Exploring Astronomy Through Philately” Physics Today (2019) by Katrin Raynor-Evans
“Astronomy Stamps” by Martin Beech, published in Yearbook of Astronomy 2020
Editor's Note: This article was published in the January 2019 issue of The American Philatelist. Read the full issue online at stamps.org/the-american-philatelist