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Riche-Covington Collection - History of Radio Astronomy

[Arthur Covington photo]

Seeing the McNicol Collection, History of Telecommunications, at Queen's, Arthur Covington, who also recognized the importance of collecting and documenting the history of science, was inspired to continue building his own collection, which was donated to Queen's gradually over the decades since 1973. The Riche-Covington Trust was also established at that time. Thanks to the generosity of the Covington family, a considerable amount of material has been added since Arthur's death in March 2001 and that of his wife, Charlotte (Riche) Covington (2002), herself a scientific scholar of some note.


Covington, the Man

[portrait or Arthur E. Covington]

Arthur E. Covington (1913-2001), a pioneer in radio astronomy, was born in Regina and grew up in Vancouver where he graduated from radio school. He went to work as a radio technician on Canadian National ships and eventually earned a master's degree in physics and mathematics from the University of British Columbia. He was studying at the University of California at Berkeley when he was invited to join the National Research Council in Ottawa in 1942 as a radar technician.

Covington built the first Canadian radio telescope for solar research to read electromagnetic signals sent from the sun. Covington's discovery, during the partial solar eclipse of November 23, 1946, that microwave emission was far more intense from the vicinity of sunspots than elsewhere on the sun, was the first indicator that magnetic fields were important in the generation of nonthermal cosmic radio emission. Covington inaugurated at the National Research Council of Canada daily measurements of the solar microwave flux at a 10.7 cm. wavelength. Measuring the variation in solar magnetic activity is significant in relation to a wide range of human activity. These measurements continue to the present day.

An asteroid was named after Covington in 1983. A sun dial was erected in his honour at NRC, Ottawa, in 1980. Currently, there are plans to name the new building of the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in Penticton, British Columbia, for Arthur Covington.

The Collection

[Arthur L. Riche portrait]

Covington initiated the "History of Radio Science and Technology Project" at Queen's in the 1970s, procuring the papers of many prominent scientists in the field. Arthur began by donating the papers of Arthur L. Riche, father-in-law of Mr. Covington, who developed the snap action Micro Switch which was later used in the 200-inch telescope at Mount Palomar, California. Included also are papers from Maurice Bachynski, Borden Clarke, B.W. Currie, J.E. Kennedy, and Queen's colleagues, V.A. Hughes and Alice Vibert Douglas (once Dean of Women, biographer of Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington and advocate of an increased role for women in science).

The Riche-Covington Collection includes correspondence, conference proceedings, technical papers by Covington and other researchers, an extensive photograph collection, scrapbooks, broadsides, as well as contemporary monographs and some very rare books on the history of optics and scientific method.

Atlas coelestis

[John Flamsteed's Atlas coelestis]

John Flamsteed's Atlas coelestis (London, 1753) consists of charts of the constellations of the northern hemisphere. The end-papers are autographed by prominent radio astronomers, 1970-1977. Photographs, letters and descriptive notes are laid in. Flamsteed established the Royal Observatory at Greenwich in 1675

Athanasius Kircher

Several classic works on optics and magnetism by Athanasius Kircher are in the Collection:

  • Ars magna lucis et umbrae (1646)
  • Ars magna sciendi (1669)
  • Magnes sive de arte magnetica (1643)
  • Magneticum naturae regnum (1667)

Rosa Ursina

[John Flamsteed's Atlas coelestis]

Rosa ursina sive sol ex admirando facularum et macularum suarum phoenomeno varius...

Another treasure in the Riche-Covington Collection is Rosa ursina sive sol ex admirando facularum et macularum suarum phoenomeno varius... by Chistophoro Scheiner (Bracciano, 1626-1630).

This illustration is a favourite of Covington. It is only one of many copper-plate engravings from this rare volume which deals with experiments in light refraction and the construction of Scheiner's telescope. Scheiner claimed to have discovered sunspots before Galileo. The caption reads, "Maculae et faculae ex variis observandi modis stabiliuntur".

This detailed scientific folio took four years to print at the expense of the Count Orsini whose family emblem included the rose motif. The quaint title, then, is the "rose" combined with the Latin word for "bear" (a translation of the family name) ... ursus, ursina.


A Catalogue of the Riche-Covington Collection was compiled by Barbara Teatero and Leslie H. Morley in 1984 and is available for sale. A substantial amount of supplementary material has since been added.

In his introduction to the printed catalogue, Covington articulates his purpose:

"The Riche-Covington Collection has as its main interest the development of radio science in Canada. The scope of this concern includes the radar developments which occurred during World War II, the general background from which this developed and the subsequent emergence of radio astronomy introduced by the use of new technologies."

The catalogue is classified under the following headings: biography, solar radiation, bibliographies, trade catalogues, personal papers, history of science and technology, science policy, popular science, radio and radar history, radio astronomy (including material on equipment, observatories and solar terrestrial physics), radar astronomy, rockets, satellites, parascience, international cooperation and electronic music.

Some of the collection is recorded online in QCAT but much of the material is still uncatalogued, though available to serious researchers on site. The McNicol and Riche-Covington Collections, taken together, are a rich research resource that Queen's is proud to hold for the use of historians of science!

Last Updated: 05 June 2012

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