Story: McIntosh, Ronald Alexander

Page 1 - Biography

McIntosh, Ronald Alexander

1904–1977

Journalist, astronomer

This biography was written by Wayne Orchiston and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Ronald Alexander McIntosh was born in Auckland on 21 January 1904, the only child of William John Alexander McIntosh, a presser, and his wife, Lucy Jane Robinson. He left the Marist brothers school in Ponsonby at 14 and found work as an office boy. After studying accountancy at night school, he spent about two years working as a clerk and accountant in Hamilton. He then returned to Auckland and in 1926 joined the New Zealand Herald as a proof-reader, beginning a long career in journalism. On 26 February 1930 he married Harriet Catherine Munro at St Patrick’s Catholic church in Whitianga; they were to have a daughter and a son.

Comet Halley’s impressive appearance in 1910 had whetted McIntosh’s appetite for astronomy, and in 1917 he made his first binocular observations of the moon. Soon he was observing sunspots and the planets, and he became intensely interested in meteors. From 1919 to 1950 he carried out naked-eye observations of meteors in collaboration with a number of other New Zealand amateur astronomers. Between 1927 and 1945 this group recorded 15,627 meteors, about half of which were contributed by McIntosh. Pooling and analysing their observations, he published a succession of research papers on meteor astronomy. One of his most important contributions was a master list of southern meteor showers (1935), which remained the standard work for more than 40 years.

In 1927 he purchased a 14-inch Newtonian reflecting telescope to pursue lunar and planetary studies. This large instrument, which cost £80, came from the estate of New Zealand’s leading manufacturer of astronomical telescopes, J. T. Ward. Over a 30-year period McIntosh studied various lunar features and craters, and published a number of descriptive papers. In the early 1950s he began a long study of the crater Aristarchus, culminating in the publication of a notable paper in a British astronomical journal. The focus of his planetary interest was Jupiter, and he made many observations of the cloud belts and other markings from 1927 through to the 1960s. In 1949 and 1962 he detected outbursts in the planet’s south equatorial belt and published papers on them. He also observed Mars and Saturn.

Another of McIntosh’s interests was comets, and from 1927 he systematically observed known comets, and occasionally photographed them. On 27 January 1941 he independently discovered Comet de Kock-Paraskevopoulos, only to learn that it had been detected earlier by other astronomers. Nevertheless, initially this object was known locally as ‘Comet McIntosh’.

After Second World War service in New Zealand as a sergeant in military intelligence, McIntosh rejoined the New Zealand Herald and became a sub-editor in 1945. He left the following year to edit the journal Young New Zealander , then spent some years working on aviation magazines and in public relations. In 1957 he returned to the Herald as senior sub-editor.

In addition to serious observational astronomy, McIntosh was keenly interested in the history of the science. Between 1957 and 1959 he published six papers reviewing the ‘Astronomical history of the Auckland province’. He also wrote papers on Maori astronomy, the history of the meteor section of the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand, A. C. Gifford’s work on the meteoric origin of lunar craters, and the Auckland planetarium. His last publication was a review paper on ‘Early New Zealand astronomy’ (1970).

One of McIntosh’s most important contributions to New Zealand astronomy was his role in establishing the Auckland Observatory, which opened in 1967. He began formulating plans for this new public facility in 1953, and did a large share of the fund-raising. He helped secure the One Tree Hill site and served on the observatory’s trust board for many years.

Committed to popularising astronomy, McIntosh enjoyed conducting public nights at the observatory and taught adult education courses. From 1959 to 1972 he served as lecturer–demonstrator at the Auckland Institute and Museum, presenting carefully prepared planetarium sessions for the general public and schoolchildren. Furthermore, as astronomical correspondent to the Herald from 1927 to 1973, he was able to take the subject to an even wider audience.

McIntosh had joined the New Zealand Astronomical Society (later the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand) in 1921, and was director of its meteor section from 1928 to 1955. He was president in 1942–43 and in 1964 was elected a fellow. At the local level, he was a long-time stalwart of the Auckland Astronomical Society, which he had joined in 1928: between 1940 and 1957 he was its president 12 times, and in 1961 he was elected a life member. He was also a member of various overseas bodies, including the American Meteor Society (which he had joined in 1919) and the Royal Astronomical Society. In 1936 he was honoured by election to Commission 22 (Meteors) of the International Astronomical Union, the supreme world body for meteor astronomy.

Ronald McIntosh died in Auckland on 17 May 1977, survived by his wife and children. A gifted journalist, who also wrote a number of short stories and plays, he is best remembered as one of the most remarkable amateur scientists that New Zealand has produced. He published more than 100 research papers and notes, and became an international figure in meteor astronomy. Through his newspaper columns and his work at the Auckland Observatory and planetarium, astronomy touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders and visitors from overseas.