Rebekah Higgitt tells us how to play Science and Sport, an astronomy board game
Rebekah Higgitt, Curator of History of Science and Technology, talks about one of her favourite objects – an early 19th-century astronomy board game, in which the winner was crowned Astronomer Royal.
Hi, I’m Lucinda Donnachie, and today I’m meeting up with the Royal Observatory‘s
Curator of History of Science and Technology, Rebekah Higgitt, to find
out more about one of her favourite objects in the Museum’s astronomy
Hi Rebekah, so what’s this?
Well, this is a board game that we have in the collections called
‘Science in Sport, or the pleasures of astronomy’, that was published by
John Wallace in London in 1804.
Can you describe it for us?
Yeah, what we’ve got here is an engraved playing board that can be folded up
and kept in a wallet when it’s not being used. It’s just a black and
white engraving, though it would have probably been possible to buy a
hand coloured version, or it’s very likely that children, families
that owned it, probably would have enjoyed actually colouring it
in themselves in their own time. The board has got 35 squares on it, most
of which illustrate places, objects, people and so on relating to
astronomy, and they run round the outside of the board. In the very
centre of the board is a picture of Flamstead House, that’s the oldest
part of the Royal Observatory.
Do we know how to play the game?
Yes, although we don’t actually have the full rules booklet that came along with the
game, there is one, fortunately, at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Museum of
Childhood in Bethnal Green. That booklet was really absolutely
essential to know how to play the game, because it explains the
consequences of landing on any one particular square. So basically, it’s a
little bit like snakes and ladders. It’s a kind of standard format
game, which in fact used to be called Goose.
So, players race round the board with counters, or pyramids – in this
case little tokens, showing where they are on the board. You generate
numbers by spinning what they called a totem, which was a kind of
spinning top with flat sides. This they used instead of using a die or
dice because of the sort of connotations of gambling connected to dice,
so they preferred to use something that did the same thing essentially,
but didn’t have those kind of slightly dubious connotations.
by spinning the totem, they would come up with a number and then count
that number of squares and land on a particular square, which would
then have a forfeit or reward. That is you might miss a go, or you
might go forward three places or whatever. Then, you have to spin
exactly the right number of squares, get up to number 35 so that you
can get to Flamstead House, where the winning player is then crowned
It sounds like quite a complicated game. Was it for fun, or just education?
Well, it was meant to be enjoyable, but of course it was also teaching
lessons through that kind of play. So on the one hand, these squares were
actually teaching you about astronomy. You start by reading a lot of
information before you even begin spinning your totem and begin playing
the game. Then, sometimes, when you land on the squares, you’re asked
to repeat these kinds of questions and you might, for example, miss a
turn if you can’t do that.
For example, you might land on the image here of a globe, and you would
be told if you look in the booklet for that square number eight that
you would have to explain the use of the terrestrial globe or
something. Or you land on the picture of a telescope, and again you’re
asked to explain how to use the instrument and how it works. Or if you
failed to do that, you missed two ‘go’s, and so on. You might also be
punished for having wrong ideas, such as landing here on this square
number 15, which shows a man in the moon. It
says unless you can learn better about the faces in the moon and still
believe this kind of hokum, then you basically miss a go or fail the
As well as lessons about astronomy, there are
also moral lessons in the game about being diligent, not being
distracted and this kind of thing. For example, we’ve got here a
picture of the county jail, which is just after an image of people
playing billiards, which comes after a picture about the planets – the
motions of planets being like billiard balls. Then, the next square
says, Oh, but you might play billiards instead, in which case you miss
a go or go straight to the county jail picture, where you might end up
if you don’t pay sufficient attention to the motions of the planets,
but rather pay attention to the motions of actual billiard balls.
we’ve also got pictures of a studious boy or a sort of negligent boy,
so again you miss a turn or you get extra rewards for landing on one of
Were games like this common at the time?
It was a common game type. As I say, Goose was the kind of game
everyone would have known the basic rules to. And there’s lots of board
games and puzzles, even produced by this publisher John Wallace that
published this game. There’s another one very similar to this called
‘Science in sport, or the pleasures of natural philosophy’. And then there’s other
games that might cover geography or philosophy or history and so on.
So, these kind of games and rational amusements and pastimes that would
bring this sort of educational and moral lessons were a really
important feature of 18th- and 19th-century family life and leisure
time. More people had leisure time to fill, there was increasing
literacy, and there was some anxiety about what that kind of free time
would mean unless it was filled with useful pursuits. Things like
astronomy and natural philosophy were seen as being particularly good
because they could be connected to natural theology, that is thinking
about the works of the Creator, being amazed and having a sense of
wonder about the universe and the planet as well.
there’s that kind of theological side sometimes connected with these
sort of pursuits, and also the kind of mental discipline.
I see that it says on the board “The game is revised and improved by Mrs Margaret Bryan.” Who is she?
Margaret Bryan ran a boarding school for girls at Blackheath in the
late 18th, early 19th centuries. So, she was very close to the
Observatory. And this might help explain the prominence of Flamstead
House and the Royal Observatory here on the board. Unusually, she was
someone who included mathematics and natural philosophy in her
curriculum for girls, and she also wrote several popular works on
astronomy and natural philosophy.
One of the best known of these is called A Compendius System of Astronomy,
which she published in 1797. The frontispiece of that is a very nice
Frontispiece showing a portrait of Mrs Bryan with her two daughters,
surrounded by instruments. So, this connection of women and astronomy
and learning is very much part of what Mrs Bryan did.
Do we have any other objects like this in the collection?
Well, we don’t have any other board games like this, but there are
other toys and models and images and so on that were made to teach
children, and adults indeed, about astronomy in the 18th and 19th
centuries. Of course, there were telescopes, which might have been
owned by amateurs. Things like orreries, which are very beautiful but
expensive models, which showed how the solar system works. And then,
there are things like playing cards, which relate to information about
certain astronomy constellations, and so on.
We even have things related to more formal education for working
classes, such as some wall hangings that we’ve acquired quite recently
that show information about astronomy that could accompany lectures for
Well, perhaps I can come back and find out more about these another time. Thanks, Rebekah.